Silver and Gold: Antiquity to Modern



Gold and silver and their natural or artificial mixture, called electrum or white gold, were worked in ancient Greece and Italy for personal ornaments, vessels, arrows and weapons, coinage, and inlaid and plated decoration of baser metals.

Aegean lands were rich in precious metals. The considerable deposits of treasure found in the earliest prehistoric strata on the site of Troy are not likely to be later than 2000 BC. The largest of them, called Priam's Treasure, is a representative collection of jewels and plate. Packed in a large silver cup were gold ornaments consisting of elaborate diadems or pectorals, six bracelets, 60 earrings or hair rings, and nearly 9,000 beads. Trojan vases have bold and simple forms, mostly without ornament; but some are lightly fluted. Many are wrought from single sheets of metal. The characteristic handle is a heavy rolled loop, soldered or rivetted to the body. Bases are sometimes round or pointed, sometimes fitted with separate collars but more often slightly cupped to make a low ring foot. One oddly shaped vessel in gold is an oval bowl or cup with a broad lip at each end and two large roll handles in the middle. The oval body has Sumerian affinities. A plain, spouted bowl in the Louvre is a typical specimen of goldsmith's work from pre-Mycenaean Greece. The scarcity of precious metals points to lack of wealth as prime cause of the artistic backwardness of these regions. Silver seems to have been more plentiful in the Greek islands; but only a few simple vessels, headbands, pins, and rings survive.

Minoan and Mycenaean

A profusion of gold jewelry was found in early Minoan burials at Mókhlos and three silver dagger blades in a communal tomb at Kumasa. Silver seals and ornaments of the same age are not uncommon. An elegant silver cup from Gournia belongs to the next epoch (Middle Minoan I, c. 2000 BC). Numerous imitations of its conical and carinated (ridged) form in clay and of its metallic sheen in glazed and painted decoration prove that such vessels were common. Minoan plate and jewelry are amply represented in the wealth of mainland tombs at Mycenae and Vaphio. The vases from Mycenae are made indifferently of silver, gold, and bronze; but drinking cups, small phials, and boxes are generally made only of gold; and jugs are made of silver. Much funeral furniture is gold, notably masks that hid the faces or adorned the coffins of the dead. It has been thought that small gold disks, found in prodigious quantities (700 in one grave), were nailed on wooden coffins; but they may have been sewn on clothes. They are impressed with geometrical designs based on circular and spiral figures, stars and rosettes, and natural forms such as leaves, butterflies, and octopods. Smaller bossed disks bearing similar patterns may be button covers. Models of shrines and other amulets are also made of gold. A splendid piece of plate is a silver counterpart of a black steatite, or soapstone, libation vase from Knossos in the form of a bull's head, with gold horns, a gold rosette on the forehead, and gold-plated muzzle, ears, and eyes. (The gold here and in other Mycenaean plating is not laid on the silver but on inserted copper strips.)

Gold cups from Mycenae are of two main types: plain curved or carinated forms related to the silverware and pottery of Troy and embossed conical vessels of the Minoan tradition. Some of the plain pieces, such as the so-called Nestor's cup, have handles ending in animals, which bite the rim or peer into the cup. The embossed ornament consists of vertical and horizontal bands of rosettes and spiral coils and of floral, foliate, marine, and animal figures. The designs are beaten through the walls and are consequently visible on the insides of most of the vessels; but the finest examples of their class, two gold cups from the Vaphio tomb near Sparta, have a plain gold lining that overlaps the embossed sides at the lip. The reliefs on the Vaphio cups represent men handling wild and domesticated cattle among trees in a rocky landscape. (Steatite vases carved with similar pictorial reliefs were evidently made to imitate embossed gold.) The handles show the typical Minoan form: two horizontal plates rivetted to the body at one end and joined at the other by a vertical cylinder.

Cretan and mainland tombs have produced many examples of weapons adorned with gold. Modest ornaments are gold caps on the rivets that join hilt and blade, but the whole hilt is often cased in gold. An example from Mycenae has a cylindrical grip of openwork gold flowers with lapis lazuli in their petals and crystal filling between them; the guard is formed by dragons, similarly inlaid. The most splendid Mycenaean blades are bronze inlaid with gold, electrum, silver, and niello. Here again the work is done on inserted copper plates. This kind of flat inlay seems to have been originally Egyptian; it occurs on daggers from the tomb of Queen Aah-Hotep, which are contemporary with the Mycenaean (c. 1600 BC). Moreover, it is significant that two of the Mycenaean designs have Egyptian subjects (cats hunting ducks among papyrus clumps beside a river in which fish are swimming), though their style is purely Minoan. Another blade bears Minoan warriors fighting lions and lions chasing deer. A dagger from Thira has inlaid ax heads; one from Argos, dolphins; and fragments from the Vaphio tomb show men swimming among flying fish. These are masterpieces of Minoan craftsmanship. In the long, subsequent decadence of the Mycenaean age, however, there seems to have been no invention, and later pieces of goldsmiths' work repeat conventional forms and ornaments.


The Persians have been skillful metalworkers since the Achaemenid period (559–330 BC), when they were already acquainted with various techniques such as chasing, embossing, casting, and setting with precious stones. Statuettes of gold and silver are known from the 5th century BC, and vessels of silver and gold from this time take the form of phials, conical cups, vases, and rhyta (drinking cups in the shape of an animal's head). The Oxus treasure in the British Museum and the Susa find in the Louvre, Paris, are good examples of such work. During the Parthian period (247 BC–AD 224), silverwork and goldwork was strongly influenced by Hellenistic predilection for richly decorated bowls and dishes. The zenith of old Iranian metalwork, however, was reached during the Sasanid period (AD 224–651), when craftsmen achieved great variety in shape, decoration, and technique. Drinking vessels (stem cups and cups with handles), ewers, oval dishes, platters, and bowls are the dominant forms; hunting scenes, drinking scenes, and animals are represented in high relief. The patterns were cut out of solid silver or made separately in sheets and then soldered to the vessel. From this time onward cloisonné enamel was used for jewelry.

Greek and Etruscan

The period of transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age, when Aegean external relations were violently interrupted, was not favourable either to wealth or art; and the only considerable pieces of plate that have come from Greece are embossed and engraved silver bowls made by Phoenicians. Most of them bear elaborate pictorial designs of Egyptian or Assyrian character and are evidently foreign to Greece; but some simpler types, decorated with rows of animals in relief or wrought in the shape of conventional flower bowls, can hardly be distinguished from the first Hellenic products. A severe and elegant silver bowl in the Metropolitan Museum of Art represents the flower type in its finest style. It is cast and chased and probably belongs to the 5th century BC.

Silver vases and toilet articles have been found beside the more common bronze in Etruscan tombs; for example, a chased powder box of the 4th century BC in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bronze reliefs of an archaic chariot in the same collection have their opulent counterparts in some hammered silver and electrum fragments in London, Munich, and Perugia. The electrum details are attached with rivets.


About the 4th century BC, the fashion of ornamenting silver vessels with relief was revived; and this type of work, elaborated in the Hellenistic Age and particularly at Antioch and Alexandria, remained the usual mode of decoration for silver articles until the end of the Roman Empire.

The scholar Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) names Greek silversmiths whose work was valued highly at Rome and laments the disappearance of the art in his own day. He must refer only to its quality, for Roman silverware has been abundantly preserved. Many rich hoards in modern collections were buried by design during the calamitous last centuries of the ancient world; and the most sumptuous, the Boscoreale treasure (mostly in the Louvre), was accidentally saved by the same volcanic catastrophe that destroyed Herculaneum and killed Pliny in AD 79. A slightly smaller hoard found at Hildesheim (now in Berlin) also belongs to the early empire. The acquisition and appreciation of silver plate was a sort of cult in Rome. Technical names for various kinds of reliefs were in common use (emblemata, sigilla, crustae); weights were recorded and compared and ostentatiously exaggerated. Large quantities of bullion came to Rome with the spoils of Greece and Asia in the 2nd century BC; and Pliny says that even in republican times there were more than 150 silver dishes of a hundredweight apiece in the city. (Weights of vessels are often marked on their bases.)

Cups and jugs of Augustan style are usually covered with ornament in high relief. The subjects are very diverse: historical, mythological, and mystic scenes, formal and naturalistic designs of flowers and foliage, graceful studies of animals and birds. Some cups and jugs have conventional fluting, petals, or gadroons (ornamental bands embellished with continuous patterns); Bacchic masks; and embossed or engraved wreaths, gilt or inlaid with niello. Silver and niello inlay was commonly applied to bronze plates. A singular type of silver bowl (patera clipeata) has a central ornament in high relief or even in the round; the ornament frequently contains a portrait bust. In time the ornament was restricted; and later Roman plate is plain with narrow border friezes, small central medallions, and handles embossed in low relief. One of the very few gold pieces that survive, a shallow bowl found at Rennes (Bibliothèque Nationale), is exceedingly elaborate. It measures 10 inches across and weighs 46 ounces. The central medallion and its surrounding frieze contain scenes of a drinking contest between Bacchus and Hercules; between the frieze and the edge of the bowl is a row of 16 gold coins, each framed in a foliate wreath. The coins range from Hadrian to Caracalla. In the same collection are several examples of very large silver plates (clipei or missoria), in which the whole field is embossed with mythological or historical subjects. The largest (called the Shield of Scipio) is 28 inches in diameter and weighs 363 ounces.

The earliest Christian silverwork closely resembles the pagan work of the period in its naturalistic grace, ornament, and use of the traditional techniques of embossing and chasing. Even the subject matter is sometimes classical: the late 4th-century marriage casket of Projecta and Secondus (see photograph), part of the Esquiline treasure found at Rome (British Museum), is decorated with pagan scenes; and only the inscription shows that it was made for a Christian marriage. Among the few pieces with Christian subjects are small Roman cruets (condiment bottles) from Taprain, Scotland (Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, and the British Museum), and a small pyx (casket for the reserved Host) from Pola, Yugoslavia (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

Most of the silver of the latter part of the period has been found in the Christian East—in Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Asia Minor, and Russia—and is mostly “church” plate (chalices, censers, candlesticks, and bowls and dishes probably used to hold the eucharistic bread). Secular plate was also decorated with religious subjects—for example, dishes depicting the life of David (Cyprus Treasure, Cyprus Museum, Nicosia, and Metropolitan Museum); both dishes and vessels were produced with pagan subjects—for example, the Concesti amphora and the Silenus Dish (both in the Hermitage, Leningrad). The figure style is often harder and flatter than previously, characterized by strictly frontal positions and symmetry. The techniques of chasing and embossing still predominated, but abstract patterns and Christian symbols inlaid in niello were used increasingly. The appearance of imperial “control stamps,” early forerunners of hallmarks, show most of this material to be of the 6th and 7th centuries. It is not known which cities were important centres of production; but the Eastern capital, Constantinople, must have been foremost among them.

Of work in gold of the earliest Christian period, only personal jewelry has survived; but from the 6th and 7th centuries onward other pieces are also extant. Among the most important of the latter are votive crowns and crosses offered to churches in Spain and Italy by royal patrons. The finest of these pieces are those found in Guarrazar in Toledo Province (National Archaeological Museum, Madrid, and Musée de Cluny, Paris), inlaid with garnets and jewels; the cross of King Agilulf (cathedral of Monza, Italy); and a pair of gold book covers inscribed by Queen Theodolinda (cathedral of Monza, Italy). The book covers are set with pearls, gems, and cameos and decorated with gold cloisonné work inlaid with garnets, a popular style among the Germanic peoples. Inlaid cloisonné jewelry reached an especially high standard of workmanship in Britain, as is shown by a purse lid, a sword, and jewelry from the cenotaph (monument honouring a dead person whose body lies elsewhere) to a 7th-century East Anglian king discovered at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk (British Museum). Major works in silver and gold were also produced in the northern Hiberno-Saxon school and in the service of the Celtic Church; work in precious metal, such as the buckle on the Moylough belt reliquary and the Ardagh Chalice in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, displays a masterly synthesis of the northern arts and humanist Mediterranean tradition.

Middle Ages
Carolingian and Ottonian

The earliest works of the Carolingian renaissance, made in the last quarter of the 8th century, resemble Hiberno-Saxon art of the 8th century in their abstract treatment of the human figure, their animal ornament, and their use of niello and “chip-carving” technique; examples are the Tassilo Chalice (Kremsmünster Abbey, Austria) and the Lindau Gospels book cover (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City). From about 800 onward, however, the influence of the Mediterranean tradition gained strength at Charlemagne's court at Aachen and later spread through the whole empire. Triumphal arches (now lost) given by the Emperor's biographer Einhard to Maastricht cathedral were typical of this movement; miniature versions nine inches (22 centimetres) high of great marble triumphal arches of antiquity, they were embossed in silver with Christian subjects. The bulk of work in precious metals that survives from the Middle Ages is ecclesiastical: golden altars, like that of S. Ambrogio in Milan (c. 850), where scenes from the life of Christ and St. Ambrose are framed by panels of cloisonné enamel and filigree (openwork); and reliquaries and book covers in gold and silver, set with gems and decorated by embossed figures and scenes, such as the cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (c. 870; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich). These pieces testify to the magnificence of Carolingian work, the techniques of which were to dominate the goldsmith's craft until the 11th century.

Patronage throughout this period was mainly in the hands of the emperors and great princes of the church; and the form of liturgical plate and reliquaries, altar crosses, and the like underwent no fundamental change; Ottonian work of the later 10th and 11th centuries can be distinguished from that of the 9th only in the development of style. For example, the larger, more massive figures, with their strict pattern of folds, on the golden altar (c. 1023) given by Henry II to Basel Minster (Musée de Cluny, Paris), are markedly different from the nervous, elongated figures of the Carolingian period.


In the 12th century the church supplanted secular rulers as the chief patron of the arts, and the work was carried out in the larger monasteries. Under the direction of such great churchmen as Henry, bishop of Winchester, and Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, near Paris, a new emphasis was given to subject matter and symbolism.

Craftsmen were no longer anonymous; work by Roger of Helmarshausen, Reiner of Huy, Godefroid de Claire (de Huy), Nicholas of Verdun, and others can be identified; and the parts they played as leaders of the great centres of metalwork on the Rhine and the Meuse are recognizable. Their greatest achievement was the development of the brilliant champlevé enamelling, a method that replaced the earlier cloisonné technique. Gold and silver continued to be used as rich settings for enamels; as the framework of portable altars, or small devotional diptychs or triptychs; for embossed figure work in reliquary shrines; and for liturgical plate.

The masterpieces of the period are great house-shaped shrines made to contain the relics of saints; for example, the shrine of St. Heribert at Deutz (c. 1160) and Nicholas of Verdun's Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne (c. 1200). In the latter, the figures are almost freestanding, and in their fine, rhythmic draperies and naturalistic movement they approach the new Gothic style.


The growing naturalism of the 13th century is notable in the work of Nicholas' follower Hugo d'Oignies, whose reliquary for the rib of St. Peter at Namur (1228) foreshadows the partly crystal reliquaries in which the freestanding relic is exposed to the view of the faithful; it is decorated with Hugo's particularly fine filigree and enriched by naturalistic cutout leaves and little cast animals and birds.

The increasing wealth of the royal courts, of the aristocracy, and, later, of the merchants led to the establishment of secular workshops in the great cities and the foundation of confraternities, or guilds, of goldsmiths and silversmiths, the first being that of Paris in 1202.

As in architecture, monumental sculpture, and ivory carving, the lead held by Germany and the Low Countries during the Romanesque period now passed to France. Architectural forms continued to be the basis of design in precious metal; the silver shrine of St. Taurin at Évreux (c. 1250), for example, is a Gothic chapel in miniature, with saints under pointed arches, clustered columns, and small turrets. In England, the few pieces that survived the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century follow the same architectural pattern. Notable examples are the 14th-century Ramsey Abbey censer and the magnificent crosier made for William of Wykeham (New College, Oxford). Germany first produced work in the Gothic style in the second half of the 14th century with a large Gothic head reliquary of Charlemagne and the splendid “Three-Tower” reliquary, both still at Aachen. In Italy, despite the undercurrent of classical taste, the Gothic style predominated in the 14th century, especially at Siena; it was also probably in Italy around 1280 that basse-taille enamel—a technique in which intaglio relief carving in the metal below its surface is filled with translucent enamel—originated, whence it spread rapidly through the upper Rhine region to France and England. The Parisian school of enamellers predominated in the latter half of the 14th century. For the first time, enough secular plate survives to show that it equalled the ecclesiastical in opulence: two fine pieces are the Royal Gold Cup made in Paris around 1380 (British Museum) and the so-called King John's Cup, probably English work of around 1340 (King's Lynn, Norfolk).

The late Gothic period produced court treasures such as the “Goldenes Rössel” (1403; Stiftskirche, Altötting, West Germany), and the Thorn reliquary (British Museum), both early 15th century. There was also an increased output of secular silver because of the rise of the middle classes; the English mazers (wooden drinking bowls with silver mounts) and the silver spoons with a large variety of finials are examples of this more modest plate. Numerous large reliquaries and altar plate of all kinds were still produced. At the end of the Middle Ages the style of these pieces and of secular plate developed more distinctive national characteristics, strongly influenced by architectural style: in England, by the geometric patterns of the Perpendicular; in Germany, by heavy and bizarre themes of almost Baroque exuberance; and in France, by the fragile elegance of the Flamboyant.

The purity standards of silver became rigorously controlled, and “ hallmarking ” was enforced; the marking of silver in England, especially, was carefully observed.


The use of gold and silver in Islamic lands was limited because it was forbidden by the Qur’an, and although the prohibition was often ignored, the great value of such objects led to their early destruction and melting down. Islamic jewelry of the early period is therefore of extreme rarity, represented only by a few items, such as buckles and bracelets of the Fatimid and Mongol periods and such pieces as the Gerona silver chest (akin to similar ivory coffers) in Spain and the Berlin silver tankard of the 13th century, with embossed reliefs of Sasanian animal friezes.

Renaissance to Modern
16th century

Italian goldsmiths preceded the rest of Europe in reverting to the style of Roman antiquity; but in the absence of antique goldsmiths' work, vases of marble or bronze had to serve as models. Goldsmiths often worked from very free interpretations of the antique made by artists in other media. Many of these designs but very few of the actual pieces have survived; the most famous is an enamelled gold saltcellar (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) made for Francis I by the celebrated Florentine Benvenuto Cellini . In the second half of the 16th century many gifted Italian and immigrant goldsmiths worked at the court of Cosimo I , grand duke of Tuscany, specializing in vessels of hardstone mounted in enamelled and jewelled gold; their work is well represented in the Museo degli Argenti in the Pitti Palace, Florence, and in the Kunsthistorisches Museum; similar work was done by the Sarachi family in Milan.

Little French goldwork is extant, and most of the surviving material is in the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre. Among the most sumptuous pieces are a sardonyx (a type of onyx) and gold ewer, the gold St. Michael's Cup (both at the Kunsthistorisches Museum), and a sardonyx-covered cup in the Louvre, all of which display northern features. The massive plate of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit (Louvre), dating from 1581–82, is of quite individual character; and an enamelled gold helmet and shield of Charles IX (1560–74) in the Louvre have no parallel either for quality or opulence.

In other parts of Europe, goldsmiths clung to Gothic forms until well into the first half of the century, especially in the provincial towns. Immensely rich in ecclesiastical silver, Spain has little early domestic silver; Spanish silversmiths, platería, gave their name to the heavily ornamented style of the period, Plateresque . Using precious metal from the New World, goldsmiths such as Enrique and Juan de Arfe produced vast containers for the Host known as custodia. The most important Portuguese work, the Belém monstrance, created by Gil Vicente in 1506 for Belém Monastery near Lisbon, is still Gothic in style; later, Portugal developed its own style, related to Spanish work but not copied from it.

Some of the finest 16th-century goldsmiths' work was executed in Antwerp and elsewhere by such Flemish goldsmiths as Hans of Antwerp, goldsmith to Henry VIII, and Jacopo Delfe, called Biliverti, goldsmith to Cosimo I. The Flemish masters showed particular sympathy for the Mannerist style, derived from Italy but transformed by such native engravers as Cornelis Bos and Cornelis Floris. By about 1580, Dutch goldsmiths had begun to rival the Flemish; the van Vianen family of Utrecht won international renown, especially Adam, who excelled at embossing, and his brother Paulus, who worked in Italy, Munich, and in the workshop of Rudolph II at Prague.

The principal centres in the north were Nürnberg and Augsburg, the former particularly notable for the exuberant Mannerism of the Jamnitzer family, the latter for its ebony caskets with silver-gilt mounts. Many German princes, especially the dukes of Bavaria, maintained their own court workshops. Production was on a vast scale, and great quantities survive. Characteristic German forms are columbine cups (the trial piece for entry into the Nürnberg Goldsmith's Guild) and standing cups such as the Diana Cup by Hans Petzolt.

England is rich in 16th-century secular silver, but church plate was mostly destroyed during the Reformation. The Renaissance style, introduced by the painter Hans Holbein the Younger, who designed vessels for the court, follows that of the Low Countries and Germany. Certain individual forms also were produced, such as standing saltcellars with tiered covers and “steeple” cups, which had a tall finial on the cover.


In the first half of the 17th century Dutch goldsmiths, such as the van Vianens and, later, Johannes Lutma the Elder of Amsterdam, developed a fleshy form of ornament known as auricular, which became common in northern Europe, including England—where Christian van Vianen (see photograph) worked as court goldsmith to Charles I—and Germany—where the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) reduced both the quantity and quality of production. After midcentury, bold Dutch floral ornament—usually embossed in thin metal, as though the pieces were for display rather than use—was characteristic and influential. France, however, undoubtedly led fashion with its state workshops at the Gobelins, the refined French acanthus ornament contrasting sharply with the coarser Dutch designs. Since Louis XIV melted the royal plate to pay his troops, no French work of this period remains; but its quality is demonstrated in the work of the Huguenot silversmiths who left France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Mostly provincials, they brought new standards of taste and craftsmanship wherever they settled—particularly in England, where the foremost names of the late 17th and earlier 18th centuries were of French origin: Pierre Harache, Pierre Platel, David Willaume, Simon Pantin, Paul de Lamerie, Paul Crespin, to mention but a few.

Silver furniture , a feature of the state rooms at Versailles, became fashionable among kings and noblemen. It was constructed of silver plates attached to a wooden frame; and each suite contained a dressing table, a looking glass, and a pair of candlestands. In France such furniture did not survive the Revolution; but much remains in England, Denmark, Germany, and Russia.

After the Thirty Years' War, Germany did not regain its eminence; even the enamelled goldwork from the court workshops at Prague and Munich, which became larger and more ostentatious in colour, was inferior in design and finish. In Scandinavia, particularly Sweden, goldsmiths evolved forms of beakers and tankards showing strong German influence. Spanish silver was of massive architectural design, oval champlevé enamelled bosses being set at intervals over the surface of the larger pieces. The few extant Italian pieces suggest that the goldsmiths worked their material with the skill of sculptors.

18th Century

Early 18th-century English work combined functional simplicity with grace of form, while the work of Dutch and German goldsmiths is in a similar style but of less pleasing proportions. The preeminence of the English work, however, is due to the destruction of all but a fraction of French silver of the same period; for what survives is outstanding in originality of design and fineness of finish. The superiority of French work lay in its excellence of design and the high quality of the cast and chased work. Where other goldsmiths worked in embossed metal , the French modelled and cast their ornament and then applied it—a technique that consumed much more of the precious material.

In France, provincial goldsmiths competed successfully with those of the capital; but in England all the best artists went to London. In the early 1730s the French Rococo style was imported to England and adopted by goldsmiths of both Huguenot and English descent, one of the latter being Thomas Heming, goldsmith to George III. English silver in the 18th-century classical style of Robert and James Adam is of unequal merit owing to the use of industrial methods by some large producers.

In France, Robert Auguste created pieces of great refinement in the Neoclassical style, which was copied in Turin and in Rome, for example, by L. Valadier. A notable workshop was founded in Madrid in 1778 by D. Antonio Martínez, who favoured severely classical designs. In both the northern and southern Netherlands, local production followed French precept, but more individuality survived in Germany. In Augsburg, excellent table silver was produced, but more important were the pictorial panels embossed in the highest relief by members of the Thelot family and the silver furniture made by the Billers and the Drentwetts. At Dresden, Augustus II the Strong established under Johann Melchior Dinglinger a court workshop that produced jewels and enamelled goldwork unequalled since the Renaissance; and the gold snuffboxes made by Johann Christian Neuber rivalled those of the Parisian goldsmiths.

Colonial America

Silversmithing in the New World in the colonial period is more or less derivative from Europe and England. In North America it was first brought to New England by English craftsmen in the 17th century. The most important centres were Boston, Newport, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Annapolis. Outstanding collections include the Mabel Brady Garvan collection at Yale University and those in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. North American colonial silver is distinguished for its simplicity and graceful forms, copied or adapted from English silver of the period. On the other hand, the colonial silver of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, while European in concept, shows a blending of Iberian designs and forms, with indigenous influences that trace back to pre-Hispanic times. Most of these relics survive in churches as sacramental vessels; but there are some notable private collections.

The Napoleonic adventure brought French fashions back into prominence, and the Empire style was widely followed on the Continent. In England the Regency goldsmiths, of whom Paul Storr was the foremost, created their own more robust version of the Empire style. Perhaps the most impressive monument of the period is a service made in Lisbon between 1813 and 1816 and presented to the Duke of Wellington for his liberation of Portugal (now in Apsley House, London).

By midcentury most of the earlier styles had been revived fleetingly and a recognizable Victorian style evolved, based on details drawn from diverse sources. Craftsmanship was at its best, but the design of domestic silver was derivative and selective, while that of presentation pieces strove too consciously for naturalistic effect. In the latter half-century the craft became an industry and the goldsmith a factory worker. In this respect Matthew Boulton was the great pioneer: his Soho manufactory near Birmingham, which dominated the British “toy” industry from the 1770s, produced high-quality steel buckles, buttons, coins, sterling silver, and Sheffield plate, establishing standards of design and of factory management and welfare services that rivalled those of the 20th century. At the end of the 19th century, standards deteriorated, and a second pioneering movement started—the craft revival associated with William Morris and the Art Nouveau style (see below Modern), which led to the production of original pieces, some of highly mannered design. In England the most interesting work was done by the sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert, who, following the lead of William Burges, the architect and designer, combined silver with ivory and semiprecious stones in romantic confections.

19th Century

The Napoleonic adventure brought French fashions back into prominence, and the Empire style was widely followed on the Continent. In England the Regency goldsmiths, of whom Paul Storr was the foremost, created their own more robust version of the Empire style. Perhaps the most impressive monument of the period is a service made in Lisbon between 1813 and 1816 and presented to the Duke of Wellington for his liberation of Portugal (now in Apsley House, London).

By midcentury most of the earlier styles had been revived fleetingly and a recognizable Victorian style evolved, based on details drawn from diverse sources. Craftsmanship was at its best, but the design of domestic silver was derivative and selective, while that of presentation pieces strove too consciously for naturalistic effect. In the latter half-century the craft became an industry and the goldsmith a factory worker. In this respect Matthew Boulton was the great pioneer: his Soho manufactory near Birmingham, which dominated the British “toy” industry from the 1770s, produced high-quality steel buckles, buttons, coins, sterling silver, and Sheffield plate, establishing standards of design and of factory management and welfare services that rivalled those of the 20th century. At the end of the 19th century, standards deteriorated, and a second pioneering movement started—the craft revival associated with William Morris and the Art Nouveau style (see below Modern), which led to the production of original pieces, some of highly mannered design. In England the most interesting work was done by the sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert, who, following the lead of William Burges, the architect and designer, combined silver with ivory and semiprecious stones in romantic confections.


The structure of trade, following the drastic social changes that have taken place since 1914, is similar in all industrial countries. A few artist-craftsmen maintain independent studio workshops, producing commercially unprofitable but artistically significant work. Many of them also teach in art schools or work part-time in factories as industrial designers. Factories using modern equipment—for example, stamping, pressing, spinning, casting, and mechanical polishing—account for nearly all the financial turnover but seldom break new ground artistically. Retail shops buy stock almost entirely from the factories and wholesalers and usually sell it anonymously. Thus, the evolution of style is impeded by the cost of new machinery; by the natural caution of wholesalers and retailers; by the buying public, which prefers precious ornaments to be timeless; and by the consideration that buying is an investment for value rather than for beauty. In consequence, the most lively designs are often those for costume jewelry; and the best modern work usually has been on a tiny scale, making little impact on the trade.

In Paris, designs by René Lalique inspired Art Nouveau , which spread to Belgium and then through Europe and the United States. In Moscow, Peter Carl Fabergé set a superb standard of craftsmanship for small ornaments. In Denmark , Georg Jensen , with Johan Rohde and others, achieved not only an individual Danish style but built up several factories with retail outlets across the world, thus proving that good modern design in silver and jewelry need not be confined to artists' studios; their influence spread throughout Scandinavia. In the 1960s only Germany approached Scandinavia in the number and quality of its artist-craftsmen; WMF (Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik) at Geislingen is probably the biggest silverware factory in Europe. In England, notable for the most varied work, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths has helped a vigorous group of designers to emerge since 1945, including Gerald Benney, Eric Clements, David Mellor, John Donald, and Andrew Grima.

Additional Reading

Staton Abbey, The Goldsmith's and Silversmith's Handbook, 2nd ed. rev. (1968); P. Ackerman, “The Art of the Parthian Silver- and Goldsmiths,” E. Margulies, “Cloisonne Enamel,” and J. Orbeli, “Sasanian and Early Islamic Metalwork,” in A Survey of Persian Art, ed. by A.U. Pope, vol. 1 (1938); Lawrence Anderson, The Art of the Silversmith in Mexico, 1519–1936, 2 vol. (1941); Clara Louise Avery, Early American Silver (1930, reprinted 1968); Gudmund Boesen and Christen A. Boje, Gammelt dansk sølv til bordbrug (1948; Eng. trans., Old Danish Silver, 1949); Kathryn C. Buhler, American Silver (1950); Benvenuto Cellini, Treatises . . . on Goldsmithing and Sculpture (Eng. trans. 1898, reprinted 1966); Michael Clayton, The Collector's Dictionary of the Silver and Gold of Great Britain and North America (1971); Ernest M. Currier, Marks of Early American Silversmiths . . . (1938, reprinted 1970); Frank Davis, French Silver (1970); Eric Delieb, Investing in Silver, new ed. (1970); Faith Dennis, Three Centuries of French Domestic Silver, 2 vol. (1960); Johan W. Frederiks, Dutch Silver, 4 vol. (1952–61), Renaissance–18th century; John F. Hayward, Huguenot Silver in England, 1688–1727 (1959); Henry D. Hill, Antique Gold Boxes (1953); Graham Hood, American Silver: A History of Style, 1650–1900 (1971); G.E.P. and J.P. How, English and Scottish Silver Spoons, 3 vol. (1952); G. Bernard and Therle Hughes, Three Centuries of English Domestic Silver, 1500–1820 (1968); G. Bernard Hughes, Small Antique Silverware (1957); Charles J. Jackson, English Goldsmiths and Their Marks, 2nd ed. rev. (1921, reprinted 1964); Heinz Leitermann, Deutsche Goldschmiedekunst (1953); Charles C. Oman, English Domestic Silver, 6th ed. (1965); John Marshall Phillips, American Silver (1949); Jonathan Stone, English Silver of the Eighteenth Century (1965); Gerald Taylor, Silver, rev. ed. (1964) and Continental Gold and Silver (1967); Patricia Wardle, Victorian Silver and Silver-Plate (1963). (Modern): Esbjorn Hiort, Modern Danish Silver (1954); Georg Jensen, Inc., Fifty Years of Danish Silver in the Georg Jensen Tradition (1956); Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, Modern British Silver (1951, 1954, 1959, 1964).

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