The role of silver — once central to daily life, a prominent feature of celebrations, and the traditional gift for major life events such as births, weddings, and funerals — has changed dramatically from the colonial era through to the present. With the invention of new materials, changes in the traditions and pace of family life, and the rise of new and varied means of projecting wealth and status, silver has ceded its central role as a treasured possession in American life. Yet it remains a versatile medium, significant for its historical importance, its aesthetic appeal, and the unique opportunities it presents for modern artistic creations.

When the Museum of the City of New York invited contemporary artists, silversmiths, architects, and designers from the New York area to create new works in response to its historical pieces, the results were both wide-ranging and profound. Some interpretations present a witty twist on an object’s original function, granting it a modern application, while others offer social commentary with critiques on women’s traditional relegation to the domestic sphere and the slave labor once used to mine the silver.

From the colonial era through the early decades of the nineteenth century, most craftsmen worked with silver from South American mines that depended on African slave labor and the forced work of native people. Silversmiths fashioned new objects from broken or unfashionable pieces, as well as from melted-down Spanish coins that belonged to patrons. After 1859, with the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada, most of the silver used in this country was mined in the American West. Artists today use silver that has been sourced from multiple locales and rolled into sheets by industrial refiners.

While to contemporary audiences silver objects might bring to mind ideas of conspicuous consumption, they have historically also served a practical role, offering a measure of financial stability to their owners. Prior to the establishment of commercial banking after the Revolution, each state had its own currency with values that fluctuated erratically. As a result, colonial silversmiths became highly trusted members of society who acted as bankers of a sort, enabling clients to consolidate their wealth into a relatively secure form that was also beautiful and functional. Thereafter, ownership has been a signifier of success more than a liquid asset.

The basic technique of fashioning silver objects with a combination of heat and pressure remains the standard for contemporary fabrication. However, today’s artists have a bevy of new tools available to them, including computer modeling and 3D-computer-printed forms. The silversmiths involved in the exhibition generally designed and crafted their own pieces, while artists and designers from other disciplines engaged specialists to help them realize their ideas. Works both new and old integrate a variety of techniques for creation and decoration, from forging to electroplating, casting, and repoussé.

Adrian Bancker (1703–1772), Set of three casters, 1731–1750. Silver, raised, seamed, and pierced. H. 7⅛ in. D. 2¼ in. Diam. 2¾ in. (the largest of three). Museum of the City of New York; Gift of Herbert L. Pratt (43.10.13A-B).

Wendy Yothers (b. 1952), designer, Karbra Co., casting. Gotham tête-à-tête beverage service, 2017. Silver; raised, formed, fabricated, cast, chased. H. 11, W. 15, D. 11 in. (overall). Photo courtesy of the artist and the Museum of the City of New York.

It is unusual to find a surviving set of casters such as this in American silver. The smaller containers would have held seasonings — likely dry mustard in one and Jamaica or cayenne pepper in the other—while the larger would often be used for sugar. The tall, pierced domes of these three pieces suggested the Manhattan skyline for Wendy Yothers, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The streamlined design of her beverage service—comprising two pitchers, two creamers, and a sugar bowl — echoes the Art Deco aesthetic common to the iconic buildings that informed the lids of the pieces, including the Chrysler and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company buildings, Grant’s Tomb, and the water towers prevalent throughout the city.

Herman Rosse (1887–1965), designer, unknown die-maker and fabricator. Medallion, Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theater for Best Supporting Actress, 1949. Silver, struck. Diam. 3 in. Museum of the City of New York; Gift of Shirley Booth (74.78.1).

Chitra Ganesh (b. 1975), designer, Sarah Wang, modeler, Wendy Yothers, fabrication assistance, Karbra Co., casting. Medallion, 2017. In raised letters, In Love We Trust/No Justice, No Peace. Silver. Diam. 3 in. Courtesy of the artist.

This Perry Award medallion was presented to Shirley Booth in 1949 in recognition of her winning the Tony Award in the category of “Best Actress, Supporting or Featured, in a Play” for her work in Goodbye, My Fancy. Made of sterling silver, one side of the piece features the masks of comedy and tragedy, while the other is adorned with the profile of Antoinette Perry and a border of ivy leaves. Its format alludes to ancient coins of gold, silver, and bronze, which often featured portraits of Greek and Roman emperors. Adopting this form, artist Chitra Ganesh urges activism in the cause of justice. With a play on the phrase “In God We Trust”—ubiquitous on American currency—Ganesh proclaims on one side that love can affect change with a depiction of a fist conveying unity and strength. On the other side of the medallion, a woman amasses symbols of energy that will aid her in her cause: “No Justice, No Peace.”

Ted Muehling (b. 1953), Lichen Box, 2017. Silver, fabricated, repousséd, and chased. H. 1, W. 3, D. 9 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tiffany & Co. (founded 1837), Askos pitcher, ca. 1873–78. Silver, raised, repousséd, chased, and gilt; gold. H. 10½, W. 9, D. 8 in. Museum of the City of New York; Gift of Paul Guarner in honor of John Daley (2003.32.1).
Robert Lobe (b. 1945), Forest Moonlight, 2017. Aluminum, stainless steel, and fine silver, hammered, H. 55, W. 42, D. 28¼ in. Courtesy of the artist.

This densely ornamented Tiffany & Co. pitcher inspired several artists with its artistic and technically impressive representations of ferns, dogwood blossoms, violets, and other spring flowers. In addition to a forged, raised, repousséd and chased pitcher by Preston Joneswith embellishments of an agave plant reminiscent of the floral elements on the Tiffany pitcherjeweler and designer Ted Muehling and artist Robert Lobe also found a point of departure in the pitcher’s representation of the natural world. Muehling created three boxes, one of which is shown here with highly naturalistic renderings of chased and delicately repousséd lichen on wood. Lobe hammered an aluminum sheet over a natural rock formation, then recreated a branch out of fine silver and a fern from stainless steel, transforming the organic into the ornamental.

Tiffany & Co. (founded 1837), Loving cup, ca. 1888. Silver, forged, raised, repoussèd chased, and gilt. 9¼ x 6⅞ in. Museum of the City of New York; Gift of Harry Harkness Flagler (51.20.23).

Brian Weissman (b. 1976), designer, Daniel Jewelry Casting, casting, Pasta-loving cup, 2017. Silver-plated bronze, cast and fabricated. H. 18, W. 14, D. 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the loving cup had become a presentation form used for all manner of occasions, from theater to the racecourse. The exuberant decoration of this vessel is typical of silver embellishment in the late nineteenth century, and it may have been a wedding gift. The equally elaborate Pasta-loving cup was fashioned from a variety of dry pasta shapes that were formed in wax, cast in bronze, and then silver-plated. Metalsmith Brian Weissman sourced much of his raw material from a Brooklyn-based pasta company. For the artist, the pasta shapes speak to the floral motifs used on historical examples of loving cups and to the handcrafted attention that went into creating them. He thought too of the macaroni art created by children: to express love at a fundamental level, the artist strove to “regress” to child-like language and materials and thereby create a work that can be appreciated on multiple levels. The playful result celebrates youthful enthusiasm and culinary pleasures while also exemplifying undeniable technical prowess.

Tiffany & Co. (founded 1837), G. Paulding Farnham (1859–1927), designer, Bonbonnière, ca. 1889. 20K gold, platinum, diamonds, sapphires, pearls. 10¾ x 2½ in. Copyright Tiffany & Co. Archives 2017. (A1999.54).

Kiki Smith (b. 1954), Bee Guile, bracelet, 2017. Silver, 3D printed, cast in silver; hand-finished with the help of Hillarey Dees, Mark Lyon, Tech-Designs, and Roni Casting Co. H. 1, 2 W. ½, D. 7 in. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Bonbonnières on chains are small boxes used for storing sweets—used for attracting the eye of potential suitors at a time when women could not openly solicit the attention of men. The swinging motion of this sparkling accessory and the light that played over its faceted jewels could be used to attract a gentleman, its candies providing a pretense for conversation. This elegant version by Tiffany & Co. would have been worn to an opera or fancy-dress ball.  Prolific sculptor, printmaker, and jeweler Kiki Smith created a bracelet that adapts the general form of the bonbonnière as well as its potential to attract admirers. Conceived as a container for perfume, Bee Guile is a continued exploration of the artist’s interest in bees and a reference to the Greek myth of the monstrous Scylla, who ate sailors who ventured too close to her shore. “Sometimes, I think about Scylla with her skirt of dogs announcing her advance,” says the artist. “I made a honeycomb sculpture to contain perfume, with dangling bees flying ahead to arrive with the scent.”

Displayed together, these modern works and their historical counterparts highlight the relationships across time between consumers, collectors, and highly skilled artists. For over four centuries, New York City’s silversmiths and designers have adapted international styles to create a distinct “New York” sensibility; the artists involved in this show continue that tradition for the present generation.

These creations, along with the pieces that inspired them, are on display in New York Silver, Then and Now, on view at the Museum of the City of New York through June 2018. For more information, visit 

Sara Spink is a curatorial associate at the Museum of the City of New York.
Jeannine Falino, an independent curator, is curator of  New York Silver: Then and Now.