French silverware and art of the table

“Eating with silverware gives more sophistication to the meal and therefore in principle the pleasure is tenfold.”

David is our expert today. He will guide us through the history of French silverware, in particular since the 19th century (he is the author of the 400 page book « French Silver Cutlery of the XIXth Century », Editions Faton). Silverware and France appear to be his two passions. He will also share with us his own history with France. He is a former antique dealer, and he happily describes himself as a compulsive silver collector. He will  explain the importance of the meal in French society, the idea of a “bon vivant” that is typically French.

David you are British, so what made you come to France in the first place? Was it a choice, or the result of life’s chances?
« I would say both! My father is Scottish and my mother Hungarian. The chance of my life was indeed that I was born in France, near Paris. I don’t have French nationality, but I was born here; but we left  when I was 2 years old. Throughout my childhood, I thought that one day I would move back to France. Before Paris, I lived in New York where I met my wife. We spent our honeymoon in Paris. And at that time, we told ourselves that Paris was where we should retire. Finally we came back to Paris much earlier, in 1991. This summer we moved to Burgundy Franche-Comté, in the Haute-Soane department. We have moved into a 19th century apartment in the small and charming ancient town of Gray, which first existed in the year 951. »

How did you become interested in silver ?
« I started buying silver before settling in France. As an antique dealer in New York, I mostly bought furniture. Actually it was then that I also started buying French and other silver pieces. »

So it became a passion for you?
« I would say, rather that it almost became an illness. Like for all collectors once your are « caught », it attracts you irresistibly. »

What do you admire most about silver?
«  It is a mixture of the quality of workmanship with human intelligence. It is a question of the design of the object and its purpose. The 19th century is a very interesting period where there is a lot of historicism in the design of objects in general. When you look at a well designed and well made object it becomes a thing of beauty. »

Then it is important that the object has a function?
« Yes, the object has a function, and that function is part of its beauty. For example, the better the quality of both workmanship and design of cutlery, the greater the pleasure experienced in using silver cutlery.
What is also interesting is that in the 19th century, there was solid silver cutlery and also less expensive silver-plated cutlery; which was the precursor of the use of stainless steel which is cheaper still.
The use of silverware became accessible to a large part of the French society, who bought silver-plated cutlery which were exactly the same patterns as those in solid silver. It became  easily possible to eat in style. »

And it is thus in the 19th century that the use of silver-plated wares became widespread?
« Yes it was a century of inventions. From the 1830’s silver-plated metal became  readily available.  The trigger was when the French company Christofle, which was at first the only important specialist in silver-plated wares, managed to sell them to the imperial family. For example, at the Chateau de Chantilly, you can see a whole cutlery service and also soup tureens, all in silver-plated metal. So it’s a combination of access to luxury with the possibility of having well-made, high quality and not necessarily very expensive pieces. »

When did the goldsmith’s trade first appear?
« Gold and silversmiths existed in ancient times, but Its apogee was the 18th century.  I was still expensive in the 18th century and restricted to the aristocracy which used only solid silver. As for all decorative arts, furniture, glassware, ceramics, porcelain, the 18th was the apogee of extreme luxury; the 19th was the century of access to luxury for the class just below the aristocracy, the bourgeois class. “

Of all the pieces you have, what are your favorites?
« There are many pieces that I like very much. There is not one single piece in particular. Each piece is different, just like people. There are pieces set with semi-precious stones, there are pieces in vermeil, engraved pieces. I recently bought a small mocha spoon, that has a figure of Napoleon on the handle, which is something you seldom see. It’s not worth a lot of money but it’s a spoon that was made for Napoleon’s admirers in the later 19th century and for a collector it’s quite rare today. »

When you buy a piece of silver, do you try to trace its history, to find its origin?
« Yes certainly. I look at the quality of the object but the first thing to do is to look at the maker’s marks and hallmarks. By observing the marks we can know where the piece was made, if it is French or not. We can see if it was made in Paris or in the provinces. We can find the name of the silversmith.  With the name of the silversmith and the type of mark we can often date the piece with more or less precision. In France in the 19th century, dating a silver objet is more difficult than previously because there is no date stamp for each year. The margin for dating is more vague, but still possible, using the guarantee mark and the silversmith’s mark, because many silversmiths had rather short periods of activity.”
Buying and collecting silver in general and cutlery in particular is interesting  because we eat 3 meals a day, so we use the cutlery every day. You can find antique silverware in antique shops, antique fairs, auction rooms, and even our own grandparents’ homes. It is possible to start with a small spoon that you found at grandma’s; then you can begin to understand how and why the spoon is interesting, by looking at the style, the quality of work and by studying the silver marks. This leads us to look for other similar pieces elsewhere, and once we start, we are lost, and can’t stop. It is easy to have hundreds of pieces of cutlery at home. Pieces which we use on Sundays, others which we use at Christmas or very rarely because they are so rare and beautiful that we don’t want them to get damaged… »

For you, using silverware during a meal changes the taste of food?
« It’s partly about the taste of the food but more important is that it changes the attitude of the person and consequently the experience. It’s comparable drinking Champagne in a plastic or crystal glass, it’s a totally different experience. If you’re at a friend’s house or in a restaurant and you drink from a crystal glass, it’s the same drink, but it changes everything. It’s like when you’re dressed in jeans and a t-shirt you’re more comfortable and then if you put on more sophisticated clothes, you’re already more sophisticated. Eating with silverware gives more sophistication to the meal and therefore in principle the pleasure is tenfold. »

Is there anything you would like to say that I haven’t asked you about, or that is important to you about the place of silver in a meal ?
« The most important thing when you think about a meal, is that the art of the table makes you feel better, it is the difference between eating and dining.
What is interesting in France is that this idea of the importance of the meal, is present in all social strata. There are different levels of wealth in different classes, but in all classes in France, there is an understanding of the importance of the meal. This is typically French. That it is always possible to eat well. This is the richness of French ‘art de vivre’, whether you live in Paris or in the countryside.

This is found elsewhere, but it is an idea that spread from France in the 18th century.  C’est l’art de vivre à la française! »

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