ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
article # 177
by Patricia Finney
(click on photos to enlarge image)


"Brightcut" is a kind of engraving that many English-speaking collectors associate with 18th century British and American silver. But later 19th century American brightcut is a different animal altogether. Quite a lot of the solid silver flatware sold in the US from 1860 to about 1895 was brightcut. Some was in matching patterns and some was more one-off, especially the decoration on large serving pieces such as fish sets and berry spoons.

A definition of brightcutting adapted from a collectors' site is, a metal engraving technique created by chiseling light-reflecting facets that stand out brilliantly on the metal's surface.

Brightcutting on silver became so popular in the US in the 1870s and 1880s that it's hard to group the flatware into categories. But some contrasts can be drawn.


In silver content, brightcut flatware can be either coin silver (.90) or sterling (.925). American manufacturers moved from coin silver to the sterling standard in the late 1860s. So, pieces marked (or, sometimes, not marked) "coin" can be dated in the 1860s or even before. Coin brightcut is not rare, but it's less common than sterling.


Another contrast is that brightcut decoration was sometimes symmetrical and sometimes romantically asymmetrical. The earlier pieces were more likely to be symmetrically engraved, with abstract designs. For example, mirror-image brightcut swirls turn up frequently. Asymmetry became more popular when tastes moved to Japanese styles and the related Aesthetic Movement.

Combining the two criteria -silver content and symmetry- tells us that a piece of coin silver with symmetrical brightcutting probably came from the earlier part of the brightcut period, especially in the 1860s. The handle decoration on a large, coin-silver fork in photo 1 shows it's an early piece, made by the Whiting Manufacturing Company (It is marked COIN and carries the company's lion/W mark as shown in photo1a). The little fork in photo 2 is coin silver, symmetrical, and early too. It is marked for a company called Hotchkiss and Schreuder (photo 2a). Its use is uncertain.
an early, symmetrically brightcut pattern made by Whiting Manufacturing Company Whiting Manufacturing Company mark
Photo 1 and 1a: This early, symmetrically brightcut pattern was made by Whiting Manufacturing Company (photo 1a) and          
others. The brightcutting is shallow and sparse. Since the piece is marked COIN (that is, 900/1000), it can be dated to the 1860s.
a probably 1860s fork  by a minor company called Hotchkiss and Schreuder Hotchkiss and Schreuder mark
Photo 2 and 2a: This small fork is by a minor company called Hotchkiss and Schreuder (see Photo 2a for the mark).  
Its symmetrical design indicates that it's probably also from the 1860s, as does its coin metal standard. Like very    
many pieces of coin silver in the US, this one is not so marked, but collectors learn to recognize the flatware anyway
from company markings, patterns, engraving, and other clues.                                                                                             


Silver flatware was brightcut either in patterns for regular, matching table services or in much lower multiples -sometimes piece by piece. One U.S. company, Gorham Manufacturing Co., produced about 20 brightcut sterling patterns between 1872 and 1894 (the brightcutting appearing on the handle). These patterns could be bought in whole services. The year 1885 may have been the high point of matching brightcut patterns, judging from their dates of issue.

The matching patterns tended to be delicate asymmetrical designs, somewhat Japanese-inspired. Most were made after 1870 and so are sterling. The patterns mainly featured naturalistic depictions of ivy, flowers, or whatever plants bent or drooped in a picturesque way. The pattern in photo 3 was an extremely popular design called "Lily" or "Lily Engraved, " which several firms made. The brightcut patterns were cut onto sterling blanks in the rounded Antique shape, as photo 3 shows. It is likely that the big companies had permanent staffs of engravers who could turn out the repeat patterns fairly rapidly.
This pattern, called Antique Lily Engraved or just plain Lily, was made by a handful of companies
Photo 3: This pattern, called Antique Lily Engraved or just plain Lily, was made by a handful of companies
and was available in matching sets. The naturalistic, asymmetrical brightcutting reflects the Aesthetic        
Movement and Japanese design principles. These pieces are sterling and from the mid-1880s.                     
Brightcutting also appears on die-struck flatware patterns from the late 19th century, in the open spaces provided by blades and bowls. Here the term "pattern" becomes confusing. As described in the previous paragraph, the place-setting flatware with brightcut handles in matched sets constituted patterns, in the sense that a bride might select "her" pattern. But regular die-struck patterns put out by US manufacturers carried brightcutting too. It served as extra embellishment and is found mainly on the bowls or blades of serving pieces, rather than on the handles.

Many of these brightcut serving pieces in die-struck patterns were probably intended for gifts. Often they came with fitted boxes. It is common to find dates engraved on the pieces to commemorate a particular occasion. The pieces of flatware that made good subjects for brightcutting had sizable open, plain areas.

Flat pieces that often saw brightcut embellishment were pie servers, master butter knives, fish sets (both pieces), crumbers, and serrated cake saws, among others. Curved pieces that accommodated brightcutting included salad sets, sugar spoons, jelly servers, ladles, and serving spoons (most especially berry spoons, which were a favorite). The piece in photo 4 is a berry spoon in the pattern Laureate by Whiting. Besides the Whiting symbol, it is marked "sterling" and "patent applied for. " It measures 9 in. (23 cm) long to the tip and the shallow bowl is 3-1/3 in. (9 cm) long and 2 in. (5.5 cm) wide. These measurements gave the engraver plenty of room for the asymmetrical design. Reference books date the pattern Laureate to 1890.
berry spoon in the Whiting die-struck pattern named Laureate berry spoon in the Whiting die-struck pattern named Laureate
Photo 4 and 4a: This rather fancy berry spoon was probably individually brightcut as a presentation piece.            
Its handle is in the Whiting die-struck pattern named Laureate, marked sterling. Its date is the latest of the pieces
presented here, 1890. The heyday of American Victorian brightcutting was passing.                                                
In a future article, I will detail some of the most magnificent pieces of American Victorian brightcut, which constitute a category unto themselves.

Patricia Finney
- 2013 -