Can You Mix And Match Silverware? This question, and the topic for July's post came from two of my guests who attended the Historic Ellicott City's May decorator show house at historic Oakdale Manor. The short answer is a definitive yes! And the long answer, (you know I love to talk) is also yes, so get comfortable and enjoy this long post for the complete answer.
This year, I was awarded the formal dining room, a huge area with an amazing fireplace. I broke the tradition of the long table with 12 side chairs, and custom designed two modern round tables with geometric bases for eight. In addition, I used plain white china with a gold rim, and for flatware, I chose a simple gold/stainless for place settings (8) and a sterling surprise.
Part of the 2022 HEC flatware place setting in gold and stainless steel
At the head of each plate, I placed an antique sterling silver ice cream shovel (dessert). It was from an entirely different time period, somewhere in the 18th century. What's the idea? Think about the beach and digging for treasure. The hostess or host would add something to the ice cream, sorbet, or Gelato, and dinner guests would "dig" for the treasure. What fun this could be, especially if some of your guests don't usually get along that well with each other (not my business!).
From a set of 12 19th Century ice cream shovels, in sterling silver
Everyone who came liked what I presented, and I explained that it did not have to match and since these were the only pieces that were different and used only for dessert. The style and shape would not have worked if it had been a dinner fork, a soup spoon, or a teaspoon.
Sure, 100% matched sets of flatware, sterling or plated, can be great. However, sometimes, when there becomes so much of it, the table can take on a contrived look, or worse, your beautiful patterns blend into a blur of clutter, unnoticed. This mainly relates to handles with busy designs.
Where to Begin
In the world of culinary experiences, there are literally thousands of patterns available. However, everything doesn't work together all of the time, and some do not work at all. Also, I don't collect flatware just to impress or accumulate things of value. The value is in the beauty of a created vision. Good design does not always cost a fortune! Someone had to sit and assemble ideas to come up with something that works. I am talking about scale, proportion, shape, and motifs.
The same guidance I give for mixing styles in my creative design work, and patterns goes for flatware. From the least expensive, minimal silver plate from the 50's, 60's, and 70's, to the antique sterling silver set I ran across last week at $59,000 there is something for most people!
Obviously there are some beautiful high-end flatware designs out there; Christofle comes to mind. This post will focus on some of the best silver-plated and sterling flatware that appeals to me, and that I would recommend. Obviously, it is perfectly fine to have a matched set of flatware, especially if the pattern is something spectacular such as "Delafosse" by Maurice Delafosse (1870-1926). Shown below is set of silver-plated flatware from the 1920s. This set has an "old world" feeling that resonates with me.
Do you know how to choose? Someone then asked, "Well Rhonald, how do I do it, or what works and what doesn't?"
Ask yourselves these questions:
- What patterns in general appeal to me?
- What size are my hands?
- How many courses do my meals consist of?
- What shapes appeal to me?
- How often do I entertain?
Typically, I look for similarities in the handle shapes of knives first. Some are square, some are pointed, some are rounded or oval. Different shapes can harmonize with each other or they can clash. The four types of blades are:
- Blunt - the oldest with straight sides and evenly rounded tip.
- Old French - straight on one side with a slight upward curve
- New French - both sides slightly curved where the cutting side meets the handle
- Modern - both sides curve slightly upward, and no indention where the blade meets the handle. The cutting side is C-shaped
Three of the above also contain a bolster:
- Bolsters - small decorative inserts that fit in between the handle and the blade to connect the two; not seen in modern styles
In addition, sometimes a pattern will appeal to women, but the men in your family, or if you are a man, will hold a fork and it may feel like holding a toothpick! Yes, some of the necks on earlier forks especially were very thin, which transitions further down the handle, and were made for smaller hands.
The next time you have a meal, just notice how what you currently have feels in your hand. Use that as a partial comparison when looking to start or add to a collection of silverware. Next, think about what you serve and how often. If soups, hot or cold are a specialty of yours, then you want to explore the various soup spoons, oval and gumbo. If salad is a staple served with meals, then the smaller salad forks will be important. Keep in mind that the dinner knife and dinner fork are usually the most logical candidates to be the center of attention when mixing patterns. However, in some cases it is neither. Now let's look at some patterns (art).
How To Choose
Personally, I like any pattern that has architectural features found in 18th and 19th century classical architecture. For instance, at the Oakdale Mansion, Historic Ellicott City's latest decorator show house, the fluted ionic columns inside and out were a big attraction for me. There are flatware patterns that feature scrolls, beading, acanthus leaves and the like. Second, I collect for:
- The color tone of the metals
- The artistic process
- How various motifs relate to each other
- Innovative handle designs (especially on the knives)
- Options to create striking contrasts
As I mentioned before, there are basic shapes in the handle to guide your choices; round, pointed, oval, or square. Some handles are flat, others are solid. In addition, look closely because some found silver plate is monogrammed. Empty space in some designs allow for it. This is fine, if it matches who you are. On the other hand, if the monogram actually competes with the design on the handle, that never works. Empty space doesn't mean it has to be filled.
However, it is a matter of personal choice too. I have four place settings of a fork I really liked that is comfortable to hold and works perfectly with a set of knives I found (no monogram). The "B" looks very much like an "R" and is very faint, so this is the exception for me. If the fork had not felt so good in my hand, I would have passed on it. Further, depending on the font of the letter (s), some might work, such as "O" "V" "X" or a combination of letters that intertwine where you can't really make out the exact lettering. I found some additional pieces I like, but the monogram was not mine and too pronounced.
Above, I have arranged a small part of my flatware collection.
In the image above, I separated the same flatware into three place setting groups. Note that on the right, four hollow handle knives are out of the groups. The reasons are noted below each knife.
Ensuite means I would only pair the pattern with matching flatware. The first of the four knives, "Berkshire (1897)" with its bold carving looks great ensuite, as long as the place settings don't become too many, and the table size and accessories allow some breathing room. Furthermore, in this pattern, there are two styles of forks; one 7 1/2" and one 8 1/8". The larger knife is a hollow handle which, in my opinion, is a better match for the 9/18 hollow handle dinner fork.
A contrast would be great as well, and is best combined with a similar shaped handle and far less details. Next to "Berkshire" is "Coronation (1923)," which is a popular pattern. It looks great ensuite, but if I wanted to create a contrast, I would only use something fluted/plain with a square end. Next, "Century (1923)" looks beautiful ensuite, but as you will read below, my experience with the other pieces was not good. Finally, on the far right, "Lady Drake (1940)" can only be ensuite, because at this point in my research, anything else will compete with this design.
In the first example below, one sees a pattern from Holmes & Edward super plate named "Century (1923)." Just look at the design at the end of its hollow handle! An inverted fluted urn and terminating with a double Greek Key. However, the dinner fork's neck is too thin, at least for my comfort. It needs more thickness to the width. For those with larger hands (men), you don't want to propel green peas into a woman's cleavage in an attempt to get a good grip on the handle, it flips over on its side!
Shown below this small image is the full place setting, and I noticed that the dinner knife does not match what I already have. Now look to your right. The knife on the left side next to the soup spoon is rounded at the bottom, with less pronounced details. The handle (solid) structure is also different; too different for my taste.
Note the thickness of the handle and the same chasing details at the end. This knife is thicker, and more comfortable to hold.
Shapes Matter - Square
Above: the dinner knife on your left, is not compatible with the rest of the pieces; not enough depth in the motif, and the reason I would not recommend this as a complete place setting. I do like the bolster. (where the blade joins the handle)
In the example shown above right, and below, even though the shapes are similar, the knife on the left is out of context with the place setting image below. In addition, look closely at the handle. It does not work well with the rest of the place setting.
Next, is a place setting that is more simple in design, but still elegant. In this example, I have assembled a dinner fork, oval soup spoon, and a dinner knife. From a distance it looks rather plain, but wait, look closely at the second image below...
The amazing detail on the oval soup spoon and the dinner fork are different, but similar enough to talk nicely to each other. Further, both feel good in the hand with enough thickness to the handle. Finally, the dinner knife is very plain, almost like a Doric architectural column base and it would fit well with many patterns. All are square on the end, except the embellishment on the end of the spoon. This is fine, it only adds more life to the pairing. This combination feels right.
Pictured below is the favored version of the Holmes and Edward dinner knife paired with a set of dinner forks named Yorex Lady Helen. Such odd names I must say. They are very different, but similar in the handle. I have used both to eat a meal and I am not sure about the knife's feel. It still doesn't feel quite right for me. I have two left after sending back the service for six. They need smaller hands.
Next, and shown below in the square category, is this exquisite pattern known as "Lady Drake" c. 1940. This collection features a squared edge on the handle end, with stylized leaves cascading from an acanthus leaf decoration. Above the acanthus leaf, the floral motif features an Asian architecture influence. Just beautiful! So far, I only have grill knives and rounded soup (Gumbo) spoons. Note that grill knives are often shorter than dinner knives, and feature a longer handle and a shorter blade when serving meats.
Update: I ordered one Grill fork as a test and my initial observation was correct. It is way too thin and feels awkward. Now I am looking for dinner forks instead. I think a shorter fork will look better scale-wise and have a better feel in my hand.
Antonio Pineda Sterling is my last entry for this section. Shown below, this 74-Piece set is from the modernist period c. 1965, Taxco, Mexico. It is a heavy gauge sterling silver flatware and all of the spoons have hammered bowls. I like the geometric shapes and I could see something similar paired with an antique pattern. However, not this set should stay matched. Click above to see the rest of the images.
Shapes Matter - Round
This next example is one of my favorites. Why does this work so well? First, all of the handle shapes are round, or rounded and the teaspoon and dinner fork matches; the oval soup spoon and the dinner knife are different. Second, the fork and teaspoon have English Adam-style detailing, and the knife and spoon have more subtle details. This dinner knife and the oval spoon are a joy to hold and eat with (the perfect cereal spoon). The handles have enough heft for a good grip, and the thickness allows for graceful maneuvers at the table.
Below is a close up of the handle details. Again, this combination just felt right as I was contemplating it. If the dinner fork had matched the knife, it would not have allowed the fork to take center stage in this example. What do you think? You only have to study the details, but if you are thinking, "No I don't want to do all of that," feel free to reach out and schedule a design consultation. I can help you assemble or add to your current collection.
Also notice, in this place setting, there is an odd fork at the head of the dinner plate and bowl. It is my version [for now] of the "ice cream shovel" shown before the above image. Obviously I won't serve ice cream with a fork, so I am searching for something unique.
As for the forks, shown below, the thicker tine and point on one side are to cut the crusts on pastries, tarts, and pies with ease. The size fits the small serving after a hearty meal. I love the shell pattern on the handle, which complements the end of the dinner knife handle. Look at the expanded profile where the handle terminates to the neck. This is what the Century pattern above needs; something more in the neck area to balance the end of the handle.
Shown below are two from a set of four dinner knives c. 1900 with carbon steel blades. I liked the handle on these immediately and it feels perfect in my hand. FYI, there is an interesting story behind the transition from carbon steel to stainless steel. You can read via the link. Also notice the blade has discolorations, or oxidation.
Since carbon steel has no protective layer formed by a very thin, insoluble oxide layer, consisting mostly of chromium (and also nickel) oxides, any acidic food such as tomatoes, garlic, salt, lemon, lime, oranges and vinegar will cause temporary staining. I will need to polish In addition, they can possibly leach into the food; not something to ingest. Use knives with stainless steel blades when consuming or cooking with these foods.
This will also be an eclectic combination. I am currently researching several fork and soup spoon patterns, including a fiddle handle; the same teardrop shape will also work.
Above is the same knife, before the interaction with tomato sauce. I like the plain design of the fiddle-style handle on the fork and both have a satin finish patina. Now I am looking for a salad fork and a soup spoon, possibly more ornate to create some contrast.
Specialty Meals - Seafood and Pasta
Seafood is the alternative to meat and poultry. During Victorian times, as dining reached its height of elegance in the early 20th century, there was a culinary utensil for just about anything one could eat. I am amazed! If I could bring myself to eat sardines, I know where there is an amazing sardine fork, but the last time I tried them...well let's leave it alone.
Below is a part of a set of five silver-plate place settings (fish fork and knife) I stumbled upon. These are old with hallmarked blades. I was immediately drawn to the shapes; the shell on the end, and the curved knife blade tip. The handles are also filled with a resin, so they have more weight than hollow handles.
Note below the detailed shell and the neck from the root into the handle. The fish knife blade is less sharp than the dinner knife, because you don't want to spoil the flaky layers of the fish. Finally, I like the physical separation in the construction known as the bolster mentioned above. I had to have them!
In addition, I found this beautiful fish slicer shown below, in the "Kings Pattern" with a a similar design on the handle and its construction. Nice details on the blade, and it feels good in the hand. I am still on the hunt for a complementary fish fork. Here again, I am pairing the desert spoon with its shell design for an after dinner treat.
And the best for last; pasta! Pasta is one of the most loved foods by most people I know, and I know a few who are serious about preparing it. Pasta comes in a rainbow of shapes, colors, and textures. Now, there are even pastas for those wishing to avoid grains completely. Yes, I can tell you, they are delicious! So, as I was looking around, I knew that long pasta needs "twirling."
I thought about the episode from "I Love Lucy," when Lucy met Bill Holden at the Brown Derby restaurant while in Hollywood, CA. OMG, I still go into hysterical laughter every time I see it. Then, it is Ethel to the rescue with the manicuring scissors to help unfurl the massive ball of pasta on Lucy's fork. You will find a YouTube link to part of this episode at the end of the post. Outrageous!
However, we would like to be a little more graceful when eating. Most of the forks I have collected can handle it, but beware, some flatware can look substantial in images. Ask for an additional image taken from the side, while the fork rests on the back and the underside of the handle. If the entire back is not show, ask for another image. I find that thicker hollow handles or solid handles are best when eating pasta.
Note how all three pairs have so much in common in their oval handle end shapes, and how well they pair with the knife I like so much (modern blade and no bolster), and the Adam design on the dinner fork handle. These are a simple way to serve many foods at the table or from the sideboard.
Finally, be aware when shopping for silver-plated flatware online. It can be difficult to judge only from an image. Do not be afraid to request better images (daylight, clearer, plain background, pattern details, and dimensions, etc.). I recently acquired a set of four beautiful dinner knives in a vintage "Rostfrei" pattern from Japan. The image was perfectly clear.
Listed as silver plate, they are not; but are stainless steel. I knew it as soon as I unwrapped them, and also pulled out the silver polish. In the above image you can see that nothing comes off on the sponge pad in the left image, but in the right image, as clean as this knife was, tarnish comes off on the pad. Combining the two never works. They are very nice, however I am not interested in collecting stainless, so I will return these promptly for a refund, including shipping.
Now, sit back and remember, or be introduced to Lucille Ball's lunch at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, CA. "I Love Lucy," Episode S4E17, first aired on February 7, 1955 on CBS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqUORD0Lqu8 Although I have read that using a soup spoon can assist in wrapping the spaghetti, it is not the Italian custom, nor is it the ideal method especially in many cities overseas; use the 45-degree angle inside the bowl's lower edge and wind with your dinner fork.
© Desilu Studios 1955
A Bit of History
Culinary history began roughly in the European Renaissance, with the fork being the first utensil. The rest is informative, sometimes amusing. Prior to that, the dinner napkin did not exist, and as a result, people used the edge of the table cloth to wipe soiled hands. What? I just can't imagine that. The earliest forks in Western culture were about two inches long, and used by "Elite Ladies" who didn't want to get their fingers dirty. The fork introduced a whole new way of moving foods from the plate to the mouth, having two sharp tines to spear sweet meats.
I have heard tales of why they fell out of favor until the 15th Century during the Renaissance. When forks returned, men regarded them as acceptable and aggressive, whereas the spoon became more popular with women. Forks now offered not only spearing, but scooping and lifting, hence the curvature of the fork from the neck to the tines. Access this link for more fork history. Nonetheless, keep in mind in other cultures, the culinary experience is still enjoyed with the fingers.
In times past, as in our current time, anything substantial that is brought to market begins with an idea, then approval of a patent. Certainly, with the numerous patterns throughout history there had to be some way to document what was already done.
This drawing was produced by Michael Gibney, January 1848. Design Patent Drawings. I have seen similar patterns recently. The entire fork appears well-balanced.
Shown above is a design for a fork with a knife handle, 1778, by Louis-Antoine Taillepied (born ca. 1734, master 1760, active 1806?). I don't know about this one...
One of 12 table knives c. 1650. I like the pistol handle and the elegant sweep of the blade tip. The design on the end reminds me of the stainless steel knives I am returning. Now I am on the hunt for something that resembles this. So far I have only found "butter knives."
The world wide web offers numerous sources to lean more about what we eat with, from the smallest dessert fork, to the numerous necessities and oddities available. Next month I will expand on this topic. For now, just know this:
The knife, fork, and spoons you may be most familiar with are just the tip of the iceberg. Some 19th Century (Victorian) silverware catalogs list:
- 50 different forks
- 32 different knives
- 55 different spoons
- Numerous serving pieces (see below)
Tomato-Cranberry serving utensils on Etsy
Darra Goldstein/Epicurious offers a video on using some of the many utensils on this side of the Atlantic, while others discuss craftsmanship, the differences between silver-plate and sterling silver, and where to find it. Are you ready to begin adding to your current collection or creating a new one? For now, just a few important points:
- Do not allow silver-plate or sterling to sit in acidic or citrus foods (tomato/lemon)
- Store silver-plate and sterling silver in the appropriate environment
- Be cautious about using dipping solutions, use silver polish
- Dry completely before storing
- Hand wash with citrus-free detergents
- Enjoy your silver by using it often, not just for special occasions
Until next month, what's on your table?