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.
Munves is a sunny, unaffected sort who brims with enthusiasm for his reproduction flatware. "Not everybody can afford a table full of great antique flatware. Let's be honest -- unless you're really into antiques, there's no need. What you want," he insists, "is the same quality. That's what makes our hand-forged flatware unique."
It's only when you discover how nearly every other flatware in the world is made, never mind how expensive, that you're impressed. For almost every other flatware -- American, French, Italian, English, Danish -- sheets of sterling silver are fed into a machine that simply stamps out spoons and forks. The silver is stretched, rather than compressed. Lesser-quality producers also polish by machine. Better-quality producers do polish by hand on a wheel, which gives a better finish.
Hand forged, in comparison, is totally handmade. So much so, that Robinson's flatware is almost always produced in sets of 12 pieces at a time. "It's very curious," concedes Munves. "But it shows you just how much the hand of the maker is involved, just how spontaneous even a fork can be. The artisan gets into a ?zone,' like an athlete. There's a rhythm, and the pieces will match best when he does a dozen at a time."
Precisely because it's utterly handmade, you can get exactly what you want. "We recently had a customer come in. He was a young guy. He looked at our 18 different patterns and said, 'I like the design of this knife handle. Can I get that design on this pattern?'
"I said, 'Of course you can. We're not going to do it for just a couple of pieces, but if you're looking to buy, say, service for six, we'd be delighted. After all, everything is handmade. We can do anything you want,'" says Munves. "So we made him a prototype so he could see how it looked. He loved the result -- and he bought 26 place settings!
"Once, someone asked us if we could make a silver honey dipper -- you know, that spherical thing you dip into a jar of honey. We said, Sure we could. And we did. Someone else wanted an ice cream dipper. Not a problem. It's all handmade, you see. That's why when someone comes in and asks about the price, we talk about individual pieces rather than, say, five-piece place settings. You can get -- and you should get -- only exactly what you want."
The price, not surprisingly, is stiff. But -- and this is a surprise -- I can name you a half dozen or more, industrially made flatware patterns that cost significantly more. So for once, the highest quality isn't the highest price.
A three-piece place setting of James Robinson sterling flatware -- a knife, dinner fork and dessert spoon -- costs between $565 and $700, depending upon the pattern. (You get a 20 percent discount when you buy six place settings, which is reflected in the preceding prices.)
Of course, you can get any piece of flatware you can imagine (and some you cannot): flat sauce spoons, tiny espresso spoons, an osso buco scoop to get out the marrow, all sorts of ladles, serving forks and so on. James Robinson's 18 patterns (plus variations) are all traditional yet some, such as the sleek three-tine fork of the Queen Anne pattern, are so pure in line and shape that they pair perfectly with the most modern plates and table settings.
There's one other thing that has to be noted: how this flatware feels in your hand. Having lived with James Robinson flatware for more than 20 years, I can say that nothing else I've used quite feels the same way. The pieces are heavy, but not excessively so. The feel of the spoon in your mouth is sensual in the same cosseting way as sleeping on luxurious sheets. We forget just how intimate an experience flatware can be. Once you get used to it, it's hard going back.
Oregon-based Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.