Many people are going through storage lockers these days. I know because I get calls about objects people have rediscovered.
One of my clients rediscovered an old set of silver. The back has a marking “de Ruolz,” with a hallmark for a tall mast ship.
Like so many objects of art, without the technology to make the thing, there’s “no-thing.” So the history of artifacts is the history of technology in a significant sense. Silver and silver-like flatware owed their existence to new developments in science, like T.G.’s set of silver.
Silver-like cutlery was invented under the reign of Napoleon III, who thought so highly of the process that he ordered a set of 3,000 for the Tuileries, as we learn in the book “The Rise and Fall of the Second Empire 1852-1871” by Alain Plessis.
The set was called Ruolz-ware after its inventor, the French Industrial chemist Henri Catherine Camille comte de Ruolz-Montchal, who in 1841 discovered the process for gilding and silver-plating metals using a voltaic pile. Like the case with so many other inventions, an inventor in England contested that HE was the first to invent this process (George Elkington). The dispute was won by the French Roulz, who patented many (17) processes for plating.
The pattern owned by T.G. is called Chinon, circa 1862, also called Fillet, or Vieux Paris, and was said to be stately like a fine violin. But it was not as expensive as real silver. The de Ruolz stamp did not indicate an origin, the hallmark does, but the name indicates the process, similar to U.S. and British silver plate that states EPNS (electroplated nickel silver).
Silver flatware begins early on with real silver as its composition, yet solid silver has a grade of purity. That is why 92.5% silver in a spoon is called Sterling, because that is what the British hold most desirable.
Other countries have their own assay preferences: European silver is sometimes 80% silver, called coin silver in America. The French standard for pure silver is 95%. And silver was always a rich man’s tableware.
So if you wanted to have an expensive looking table and couldn’t afford silver, by the early 19th century, silver plating was invented, which at first was accomplished by hammering silver over a base metal. In the mid-19th century, electroplating was invented, a voltage in a chemical bath, usually silver upon the base metal of copper. But copper tended to show through, so French chemists looked for another base metal that was whiter.
Chemists like Ruolz found an alloy, using nickel, that didn’t contain silver but could support a thin plating of silver and still retain the silvery glow.
The names for these alloy compositions (metal argente) are metal blanc, nickel silver, alfenide, maillechort and Christofle. The Christofle company developed mass production of base cutlery and flatware that could be plated later, a change from the arduous single piece process.
Ruolz then developed a third category of silverware. The base metal DID contain silver in a mix of 20-30% silver 25% nickel and 30% copper, called Metal Alliage Blanc. The base metal contained real silver, silvered over with a plating. Because this was neither silver nor silver plate, and more expensive than silver plate, this type of silverware was made for a very short time, from 1852-1871.
So, you see, T.G. has something rather rare. Although his set is incomplete, we can see that the large spoon is a spife, that is, a spoon with a knife edge, made for cutting into soft desserts.
French table settings differ from American and British forms. A French service would ALWAYS be set upon the table FACE DOWN, so the hallmarks were evident. You’d see a large spoon, no medium-size spoon (such as a teaspoon), a very small spoon, a large and small knife, a fish knife with an accompanying fork that had three prongs, a large and small fork, and a two-pronged fork.
You see T.G.’s set has the large dessert spife, the small knives, the two sizes of forks,and the very small spoon. The only real essential form that it is missing are the large knives.
These days when we are eating out of the refrigerator with clean hands, it is mind boggling to think of setting a fine French mid-19th-century table, isn’t it?
Because the Christofle company bought the Ruolz patent, the closest comparable I can find is a vintage Christofle pattern selling for $650 for the number of pieces that T.G. owns.