Flatware, silverware, cutlery. No matter. It's all beautiful. If you're considering starting a vintage flatware collection, you really can't go wrong. But knowledge is power, no? So here is a petite tutorial to guide your search.
Silver is not magnetic, so if you are dubious about whether a fork or spoon is sterling or coin silver, test it with a magnet. Magnets will be attracted to cutlery, platters, or service items in hotel silver or silver plate, but will not be attracted to sterling or coin silver.
Sterling pieces are required to be at least 92.5% silver and are easy to recognize by their marking of 925 or higher or the word "sterling" stamped into the piece.
Coin silver is the oldest type of American silver. In an effort to avoid all things British, colonists melted down European coins and re-cast them into knives, forks, spoons, and other flatware and serve ware pieces. Coin silver is required to be at least 90% silver. Coin silver pieces typically have the word "coin" stamped into the piece, and are heavier than sterling flatware.
Hotel Silver is made with a sturdy base material such as brass or copper, with a thick coating of silver on top. A sterling silver piece can be bent or damaged easily, but a hotel silver teapot, bowl or flatware piece is meant to endure the ages. A hotel silver piece is more lustrous to the eye, and will typically have some pitting and a more matte appearance than other silver pieces.
And lastly, silver plated flatware is made with an electroplating process that was developed in the 1800s. The base material is usually finely buffed nickel silver or brass, plated with a thin layer of silver. If made before 1920, the knife blade was also silver plated. If made after 1920, the knife blade will usually be stainless steel. A very nice evolution, in my opinion.
If you're concerned about caring for your flatware, see our post on a simple, natural recipe for polishing your silver plate >