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Lessons in success from British silversmiths

Exhibiting work from Britain's most illustrious silver dynasties spanning the last two hundred years, the London Silver Vaults shows off the family silver this summer.

Behind its huge safe doors and within its vaulted walls, the London Silver Vaults houses the largest single collection of silver for sale in the world. Silver objects run the gamut from a champagne swizzle stick to a full size silver armchair, from a £25 Victorian silver napkin ring to a £250,000 Georgian table centrepiece.

Built deep below ground in the heart of London's legal district, the Vaults were originally designed in l876 as strong-rooms for safeguarding the silver, jewellery and private documents of the rich and famous.

Nowadays fierce competition, shrewd buying and recessionista thinking are contributing to unbeatable prices at the London Silver Vaults. A sterling silver cutlery set for 12 recently sold for 30% less than the 50% reduced sale price at Harrods.

The current selling exhibition, British Silver Dynasties 1750-1950, proves that the British Silver Vaults are still a world class destination for silver. While many vendors at the Vaults, such as Langfords and Linden & Co, are family businesses, this exhibition celebrates the best of British craftsmanship passed down through its most illustrious silver families – the Batemans, the Elkingtons and James Dixon and Sons.

"Thanks to the exceptional talent of silversmiths and designers coupled with longstanding legislation governing silver quality since the early 1300s, British silver has been acknowledged as the best in the world for over 600 years," says a London Silver Vaults spokesperson.

It's unsurprising then, that Britain's silver families have produced objects that are veritable testaments to the time in which they were made. The exhibition includes a silver hip flask made to fit inside a specially designed book popular with Americans during prohibition. The maker, James Dixon and Sons, led the field in Art Nouveau and 20th century design supplying both the Savoy Hotel and Harrods. Other pieces include a Modernist style claret jug and glass and silver Naturalist centrepiece by Elkington.

Britain's silversmithing families served royalty and the establishment for generations. Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria's youngest son, visited James Dixon's descendants in 1879 and almost a century later Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon paid a visit in 1960. Henry Elkington produced a full set of cutlery for Buckingham Palace on the order of Queen Victoria and designed and produced the Magna Carter Knight that stands in the Houses of Parliament.

The Elkingtons made their name in the Victorian era as pioneers of technical innovation by introducing electroplating - a revolutionary improvement on accepted methods of silver plating. When it came to marketing, George Richards Elkington wasn't averse to self-publicity. He had his name and crest engraved on his fishing rod and country gentleman's knife.

Hester Bateman, one of the few 18th century females silversmiths, took over her husband's business when she was widowed aged 52, and began the most famous British silversmithing dynasty of all. A chalice she made for St Paul's Church in Covent Garden remains in a bank vault and one of her beautifully preserved tea sets forms part of the exhibition.

Design that endures today - the kind that has frenzied audiences waving paddles in auction sale rooms, be it for silver, vintage watches, or modern furniture – all tends to bear a signature winning combination. Firstly, a design that reflects the time in which the object was made through the introduction of new techniques, materials or styles, and secondly a prestigious provenance, often in the form of a royal following. Given these historical works from the hands of Britain's leading silver dynasties incorporate both and are still highly covetable, they may hopefully provide a message of positive reinforcement to British family businesses in our own troubled times. 

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