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Sterling Silver Through Time

There is some debate about the origin of the word ‘sterling.’ One origin story states that the word sterling is derived from the word Easterling, a 12th century term used to describe silver coins used by Germans to pay the English for cattle. It was during this period and the reign of Henry II that sterling began to be formally regulated by the British government.1 Another theory of the origin of the word sterling is that the word sterling is derived from the Old English steorling or "little star," because of an early Norman penny impressed with a star.2 Regular use of the term sterling did not actually become common until the 13th century.

Sterling silver has also been used as a decorative medium since before its regulation. Earliest use of silver was as a plate or in conjunction with another precious metal like gold. One of the earliest examples of silver as a primary medium was a drinking vessel found in burial tombs dating to 450 BCE.3

Sterling continued to be used as a status symbol and for currency in Europe and Britain, as well as colonies, most notably from the Americas. From 1634 to 1776, there were 500 silversmiths active in the New World, fabricating everything from teapots to spoons to buckles. Paul Revere, a prominent figure in the Revolutionary War, worked as a highly regarded silversmith in the 18th century.4

In 1837, less than 100 years after the Revolutionary War, Tiffany & Co was founded and by 1847 had begun to sell sterling silverware. Tiffany quickly became a company known for high quality and unique, American design. They were also the first American silversmith company to follow the British assay standards for purity of sterling at .925.5  In 1867, Tiffany & Co was honored with a grand prize for silversmith design at the Exposition Universelle or World’s Fair in Paris, the first time an American design firm was recognized by a foreign jury.6

This excellence in design is easy to see in objects made by Tiffany & Co during this period, like the pictured sterling pitcher dating to between 1871 and 1875 (Lot 400, June 8th East Meets West Session 2). The intricate depiction of an elephant at the handle is seamlessly integrated into the repousse leaves and flowers on the pitcher itself. The decorations are restrained but impressive and do not take away from the utility of the object.

Fig. 1: Tiffany & Co Sterling Silver Ewer / Pitcher, American, dating from 1871 - 1875, estimated at $10,000-$20,000, from Session 2 of Oakridge Auction Gallery's June East Meets West auction, June 7-8, 2019.

A piece like this showcases not only the design possibilities for sterling but also demonstrates why silver has been a prized material for centuries.

Fig. 2: Detail of Handle, Tiffany & Co Sterling Silver Ewer

Fig 3: Detail of Repousse Work on Body of Ewer, Tiffany & Co Sterling Silver Ewer

If you would like to know more about this pitcher, and any other objects in Oakridge Auction Gallery’s upcoming auctions, please visit oakridgeauctiongallery.com or call (703) 291-1010 for more information.


About the Author

Elizabeth Doerr has a Master's degree in Art History from Indiana University, specializing in early American art. She has worked at several museums in the Midwest, including the University of Kentucky Art Museum, the Headley-Whitney Art Museum, and the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Ms. Doerr joined the Oakridge team in 2018.


1.https://www.silvergallery.com/history-of-sterling-silver/ Accessed 6/03/2019

2.https://www.silvergallery.com/history-of-sterling-silver/ Accessed 6/03/2019.

3.Blair, Claud. Ed. The History of Silver. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987. 13-14

4.https://thinkengraved.com/blogs/news/ever-wondered-about-the-history-of-sterling-silver Accessed 6/03/2019.

5.https://www.collectorsweekly.com/silver/tiffany Accessed 6/03/2019.

6.http://press.tiffany.com/ViewBackgrounder.aspx?backgrounderId=33 Accessed 6/03/2019.

Elizabeth Doerr

Mon, Jun 3, 2019 11:26 AM

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