Details matter. That's why even the best-set table benefits from the shine of some well-chosen flatware. Whether family and friends are gathered for Easter, Passover, a festive birthday, or an everyday dinner, laying out your favorite flatware is a wonderful way to turn a meal into an occasion. Long Islanders share their silverware stories, from heirloom acquisitions to funky finds.
Heirloom silverware is more than just something to set the table with. For Caroline Gregory, 77, who is retired from a supervisor job with the Nassau County Police Department, it's something that keeps her family memories alive. "My husband and I got married in September 1961, and my parents gave us this flatware as a wedding gift," she says.
Gregory, who lives in Roosevelt, says the Rogers Brothers sterling silver service for eight has never been appraised, but she has no plans to sell the American-made set anyway. She says she keeps it in its box most of the year. One day she hopes to pass the set down to her oldest granddaughter, who is the mother of her two great-grandsons, she says. "My son said to me one time, 'Why do you keep that old stuff?' And I said, 'This is from your grandparents, and it's special, and they're not here anymore. I'm never getting rid of this,' " she recalls.
Gregory says she and her husband were married 50 years before he passed away, and used the set only for special occasions. "We thought it was too pretty for everyday," she says. "I think that’s why it lasted so long. If I used it as much as I use everyday silver, it would have been a disaster. My son and my grandchildren . . . sometimes they just throw things out by mistake."
While she usually still reserves the set for holidays, she does allow herself to share it with friends. "I have used it with my book club," she says. "When I have them over, I know they're not going to accidentally throw it out." Gregory volunteers at her church and also makes wedding gowns and prom dresses. She says taking care of the set is important to her. Each time she takes it out of the wooden case it came in, she checks for tarnish and polishes off any dark spots. She cleans and replaces the set in its box after every use.
Keeping the set in good condition isn't just about aesthetics, though. It's also a way for her to honor her parents, who raised her in Freeport and Roosevelt. "You know what really impressed me?" asks Gregory. "My parents were very poor people, and yet they sacrificed to give us something beautiful." Gregory's voice hitches as she recalls how her father worked in a mattress factory and shined shoes in a barber shop, and her mother cleaned houses. "I knew what it cost them to give me this. It reminds me of who I am, and my family legacy. When I pull it out, I can see my mother's face, and my father, and I can see their smiles."
There's an art to casual elegance, and Renee and Jan Burman of Mill Neck have mastered it. Take, for example, their Puiforcat flatware purchased five years ago from the Hermès store in Manhasset. "It's the house’s Cardinal pattern, which is inspired by a drawing from the 17th century," says Renee. "It has a classic grace and simple form that is truly the perfect touch to our home."
The Burmans' silverware was purchased at Hermès Americana Manhasset and is a silver plated set. The design is the classic Cardinal pattern, which features a scalloped end on the handle of forks and spoons, and small finials on the butt ends of the knives "Puiforcat has an amazing history that dates back to 1820," says Renee. "It was pushed to the forefront of modern silversmithing by prolific silversmith, sculptor and designer Jean Puiforcat, and today is one of the most popular luxury silver manufacturers sold around the world." Although Renee and Jan, who is in real estate development, like to entertain, the set isn't just for special occasions. "The beauty of this pattern is that it's so versatile," says Renee. "It doesn’t feel out of place on our dinner table, whether we're just dining as a family or entertaining guests. It makes every meal feel special."
The Burmans' flatware feels like a luxury and retails for approximately $600 for a five-piece setting, but it's surprisingly easy to care for, says Renee. Although she recommends hand washing, the silverware is also machine washable, as long as it’s not mixed with other silver flatware, which might nick or tarnish the finish. The set comes in its own pouch and box, and Renee says. "There's definitely a wow factor when our guests see it, visually, as well as the way it feels in their hands."
That said, Renee says she thinks it is important that it not be reserved for special occasions. "Use your flatware every day," she says. "Memories are made when your flatware is being enjoyed, not when it's hidden away in a box or china cabinet drawer."
Eileen and Robert Aluska of North Massapequa have a lighthearted approach to life, as evidenced by their unexpectedly fishy tableware. "This is our everyday flatware," says Eileen, 47, who works as a residential cooperative and condominium property manager. The cheerful forks, knives, and spoons with fish heads and tails add a fun element to meals, and Eileen says the pattern is so subtle, "guests never realize they're fish until they really look and utilize them."
The stainless set is easy to take care of, and a five-piece place setting, made by Yamazaki and called Gone Fishin' (or Twinkle Fish in Canada) is currently priced around $60. Eileen and husband Robert, 60, who is a retired MTA bus driver currently working as a part-time greeter at Stew Leonard's in Farmingdale, say they found the set almost 20 years ago at Fortunoff.
The set is extra special because it's a daily reminder about family ties, they say. "It was selected by Bob," says Eileen. "[Then] purchased as a gift by my late mom, Harriet," who passed away in 2010.
"It's whimsical," says Eileen. "My husband and I enjoy it [because] it's so unique. Nobody else has anything like it."
What's your flatware worth?
Do you have a hand-me-down set of silverware you're thinking of selling? Don't, advises Richard Kahoud, owner of Garden City Antiques & Fine Arts in Garden City. "I suggest people shouldn't sell pieces they're attached to," he says. "It's not a matter of a few hundred dollars. You can't put a price on somebody's mother's pieces."
Still, to get a sense of what your piece may be worth, look at the markings. "Most pieces of silver are marked with the word sterling, or stamped .925, or 800 if it's European," says Kahoud. "And every piece of silver has a stamp on it from the maker."
Kahoud says that once you've figured out the brand name, it's easy to Google the name, such as Wallace, to see how other, similar sets are priced. "There are some patterns and names that are worth more, like Tiffany and Gorhum and Georg Jensen," says Kahoud, who also says that some classic patterns are still in demand because certain formal households want to replace silver that's been lost, stolen or damaged.
Be aware, however, that most household silver — even family heirlooms — isn't worth much. "The younger generation doesn't want to collect that stuff, and young people don't want to polish silverware anymore," says Kahoud. "There are even some 1920s silver sets that have grandma's initials on them, or 1800s-era sets that look like works of art, that are worthless." Even melted down, Kahoud says, silver is only worth about $13.80 an ounce, much less than the $48 an ounce it was once worth.
If you're determined to sell, Kahoud says to get more than one appraisal, so you know you're getting a fair deal. But he still suggests holding on to treasured heirlooms. After all, he says, "you can't put a value on someone's precious keepsake."