Q. These spoons were found in my mother-in-law's home after she passed away. I have no idea how she acquired them since they appear to be from Germany -- and to my knowledge, there is no German lineage in our family. I would like to have any information you might be able to provide on these sterling-silver spoons. The hallmark on the back reads "Gowe" with the letter "W" and a "G" above the "W." Intertwined is the world "Alpacca." Is German sterling the same as U.S. sterling?
A. First, let us discuss how this cased set of spoons might have come into your family. We believe these were originally purchased at a porcelain shop ("Porzellanhaus Heinrich Schafer") somewhere in either Germany or Bohemia.
While in the shop, the visitor wanted to purchase a souvenir, but because the porcelain was too fragile, he or she decided on this boxed set of spoons instead -- probably because they would travel better. During the later days of the 19th century and well into the 20th, it was something of a custom for travelers to give a spoon or a set of spoons as a remembrance upon their return from a memorable trip.
They (the travelers) might also have chosen a decorative plate, a cup and saucer, a thimble, a tumbler or some other small souvenir. All of these things were inexpensive tokens that people back home often collected. The recipient knew the pieces were not monetarily valuable, but often cherished them for the thoughtfulness they represented.
The English adopted the "sterling standard" in the year 1300, and this meant that any pieces of metal so marked (often with a "lion passant") had to be composed of 925 parts of pure silver per 1,000 parts of metal. However, it was not until 1560, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, that the sterling standard was firmly set in both law and practice.
Sterling silver is almost always .925 percent pure silver, whether it was made in Great Britain or the United States -- or anywhere else, for that matter. The only exception we can think of is the Chinese silver we see that is marked "sterling" and ". 950." This suggests the metal used was actually a tad purer than British-style sterling silver.
Over the years, German silversmiths have used a variety of silver alloys to make objects. Commonly found are silver alloys that are 80 percent pure (.800) or 83.5 percent pure (.835), but .830, .900, .912, .937, .875, .812, .750, and, yes, .925 (sterling) can be found as well.
Yes, it can be a little confusing, and proper research is necessary to determine which silver standard was actually used to make any given item. For instance, the numeral "15" found as part of a series of Germanic hallmarks can mean the metal is .937 percent pure silver while "13" may mean it is only .812 percent pure.
The clue to the metal composition of the spoons in today's question is the word "Alpacca," which is a trade name and means these spoons have no silver content whatsoever. Instead, they are composed of an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc.
Alpacca is also called "nickel silver" or "German silver," and the insurance replacement value of this early-20th-century boxed set is less than $35 if they are teaspoon-size.
• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.