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Silver Plating on Copper, Bronze and Brass

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 April 2011


Silver has generally been valued second only to gold from at least as early as 2000BC. A material which is highly prized becomes a status symbol and cheaper imitations find a ready market. Craftsmen very early developed methods of applying thin layers of silver onto base metal as an economical use of precious metal, whether for its decorative effect or, particularly in the case of plated coins, to deceive the customer. Unfortunately, silver plating is less commonly preserved than gold plating, and corrosion at the interface between the silver and base metal may destroy the evidence of how the plating was applied. The situation is complicated because many of the white metal surfaces on pieces labelled as ‘silvered’ are in fact produced by tin, or more rarely, by arsenic. Nevertheless, there are still sufficient surviving examples to indicate that silver plating has a long history during which techniques were developed to give better results and to allow more economical use of the precious metal.

Research Article
Copyright © The Society of Antiquaries of London 1990

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16 Pers. comm. Forthcoming publication.

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29 Kindly lent by Dr Paul Robinson, Curator of Wiltshire Archaeological Society Museum Reg. no. 1987.316.1.

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33 Museum of London acquisition no. 893/1.2.3. My attention was drawn to these by Suzanne Keene. Analysis done by Justine Bayley, Ancient Monuments Laboratory. To be published in the Museum of London Medieval Finds from Excavations in London series, forthcoming volume on Dress Fittings.

34 Hook, D., Niece, S. La and Cherry, J., ‘A fifteenth-century mercury-silvered buckle from Hillington, Norfolk’, Antiq. J. 68 (1988), 301–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar . The other pieces include a belt chape from Broken Wharf, London (Museum of London no. A2565; Perkins, J.B. WardBronze bel t chapes from London’, Antiq. J. 19 (1939), 197–9 note 35, pl. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar . Also a buckle from Missenden Abbey (Aylesbury Museum, MA 83, 81) and a belt chape from Dinas Powys (National Museum of Wales 1987. IIIH) ( Morgannwg 31 (1987), 86)Google Scholar.

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40 It mus t be remembered that traces of mercury may be present as the result of polishing with a silver cleaning powder containin g mercury. Vincent Daniels (pers. comm.) has pointed out that Mrs Beeton in the first edition of her book on Household Management (London, 1859, part 21, para. 2316, 995) warned against the use of such polishes. Also mercury may be left as a residue of preparation process for electroplating known as ‘quicking’;Google ScholarThe Canning Handbook on Electroplating, 22nd edition (Birmingham, 1978), 612Google Scholar.

41 Theophilus, , op. cit. (note 24), 184–5. Also see a handbook of recipes first published in 1688,Google ScholarStalker, J. and Parker, G., A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing (London, 1960), 67Google Scholar , which gives instructions ‘to guild Iron, Brass or Steel with leaf-gold or silver’ by this method.

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48 Canning Handbook of Electroplating, op. cit. (note 40).

49 For reviews of plating and other metals as well as silver see Linns, P. A., ‘A History of Metal Coatings on Metals pre 1800 AD’, unpublished Masters dissertation, City of London Polytechnic (London, 1974)Google Scholar , and Padley, T. G., ‘Methods of Gilding and Silvering before 1850’, unpublished Masters dissertation, Bradford University (Bradford, 1976)Google Scholar.