Pewter

Written by Beth Hrusch
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Pewter is a metal with a long and storied history. Today, it is mainly used to craft decorative items, accessories and gifts. For most of the time that man has been employing this fine metal, however, it has been one of the main components of utilitarian items such as utensils and other house wares. Historically, many cultures have embraced this malleable and beautiful alloy, which has been prized for its durability and lustrous patina since it first came into use.

Pewter Through the Ages

The earliest known pewter is thought to have originated in Rome around 1500 B.C. The spread of the Roman Empire brought this metal to Europe where it was called by many names, all variations of each other. In France it was piautre, in the Netherlands, peautre. In Italy it was called peltro. It was not long before the cultures and countries of Europe were using this alloy extensively. Forged into utensils and house wares, it became a part of everyday life for many people.

Pewter made until about the 18th century was an alloy consisting of about 50 percent tin and 50 percent lead. When the health hazards and tendency to tarnish made the use of lead impractical, antimony and copper were substituted. A lead-free version became popular, especially in Great Britain where it was called Britannia metal. This mixture of tin, antimony and copper was made into plates, mugs and other everyday items.

Popular Amongst All Classes and Cultures

While the formula for pewter has remained relatively uniform, the word refers to any alloy in which tin is the main component. Some formulations are more pure, with concentrations of tin as high as 95 percent. Tin is a soft, malleable metal with a silvery color that lends pewter its deep luster. Tin is a precious metal, in the same category as gold, silver and platinum, and is in fact the fourth most commonly mined precious metal in the world today.

Originally, pewter was only available to the rich. It is said that King Edward I had over 300 household items made of this metal, but he did not own one piece of silver! By the fifteenth century, the industry was organized into guilds and regulated by the crown. This brought fine pewter to the masses. As the popularity of this alloy spread to the colonies in America and elsewhere, it was used to make items unique to these far-flung outposts. Pewter became a way to express the creative spirit of new cultures.

American pewter developed rapidly despite the difficulties imposed by the British crown. High taxation of imported tin and other components often forced American pewtersmiths to rework damaged pieces rather than forge new ones. Eventually, the colonies won their independence and were able to trade for tin on better terms. High demand resulted in more and better craftsman and unique new designs. Still in common use for making utility items, pewter slowly evolved into a preferred component of decorative pieces.

Pewter Has Timeless Appeal

Today, this fine metal alloy is still in wide use, but in general it has shifted from a staple of ordinary house wares to a component of fine decorative home accessories. In the modern world pewter is still prized, but more for its beauty than its utility. It has also become highly collectible.

From plates and tankards to fine jewelry and accessories, pewter has become a beautiful and lasting fixture in homes around the world. It retains the same qualities that have made it one of history's most influential metal alloys. Its durability and practicality do not diminish the unique luster and inherent beauty found in items made of pewter, and this lends this alloy a popularity that has survived the test of time. It is truly a metal for the ages.


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