Two American Silver Greats

Two American Silver Greats

Tiffany & Co. and Gorham Manufacturing set the American standard
Tiffany & Co. and Gorham Manufacturing set the American standard

T he two names, Tiffany and Gorham, have become synonymous with the major American contributions to silver production. Each of these companies have remained active, curious and engaged with new arts movements and production techniques. As American pioneers, their ability to incorporate adventurous styles with refined craftsmanship continues to appeal to a global audience.

Three clear stylistic contributions to American silver production are Neoclassical forms, Japonesque design and the Modern Style. Each movement found its way into flatware patterns, sterling tea services, silver trays and a multitude of vessel wares. Tiffany and Gorham, as prolific silver manufacturers, helped to spearhead all three movements in the United States.

Neoclassical Design: A balance between antiquity and modernity
Antiquity, balance, symmetry

Neoclassical design has been an integral part of American silver manufacture, reaching its peak in the 19th century. The American interest in Classical subject matter often incorporated stylized acanthus leaves, anthemions and Greek key patterning. Not coincidentally, these objects that are reminiscent of Greek antiquity parallel the American foundational dedication to democratic ideals. The attraction to this style is ideological as well as aesthetic, which continues to appeal to collectors today.

Tiffany’s approach to Neoclassicism is apparent in their soup tureen designed by John C. Moore. The stepped domed cover and ovoid bowl were designed for Tiffany & Co. in New York. The beaded handles, egg and dart motifs, and Greek key ornamentation masterfully captures the fascination with antiquity. In addition, sculptural ram’s heads join the handles to the base of the tureen. These details are typical of Tiffany’s approach to silver, and antique Tiffany pieces especially.

American Silver Soup Tureen, Tiffany & Co., John C. Moore, Circa 1855.

Gorham Manufacturing Company was intimately acquainted with the Neoclassical style as Providence, Rhode Island was celebrated as a leader in silver manufacturing. The warmth and highly organized groupings of ornamentation are a notable distinction of Gorham vessels. These salt cellars are gilt silver curved bowls with faceted feet. The sculptural figures flank the edges of each vessel, creating the handles with their embrace.

American Silver-Gilt Salt Cellars, Gorham Mfg. Co., Early 20th Century.

As Neoclassicism still plays a pivotal role in American silver, vintage Tiffany pieces continue to reference classical forms and motifs. This flared-rim centerpiece embraces the palmette motif as they lift the bowl itself. This example demonstrates the staying power of the American Neoclassical form and its importance in silver manufacture.

American Silver Palmette Pattern Centerpiece Bowl, Tiffany & Co., 1947.
Japonesque: A balance between homage and self-expression
Ephemeral, irregular, evident simplicity

After Japan reopened its ports in the mid-19th century, the fascination with Japanese culture in North America proliferated. Paying homage to the artistic stages set by Japanese makers, the owners of Japonesque sets became active participants in the imaginative scenes. The adaptations of the Japanese artistic principles underscored the ephemeral nature of a moment, irregularity and evident simplicity of forms. These American manufacturers strived to imbue their silver with reverence for the world around them, often using imagery from the living earth.

The sterling tea set by Gorham is a paragon of American Japonesque design. The set of three pieces are all hand-hammered, demonstrating the admiration of Japanese mindful irregularity. The bellied forms are adorned with lily pads and small sea creatures. The combination of hand-hammering and the allusion to the ocean creates a feeling of natural movement.

American Silver Three-Piece Tea Set, Gorham Mfg. Co., 1879 - 1880.

Tiffany & Co. engages the Japonesque vocabulary with works such as this sterling silver pill box. The oval pillbox uses allover spot hammering, giving the impression of an intuitive hand. There is an applied black and gold lacquered beetle atop the box that echoes the gilt interior.

American Hammered Silver Pillbox, Tiffany & Co., Circa 1880

In addition, Gorham sought to interpret American subject matter using inspiration from Japanese irregular patterning and asymmetrical compositions. This personal pocket flask shows the duality of the Japonesque. One side of the flask shows a scene with three jockeys on a racetrack. Meanwhile, on the other side of the flask, there are stylized birds in flight and an organic branch motif. The American balance of the Japonesque style is one that pays respectful homage, while also incorporating its own rich history of metalworking.

American Mixed Metal Jockey Motif Flask, Gorham Mfg. Co., Circa 1882.
Modern Style: A balance between elegance and functionality
Abstracted, unornamented, timeless

The abstracted purity of the Modern Style prized function over ornament. The restrained elegance and subtle nuances of the style give a feeling of timelessness. Inspired by the richness of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the Modern Style is sophisticated and luxurious. Both Tiffany and Gorham utilized different methods for creating Modern Style silver sets with clean lines that would reflect the shining metropolis.

Unornamented high-quality objects like Tiffany & Co.’s sterling silver tray allow function to dictate its form. Rectangular in shape with a flat shoulder and curved corners, the tray's wide shallow dish is ideal for a myriad of uses.

Rectangular American Silver Tray, Tiffany & Co., Mid 20th Century.

Similarly, Black, Starr & Gorham’s large sterling silver frame enthusiastically champions functionalism. With a large rectangular window in a wide flat surround, this would appropriately display either landscape- or portrait-style images.

Very Large American Silver Picture Frame, Black Starr & Gorham, Hickok Matthews, Mid 20th Century.

This set of 14 highball glasses indicates the ceremoniousness of the Modern Style. The austere glasses have tapered and gently curved bodies with a stepped foot. Echoing its attention to detail, each glass is fully marked, including the maker’s stamp and pattern number.

American Silver Highballs, Tiffany & Co., Early 20th Century.

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