An eager crowd throngs around the stalls at The Hermanus Country Market. It’s early Saturday morning, but that doesn’t stop people from tucking into bratwurst rolls, craft beer and the like.
We stroll past Overberg farmers selling organic wares: just-plucked vegetables with earth still clinging to them; dairy products, from cheese to ice cream; preserves and pickles, and more.
The retired community is here too, selling tuisnywerheid (doilies, knitted toys, homemade goods of every kind); as well as traditional confectionaries like melktert and koeksisters. Among all this edible treasure, like a magpie, I spot Helen Silver Smit, my eyes alighting on her custom silver jewelry.
The market is the perfect place for Helen to sell her up-cycled silverware creations. It is after all a hub of food-loving people; and her jewelry is the ultimate foodie accessory.
“When I was still at school, I used to raid my mom’s cutlery drawer for vintage silver-plated forks and made bangles as presents,” says Helen as I browse. There are rings crafted out of antique spoons, soup spoons that have been hand-pierced with a jeweller's saw into pendants, as well as forks bent into bracelets.
“Back then I crudely bent the forks with my dad’s pliers and hammers. Luckily my mom encouraged me to find more vintage forks for her cutlery drawers.”
Helen says that soon she graduated from the bangles and started making fork and spoon coat hangers as well as candle holders mounted on discarded skirting boards. Though it was only after a stint in her adult working life in the ‘social development and NGO sector’ that Helen decided to make her own way; and return to her creative passion—transforming silver cutlery. This is when she started channeling Uri Geller by bending spoons. Though she didn’t use any magic tricks to perform the feat; rather jeweler’s tools to craft them into rings.
Where does she find the vintage silverware? “I can’t drive past an antique shop without going in for a peek: I just love the thought of possibly finding beautiful spoons and silver treasures in forgotten corners. I’ve made a point of religiously researching each silver hallmark I find, and I have a keen eye for spotting rare collectors’ pieces.
“Also my folks live in Eastern Europe; I think they use my work as an excuse to trawl antique shops themselves!”
A spoon ring has caught my eye: an oval of beaten silver decorated with a rose that must have once been its handle, and the circle of the ring is beautifully intertwined like a stem.
“My parents brought the spoon from Ukraine,” says Helen of the ring. “The hallmark is the peasant lady, called the kokoshnik, and she’s facing right,” she says showing me the tiny face stamped on the ring. “It hails from the 1908 era.”
In no time at all I’ve bought the ring and it’s on my finger. Helen neatly scribbles the historical and hallmark information as well as the grade of silver on her business card and tucks it into a pouch the ring comes with. By doing this she sends a story with each piece of jewelry to its new owner.
“Before making a piece, I research the hallmarks of the silverware,” explains Helen. “As silver plated hallmarks are mostly generic, most have a simple EPNS mark [electroplated nickel silver]; their history is often limited to finding out the maker of the spoon. However, many different, trademark names exist for EPNS items, so it is important to also understand the hallmarking of plated silverware.
“With silver spoons, the hallmark will indicate the country and often era (year) of origin and possibly the maker’s mark. I have an extensive collection of hallmark referencing books and also use internet referencing sites. However, with tough cases, nothing compares to contacting more experienced antique silver connoisseurs! I have built up wonderful relationships with many, knowledgeable people. My rule is: I won’t use a silver spoon until I know its general origin and history.”
Helen says her work has brought her into contact with ‘some amazing people’: “Once I bought silver from an elderly couple who wanted to downscale their incredible silver collection.” She says the silverware was made exclusively for the South African consulate members in the 70s; and was beautifully adorned with bold proteas.
Another exciting find was of rare Cape Silver, dating to between the mid-1700s to early 1800s – which now forms part of her personal collection. “These finds have only been possible due to me studying the various hallmarks extensively and making sure that I understand the look and feel of antique silver.”
With her up-cycled jewelry Helen combines her passion for all things ‘green’ with her interest in antiques and story-telling.
And as I walk away in search of my morning bratwurst, I feel a piece of foodie history alive on my finger.
Want to do your own antique silverware hunting? Here are Helen’s tips on sleuthing hallmarks:
The easiest to spot is the British hallmarking system, which generally consists of four marks. The year mark is a letter, the town marking is a picture (such as an anchor for Birmingham, a crown for Sheffield, and a castle for Chester), and the silver standard marking (for .925 quality silver) is a lion which will face left.
The Continental European marking is mostly .800 (sometimes .835), with country and maker specific variations. The 800 mark indicates that the silver quality is 800 / 1000 quality silver.
American silver marks generally contain the word ‘sterling’ (indicating .925 quality silver) but will be specific to the company or maker which made the silver piece.
Russian silver hallmarks have changed over the years, but since 1798, the 84 zolotniki mark (indicating .875 silver quality) has been used.
Many, many more silver hallmarks exist – a wonderful world of history and value.
Uniquely up-cycled silverware jewellery