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Pewter – The Metal of the Millennium

Tin has been mined and used to make objects both decorative and utilitarian for over 3,000 years. Tin is the fourth most precious metal in common usage after platinum, gold and silver . It is bright, attractive and extremely versatile. Pewter is an alloy that is made almost entirely from pure tin. Modern pewter contains about 92% tin and added to this are small amounts of antimony, copper or bismuth to give additional strength. Tin is a plentiful natural resource and tin mining has little or no impact on the environment.

The earliest known example of pewterware was found in Egypt and can be ascribed to the period 1350-1580 BC. It is a flask-shaped utensil with hinged lid and two handles and when analyzed was found to be comparable with early 19th Century pewter. Pewter achieved popularity in late Roman Britain, where almost 300 Pewter finds have been made that can be dated from 200 AD. Though there are references to pewterers in the 11th and 12th centuries it was not until the 14th Century that pewter became widely used and the formation of the pewterers trade guilds in London (1348), York (1498) and Edinburgh (1496) gave the craft official standing. The Worshipful Company of Pewterers, in the City of London, was granted a Royal Charter by King Edward IV in 1473. This charter allowed the Company to set and enforce standards and regulate the pewter trade throughout England.

Pewter Beer Stein
Pewter Beer Stein

Regardless of its charm and elegance, pewter was rarely regarded as anything but domestic ware throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. The influence and control of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers waned rapidly in the 18th Century. A decrease in trade can in part be attributed to new techniques in the production of pottery and glassware. At the end of the 18th Century the development in Sheffield of new manufacturing techniques saw a revival of pewter. Once more, pewter manufacturing was a prosperous and thriving industry. Trade gradually declined towards the end of the 19th Century until the emergence of an exhilarating range of Art Noveau designs at the turn-of-the-century. The quality was excellent and the designs emphasized the versatility and visual impact of pewter. Recent years have seen a resurgence in the Raised Relief Work and Pewter Figurine on Topdemand for pewter, although changing lifestyles and fashions mean that different products replace traditional favorites. This resurgence in trade can also be attributed to the formation in 1970 of the Association of British Pewter Craftsmen (ABPC). The initiative was taken by a group of manufacturers, the metal suppliers, and the Worshipful Company of Pewterers. By promoting high standards, raising awareness of pewter, and encouraging innovation and excellence in manufacturing, ABPC has achieved impressive results and has helped to establish British Pewter firmly in both domestic and worldwide markets. The Association has specified standards for metal quality and thickness and defined grades for solder and finish. Its members are required to “touchmark” the finished products, much as pewterers were obliged to do in centuries past. For over 500 years the pewter touchmark has been a symbol of quality and craftsmanship and still today the marks provide assurance of a high-quality prestige product that is functional, durable and practical – but above all beautiful to use. This resurgence in trade can also be attributed to the introduction of new designs which has dramatically increased customer conception of pewter.

Centuries of constant use show how well pewter withstands the demands of everyday life. Pewter has always been popular for drinking vessels, tankards for beer, goblets for wine, and a wide range of innovative hip flasks for something a little stronger. It has been said, that pewter improves the taste of wine, but whether or not this is a fact, it certainly adds a touch of luxury to the occasion. One further advantage is the pleasure given by the warmth and softness of pewter. It almost has the feel of silk. Young designers are reviving a long tradition and intricate patters being produced are often derivations of Viking or Celtic designs which were popular at times when pewter was in frequent use for decorative purposes. Indeed Homer, writing in the 9th or 10th Century BC, testifies that tin was highly prized and used in place of silver for embellishing the shields of Agamemnon and Achilles and the war chariots of Diomedes. Sculpted models reproducing the most intricate detail are not a problem with pewter.

Pewter is frequently used in combination with other materials – ceramics, glassware, brass and exotic woods all blend most attractively with pewter items. The versatility of pewter is infinite and the manufacturing methods and techniques are ever improving to meet the high standards required by today’s discerning buyer. Whatever the production method, the finishing of the product is Sample of Raised Relief Pewterall important as it determines the final appearance of the pewter item. Polishing can produce a deep lustre similar to silver. An attractive alternative is known as a “satin” finish, which is achieved by using a fine abrasive. It give a soft gleam which is unique to pewter. Another traditional design is the “hammered” effect. Modern manufacturers achieve this by rolling the design onto pewter sheets, although hand hammered and chased pieces are still available – but more expensive. Engraving is an age-old means of decoration and one that can transform an article into an exciting and unique piece. The softness of pewter allows designers a very wide scope and they are continually using different texturing techniques to lend individuality and identity to their work. As can be seen, the applications of pewter are nearly boundless and touch every facet of modern living as a link with traditional heritage and as a living craft. Pewter is a soft, warm and lustrous metal that can blend with style and fashion. Whatever one’s interests or tastes, pewter has something for everybody. The past, the present, and the future, pewter is the metal for the millennium.

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