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Silver Makes a Comeback

How to identify high-quality sterling silver and silver-plate accessories.

by Rosemary Sadez Friedmann
Scripps Howard News Service

Sterling silver and especially silver-plate trays, candy dishes, candleholders and other accessories are big these days.

There was a time, many years ago, when these items were welcome wedding gifts that often became heirlooms. Then, in the early 1980s, silver's reputation tarnished. Low-end, bad-quality silver was introduced and flooded the market, giving silver a bad name. How it managed to polish its reputation again I don't know, but silver is back and beautiful.

How do you determine what's good and what's not when buying a silver-plated piece? One way is to find out if the silver plate has a brass base. If the brass is coated with a combination of nickel, copper and zinc, the piece will accept the silver-plating better. If the silver plate's base is steel or aluminum, the piece is not as valuable. You can usually tell the difference in the weight; the brass base will weigh more.

Another value-determining test is the thickness of the silver plating. The bargain-basement piece will be coated with 1 to 3 microns of silver plating. After polishing one of these a few times, the silver plating will wear right off. If the piece has been coated with 8 to 10 microns, it is pretty good. Twenty-five microns is about as thick as they come.

That, of course, raises the question of how to determine the number of microns. One sure way (unless the merchant is cheating) is by price. A silver-plated teapot of 8 to 10 microns might range in price from $15 to $25. A very thickly plated teapot will be up in the $70-and-above price range.

Pieces imported from Great Britain are usually of good quality with many layers of silver plating over brass. India offers many varieties of silver knickknacks that are brass-based, but have fewer layers of silver plating on them. Hong Kong offers silver over steel. Buy with caution, though, because sometimes the less expensively made steel items are weighted to give the feel of more expensive brass-based pieces.

It used to be easy to verify the quality of these products. The Guild of Goldsmiths Hall had certain criteria that needed to be met before a stamp of approval would be put on it. This engraving consisted of a lion standing sideways with its front paw raised as a sign of approval. Another impression on the piece was the insignia of the town where the piece was tested. Special lettering depicting the year of production was often found on the piece, along with the silversmith's initials.

If you have a silver-plated piece that has one or more of the above stamps of approval, you have a very special item because they don't do that anymore.

Should you lacquer silver for greater durability? Yes — and no. Lacquering will help prevent tarnish, but if a piece is lacquered, it cannot be repaired if it peels or gets scratched.

Rosemary Sadez Friedmann, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, is president of Rosemary Sadez Friedmann Inc. in Naples, Fla.

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