With sterling silver now beyond the budget of most collectors, silver plate is becoming more and more popular. From the humblest piece of EPNS cutlery to an elegant tea service in Sheffield plate, there is something to suit everyone.
There are two types of plated Silver you are likely to come across. The first, old Sheffield plate, is relatively rare and consequently quite expensive; the second, electro-plated silver (usually EPNS
ElectroPlated Nickel Silver), is much more common. Literally millions of pieces have been produced since the technique was developed around 1840, and most of the 'silver' found today is of this type - with the obvious exception of sterling silver, which can be distinguished by its
Until recently electroplated silver was scorned by many collectors, but now that sterling silver is beyond the price range of modest collectors (except for very small pieces) good quality EPNS is much sought after.
Electroplating was perfected by two cousins, George and Frederick Elkington. Practically any base metal could be used for the new process, in which various shapes could be cast. The components were then soldered together before plating; there was no need to disguise joints since the metal was covered with silver.
It was soon discovered that nickel silver provided the best base, though Britannia metal (an alloy of tin with antimony and copper) was also used (pieces were stamped as EPBM). The result was that all manner of decorative pieces could be produced quite cheaply, from the ornate, deeply embossed designs loved by the Victorians to sinuous, sensuous art nouveau styles.
There is no official register of electroplate marks. It was up to each maker to stamp the goods with his own mark. Many used the crown of Sheffield or the anchor of Birmingham; these appeared on sterling silver along with the all-important standard mark, and some makers
deliberately set out to fool the unwary by adding marks in Gothic script or by separating EP and NS and setting them below a crown. Top makers like Elkington, however, clearly marked their pieces and even added a date letter.
OLD SHEFFIELD PLATE
Old Sheffield plate predates EPNS and involved the process of fusing a thin sheet of silver to a thicker one of copper. It was first produced from around 1740 by Thomas Boulsover as a cheap substitute for solid silver, and by the 184os manufacture had all but ceased. However, throughout its lifetime some very fine pieces were produced notably by Matthew Boulton (who marked his work with two suns) and Samuel Roberts the younger (whose mark was a bell). Generally, though, old Sheffield plate is unmarked.
Makers of Sheffield plate followed the silver styles popular at the time. Among the wares produced were salvers, tea and coffee sets, tureens and sauceboats, cake trays and baskets, most of them in either Queen Anne or early Georgian designs.
RECOGNIZING SHEFFIELD PLATE
There are several ways of distinguishing old Sheffield plate from silver and electroplated nickel silver. Usually, the underside of the piece is uncoated, for reasons of economy, so the base tinned metal will be visible. Secondly, the silver sheet had to be rolled over at the edges to hide the copper, and you can often see or feel a ridge where this has been done. Thirdly, the silver plate had to be joined somewhere on the piece - often behind the handle on a tea or coffee pot - and this fine seam will be visible. Lastly, wear and tear results in the rosy glow of copper showing through.
Unworn, well cared-for Sheffield plate has a lovely blue-grey patination. Sadly, undamaged pieces are rare, and thus command high prices. Beware of pieces marked 'Sheffield Plated'. These are not genuine old Sheffield plate but electroplated items dating from the mid-19th century. Similarly, many people refer to electroplated articles as 'Sheffield Plate'. By law, however, the term should only be used for the genuine article, produced as described above.