Silverware, Watches, And Jewelry
( Originally Published 1931 )
IN this chapter will be considered certain types of merchandise, which now appear on the shopper's list as necessities, although they are traditionally considered as special luxury purchases. In this field the customer's best protection is in the reputation of the merchant; for even the best manufacturers make two or more grades of products, between which the layman cannot distinguish. However, there are certain ways in which the shopper can help to protect himself.
The writer of this book was handed a candlestick. It was stamped "sterling"; it had a rather attractive shape and it felt weighty and solid. Then he was handed the mate to that candlestick. This one had been sliced vertically down its center line. In place of the solid silver which he expected to see was a mass of some black substance shaped in the lines of the candlestick and encased in a paper-thin shell of silver.
Thus he learned the lesson once and for all that sterling silver may be quite another thing from solid silver. He heard the contempt with which his instructor pronounced plunderware. And he hopes that these few words will convey to the reader a similar burst of enlightenment.
Sterling Silver: Silverware is divided into two main divisions: sterling and plated. Sterling silver is an alloy of pure silver and copper in the proportion of 925 parts of silver to every 75 parts of copper. This slight amount of copper hardens the comparatively soft and plastic silver and produces a successful product which has been standard for centuries, and which is protected by the government. Only where the ratio of silver to copper is fixed at 925 to 75 in every 1,000 units can the product be stamped "sterling." This is an absolute assurance as to quality, but right there the shopper's protection ends.
When it comes to the question of quantity there are no governmental regulations and the shopper is left to rely on her own knowledge and wits. Hence the danger of using "solid silver" as a synonym for sterling, because such a description blinds one to the one thing that must be watched. We would never think of describing a sheet of paper as being solid; yet sterling silver can be made just as thin and then be backed up with some heavy substance to give it the appearance of weight and solidity.
Weighting is the trade term describing the practice of filling hollow portions of silverware with substances other than silver. This practice is widespread in such ware as vases and candlesticks, and pitch and cement are the substances most commonly used. Where the silver shell is of at least reasonable thickness and the weighting is done solely to increase the stability of the product, the practice is quite legitimate. But it quickly leads to "plunderware" whenever the weighting is employed to make good the necessary structural strength that is lacking by reason of the thinness of the silver.
It is pretty safe to assume that candlesticks, vases, bowls, etc., of a shape to make them top-heavy in use will be weighted in the base. Responsible manufacturers now mark such products either "Cement filled" or "Weighted," this description being stamped either above or below the sterling mark. Some manufacturers go so far as to provide for this weighting by means of a heavy metal disk which can be detached to permit the purchaser to judge the weight of the silver without the stabilizer. Lack of such a device or absence of a descriptive mark justifies the suspicion that the product is overweighted and therefore contains less silver than it is fair to expect.
Perhaps the government will some day recognize the fact that careful protection as to quality with none as to quantity is in many respects more dangerous than no protection at all. Then sterling silverware will be stamped with the gross and net weights so that the purchaser may have some indication as to the amount of silver used in any product.
Sheffield Plate : In the middle of the eighteenth century Thomas Bolsover, a silversmith of Sheffield, England, chanced upon the discovery that silver could be fused successfully with copper. The process, as finally perfected, produced a sheet in which a core of copper tempered with brass was coated on both sides with silver. These sheets were then shaped into the usual forms of silverware, and the exposed edges, which naturally showed the reddish color of the core metal, were covered with a decorative strip of silver. The importance of this process was due in large measure to the high price of silver bullion at that time; and as many of the finest craftsmen took advantage of the discovery, Sheffield Plate won a high reputation for its beauty. It retains great value for the collector and antiquarian; but Sheffield Plate is no longer made and federal legislation prohibits that term as a description for any modern silverware.
In short, there is no such thing as modern Sheffield Plate. If any silverware is offered to you as Sheffield Plate either it is a fake and its value therefore suspect; or it is a real antique with a value which only the experienced collector can determine.
Electroplated Ware: The discovery which was to sound the death knell of Sheffield Plate was made about 1800, and by 1840 it had been so perfected that it had driven the older process out of production. The new method of silver plating, which still prevails, is to fashion the particular article in a comparatively cheap alloy and then immerse it in a bath of silver solution, through which an electric current is passed. The result is that particles of pure silver break loose from the solution and attach themselves to the alloy. The thickness of the coating so produced is controlled by the strength of the solution and the duration of the immersion. The terms triple plate and quadruple plate were coined by certain silversmiths to describe their particular wares as more heavily coated than usual, and these terms soon became common in the trade. However, they have never been standardized, and one manufacturer's idea of how thick a coating should be to merit the description "quadruple plate" may differ radically from that of a possibly more honest competitor. Until these terms are standardized and a shopper is assured that she is getting a specified thickness, in, let us say, "triple plate," they should mean exactly nothing to her as a guide in selecting her purchases of plated silver. This present situation in plated silverware is just as stupid and shortsighted as is that in sterling silver, where the purchaser is wholly unprotected in the matter of the quantity of silver she is buying.
The two alloys which are the most common bases for silver plating are white metal and nickel silver. White metal is an alloy of which tin is the chief constituent, very small quantities of copper and antimony being added for hardening; nevertheless, it dents easily. Nickel silver is an alloy of nickel, zinc, and copper. It is the best base for plated silver and is well worth its somewhat higher price. The shopper can distinguish between a white metal and a nickel silver base by striking the piece in question with a pencil. A dull, hollow sound betrays the cheaper base, whereas a ringing sound will identify nickel silver.
Occasionally brass is used as a base for silver plating. It is unsatisfactory because a yellowish tinge will show when the plating becomes thin after use.
Dutch Silver : This properly is the handiwork of the silversmiths of Holland, who use a metal only 800 fine, as compared with the 925 prescribed for sterling. The phrase is also incorrectly used to describe certain products of American manufacture, where the design is that of the overornate type characteristic of Dutch manufacture. This so-called Dutch Silver of American manufacture may conceivably be sterling ware (in which case it is sure to be so marked) ; but in general it is an inferior product of silver plating.
German Silver: The alloy which has been given this name does not enjoy even the slightest trace of silver. It is the base metal alloy composed of nickel, copper, and zinc, on which silver is generally plated. Some-times this alloy is offered for sale unplated; it can then be recognized by its slightly yellowish tinge.
ReŽnforced Silver: Electroplating naturally produces an even deposit of silver all over the object so treated. However, the wear to which many silver-plated products are subjected is not even at all points. For instance, the heel of a fork or spoon receives more wear than other parts of the surface. Hence, in some cases a greater thickness of silver is provided at this point, to compensate for the greater wear. Where this is done the product is said to be reŽnforced or sectional plate.
Flashing: At the opposite pole from reŽnforcing is the trick of "flashing" silver plate. Every once in so often certain types of stores advertise a sale of, let us say, silver-plated platters for some ridiculously small price in the neighborhood of one dollar. The objects so sold are the size and shape of a platter; they feel heavy, and they are silver-plated. They appear to be a miraculous bargain. In actual fact, however, they are nothing but iron "flashed" in an electroplating bath just long enough for them to acquire a sufficient film of silver to give them a pretense of value.
Hand-wrought vs. Machine-made : Originally all silver was worked by hand. Nowadays much can be done by machinery, although certain processes still remain the monopoly of handwork. A machine, where the pressure can be rightly controlled, can produce an evenness of texture which is beyond the capability of any man. Also, engine turning alone can create the decorative effect of thin, straight lines evenly spaced. At the same time many of the most charming effects depend exclusively upon the artistry of individual craftsmen. This is particularly true of repoussť work, where the design is raised from the inside of hollow ware, and of chasing which is the art of impressing decoration on the surface by tapping small steel punches. These are processes in which handwork is seen at its most skillful development.
As a rule both handwork and machines are happily combined in the production of modern silver, which compares in design and execution most favorably with the older pieces.
Finish: The three standard finishes are (1) bright, (2) butler, and (3) gray. They are produced by a process called buffing, the choice of abrasives and the extent to which the process is carried determining the type of finish. Bright is the most highly polished of the three and has a mirrorlike effect. Butler duplicates the mellow sheen produced by years of cleaning and polishing silver by hand; it derives its name from the English custom of detailing this work to the butler. Gray is a clearer finish than butler; it is produced by the use of acids which are sometimes partially buffed off, causing interesting contrasts of light and dark.
In some instances the design is produced by darkening certain portions of the silver by oxidization as contrast to the high polish of the other parts.
Changing Fashions: In the competition for the market manufacturers are continually changing the designs of both flat and hollow ware.* The shopper who is planning to build up a full service gradually should bear this in mind and select her pattern only from open stock and then only with the assurance from manufacturer or merchant that this pattern will remain available during the period in which she plans to complete her purchase. Even so it is not wise to count on such an assurance for more than a few years.
Pewter: Often associated with silverware in display and sale is pewter. This originally was an alloy of which tin and lead were the chief constituents, and many fine old pieces have been handed down to this generation. Modern pewter is nothing but the white-metal alloy already described as a base for silver plating. This alloy can be given a fairly high polish, but it is usually finished in imitation of old pewter.
* The distinction between flat and hollow ware is an arbitrary one of the silversmiths. Flatware consists of knives, forks, and spoons, and hollow ware includes all other products. Ladles are considered flatware, but platters are classified as hollow ware.
Watches have become practically a necessity for members of the family over twelve years of age. They are utterly useless at any price if they will not keep time. Yet the average shopper is in no better position to judge a watch than the average traveler is to decide whether the locomotive of his train is capable of hauling him to his destination.
When you buy a watch your only safeguard is in the character of the house from which you buy. The mere appearance of a watch is no guide to its quality, be-cause thinly plated cases may be made to look like solid gold. Nor is the name on a watch all the information which a buyer needs to know. Waltham, for instance, designates the make of a movement, not its quality; and a Waltham movement may be priced any-where from $8 to $175. Of course any reputable manufacturer will stand behind his $8 watch as well as his $175 product, but the buyer does not want to pay $175 for the $8 or even the $150 grade. The responsibility for selling watches at higher prices can be laid to the retailer, for he knows exactly the quality of the watches he has purchased where he might not be able to discriminate so nicely in buying such merchandise as hosiery or gloves. Therefore, the shopper's main reliance must be in choosing a retailer whose merchandising integrity is unquestioned.
Swiss Watches: In purchasing Swiss watches, particularly, confidence must be placed in the retailer. Some of the best in our stores come from Switzerland, where they are made by long established, reputable manufacturers whose products are known throughout the world. A wealth of experience handed down throughout the centuries has given some of these Swiss craftsmen a skill in the artistry of watchmaking, which the highly developed technic of American watchmakers has never been able to surpass. Unfortunately, however, too many of the Swiss watches we get in this country are made by small concerns or even families who have neither the requisite capital to install mod-ern machinery nor the knowledge of manufacture and assembling essential for the delicate art of watchmaking. Furthermore, they are usually indifferent to what happens to their product after it is exported so long as they get the money for it. These innumerable small concerns and families in Switzerland buy the various parts of movements from factories making a specialty of manufacturing parts only. If they cannot get the requisite material from one factory they go to another. Sometimes, having collected a few parts, they have a dispute with the manufacturer or fail to pay their bill and then they must go to another manufacturer for the full complement of parts. Naturally, when such a collection of scattered parts is assembled in one movement, the result is not a perfectly running and reliable timepiece.
These small Swiss watchmakers are encouraged by many American concerns who import watches with the sole idea of buying and selling Swiss movements cheaply. Owing to the great number of these American importers who go to Switzerland and insist on cheap watches, such pressure has been brought to bear that there are any number of small manufacturers who are perfectly willing to produce a movement of a specific number of jewels and size at almost any conceivable price.
Many American stores, believing that it is easier to sell price than quality, are handling virtually worthless types of Swiss watches simply because by so doing they can advertise a watch of a certain type and a certain number of jewels cheaper than another store which carries only reliable merchandise. The small importers, from whom such stores buy, frequently get into financial trouble and are compelled to sell some of the goods they import at cost, or even less than cost, in order to finance themselves. This leads to special sales of Swiss watches by stores at apparently cheap prices. As a matter of fact such merchandise is virtually worthless and is not cheap at any price because the cost of trying to make the watch perform properly over a reasonable period of time would be far in excess of the price of a good watch.
Of late years a number of concerns selling Swiss watches have undertaken large and extensive advertising campaigns to market their product. Advertising will not make watches keep time, and while some of the advertised products are reliable and will give satisfaction, many are carelessly assembled movements dressed up in attractive cases and sold at an extremely high price for such goods in order to cover the additional cost of advertising.
Masquerading as "American": American watches are known largely by the names of their respective manufacturers who have established a reputation through making a good product and advertising it. Such watches have good, reliable movements, varying in price; but the shopper cannot always depend on the name of the manufacturer.
Swiss movement watches are sometimes sold under names almost like the names of well-known and extremely reliable American watch movement manufacturers and are purchased by shoppers under the impression that they are obtaining an Elgin watch, a Waltham watch or some equally high-grade and well-known watch. If these shoppers had looked more closely at the dial they would have noticed that the watch was not stamped Howard, Hamilton, Elgin, or Waltham but some combination of letters very similar to one of those names.
Sometimes unscrupulous dealers buy up second-hand movements of well-known makes, clean them, put them in attractive cases and offer them for sale as new watches. Some of these movements may be fifteen or twenty years old.
Imitation Jeweled Movements: The imitation jeweled movement is one of the snares set for the shopper buying a watch. A jewel in the movement of a watch serves the same purpose as a bearing does in a piece of machinery. It is subject to constant friction and it must be hard to stand the constant wear. A cheap watch displayed as a 19- or 21-jewel movement may contain no jewels at all or only a few, the "jewels" which show on the plate being simply pieces of celluloid or glass fastened over the pinions, but not in contact with them.
Watch Cases: Formerly a manufacturer could stamp any gold-plated case "14 Karat Gold Filled" and the unsuspecting shopper would believe it. Now, however, the Federal Trade Commission has made a ruling to the effect that all cases stamped "Gold Filled" must contain gold on the outside of a thickness of three one-thousandths of an inch. Such cases, made by all reputable companies, are stamped "14 Karat Gold Filled" or "10 Karat Gold Filled" and have the manufacturer's name in them.
To get around this ruling some manufacturers stamp cases with a much smaller gold content "14 Karat Rolled Gold Plate" or "Rolled Gold Plate." This generally means that the case has a very small gold con-tent and in many instances is simply an electroplated case and may wear for only a few weeks or months.
Unfortunately some of the stores, in their eagerness to undersell their competitors, knowingly purchase these cases in order to bring the price down.
Bogus Boxes: The Elgin National Watch Company, the Waltham Watch Company, the Howard Watch Company, the Hamilton Watch Company, and the Illinois Watch Company, as well as other nationally known and long-established manufacturers, case and box many of their watches at the factory. These are known as factory cased and boxed watches. Many retailers imitate these factory cased watches by purchasing boxes similar to the boxes used by the factory, imitating the cards, and buying movements separately, casing them in inferior cases and putting a fictitious resale price on the watch. In some instances this price is simply outrageous and out of all proportion to the actual value of the watch. Such watches are stamped and labeled with the name of the reliable manufacturer whose product they imitate. Yet the shopper cannot always tell whether these are legitimately boxed watches or watches boxed for the purpose of getting an enormous profit on the watch, or of having a catch penny sale such as selling a "$100 watch" for $50 when the true retail value might be only $40.
Many retailers buy these bogus boxed watches from the manufacturer or jobber, knowing very well what they are getting. Every reputable manufacturer publishes a list of watches, which is furnished to retailers, showing pictures of the legitimate boxed watches.
Platinum Watches: Until recently only feeble and ineffectual attempts were made toward having an effective law indicating the requisite platinum content in order legitimately to stamp a watch as platinum. This meant that almost any kind of alloy could be stamped platinum. Owing to the high cost of platinum, this, obviously, made a tremendous difference in the selling price of an alleged platinum watch. All platinum watches should be made entirely of platinum with five or ten per cent iridium, a still higher-priced metal, added to give the case the proper rigidity. Some retailers, in order to protect their customers against spurious articles, insist that all platinum merchandise sold to them must contain nothing but platinum and iridium.
Radium Dials: Owing to the fact that dials which actually show up well in the dark require the use of radium in their manufacture, they are somewhat ex-pensive. Some dial manufacturers have made radium dials for various standard makes of watches with an alleged radium compound which is only semi-luminous and in some instances not luminous at all. Such dials not only do not retain what luminosity they have, but this compound turns color. As it is almost impossible for the shopper to tell the difference she must depend on the retailer.
The whole field of precious stones and their settings in gold and platinum is so highly technical and so inadequately protected from fraud that the layman is foolish to make any purchases of expensive jewelry from any but the most reputable merchants. Gems may be real, artificial, or imitation; or they may be a combination of two or more of these basic types. Real stones may be practically valueless because of hidden defects or of faulty cutting; and the imitation ones are, of course, spurious. In some instances the products of nature have been practically duplicated by artificial means; but this duplication can never have the actual or the sentimental value of the natural gem. As the average customer cannot distinguish between the true and the cleverly false, the jewelry "bargains" of unknown stores had better be considered as invitations to throw money away.
Novelty Jewelry : At the same time there has been a development in fashion, which has elevated what was once a cheap imitation of real jewelry into an important dress accessory.
Novelty jewelry is no longer tawdry, badly designed, and ill-fashioned because it is a thing of the moment and inexpensive. The shopper of today demands that her gold-plated bracelet set with glass stones have the same happy design, the same carefulness of construction, as the gold bracelet set with diamonds she saw in the window of a Fifth Avenue jewelry store. The retailer and the manufacturer have risen to meet that demand; the retailer in the taste he exerts in choosing his jewelry, the manufacturer in his skill in constructing it. Few women realize that for very little money now they can buy jewelry of exquisite taste and construction for which only a few years ago they would have had to pay ten times as much, and which they could then have bought only in the precious stones and metals.
In many of the larger stores a stylist supplements the technical knowledge of the buyer with a highly trained style sense. A manufacturer in Czechoslovakia may show the buyer and stylist a sterling silver vanity case, its face covered with multicolored stones, its back heavily filigreed. "No," says the stylist, "if you will put in nothing but sapphire stones, remove the filigree from the back, and give it a dull polish we will take so many." The manufacturer obeys the word of authority and the American public has another article of good taste offered it at a low price.
With the exception of hand-engraved articles, which are naturally more expensive because of the labor which has gone into them, the question of construction is not a factor determining price. So perfected and refined are the modern methods of manufacture that the most careful and detailed workmanship can be put into low-priced articles which are turned out by the thousands. The price is dependent in large measure on the metals and stones used.
Novelty jewelry is worn for the most part as an accessory to the costume and with a change in the whim of fashion, it changes too. For example, the bateau neckline brought the choker; the long sleeve called forth the slave bracelet; a hairdress that shows the ears brings button earrings back into favor; a neck-line cut in a V invites a long string of beads. The term "novelty" means that which is new, new in design, in construction, in popularity. The original and new designs in costume jewelry are always higher priced because they are more exclusive in the beginning, just as are the new fashions in ready-to-wear.
Inexpensive materials such as rhinestones, imitation pearls, semiprecious stones, enamel, and tortoise are used in novelty jewelry.
Rhinestones are a fine, hard glass mirrored on the back with a substance that looks like tinfoil to reflect the light. Good rhinestone jewelry is always set in sterling silver. The lower-priced settings are made of tin or zinc, with a little silver in them, and bear such misleading names as "platinoid" and "platinon."
Imitation pearl beads are roughly divided into the wax-filled and the so-called indestructible pearls. The latter will break, but not easily; for they are made of solid glass with a silvery coating. Many of the fine grade pearls of this kind may be washed, and, if occasionally restrung, can be used for years.
Semiprecious stones used for novelty jewelry are real gems, but the quantities in which they are found lessen their value. The most popular are jade, lapis lazuli, crystal, amber, onyx, garnet, amethyst, topaz, turquoise, carnelian, chrysoprase, and marcasite.
Metals Used for Novelty Jewelry: There is a great difference between gold-filled and gold-plated jewelry, with the former the more desirable.
Gold-filled means that the gold is filled or lined, with brass to give it strength. The quality of gold-filled jewelry depends upon the amount of gold used in proportion to the brass: 1/4 1/10, 1/20 gold-filled jewelry means that the fraction given is the amount of pure gold used in that article. Gold-filled articles are usually stamped to indicate the grade of the solid gold used, such as 10, or 14 karat. If the quality of the gold is not stamped, you are safe in assuming that it is not more than 10 karat.
On the other hand, gold-plated jewelry is base metal with an outside film of gold plate. Only the cheaper grades of jewelry are made in this way.
Sterling silver is probably the most satisfactory metal for inexpensive jewelry. The mark "Sterling" upon it means that it will wear well because there is no plated surface to wear off, and it can be cleaned easily and thoroughly when tarnished. Seen at a distance it looks much like platinum.
Silver plated articles have a thin coating of silver over brass or some composition metal. They do not wear so well as sterling, nor do they take engraving so effectively.
All metal jewelry will tarnish. A solid gold necklace may tarnish more quickly around the neck of the wearer than a cheap metal because of the body chemicals of certain people, which affect gold. The shopper should not blame the store if metal which she has bought there tarnishes. It may be entirely due to her-self. Real gold and silver may be cleaned, however, to look as bright as new; whereas gold-plated ware will not stand much hard rubbing or usage.
ENAMELS AND TORTOISE SHELL
Soft and hard enamel on a sterling silver base are much used for jewelry, large and small. Soft enamel is not so durable, nor are the colors so clear and bright as those of hard enamel. It is generally used only where it constitutes a very small part of the design, as when it is painted on.
Tortoise is used particularly in hair ornaments and cigarette cases. The test for distinguishing real from imitation tortoise shell is to rub the article on a piece of cloth until it becomes warm; if the warmth brings out an odor of camphor or celluloid, it is an imitation.