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etiquette scholar / dining etiquette / table setting / flatware / buying flatware

Purchasing Flatware

When purchasing flatware, consider the following.

flatware metal

Sterling Silver, Silver Plate, or Gold Electroplate. Those who plan to entertain formally will want an elegant metal, such as sterling silver, silver plate, or gold electroplate.

Stainless Steel. An easy-care metal that is dishwasher-safe.

Pewter. Although appropriate for informal table settings, pewter is soft, dents easily, and is suggested only for occasional use.

number of sets of flatware

When one set of flatware must meet all dining needs, the best choice is stainless steel in a simple pattern. Stainless steel is appropriate for all but the most elegant formal dining.

For those who plan to entertain both elegantly and casually, two sets of flatware are ideal:

  1. Precious metal like sterling silver, silver plate, or gold electroplate for entertaining; and
  2. Low-maintenance stainless steel for daily dining.

flatware design elements

The ornamentation of the flatware, the color of the metal, and the texture of the material should be compatible with the design elements of the dinnerware and stemware.

The ornamentation of tableware is curvaceous, straight, or a combination.

  • Flatware decorated with curved lines is harmonious with dinnerware and stemware ornamented with rounded motifs.
  • Flatware decorated with straight lines is compatible with dinnerware and stemware ornamented with angular motifs.
  • But when both curved and straight lines are incorporated in a pattern, choose a dinnerware and stemware pattern that accents the dominant line in the flatware. For balance, keep the ratio between curved and angular designs two-to-one.
  • Accent ornate flatware with plain dinnerware and stemware patterns. Emphasize a simple flatware pattern with ornate dinnerware and stemware.

The color of metals gives the table setting different looks. Precious metals, from the grayish-white hue of sterling silver, to the whitish-gray tone of silver plate, to the yellowish shade of vermeil and gold electroplate, impart a formal luxuriant look to the table setting. Alloyed metals like stainless steel and pewter are a deeper shade of gray and imbue the table setting with an informal ambience.

The texture of metals ranges from smooth to coarse to shiny or dull.

  • Match the texture of the flatware with the grain of the dinnerware and stemware.
  • The texture of precious metals is smooth and shiny, which pairs well with translucent porcelain, tightly woven linens, and shimmering crystal.
  • Although plated metals, such as silver plate and gold electroplate, are smooth and shiny, because they are plated over a base metal they do not impart quite the luxurious ambience of sterling silver or vermeil and are not appropriate for the most formal occasions.
  • Compared to precious or plated metals, alloyed metals, namely stainless steel and pewter, have a coarse texture, which is compatible with opaque dinnerware, heavy glassware, and loosely woven linens.

When metals with shiny and matte finishes are mixed, match the predominant texture to the surface of the table.

  • Flatware with a shiny finish is harmonious with reflective table tops, such as glass, lacquer, plastic, or polished mahogany.
  • Flatware with a matte surface, such as hammered metal or cross-hatched florentine, is compatible with the patterned grain of dull woods, such as pine or bleached oak.

mixing and matching flatware

  • At a formal table setting with a lot of tableware, a matched set of flatware is recommended.
  • At an informal table, set for no more than four courses, a mix of flatware patterns adds design to a simple table setting, but the mix of metals should remain the same.

flatware size

Flatware is made in sizes known as continental, place, and luncheon.

Continental flatware is the longest length, also known as European size.

  • The dinner knife and dinner fork are approximately a half-inch longer than place size and about an inch longer than luncheon size.
  • Continental flatware balances the proportions of a formal table setting, but can also be used for informal table settings.
  • Because of the length, continental size is slightly thicker and heavier than place size and luncheon size. The utensils rest heavier in the hand and promote a luxuriant feel.

Place-size flatware, also known as American size.

  • Place size flatware is lighter to hold than continental flatware, easier to manipulate, and balances well with a table setting for the average meal.
  • Of the three lengths, place size is the most popular.
  • When purchased as a set, it is usually packaged with a place spoon: a medium-size utensil with a bowl slightly larger than a teaspoon, an all-purpose utensil used to eat soup, cereal, and dessert.

Luncheon-size flatware is the shortest length and balances the dimensions of the luncheon plate. Not commonly used today, it is often found in older flatware sets.

criteria for quality flatware

Well-made flatware is recognized by substantial weight and good balance. Light­weight flatware lacks balance; the knife and fork feel clumsy to hold and uncomfortable, almost as if they might bend.

  • Ornamentation should be precisely rendered with depth and clarity.
  • Both sides of the utensils should be attractive.
  • Fork tines are symmetrical, the edges are rounded, perfectly tapered, and polished on all sides.
  • The handles are not so narrow that they will slip through the utensil basket of a dishwasher, and when held, the handle does not press uncomfortably into the palm, especially the knife.
  • The knife blade is broad and possesses a good cutting edge.
  • Where the knife blade joins the handle, it does not reveal a gap of color.
  • The spoon is deep enough to accommodate a good bite.

number of flatware pieces in a place setting

The term place setting is the number of utensils needed to eat a simple meal.

Three-Piece Place Setting. The minimum number is three: dinner knife, dinner fork, and teaspoon.

Four-Piece Place Setting. A four-piece place setting includes a salad fork, a utensil popular for informal dining because it doubles as a dessert utensil.

Five-Piece Place Setting. A five-piece place setting adds a soup spoon, a utensil used to eat cereal and at a multi-course meal that begins with hot soup.

Six-Piece Place Setting. A six-piece place setting features a butter spreader, a utensil used by those who prefer to provide a bread­and-butter plate rather than pass pre-buttered rolls; this implement also doubles as a spreader for cheese or condiments.

Seven-Piece Place Setting. A seven-piece place setting includes an iced ­beverage spoon, a utensil popular in regions noted for hot, humid climates, or a seafood cocktail fork, popular where seafood is a favorite appetizer.

number of place settings to purchase

The way one plans to entertain and the size of one's family determines the number of place settings to purchase. Four to eight place settings offer a couple several days' use, but the average family may need eight place settings per day. Those who entertain often may want twelve to sixteen place settings.

Flatware sold in the flatware department of retail and specialty stores is sold by the place setting. Flatware sold in the houseware sections is sold in packaged sets.

Rather than buy utensils by the individual piece (as open stock) or one place setting at a time, purchase flatware by the set and save approximately 30 percent. Catalogs sell place settings in sets of four, eight, twelve, and sixteen, at prices lower than retail stores.

matching serving utensils

A set of matching serving utensils is purchased as part of a set of flatware, acquired individually at extra cost, or bought as a "hostess set." Matching serving utensils found in a flatware set include:

  • In a 43-piece service for eight, three serving utensils: tablespoon, sugar spoon, and gravy ladle
  • In a 44-piece service for eight, four serving utensils: tablespoon, sugar spoon, gravy ladle, and cold-meat fork
  • In a 45-piece service for eight, five serving utensils: two serving spoons (solid and pierced), serving fork, meat fork, and butter spreader
  • In a 64-piece service for twelve, four serving utensils: tablespoon, sugar spoon, gravy ladle, and a cold-meat fork
  • In a 66-piece service for twelve, six serving utensils: two serving spoons (solid and pierced), cold-meat fork, pie server, sugar shell, and a butter knife
  • In a 90-piece service for sixteen, two hostess sets: two serving spoons, two cold-meat forks, two pie servers, two sugar shells, and two butter knives
  • In a 101-piece service for twelve that includes twelve extra teaspoons, twelve iced-beverage spoons, and twelve cocktail forks, five serving utensils: serving spoon, butter knife, sugar spoon, serving fork, and pie server

When matching serving utensils are purchased as a hostess set, a four-piece set typically contains a tablespoon, sugar spoon, gravy ladle, and cold-meat fork; a six-piece set usually contains a pie server, pierced tablespoon, solid tablespoon, cold-meat fork, butter spreader, and sugar spoon.

supplementing a discontinued flatware pattern

Choose a timeless pattern.

  • Sterling patterns are seldom discontinued, but when demand for a particular pattern ceases, the manufacturer keeps the dies and fills special orders when requests justify the expense of production or periodically makes old silver patterns available.
  • Flatware made of silver plate is often almost an exact copy of sterling silver, so when a replacement is unavailable, purchase the missing piece in sterling.
  • Stainless steel is sold primarily by the set, and when a flatware pattern is discontinued, generally replacements are not available.

shape of knife blades

When matching a new set of flatware to an old pattern, make sure the shapes of the blades are similar.

Knife blades are made in shapes known as French style and place style.

  • French-style blades feature a curvaceous edge and a rounded, blunt tip.
  • Place blades are made with a straight or modestly curved edge and a somewhat pointed tip.

sterling silver or silver plate flatware

Sterling silver is a precious metal alloyed with copper for strength, and silver plate is pure silver plated over an alloyed base. If the prices are similar and if the weight of silver plate is heavy, the balance is good, the utensil is comfortable to hold, and the workmanship is excellent, silver plate is a better buy than mass­produced, lightweight sterling silver that is wobbly in the hand and poorly finished.

flatware cost

The amount of silver used to make a pattern and the labor and time required to execute a particular design figure in the cost of the finished product. The ornamentation of silver involves three techniques:

  1. Chased (the indentation of silver);
  2. Engraved (the removal of silver); or
  3. Applied (the application of silver).

Chased ornamentation is indented or pushed out, and does not involve a loss of silver, an ornamental technique that is less expensive to execute than engraved or applied decoration.

Engraved ornamentation cuts into metal and involves a loss of silver, so it is more expensive than chased decoration.

Applied ornamentation is the application of decoration to metal, such as mold-made ornamentation, cut-card work, or enamel, methods that require additional metal or material and are the most expensive patterns to execute.

monogrammed flatware

The placement of the monogram on the handle depends on the way the fork is held.

  • In continental style, the monogram is placed on the back of the handle because the fork is held tines downward to eat and the utensil is laid on the table in the same way.
  • In American style, the monogram is placed on the front of the handle because the fork is held tines upward to eat and the utensil is laid face upward on the table. The exception is a highly ornate pattern that leaves little room on the front for a monogram; the letters are therefore placed on the back of the utensils.

Angular monograms are harmonious with decoration rendered with straight lines. Flowing script coordinates with utensils ornamented with rounded decoration.

The most common monogram is a single letter. When three initials are used, make sure they do not spell a word that detracts from the dignity of the pattern, such as B-A-D. If so, execute the monogram in a single letter.


- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

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