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 silver that is German in origin. However, it is also used to refer to a particular metal alloy that actually doesn’t contain any silver at all.
Also known as Nickel silver, German silver is a copper that usually contains 60% copper along with 20% nickel and 20% zinc. It earned the moniker “silver” because of its silver-white appearance, but don’t be fooled — there is no silver present in German silver. It was first developed and used in China, becoming particularly popular during the Qing dynasty for export, which is how it first became known in the West.
German imitations of the alloy began to appear in 1750, and by 1770 Suhl metalworks was able to produce a very 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.”
German silver became wildly popular in England because it served as the perfect base for silver plating and electroplating. Similar to brass and bronze, German silver is both strong and bright, and it can be easily wrought, rolled and machined, making it ideal for mass production. Thus, German silver is relatively easy to find on the market, but be aware as a buyer that unless it has been silver plated or electroplated, it contains no trace of actual silver.
German Silver — An Origin
In the world of antiques, silver that is German in origin generally falls under the blanket term “Continental silver.” It is a very large category that encompasses not only German silver but also Austrian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Eastern European silver 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.
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 of these 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 vessels were not the only popular forms in 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.
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.
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