Glossary of Antique Silver Terms


Acanthus: A Mediterranean plant with broad, prickly leaves and a popular design feature on silverware.

Alloy: A mixture of two or more metals. Pure silver is soft and is traditionally mixed with a small amount of a base metal – often copper- to produce a more durable metal.

Applied decoration: A term for any decoration made separately from the main body of the piece and then attached to it. This is more costly and generally superior to stamped decoration.

Argyle (Argyll): A vessel for serving thin sauces or gravy designed to keep the contents warm by means of a hot water jacket.

Armorial: A heraldic engraving depicting the owner’s coat of arms, shield or crest.

Art Deco: An eclectic style from the 1920s-1930s that drew from many sources. Using simple geometric patterns and vivid colours, it celebrated the modern machine, luxury and glamour.

Art Nouveau: Style movement from the early 1890s up to the First World War. Its philosophy was to apply stylized, asymmetric organic forms to everyday objects in order to make beautiful things available to everyone.

Assay: The testing of silver to establish its purity before hallmarking.

Bachelor Teapot: A small teapot with capacity for one.

Baluster: A shape commonly used for silver vessels (roughly pear shape), the name borrowed from a similarly shaped spindle used to support the handrail of a staircase.

Berry Spoon: A large spoon with a broad deep bowl used for serving berries, salad and other juicy foods.

Bolster: A knife bolster is the junction between the handle and the knife blade which provides balance and durability for the knife.

Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks: A comprehensive, pocket-sized reference book of English, Scottish and Irish hallmarks.*

Bright-cut engraving: A facet-cut engraving, popular in the late 18th century, giving the effect of an inset diamond with short deeply-angled cuts.

Britannia Standard: A rarely used British silver standard, higher than sterling with 958 parts per thousand.  It briefly replaced sterling as the only legal standard in England in 1697 (when it was adopted to prevent debasing of the coin supply).  In 1720, when the sterling standard was reintroduced the Britannia standard was all but forgotten, however it has remained a legal standard ever since.  Britannia standard enjoyed a minor resurgence in the early 20th century for use in reproductions of early 18th century pieces.

Bullion: Pure precious metal in bars or ingots. From the French word “bouillon” meaning “boiling”.

Burnishing: A polishing technique where the rough surface of silver is brought to a high finish by rubbing it with a smooth steel tool.

Caddy spoon: For spooning tea from the caddy to the teapot. It is usually about 2-3 inches long and the bowl holds enough tea for one serving.

Cartouche: A blank decorative shield applied to an article allowing a coat of arms or inscription to be engraved.

Casting: A means of production by pouring silver (or other metals) into a mould. Casting is often applied as a decoration, generally producing a heavy quality finish.

Castle Top: Topographical souvenirs depicting famous buildings, most commonly visiting card cases, vinaigrettes and snuff boxes.  Victorians were fascinated by Britain’s landscapes and landmarks and these silver novelties were popular among the upper classes. Today, Castle Tops are highly collectible.

Chasing: The art of hammering metal from the top side with a small sharp tool in order to produce an indented pattern without incurring any metal loss.

Châtelaine: an ornamental hook to be worn on a belt for small domestic tools such as scissors, keys and sewing kits.*

Cheese Scoop: A pointed spoon-like table implement for scooping out soft cheese.

Claret Jug: A tall pitcher with a hinged lid usually made of glass or crystal to serve red wine.

Cloisonné Enamel: decoration using enamel poured into a design pre-determined by a narrow wire strips called cloisons.

Coffee Pot: A lidded vessel for serving coffee. The body is usually taller and narrower with the spout higher on the body than that of a teapot to avoid coffee sediment from escaping.

Coin Silver: Silver objects where the source material has come from melted coins. This was common in areas that did not have a reliable supply of mined silver, most notably in the United States before 1860.

Compote/Comport: An ornamental stand with a shallow dish. Also called a Tazza.

Coronet: a silver crown used in armorial engraving, often used to indicate nobility.

Cruet: A frame to hold small bottles of oil, vinegar and other liquid condiments.

Cut Card Work: A decorative appliqué technique in which sheets of silver are cut into patterns then applied to the body of an object as ornamentation, similar to appliqué work in sewing. Cut-card work was popular on British and French silver in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Dish Cross: An adjustable cross, used to hold a serving platter, often with a central burner to keep the dish warm.

Dish Ring: A stand with chased or pierced sides to support and elevate dishes to protect the table. Dish rings were never common objects.

Drop: An extension of the handle on the underside of a spoon’s bowl.

Duty Mark (or Sovereign’s Mark): A mark on English silver and gold from 1784-1890 which signifies that duty was paid to the crown at the time of assay

Edwardian: The period of reign of King Edward VII (1901-1910) characterized by a more informal, lighter style compared to the Victorian era.

Egg Cruet: A frame holding eggcups and spoons – usually four or six of each.

Electro-plating: Introduced in the mid-1800s where a metal object is coated with silver by passing an electric current from a block of pure silver to the article to be plated through a solution of cyanide and silver salts.

Embossing: A form of decoration achieved by pushing silver from the back (or inside) creating a relief pattern.  The resulting decoration is often then chased (from the front, or outside) in order to add definition or detail.  Also commonly referred to as embossing.

Engraving: A decorative technique achieved by cutting away material. This process is extremely versatile, lending itself to simple inscriptions or to grandiose decorations.

Engine Turning: An engraving technique in which a precise intricate repetitive pattern is mechanically engraved usually on novelty items, but not on flatware. (See Guilloche)

Epergne: An ornamental centrepiece, typically with a central bowl or vase, with multiple arms holding small subsidiary dishes, vases or candleholders.

EPNS: (Electro-plated Nickel Silver) Silver plated ware with a nickel-copper alloy as the base metal.

Ewer: A large pitcher with a footed base and a flared pouring lip.

Filigree: From the Latin “filum” meaning thread and “granum” meaning grain. A delicate decoration of silver or gold wire-work made from tiny beads and twisted threads.

Filled: Hollow objects, notably candlesticks and knife handles, that have a central cavity filled with plaster or other substances to give stability and strength.

Finial: An adornment found, for instance, on top of a teapot lid or on the tail of a spoon.

Flagon: A tall serving vessel with a handle and a hinged lid.

Flatware: The generic term for silver spoons and forks, although Americans will be more familiar with the terms “silverware” or “flat silver”.

Fluting: Convex or channel shaped decoration used on vessel bodies.

Gadroon: Convex channel shaped decoration used on borders.

Georgian: The period of reign of Kings George I (1714-1727), George II (1727-1860), and George III (1760-1820) Techniques and styles vary during this period.

Gilt, Gilded, (or Gold Plated): The surface is covered with a thin layer of gold, sometimes as a decorative element but more commonly to prevent tarnishing or staining in difficult to clean areas such as interiors of smaller objects.

Guilloche Enamel: An engraving technique in which a precise intricate, linear repetitive patterns or design is mechanically engraved into an underlying material with very fine detail. Also called Engine Turning.

Hallmark: A system of marks impressed on silver or gold items by an Assay Office with the purpose of guaranteeing its purity. In Britain, the hallmark consists of the assay mark (e.g. the lion passant for sterling silver) and other symbols denoting the place of assay, date, and maker. With its comprehensive records, the system helps the public to identify items and guard against forgeries. It is the world’s most stringent silver quality control.

Hanau Silver: Named for the German city where much of the antique reproduction silver was made beginning in the 1860s. Although they were also produced throughout Europe and the US, there were no guild or hallmark laws in Hanau and the pieces made there often have pseudo-hallmarks.

Hollowware: Generic terms for items of household silver other than flatware like bowls, pitchers and vases.

Import mark: A special hallmark stamped onto a foreign silver article at the time of importation into Britain.

Lion Passant: The English hallmark used to guarantee sterling silver purity. First adopted in 1544. (Passant is a heraldic term that refers to the refers to the depiction of an animal in walking pose, in profile, facing left).

Marrow scoop: An elongated, narrow scoop for extracting the marrow from bones.

Maker’s Mark: The registered name or artistic mark stamped or engraved on an object created by a silversmith.

Mote Spoon: an English 18th century teaspoon-sized spoon, with a pierced bowl and pointed handle, used for straining tea leaves out of a tea cup, and the pointed handle was used for clearing blockages from the spout of a teapot.  In the late 18th century silversmiths began to add a strainer to the base of the spout inside a teapot, which rendered mote spoons obsolete.

Neoclassical: A movement that emerged in Britain and France in the 1750s as a reaction to the highly-ornamental Rococo style. The style was based on the designs of Classical Greece and Rome.

Niello: A black granule alloy used to fill engraved decoration in order to contrast with and enhance the silver. The enamel is placed in the cuts of the design and melted until the granules fuse. Any excess is polished away. This process is prevalent in Russian silver.

Nozzle: Removable part at the top of a candlestick designed to catch wax.

Old Sheffield Plate: Also known as “fused plate”, this is an early type of silver-plating, where a sheet of silver is fused to a sheet of copper, and then used for manufacturing. This process was invented accidently in the mid 18th century and was eventually superseded by electro-plating in the mid 19th century. The process was not confined to Sheffield.

Open Salt: A small dish for holding salt which is served with a small salt spoon. Usually with a glass liner or a layer of gold to prevent corrosion. The salt shaker wasn’t introduced until the 1860s.

Pap Boat: A lipped, boat-shaped child’s or invalid’s feeding bowl first in evidence around 1710 and the 100 years following.

Patina: The beautiful, deep blue/grey sheen that silver acquires with the passage of time caused by numerous tiny, almost imperceptible, surface scratches. This effect is lost with machine polishing.

Piercing: A form of decoration produced by cutting away part of the metal with cutting dies, saws and punching tools.

Pique: A decorative feature where silver or gold wire is inlaid into natural materials, typically tortoise shell.

Porringer: A small, shallow bowl or cup with one or two flat handles.

Provincial Silver: Any silver hallmarked outside the principal assay offices

Pseudo Hallmarks: Stamps resembling genuine hallmarks sometimes added to silver-plate, or provincial or colonial silver pieces. (See also Hanau Silver)

Quaich: From the Gaelic word cuach, meaning cup. A shallow, two-handled drinking bowl originally produced in Scotland. Traditionally, quaiches were made entirely of wood or wood with bands of silver.

Rat-tail: A type of drop on a spoon with a long tail on the back of the bowl.

Registration Mark: A diamond shaped mark, first introduced during The Great Exhibition in 1851, to denote the date that a design of particular interest was first registered. This system continued into the 1870s when a numbering system replaced the diamond mark. These symbols were not restricted to silver, but can also be found on wood, glass, china and other metals.

Regency: Refers to the period 1811-1820 when the Regency Act was passed allowing the future George IV (1820-1830) to rule as Price Regent in place of his father, George III who had been incapacitated by madness.

Repoussé: A form of decoration achieved by pushing silver from the back (or inside) creating a relief pattern.  The resulting decoration is often then chased (from the front, or outside) in order to add definition or detail.  Also commonly referred to as embossing.

Rococo: A “late baroque” 18th-century movement characterized by natural motifs, curved forms and a highly ornamental style.

Salver: A footed flat dish with plain or decorated border originally for presentation of food. Salvers with a diameter of 8″ or less are generally called Waiters.

Sconce (Socket): The top portion of a candlestick where the candle is inserted.

Straight Service: An English flatware service of the same pattern, date and maker.

Silver Gilt: A thin covering of gold over solid silver. Cf Vermeil

Snuff Box: A small decorative box with a hinged lid used for keeping tobacco powder dry.

Spinning: A method of producing circular shapes such as bowls, plates and cups from sheet silver. Hollow shapes are formed by pushing against a silver disc as it is spun at high speed on a lathe. The ancient Egyptians were the first to employ this process.

Stamped Decoration/Stamping: Using presses and dies to add decorative elements or to form an entire object such as a spoon or fork.

Sterling Silver: The standard alloy of 925 parts of pure silver to 75 parts copper that gives it durability and workability. Cf Britannia Standard.

Stirrup Cup: Footless beaker generally for port or sherry often in the form of animals used at the start of the hunt.

Tablespoon: A large spoon used for eating or serving. So named because prior to the 18th century, it was customary for diners to bring their own personal spoons to the table.

Tankard: A lidded drinking vessel. 15th-18th century.

Taper stick: A small candlestick used to hold a narrow candle for melting sealing wax or lighting tobacco.

Tarnish: The thin layer of oxidation or discolouration that builds on silver when exposed to air.

Tazza: The Italian name for a compote. An ornamental stand with a shallow dish.

Tea Caddy: A lidded canister for loose tea. Tea was expensive when it was first imported in the 1600s and was kept in a lockable box. In the 18th century silver tea caddies were often sold in sets for multiple types of tea.

Toast Rack: A serving piece with vertical partitions connected to a flat base. Used to prevent slices of toast from getting soggy, they first appeared in the 1770s.

Trefid/Trifid Spoon: Introduced in England from about 1660, a trefid spoon is a flat-handled spoon with three-pointed decorative notches.

Vermeil: The French term for silver gilt.

Vesta Case: A small case with a hinged lid used to hold matches.

Victorian: The period of reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1900). A variety of styles were prevalent during this period, all of which involved a high degree of ornamentation.

Vinaigrette: A portable hinged box designed to hold, beneath a pierced grill, a small sponge soaked in vinegar or perfume as an antidote to everyday odours. 17th-19th century.

Waiter: A smaller flat tray with plain or decorated border with or without feet. Waiters with a diameter of 8″ or more are generally called salvers.

Weighable: a term used to describe the weight of silver object(s) that have mixed materials. In this case “weighable” refers only to the weight of items that are entirely made of silver, anything not entirely made of silver is excluded from the measurement. Eg glass liners, knives with steel blades, ink bottles, etc.