version francaise article # 43



by Martine D'Haeseleer ©
click on images to enlarge

The art of the Table: an Art of life

'It was once... silverware'

Today, when you'll take in hand this utensile with a customary gesture, I suggest to look with admiration to these extensions of your fingers you are accustomed to handle with grace and skillfullness since your childhood. These objects looks so anonymous as they are so functional; their shape is adapted to your hands, their decorative research or their clean design reflects the refinement of table practices and the evolution of our customs.
Despite our restless modern way of life take the time to breathe, enjoy the scent of their presence and the flavour of history and 'small history' of the silverware that illuminates and adorns your table.

I've choosen to begin this article as a fairy tale as, along with silverware's history, I have in the mind the tale of the 'Sleeping Beauty' where her godmother offers to the guests precious metal silverware. Today, the godmother gifts yearly silverware to her godchild in order to complete the table set.

What was the origin of this custom?
History, and moreover folklore, use these elements of the 'Art of the Table' to illustrate the customs and the evolution of silverware.

But what is the meaning of 'silverware'? Its composition, as we know it today - a set of spoon and fork of similar shape and decoration - was introduced in the last quarter of the 17th century. The French word for silverware is 'couvert'. In Italian it is 'posate'.
They have a similar origin from the usage in the Middle Ages to 'cover the table', that is to place on it all that is necessary to the meal (glasses, salts, dishes, etc. ..). Progressively, the term was used to identify the set of spoon and fork.

couteau de mariage en argent , lame en acier (2ème 1/2 du 17è siècle) soit Pays -Bas, soit Anvers couteau de mariage en argent , lame en acier(2ème 1/2 du 17è siècle) soit Pays -Bas, soit Anvers The usage of the knife develops since the 12th century. It was an item of personal usage made by a craftsman (the 'cutler maker'). The knife was worn on the belt in a leather sheath and, in a hygiene concern, the guests used their private knife on the host table. .
photo 2a      photo 2b
Couvert de voyage pliant en fer incrusté d'or et d'argent Karlsbad 17è siècle

The ancient knife was very flaked and pointed, and was used both to prick the meat in the dishes and to cut it on the trencher.

photo 4
On the 17th century they rounded their tip and the owners ceased to use the knives during the meal as toothpicks or as weapons against their rivals!

In the 13th century, the fork was a two-pronged device used to transfer the meal from the pot to the dish (not to carry the meal to the mouth)
The usage of the fork, as we currently know, spread in Italy during the Renaissance, when in the Italian Courts began the use of the fork to carry the food to their mouth, avoiding soiling the clothes and hands.
This use of the fork, as a symbol of pretentious display, became a source of satire in the court of Henry III.

Two-pronged at first, the fork was modified to three-pronged and then to four-pronged at the end of the 17th century.

Cuiller en argent d' époque Renaissance ( 16è siècle ) Frankfürt -Allemagne Cuiller en argent d' époque Renaissance ( 16è siècle )Frankfürt -Allemagne alt="Cuiller Before the Renaissance it was a good custom in Europe to eat using the fingers and to wash the hands at every course with perfumed water poured by servants into a basin from a silver pitcher. This was a custom reflecting the taste for cleanliness and hygiene of its era (see endnote).
photos 1a, 1b, 1c
King Louis XIV forbade the tutor of his children to learn eating with the fork, as this usage had negative connotations (scarcity of hygiene and proof of improper manners)

The spoon was used since the dawn of time to carry liquid foods to the mouth.
You may imagine the difficulty that our ancestors had in the usage of this 'appendix'. Fortunately deepening the bowl and sharpening its shape, they learned to use it.

Couvert de voyage pliant manches en ivoire teinté vert orné d'applications en argent Italie fin 17è siècle In the 17th century the guests used for the meal the silverware they brought with them. This is the origin of the so-called 'travel set' composed of a folding fork and an adaptable spoon into a proper case.
photo 5
Everyone had his private silverware, precious and decorated according to the social condition, the culture and the wealth of its owner. A silverware set was also a traditional wedding gift.
Later, silverware was supplied by the host to his guests and sets of six and twelve pieces became available.

Couvert de table argent et porcelaine de Meissen Allemagne vers 1770 Couvert de table argent et porcelaine de Meissen Allemagne vers 1770 The knives were made by the cutler and often had a different shape from spoon and fork.
photo 8a et 8b
Couvert fin 18è probablement Espagne Modèle Filet ancien (provenance Munozarce) Détail Couvert de table en argent à décor de coquille en relief Oudenaerde 1767, M.O.: à la Flèche The silverware of the 18th century has a variety of shapes, from plain to highly elaborate rococo. At the end of the 17th-beginning of the 18th century the spoon was reinforced by the 'rat tail' and the 'dessert silverware' was added to the table (often gilt to prevent oxidation by fruit's acids).
photo 9     photo 7
cuiller à café époque Art Nouveau début 20è siècle cuiller à café époque Art Nouveau début 20è siècle Up to the middle of the 19th century silverware were made by craftsman. The introduction of mechanical processes made available these items to a wider public. The first 'fish silverware' appears in the second half of the 19th century, when different and more 'specialized' sets of silverware were introduced
photo 10                 photo 11

Couverts en métal argenté, modèle 'DUO'  par Tapio Wirkkala (1957) But, fortunately, the evolution and the aesthetic research continues also in the 20th century and in the 'mechanisation era'.
Reacting to the general uniformity of the period, the famous Belgian 'art nouveau' artist Henry Van de Velde created simple and highly functional silverware, where the originality of the design was the ergonomic adaptation of every element to its usage.
Surprisingly, the Art Déco production, concerned to adopt geometric shapes, produced silverware not easy to handle (spoons too plain, forks unsuitable for their usage).

photo 12

Martine D'Haeseleer
Expert et enseignante en orfèvrerie ancienne et moderne belge et européenne.
Fondatrice de la Silver Society of Belgium.
Créatrice du site :


'Couverts de l'art gothique à l'art nouveau' - Collection Jacques Hollander.
'Alte Bestecke' - Collection Callway - by Gertrude Benker.
'Bestecke' -Die Eglofstein'sche Samlung “ 15 - 18 Jahrhunderd auf der Wartburg'
Edition: Arnoldsche.
Musée du couvert : Musée Mandet à Riom - France

Description of photos : (Copyright Martine D'Haeseleer)
except n° 9 (© Munozarce)
photo 1
Wedding spoon of the Renaissance ( 16th century)
Frankfürt - Germany.
Collection : Bernard.De.Leye.

photo 2a 2b
Silver wedding knife with steel blade (2nd half of the 17th century)
Origin: Low-Countries or Anvers (dimension: 18,5 cm)
Handle engraved on a black background with scenes in the manner of Jean-Théodore de Bary, ( cfr. Zilver uit de Gouden Eeuw van Antwerpen)
Collection: Bernard De Leye.

photo 4
Folding travel silverware on iron with gold and silver applications
Karlsbad 17th century
Spoon, fork and knife in a leather case
Collection : D.P.

photo 5
Folding travel silverware, ivory handle (dyed in green) with silver applications
Origin: Italy, end of the 17th century.
Restored in Russia in 1853 replacing the silver fork
Collection : 'Magazin Royal'
Collection : D.P.

photo 7
Detail of a table silverware with shell in relief
Origin : Oudenaerde 1767, M.O.: 'à la Flèche'
Collection : Dominique van Haecke.

photo 8a 8b
table silverware in silver and Meissen porcelain
Origin: Germany, about 1770.
Blade and fork with female figures in relief, handles with military scenes
Collection : 'Magazin Royal'

photo 9
Detail of the floral decoration of an 'Art Nouveau' coffee spoon of the beginning of 20th century. Likely Spain
Provenance: 'Munozarce' Madrid.

photo 10
Detail of the floral decoration of an 'Art Nouveau' coffee spoon of the beginning of 20th century. Likely Belgium

photo 11
Fish silverware, silversmith Delheid Frères - Bruxelles about 1890-1900. Chiselled model in pre-Art Nouveau style

photo 12
gilt silverplate silverware, 'DUO' model, designed in 1957 by 'Tapio Wirkkala' (Formes Nouvelles collection of Maison Christofle, France)
Collection : F.Van de Rose

My thanks for their precious help to the friends who collaborated to illustrate this article

- Martine D'Haeseleer -
English text by Giorgio Busetto and Douglas Hawkes

(by Giorgio Busetto)

The use of the forks at table does not seem to have been generally introduced in England until after the Restoration, and the experienced traveller Fynes Morison (1617)
'observed a custom in all those Italian cities and towns through which I passed that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither do I think that any other nation of Christendom doth use it, but only Italy. The Italians, and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy do always at their meal use a little fork when they eat meat... their forks being for the most part of iron or steel, and some of silver, but those were used only by gentlemen. The reason for this their curiosity is because the Italians cannot endure by any means to have his dish touched by fingers, seing that all men's fingers are not alike clean'
(from: 'Silver' by Gerald Taylor, Penguin Books 1963, page 127)