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Gorham 'Japanese Work' Antique Sterling Silver and Enamel 'Sample' Tea Set, Providence, RI, 1897-98

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This tea set exhibits some of the finest cloisonne enamel decoration we have ever seen. It is exceptional in craftsmanship and beauty.

The shapes of the creamer, sugar bowl and tea pot are unusual in that they have a series of vertical creases defining areas of lobes and shallow fluting. The handles are cast and applied as is the spout.

We have never seen such fine enameling executed with such precision and degree of difficulty. The work is incredibly fine, intricate and absolutely stunning.

All three pieces are decorated with similar scenes with one side displaying a symbolic bat and the other a phoenix. The themes are on all the pieces but the actual figures are executed differently and with differently colored enamels.

The remarkable decoration is achieved by soldering fine wire to the vessels defining the ornamentation. Some of the wire is even decorative, being twisted to resemble rope. Various colored enamels are then added within the wire-defined spaces and then fired so the enamel melts and adheres to the surface. Enamel is a very difficult process and controlling the colors while firing is extremely tricky. Various colors throughout the spectrum are incorporated into these lovely objects. As one can see, various colors are even blended together for greater artistic expression.

On each of the sides are birds or butterflies in the corners, once again all a little different and of different colors.

The domed cover to the teapot is hinged and fits beautifully into the body. Pinned through the top with a bolt and nut is a lovely silver moth finial with stunning enameled wings.

In the picture above are four various winged birds or butterflies that also appear as decorative elements on the bodies.

Interestingly, we have the original Gorham costing slip for this set. According to the documentation, the costing was recorded on December 12, 1898. What is fascinating is that all three pieces bear the trident date mark of 1897.

According to an 1898 article in The New York Times '...designs from almost every country are produced here (in America), except Japan. The Japanese have their own original ways of doing their silver, which is a combination of chasing and applied work, and shows the characteristics of the country. So when an American manufacturer wishes Japanese designs made from his own silver he sends it to Japan'.(1) This accounts for the 1897 date mark on the silver and the December, 1898 date on the costing slip.

This rare set is marked underneath with Gorham's trademark along with the Sample Code '8768' and 'STERLING. It is also monogrammed MCW. The teapot measures 7.5 inches across the handle and spout by 3.75 inches high.

The set weighs a total of 24.80 troy ounces and is in excellent condition with one wing beautifully restored.


  1. "Silver For American Tables" in The New York Times, 11 December 1898, p. 20.