The winter holidays loom. Along with dreams of pumpkins, ghosts, turkeys, pies, Christmas lights, and menorah, come thoughts of polishing silver. Silver is surrounded by myths and misconceptions, like many luxury goods. All the better for exclusivity beyond cost alone. But there are people who know why not to put silver into dishwashers, and what you pay for when you buy sterling instead of silverplate. Recently, I interviewed Martin Biro, silversmith, of Biro & Sons. His family has been in silver for decades. I was happy to hear what Martin had to say.
What To Know Before Buying Silver
LPC: Let’s start with how to buy good silver. What should people look for?
Martin: First you have to determine whether to go with sterling or plated. There are pluses and minuses to both. Sterling is obviously more expensive, but sterling in this country has to be marked, and if it’s marked you always get 95% silver.
There are now very good quality silver plated sets out there. *Laughs* I have silver plate at home, even though my wife is not too happy about it. You can get a good deal. But you have to watch out. You need a good quality base metal, ideally nickel silver (which is rare nowadays), or brass. The less expensive plates use stainless steel. Silver is soft, steel is hard, so the combo is not effective for long term wearability.
It’s very hard to tell good silver plate from sterling. We’ve been fooled, once or twice, until we looked for the mark.
LPC: Are there any brands you recommend?
Martin: One thing that you have to remember is that there’s not much manufacturing left in the USA. Few silver sets, even those with an American name such as Wallace, Reed and Barton, Gorham, or Towle (pronounced Toll), are made here any more. You are often buying an import from an American company. Tiffany may still be made in America, although they probably have stuff manufactured all over the world too.
When you go to buy flatware, first, and most important, hold it in your hand. Is it going to be pleasurable to use? Buccellati and Cristofle, for example, make silverware in the European style. It’s a heavy, large utensil. In the American style, forks and spoons are smaller, more delicate and lighter.
With sterling, it is what it is, only thing to decide is do you like it? Considering metal prices, it’s not going to be cheap. There were great prices 2-3 years ago, 8-$12/oz. Now silver is at $20/oz. The quality of flatware has to be gauged by the price. You can get sometimes get sterling on sale at Macy’s for as low as about $179.00 a place setting.
For silver plate, any reputable silver maker is going to be good. You will pay $200/setting for the good stuff vs. $18 for junk. Some manufacturers use poor quality stainless, and put silver on in thin quantities. Other companies, like Cristofle, pride themselves on heavy plating. A good heavy coating is anywhere between 8 and 12 microns.
Myself, I kind of like a modern style of the 30’s and 40’s. A lot of people like the more baroque, more ornate stuff, You can mix and match.
The Secret of Used Silver
LPC: What about used silver? My mother bought me a mixed and matched 10-piece set from the London Silver Vaults when I got married. (I was a little disappointed not to get a set like her Tiffany pattern. I was young. And foolish, with no sense of the value of money. I’m over it.)
Martin: Absolutely you can get good deals on used silver. The way the economy is I have had people call and ask, “Can I sell it?” With the value of sterling going up, some people are willing to sell for the weight of the sterling alone.
It has to be marked sterling, and you have to look at the condition. If it’s not in excellent condition, you are going to have to bring it to somebody like me, and pay $5-$18 to restore it, each piece. For a used set, you also want to make sure it’s heavy. The older the silver, the heavier it will be. Silver makers have ways they have cheated over time, using less metal. If you look at patterns made in 1940, and still made today, the new version will be lighter. When they cast it, they hollow the handle out on the back.
Silver is being bought and sold on eBay, by those who are savvy about it. Otherwise, go to a local auction house, such as Butterfield‘s here in Northern California. or go to Replacements online. They have a large flatware exchange.
With silver, to get a good deal it’s very important to buy a complete set. No matter what the quality, if you don’t have the complete set, you don’t have the full value. Say you pay $1000 for a set missing 2 forks, you might then have to pay $100 per solo fork. You want to be counting your pieces and make sure you have the correct round number. 6 place settings is bare minimum for a set, ideally 12.
The Keys To Maintaining Silver And The Evils Of Dishwashers
LPC: How should people store their silver? Do those cases and bags really make a difference?
Martin: Traditionally people have silver boxes, that contain the pieces in an airtight environment, not exposed to temperature or moisture. There’s nothing worse for silver than sitting in the living room with the air conditioner one day and the heater the next. When silver gets moist, sulfur causes oxidation.
You can store individual pieces in treated flannel bags to help them resist developing sulfur. Even with the bags, to keep silver shiny and happy, put it in a drawer or a cabinet in an environment that doesn’t change.
LPC: I was just thinking the other day, it’s time to polish my silver. I actually like to the task, as long as the polish isn’t toxic and harsh. How should we be cleaning our silver?
Martin: Some people insist on using silver every day and throwing it into the dishwasher. Soaps in most dishwashing detergents have alkali, in order to dissolve food. You get a chemical reaction and the ingredients will etch silver. Takes the shine off. I don’t recommend it, I encourage my clients to hand wash.
LPC: *raises hand* Yes, I confess, I throw everything in the dishwasher.
Martin: *shakes head* The main thing to do when you are dealing with silver polish is to read the directions, if it says wash immediately with water, you are washing away some kind of acid chemical that cleans by attacking. If you can just dip it in and you are all set, the dip has to be pretty strong.
On the other hand, when you use something that you have to rub, you can be more comfortable there’s nothing really harmful in there. You have waxes, cleaners, a little bit of an abrasive, but it doesn’t harm the silver. The fact that you have to rub it, makes it shine. Like car waxes. Nothing’s going to kill you. People are always looking for the easy way out, and it’s not always the best.
We have carried Pine-Ola for 40 years. A good old-fashioned polish.
What To Remember About Silver Repair
LPC: You repaired a piece for me, an old polo trophy. I was very happy with the work. The base had fallen off, and it was dented.
Martin: We can repair pretty much anything. Even flatware that’s gone down the garbage disposal. Sometimes people are helping in the kitchen, a fork goes down the disposal, and you hear that crunch crunch crunch. Repairing is usually less expensive than replacing your flatware. Buying one fork in a certain pattern can get pricy, and sometimes we check for clients to find replacements and they are just not available. If you have a flatware set and one of the pieces gets damaged, don’t throw it away, keep it. Preserve your complete set.
The cost of repairs is based on labor. Mostly we file, hammer reshape, solder, and then repolish. You will spend from about $25 up to $100/piece on flatware repairs.
Some families in bring their silverware in for us to polish them once a year. On a 12-place set, depending on what I do, they can spend anywhere from $200 up to about $8-900.
LPC: Martin, anything you’d like to tell us that I forgot to ask?
Martin: I can tell you that there is still a tradition of handing down silver in families. People’s lifestyle, they don’t entertain grandly any more, young people don’t have those big dinner parties in today’s world. But there has always been an interest in handing down silver sets, Aunt Ethel presents her grandchild, or a niece, with the set when they get married.
1/3 of our work is people bringing in sets to hand down. A lot of it is monogrammed. Monograms can be removed and new ones put on, but people usually keep the original because it’s a keepsake. When you are selling silverware, you don’t want a monogram, sterling sets with monograms have less value. But the monogram makes it a keepsake.
Silverware Confessions of a High WASP
Do I follow Mr. Biro’s sage advice? Well, yes and no.
- No. I can’t bring myself to buy silver plate, preferring that substances assume their identities with impunity. So I go sterling, or stainless.
- No. I throw my silver in the dishwasher because it’s all I have to eat with.
- Yes. I polish with the old-fashioned stuff. Largely because I failed the harsh chemical smells section of the Sturdy Gal test. I like Twinkle.
- Yes. I derive enormous satisfaction from bringing an old, tarnished, dented piece back to its former glory through repair.
- Completely Off Track. Despite my usual preference for the simple and streamlined, I have a secret weakness for the ornate, delicate tracings of Kirk’s Old Maryland.
Happy polished silver and sparkling tables to all.
Martin, 56, and his brother, Rick, 48, run Biro & Sons with their father, Alex. They have all been in the silversmithing trade for decades. Alex learned originally, in his native Hungary, from his uncle. Emigrating in 1956, when Russians violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising, he moved to the Netherlands, to Canada, and finally to the USA. Biro & Sons has been in its location in San Francisco since 1976. Biro & Sons performed the engraving on Oracle’s America’s Cup. You can find more of their story here. You can find Martin, his family, and world-class traditional silver repair, at Biro & Sons, 1160 Folsom Street, San Francisco.
Images: me, my silverware, and the steampunk style workbench of old world craftsmen
No compensation of any sort has been received for anything here.