Silver has been highly praised since its discovery. It is known as the ‘noblest metal’ and the ‘queen of metals’. Silver was viewed as a sign of wealth and used to be restricted to royalty, aristocracy and the clergy. It is one of the seven metals of antiquity known to prehistoric humans. It has a vast history and is found in subsoils all over the world. Pure silver, however, is too soft to function on its own, so alloys are added to give it strength and durability. Silver is even referenced in the Bible, and also had a usage in folklore. It was thought to have mystical powers that would be the only material suitable enough to be effective against fighting mythical creatures such as werewolves.
Silversmithing dates back to 2500BC. Greek and Roman economies relied on silver coins and Phoenicians that first came to Spain attained masses of silver which could not fit on their ships therefore resorting to using silver to weight their anchors instead of lead. In the Middle Ages, central Europe became the centre of silver production after Mediterranean deposits had been exhausted. Central and South America then became the dominant producers of silver until around the 18th century where the primary production of silver had moved to North America. Wars and numerous internal conflicts mean limited silverware made before 1700 exists today. Pieces made after that date, however, are much more plentiful.
Silver has historically been used for coinage, silverware, and jewellery – making use of the material’s beneficial antibacterial properties. There are different silver standards that have developed over time. For example:
This system of standardising silver is recognised around the world, indicating 800 parts of silver per 1000 parts, 925 parts of silver per 1000 parts, and 958 parts silver per 1000 parts. American silver manufacturers used independent standards for the purity of their silver between the 18th and 19th centuries.
Hallmarks indicating the quality standard of a piece, the location where it was assayed, and the maker became essential for quality silver pieces. These hallmarks are widely used today among the vast majority of silversmiths.
In Britain, there are a few cities that are known for the amount of silver and quality of silver that passed through their assay offices. Newcastle is one such city with a reputation for producing exceptional quality silver pieces.
The most important period of Newcastle silver production was the 18th and early 19th centuries, although there are a few 17th-century pieces of significant value around today. Other than flatware, the most common pieces are tankards, mugs, and two-handled cups. An interesting feature distinct to Newcastle is the amount of solder used in putting the foot on items of this kind. It wasn’t common to fill the base with solder and remove the excess by turning it on a lathe, but this was frequently practised by Newcastle silversmiths.
It was technically forbidden for Scottish silversmiths to apprentice or work in Newcastle as the aftermath of a 1536 ordinance. Regardless, there is a clear influence from Scottish styles in Newcastle silver. The early 1700s bullet teapots that were known to be made in Scotland were also crafted in Newcastle. Equally, single-struck flatware was created in both places as well, starting in Scotland.
Prominent Newcastle smiths included Isaac Cookson, the Langlands, and the Reid family. The Newcastle Assay Office, that operated between 1702 – 1884, used a three-castle turret mark that is still seen around much of the city in bollards, signposts, and fences.