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Insights: Indulgences

King of Cutlery James Robinson's sterling silver flatware is truly "the best"
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

People frequently ask me, "What's the best _____?" It's an impossible question to answer. Almost without exception, there is not one "best." No single restaurant is the "best." No ultimate wine. No boat, car, tennis racquet or diamond is the "best."

So, I have never answered the "What's the best?" question -- until now. I do know of one indulgent, yet useful-for-the-rest-of-your-life item that really is the best of its kind. And it will surprise you because it has so much competition: sterling silver flatware from James Robinson.

Is this possible? Can one maker of sterling flatware truly be "the best"? I believe so. To prove it to yourself, you must visit James Robinson Inc. (212-752-6166), at 480 Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

Among collectors of antique silver, James Robinson is a household name. Owned by Edward Munves Jr., the shop has supplied silverware to the likes of the Rockefellers, Mellons, Roosevelts, Fords and other grand names for several generations. They, and others, buy English antique silver of the highest quality and provenance. Munves is not only on the vetting committee for the annual New York Armory Antiques Show, he's the chairman of the committee.

Munves, 69, takes particular pride in Robinson's reproduction flatware. Actually, he recoils ever so gently at the notion that the company's English-made sterling flatware is a reproduction. "Precisely because it's made in exactly the same way as it was when the factory started in 1510, it's really more accurate to say not that it reproduces silver, but rather that it continues to produce silver as it did centuries ago," he says.

This is not a small point. Indeed, it's why one can make a case that James Robinson's sterling flatware is the world's best crafted. The reason is simple: it's one of only two sources left anywhere in the world for sterling silver flatware that is entirely hand forged. (Old Newbury Crafters in Massachusetts is the other. Its look, however, is purposely more rustic, with a signature hammered appearance that differs markedly from James Robinson's high-polished refinement.)

This business of hand forging is easy to grasp and yet subtle. Silver is a soft metal. That's why sterling silver is usually alloyed with copper for added strength. By law, sterling silver is 92.5 percent silver.

No matter what the item -- a fork, a spoon, a ladle -- it all starts with a rectangular bar of solid sterling silver called a billet. A dinner fork, say, will start with a bar about 5 inches long, 3/4 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick. The idea that this piece of seeming scrap metal will somehow be transformed into a lustrous, beautifully balanced fork is almost preposterous.

Yet, that is what happens. In the same way -- and to the same metallurgical effect -- as Japan's samurai swords. "The billet is annealed [strengthened] while red-hot by being hammered on an anvil," says Munves. "And this hammering is on all four sides. It's not hammered the way you or I might do it. Rather, the craftsman sort of taps it. It's more a constant ?pinging' rather than what we think of as hammering."

The effect of this is that, as with the steel of samurai swords, the silver is made denser. This, in turn, makes it dramatically stronger, as the metal is compressed. You can literally put your weight on the tine of a James Robinson fork and it will not bend.

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