If you collect or wear antique glasses from the 1800s, you will find glasses available in several different metals. Gold is the most common, followed by various types of steel and German silver (which is not actually silver) that had a silver-toned appearance.
But there were several pairs of antique glasses made from silver in the 19th century. They were still an alloy – pure silver is too malleable to stand up to regular wear as eyeglass frames – but had a high enough silver content to be classified as silver. Knowing more about the various types of silver used in antique glasses will give you a better understanding of their value and history.
Types of Silver for Eyeglasses
Silver-toned glasses were exceedingly popular in the 1800s, and many of the antique glasses you can find today have a silver appearance. To create this look, glasses makers may have used one of the following materials:
- Sterling Silver – Named for the Pound Sterling used as British currency, this is the standard for most silver used in jewelry, silverware, and other silver items. It is 92.5% silver. Considered luxurious, Sterling silver would have been rare in eyeglasses, but ideal for pince nez or opera glasses.
- German Silver – German silver was an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc. It was affordable to make and looked almost the same as silver, but did not bend or tarnish as easily as Sterling silver would.
- Common Steel – Steel is made by adding carbon to iron, creating a shiny silver material that is far stronger than silver and much more affordable. This was a popular material for many silver-looking eyeglasses in the Civil War era.
The other option for silver glasses was coin silver. Throughout history, many cultures used coins made of silver or a silver alloy. When a person had more coins than they needed, it was common practice to take the coins to a silversmith who could melt them down and remake them as vases, silverware, and other objects of value. The objects could be turned back into coins if necessary, and in the meantime providing a useful object that displayed the owner’s wealth.
Coin silver in America was slightly different. Because the U.S. did not have its own source of silver until the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859, all silver had to be imported at a high cost. Silver coins, therefore, were made of 90% silver and 10% copper to minimize silver usage.
Silver was also not affordably available for silversmiths, or glasses makers who wanted silver frames. The better option for these craftsmen was to buy silver coins or other items made of coin silver and melt them down to produce the raw materials needed to make glasses frames.
By the time Sterling silver became a possibility for American silversmiths and glasses manufacturers, steel and aluminum had already supplanted silver for use in glasses. The materials were cheaper to produce, more durable, and a preferred choice for glasses wearers.
The type of silver or silver look-alike alloy in a pair of antique spectacles will play a role in the value of the glasses, as well as their longevity. Silver is luxurious, but steel and aluminum are resistant to tarnishing and will not bend as easily.
If you are searching for the perfect pair of silver frame glasses from the 1800s, Eyeglasses Warehouse has a wide selection of Civil War era glasses and wire rim glasses in silver tones to help find the right pair of antique spectacles.