The world of silver can be both confusing and overwhelming. Features such as fineness, hallmarks, alloys and standards can confound even the most knowledgeable silver connoisseur. One subset of antique silver can be even more befuddling — German silver. But what is German silver? Read on to learn more about this complex and confusing term!
German Silver — An Alloy
The confusion around the term German silver arises because it can refer to two entirely different types of metal. Most logically, German silver can denote real silver that is German in origin. However, it is also referred to as a particular metal alloy that doesn't contain any silver at all.
German silver, also known as nickel silver, is a copper alloy that usually contains a 60% copper base metal, 20% nickel, and 20% zinc. It earned the moniker "silver" due to its silver-white color, but it contains no silver. It was first developed and used in China, becoming particularly popular during the Qing dynasty. German imitations of the Chinese alloy began to appear in 1750, and by 1770, Suhl metalworks was able to produce a similar alloy. The Germans perfected the process in the early 19th century, and soon it was introduced in England, where the alloy was dubbed "German silver."
WHAT IS GERMAN SILVER USED FOR?
From the spoon you use to stir your coffee in the morning to the bowl that marks a centerpiece in your dining room to the musical instrument you played as a child, you've likely come in contact with a German silver item. German silver has been used for an array of items. But before diving into more historical pieces of German silver, let's uncover its origin.
German Silver — An Origin
In the world of antiques, silver that is German in origin generally falls under the blanket term "Continental silver," referring to silver that doesn’t follow the English Sterling standard of purity. It is a very large category that encompasses not only German silver but also Austrian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Eastern European silver items from all periods - basically, any silver that is not English or French! Yet, German silver is a fascinating category in and of itself, with a rich tradition and its own unique forms. Each country will use a different mark or symbol to denote the purity of the silver. It is up to a reputable antiques dealer to know how to identify German silver and its purity, especially when making a sale.
German silver drinking cups are among the most coveted and creative forms crafted by German silversmiths over the centuries––the practice of gifting a cup crafted of silver on special occasions dates to the 17th century. The Jungfrauenbecher, or maiden’s cup (also known as a wedding cup), is among the most distinctive and highly sought-after designs. Wedding cups, usually taking the shape of a young woman with a full skirt, are comprised of two cups, one held above the figure’s head on a swivel and the other in the form of the maiden’s dress. Used during wedding feasts, the Jungfrauenbecher challenged the groom to drink a toast from the maiden’s skirt without spilling the wine in the smaller bowl, which was to be drunk by the bride. Legend has it that the first wedding cup was created by a goldsmith who, wishing to marry a noblewoman, was challenged by her father to create a cup from which they both could drink at the same time without spilling a single drop.
Silver items and vessels were not the only popular form of German silver. When Frederick the Great (1713-40) took the throne in the early 18th century, he led a new fashion for luxury items created by German silversmiths, particularly snuff boxes and bird boxes. While these forms were largely developed by the French and Swiss, Frederick had a well-known dislike for French fashions, seeking German silversmiths to craft his luxury trinkets instead. Through his patronage, Berlin emerged as an important center of production for bird boxes, snuff boxes and more.
Are you able to recognize German silver marks? These symbols were often used on gold and silver to showcase the quality of the antique piece. The German hallmarking system was unified in 1888, adopting the national mark "Crescent and Crown" (Halbmond und Reichskrone) and indicating in thousandths the fineness of silver. While the minimum fineness for English silver is 925/1000 - the fineness of sterling silver - the minimum German silver fineness is 800/1000. However, 830, 835, 900, 925 and 935 purities are also quite often used, so it is not necessarily accurate to state that all German silver is less fine than English silver.
Prior to 1888, the German hallmarking system was far more complicated and largely regional. Rather than a national mark, the system utilized different town marks, while the silver fineness was indicated in loth, wherein 12 loth was the equivalent of 750/1000 and 15 loth equaled 937/1000. Luckily, today German silversmiths still adhere to the system adopted in 1888, making the loth system obsolete and guaranteeing at least 80% fineness in all German silver creations.
Interested in adding a piece of this precious metal to your collection? Shop our collection of German silver and other antique silver today.