JUDGING VINTAGE FLATWARE©

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Whether shopping for used or vintage flatware at estate sales,
thrift shops or flea markets,
assortments are currently plentiful.

Carry a magnifying glass to read identifying hallmarks, manufacturer’s names and metal content and bring a tape measure to be sure sizes of knives or forks you want to match are correct, or bring pieces with you.

Selections can be limited,
prices erratic
and information is often a ‘guesstimate’ of the seller.

Be forewarned:
For sterling — the  pattern matters.
If selling, some patterns may be valued only at today’s melting price.
If buying, some patterns demand hefty prices.

Verify the flatware metal or alloy:Be wary of unmarked flatware. Identifying mark of the metal, legitimate hallmarks and (sometimes the manufacturer’s name) should be on every piece.  Some markings are traceable through the Internet: you may be able check resale value of some patterns.

Sterling flatware should be marked sterling or .925 .  Most sterling flatware is hallmarked and/or stamped with the name of the manufacturer.

Silver-plate should be labeled silver-plate. EPNS—means nickel-silver, a superior base metal for silver-plate flatware.

Stainless steel, marked 18/8 or 18/10, shows the amount of nickel and chrome in the formula.  Stainless steel, marked 18/0 or 13/0,  contains no nickel: pass.

How old is the flatware?
Sterling silver has no expiration date but age affects sizes of knives and forks. Before WW II, U.S. sterling knives and forks were made in both luncheon and dinner sizes. I became retail buyer for Berger’s Gift Gallery in 1958 and we sold sterling knives and forks in all American-made patterns in both luncheon and dinner sizes.

A few years later, place size was introduced as the new standard size of knives and forks by manufacturing members of the American Sterling Silversmiths Guild. Continental size, made by European manufacturers, became popular in the U. S. in the 1970’s.

If you need to match flatware, measure your knives and forks at home—then shop with a ruler.

If knives have unplated carbon steel blades, the flatware is quite old: pass.
Carbon steel blades rust without the protection of mineral oil which must be removed each time for use.

How long does flatware last?
Good quality sterling flatware is expected to last for many generations without showing signs of wear.  Use and inevitable scratches develop a patina so used sterling can look better than new.

Good quality silver-plating on flatware should last about 20 years before it begins to wear away; although some manufacturers claim a longer life span. The escalating cost of a troy ounce of silver has made replating very expensive. 

It’s anticipated that stainless steel flatware will last 100 years.  If the weight and gauge of the metal is good; stainless steel flatware probably has no expiration date.

Where was the flatware made?
Consumers have no control over the country of origin of today’s flatware and should not make quality judgments by brand name: global outsourcing has become very common. This means a brand manufacturer of one country contracts production to a manufacturer in another country. This is one more reason to learn to judge quality for yourself.

When buying used or vintage flatware, it’s significant to learn if the flatware was made by one of the renowned European or American manufacturers—no longer in business. Their standards of quality were excellent.

How good is the knife blade?
If a stainless steel knife is one-piece of metal, it’s a given that the blade does not hold a sharp edge. In the case of a vintage two-piece knife, whether sterling, silver- plate or stainless steel, examine the edge of the blade to judge its quality.

If a blade has been silver plated, (common to older sterling and silver plate flatware) and if the plating is wearing off the cutting edge, pass. The base metal might be toxic—or the flatware is too old: replacing blades is very costly.

All edges of all flatware must be smooth and polished—especially between fork tines. Well-polished edges are an obvious sign of quality for every flatware metal— but I’ve recently seen new stainless steel forks in retail stores with edges between each tine —so rough—I could file my nails!

After learning that dishwashers don’t remove all bacteria from rough metal, I find myself checking forks—especially at a fast-food restaurant. When surfaces between fork tines are rough,  order a sandwich!

If flatware has a pattern, it must be articulate.Patterns are die-struck and must appear crisp and clean on both front and back of every piece. Better quality manufacturers create two different patterns—so the back pattern is not simply the reverse of the front pattern.

Don’t believe everything a seller tells you about used flatware unless you know the owner. 

Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY

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