Teacher Repurposes Old Silver Flatware into Jewelry, Decoration

12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Linda Williams Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

EVERETT, Pa. — Dina McGee, a fifth-grade teacher in Everett, Pa., has appreciative girl students when they receive a Christmas gift of handmade jewelry. McGee makes each of them a piece of jewelry out of old silver flatware.

It all began when she visited a craft show at the shore and saw a piece of jewelry made from silverplated flatware.

“I’ve always loved jewelry,” she said, “and the more I looked at it, the more I thought, I could do this.”

A few weeks later McGee attended a yard sale, purchased some old flatware and decided to put her creative self to work.

The ideal silverware used to create jewelry is made from silverplate.

“I’ve only run across two pieces of actual sterling silver,” she said. “And that was so soft, it was difficult to work with.”

Stainless is not even a consideration.

“I did what everyone else does these days,” she said. “I turned to the Internet, and then began a trial-and-error process using my imagination. My mom still had my dad’s tools and she lives close by. I started going to her house and using his old vice grip. Then, I had to buy a belt sander and a bolt cutter.”

The Silverplate Generations

Silverplate flatware was first manufactured in the 1850s. It was made to replace sterling because it was more affordable. Most of it is made from nickel or copper with a thin layer of silver plating. Some of the plating is as fine as a human hair. The better sterling was made by companies like Gorham, Towle, Oneida or 1847 Roger Brothers. It was manufactured until 1950.

The silverplate got passed down from generation to generation and was considered an heirloom until dishwashers became popular. Silverplate took special care and automatic dishwashers were not recommended to clean it. Instead, the flatware had to be washed by hand, preferably in a lemon-scented soap. It had to be stored in a tightly closed wooden chest that took up considerable space. And, despite the special care, silverplate still tended to turn dark and had to be polished to keep its shine.

All of this simply became too much for today’s busy homemakers. With full-time jobs, children, pets, houses and transporting family members to various activities, the time needed to care for silverplate took a back burner. Losing an occasional piece meant that many sets were no longer complete. Eventually, silverplate became a yard sale or eBay item. On eBay, a 1953 vintage set in the case in mint condition can be purchased for about $100. Other asking prices can range from $11 for a few pieces to $400 for a spectacular set.

Because of the easy availability of silverplate, McGee saw its potential as a craft material. Once she began gathering it, she came up with her own designs for jewelry.

She had worked with beaded jewelry for some time and enjoyed creating individual pieces.

With the flatware, she now makes bracelets, earrings, necklaces and broaches. She typically uses the characteristics of the flatware to enhance a piece’s design. For example, she might first take a bolt cutter to cut off the handle of a fork, then use a vice or a pair of pliers to bend the fork prongs into designs. For a necklace, she might scrape a face into the base of the fork and add a bracket to make a pendant.

McGee has shaped these forks into fish, bunnies and people as well as reindeer for Christmas items.

Recently, while shopping in town, McGee was wearing a reindeer necklace. Someone offered to buy it and she sold it off her neck.

“I’ve had that happen in strange cities too,” she laughed.

Using some of the more unusual pieces of flatware, McGee has created pumpkins for the fall holidays, and made necklaces out of small sugar spoons for an entire family.

“People like to have jewelry made out of their flatware and then give it as gifts,” she explained. “That way they have something to keep from their grandmother’s flatware.”

Because of this, Dina is sometimes able to trade jewelry for flatware.

She charges $20 for a pendant, $10 for earrings and $25 for bracelets.

Her female students often commented on her silverplate designs, so now she gives them her handmade jewelry for gifts.

“I just like to give something back to them,” McGee said. “So each Christmas I make something for each of the girls.”

She makes store purchases for the boys.

Last summer, McGee decided to give crafts shows a try and participated in the Arts and Crafts Festival held each July in Bedford, Pa.

“It was pretty successful but made me wonder how I would do outside of my hometown,” she said.

Then, in the fall, she was able to attend a festival near Baltimore.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “People would take one look and buy three or four pieces either for themselves or for Christmas gifts.”

There is a market for silver flatware but it is not in eating utensils anymore.

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