Silverplate and electroplate are generally synonymous terms in refering to silver objects such as teapots that appear to be made of silver but which are in fact only a layer of silver over a layer of some other metal. While the terms are used interchangeably even by knowledgeable collectors of silver, significant differences between them exist in terms of manufacturing history and methodology.
True Silver Plate
Actual silver plate was the process used by the Sheffield manufacturing company in England when demand for silver pieces increased and the price of sterling silver flatware and hollowware rose appreciably. In 1742, engineers at the company developed a method of fusing a sheet of sterling silver to a sheet of copper base metal. The fused metal could then be formed into utensils and vessels. A later development allowed the Sheffield company to adhere silver to both the top and bottom of the base metal, and thousands of pieces of Sheffield silver were sold around the world.
A more sophisticated method of fusing metals was invented first in Italy and then refined in England around 1840. This method, called electroplating, depended on the development of electrical applications and on the discovery that certain chemicals allowed for the deposit of one metal on the surface of another. The process was patented by the Elkington company in Birmingham, England, in 1840 and led eventually to the abandonment of the Sheffield method of silverplating.
A New Industry
Dozens of manufacturers began making electroplated metal products, including some plated with gold and platinum; however, the most popular items were silverplated by the electrolytic method. No standardisation of the base metals was established, so manufacturers used copper, brass and nickel silver and an alloy called Britannia metal, made of tin and antimony. Base metals and plating techniques remained unidentified until 1896 when the industry began requiring marks such as EPNS for electroplate over nickel silver and EPBM for electroplate over Britannia metal.
Of the two kinds of silver plate, the antique Sheffield silver plate is likely to be the most collectable and interesting. It has proved to be amazingly sturdy and long-wearing because of the practice of using sterling silver in the fusing process. Sterling, an alloy, was developed to improve pure silver's resistance to wear, and the electroplating process uses pure silver. Sheffield is identifiable too because of the need to disguise the copper under the silver. Wrapped edges, sometimes with visible seams, and engraving shields or plates helped to hide telltale glints. Some plated pieces were simply finished with tin in areas not likely to show, such as the underside of trays and tureens.
The practice of using recognisable hallmarks on genuine sterling silver led electroplate manufacturers to create false hallmarks, many still visible on pieces today. These were prevalent especially before 1896 when the industry required that electroplating be identified, but even after that time, some manufacturers used the word "Sheffield" or "Sheffield, England," to suggest the prestige of Sheffield silver plate. Later electroplate producers expanded all over the globe and made thousands of pieces still in use or available to collect. The main concern in collecting this silver plate is its condition and whether or not it is usable as is. If not, it can be reelectroplated by a qualified repairer.