Here in Atlanta, and frankly, everywhere I’ve visited on business, I’ve noticed that the most misunderstood term in the antique silver industry is “Sheffield Plate.” To clarify, there are three categories of Sheffield Silver: Sterling Silver made in Sheffield, England, Old Sheffield Plate and Sheffield Plated.
In the United Kingdom, the word “plate” means solid gold or silver, or sterling silver. Therefore, sterling and gold pieces made in the city of Sheffield are of high metal content. These pieces bear a mark, or hallmark, that indicate it has an established standard of purity. Every silver- and gold-maker has a unique stamp and can be easily found and defined in most hallmark reference books. Old Sheffield Plate: This term refers to a process that lasted about 40 years. Invented around 1790, the method involved fusing a sheet of copper to a thinner sheet of sterling silver. These pieces are primarily hollowware and are rarely marked. Ironically, although made by premier Sheffield manufacturers, they were never marked using the word “Sheffield.” For example, James Dixon & Sons used an initial with a symbol [d*s]. Three ways to identify Old Sheffield Plate: Closely examine the edges of the upper rim and the base. On these pieces, any applied border, handles or feet will usually have a seam. This means a layer of silver has been lapped over or “sandwiched” and therefore a piece you can correctly label as Old Sheffield Plate.
Look for a square, round or rectangular “shadow” around any engraved crests or initials. If there, this is the outline of a piece of solid sterling silver which is inlaid to prevent the copper from showing through when a family crest is engraved. Look at the inside of vessels and the underside of trays for a grayish coating of tin. If you find it, congratulations… only a few of the earlier pieces have this characteristic.
To cover what they considered unsightly copper, pieces were coated with a layer of tin. The tin, usually unfinished, is distinguishable by its pewter-like color. Sheffield Plated: This refers to items made of any combination of metals, but primarily copper, electroplated with a layer of silver. They’re branded with a variety of hallmarks that often resemble English sterling marks. Some manufacturers use the word “Sheffield” in their name or in the marking of their wares, but are not the real deal. Of course, silver electroplated pieces made in England will naturally be stamped “Sheffield” or “Made in Sheffield.” Even though the pieces are electroplated on copper, they are not “Old Sheffield Plate.”