Silver Plate is made by electroplating silver onto the surface of another, cheaper base metal. The first silver plate was made in the 1830s and was usually plated onto Nickel Silver, an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc. In the twentieth century copper started to become a popular substitute for Nickel Silver and by the 1940s copper was the predominant base metal used for silver plating.
Although the process of silverplating was developed over time by various different people, the name of one firm stands out. Elkington & Co have become synonymous with silverplate and yet they did not invent the process nor make any major contributions to the science of electroplating. Rather, the firm’s great asset was the vision of its founding director George Elkington who was canny enough to realise the potential of the technology and set about buying many of the patents regarding the processes of electroplating and silverplating.
There was some resistance to silverplate at first, especially from the Old Sheffield Plate Industry but by the late 1840s silverplate had become the preferred method of plating silver and Elkington, thanks to their patents, completely dominated the industry, licensing their technology out to other firms, including, notably the French firm, Christofle.
From the manufacturers point of view, there were two main advantages of electroplate over Old Sheffield Plate. The first was that a much thinner layer of silver could be applied. The second was that the object could be completely finished first and then the silver applied all over in the plating bath. This meant that cast objects could also be silver plated. With Old Sheffield Plate, because the metals were heat fused, the metal had to be made as a sheet first and then worked into shape. The process of silverplating was therefore much quicker, cheaper and more flexible than Old Sheffield Plating.
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