Gorham silver shines as brightly as ever
For centuries, American silversmiths could not afford to play. The precious metal was too scarce and pricey for artisans to take a flyer on a cutting-edge silverware pattern, no matter how fun and fashionable it might seem.
Everything changed when news of the discovery of the Comstock Lode spread in 1859. The biggest silver strike on American soil freed the country’s silversmiths to experiment. None embraced this freedom more ardently than the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island.
Founded in 1831, it jumped to the front of its pack of rivals and stayed there by offering a wide variety of silver patterns, ultimately releasing more than 100. During its late 19 th century peak, it relentlessly presented America’s middle class with hot new must-haves ranging from ice cream hatchets to grape shears to sardine tongs.
In that same period, Gorham employed thousands, including almost 200 in its New York store on Broadway. The company grabbed attention at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago with a display that boasted a six-foot-tall sculpture of Christopher Columbus made from more than a ton of silver and cast in a single pour. (The statue was melted down after the fair ended.) Pieces bearing the Gorham hallmark rank as some of the best created in the medium in the 19th and 20th centuries.
None of that was enough to save Gorham from the effects of huge cultural shifts in how Americans lived their lives, but its past glories helped buy it a few more decades of relevance before it effectively disappeared in 1967. Today, the company’s gleaming record of achievement, along with its fundamental refusal to stick its customers with the same patterns it offered to their parents and grandparents and rest on its laurels, makes Gorham silver a favorite among collectors.
“Gorham is a superb example of American craftsmanship with a devoted collecting base globally,” said Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright. “As someone that works mostly with early 20 th century pieces, Gorham, as a firm, continued to define what modern was in their pioneering silver designs. Even in their selection of artists they were conscious of the interests of their buyers.”
Gorham’s last triumph as an innovator in silver was Circa 70, a tea and coffee service designed by Donald Colflesh. In June 2012, Wright offered a complete Circa 70 set, containing a hard-to-find but much-coveted matching tray that was released a few years after the original set. Estimated at $20,000-$30,000, it sold for $25,000, and remains a house record for that particular item of Gorham silver. “One of my favorite details on the Circa 70 service is that it was designed in 1958. The name demonstrates the forward thinking that is so majestically captured in the form,” Whippen said, adding, “Colflesh was hired by Gorham just after he graduated from Pratt, and I have always felt that New York City and its modern buildings and energy informed these soaring forms.”
Today, the Circa 70 silver service exudes retro-cool, but imagine how futuristic it must have seemed in the late 1950s. Gorham silver always included conservative, traditionalist offerings while demonstrating a willingness to push the envelope well before that phrase became a cliche.
Gorham silver deliberately aimed for the moon with its Martele line. Launched in 1897 by in-house designer William Christmas Codman, it drew its name from the French verb marteler, which means “to hammer.” Each piece of Martele is technically a one-off; the labor-intensive manufacturing process ensures that no examples are strictly identical, even if two or more take the same form. “Martele is like a different species. It really is the epitome of high-style handwork in sterling,” said Russ Carlsen of the Carlsen Gallery in Freehold, New York. “It deserves the audience it has. It’s pretty spectacular material. You’re talking about rich people’s silverware. It’s above and beyond.”
In September 2013, Carlsen offered a Gorham silver Martele pattern vase dating to 1899, which contained almost 80 troy ounces of silver and stood almost 19 inches tall. Estimated at $2,000 to $5,000, it rocketed to $60,000. “I remember it very vividly,” he said, adding that though he was surprised by the result, “I thought it was worth every penny of it. It was substantial. It had scale, which is important. It was very large and flashy, and the craftsmanship was undeniably the best.” Carlson said that if the vase was reconsigned to him now, “It probably would do better in today’s world, because the cream of the crop continues to excel.”
The Gorham silver company also enjoys the good fortune of having had its archives, and many of its greatest masterpieces, land in the hands of curators who love it, understand it, and want to share it with the public. The holdings of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) contain almost 5,000 items of Gorham silver and related material, such as design drawings and other company records. In 2019, RISD mounted a blockbuster exhibit titled Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970 that raised the profile of the brand and introduced it to a 21st century audience who grew up with little or no genuine silver tableware in their homes. Obviously, it’s too late to see the show, but RISD keeps A-list pieces on view such as a Martele writing table and chair that consumed 10,000 hours of labor and 75 pounds of silver, and also Erik Magnussen’s 1927 Cubist coffee service, a bracingly modern design that was evidently a bit too modern for Gorham, as it never advanced past the prototype stage.
Setting aside the pieces created for world’s fairs, much of what Gorham made had a mundane purpose and function—to hold flowers, to serve food, to convey morsels to the mouth. We no longer live in the world for which Gorham silver was made, but our world still has a place for it. In June 2018, D.G.W. Auctioneers in Sunnyvale, California offered a set of flatware from Gorham’s St. Cloud (pronounced “San Cloo”) pattern. Described as “extensive,” the set didn’t just merit the term, it required it. Numbering 206 pieces and containing a total of 254 troy ounces of silver, it was estimated at $4,000-$6,000 and sold for $16,000.
Patricia Knight, a longtime dealer and appraiser of silver who has served as a consultant to the California auction house, was not surprised to see it sell so well. “To have a gigantic set like this, all one pattern, all with the same monogram, knowing it’s very rare, very important–that provoked desire in bidders,” she said, explaining that the St. Cloud pattern was designed by Antoine Heller, a French silversmith who Gorham lured away from Tiffany; it had a relatively short lifespan on the market, perhaps about five years; and it has not been revived or reproduced.
The flatware set also contained Gorham silver items that are relatively tough to find. “Some of the pieces in there are very rare—individual knives, ladles, big, heavy pieces,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the asparagus tongs sell for $1,000 in and of themselves.” Though the set sold for almost three times its high estimate, by Knight’s calculations, the bidder walked away with a bargain; $16,000 divided by 206 works out to $77.66 per piece. She is convinced that if the set was consigned to auction today, it could “definitely” sell for far more. “I would market it as an original set, all the same monogram, a very heavy, very rare pattern from Gorham,” she said. “If you wanted something really sensational for your table, it could get up to $25,000 or $30,000.”
Whippen, Carlsen, and Knight agree that Gorham silver will always have an audience who targets and collects the brand specifically. People seek Gorham by name now; there’s no reason to believe they will ever stop. “Nobody has a problem selling Gorham,” Knight said. “Say the name, and you hear, “Ah, a good company that has a good reputation.”
Gorham silver shines as brightly as ever