silverwork, utilitarian objects and works of art created from silver. Silverwork includes ecclesiastical and domestic plate, flatware, jewelry, buttons, buckles, boxes, toilet articles, weapons, furniture, and horse trappings. It involves a variety of embellishments, such as chasing, repoussé, filigree, and inlaying, which have engaged the talents of skilled artisans since prehistoric times.
Silverwork was highly developed among the ancients as is evidenced by treasures and funeral objects from Egyptian tombs; Minoan silver cups, seals, and ornaments of c.2000 BC; and silver vases and the inlays on bronze blades of Mycenae. Work attributed to the Phoenicians has been found in Greece, where early native examples are few. Roman silverwork displays rich, often high, reliefs. Byzantine silverwork and goldwork enriched churches and monasteries.
Much Italian and French silverwork was melted down for reuse and thus lost. Early German Renaissance silverwork is less abundant than that of the 16th cent. from the two most prolific centers, Augsburg and Nuremberg, with their numerous Italian artisans. German characteristics prevail in Swiss silverwork, and the influence extended to Spain but was overbalanced by the presence of many Italian artisans there in the 15th cent.
Spanish silver of the 16th cent. carries elaborate designs, and in the 17th cent. silversmiths added filigree and enamel to the decoration. A Spanish architectural style of the 16th cent. is called plateresque for its profusion of ornate motifs similar to the work of the silversmiths of that period. Much fine 17th- and 18th-century Dutch silver shows designs in the French taste. Poland and Russia produced ecclesiastical plate, domestic ware, and horse trappings.
The Reformation brought destruction to ecclesiastical art of N Europe, and much plate was melted down in England during the Wars of the Roses so that little early English silver is extant. The hallmark came into use c.1300. Elizabethan pieces display German influence, and work of the period of Charles II is loaded with ornament. Cromwellian influence is reflected in English silverwork of extreme simplicity; French tendencies of the Louis XIV regime contributed great enrichment and were followed by the later rococo style; under Robert Adam's influence there was a classic reaction. Sheffield plate was an innovation of the 18th cent.; since then plated ware has become the product of important industries in England and the United States. The modern revival of hand-wrought silver was influenced by the severe forms of Danish work.
Silverwork in Asia and the Americas
Silversmiths of Asian countries have been expert from early times. The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum contain representative pieces of superior workmanship, some from Persia, India, and Tibet and other regions of China. Silverwork is an important native craft in Mexico, among native tribes in the W United States, and in Peru, where the abundant metal is often used unalloyed.
In the American colonies silversmithing proved so profitable that it attracted several hundred silverworkers. It was highly developed in New England, by such leaders as John Hull, Jeremiah Dummer, John Coney, and Paul Revere in Boston and Samuel Vernon in Newport, R.I., and in other American cities including Philadelphia and New York, where the Boelen family and Jacobus van der Spiegel were especially noted. Colonial silver, simple in design, is much sought by collectors.
See G. B. Hughes and T. Hughes, Modern Silver Throughout the World (1967) and Three Centuries of English Domestic Silver (1952, repr. 1968); F. Davis, French Silver, 1450–1825 (1970); G. Hood, American Silver (1971); V. Brett, The Sotheby's Directory of Silver, 1600–1940 (1986).