Investable Silversmiths Part V: Exeter Silversmith William Rawlings Sobey

Following on from the Stone family silversmiths, William Rawlings Sobey (1811 – 1852) is another sought-after Exeter silversmith. Born in Exeter around 1811, his makers marks are registered from 1833 to about 1852. He was a contemporary of John Stone, and like John Stone, he manufactured spoons, (Figure 1) butterknives and other flatware in the Fiddler and Old English patterns. The 1841 & 1851 census returns show him as resident in All Hallows Goldsmith Street. The 1851 White’s Devonshire Dictionary lists his workshop as being at 1 Queen Street.William Rowlings Sobey William Rowlings Sobey

Unlike John Stone, William Rowlings Sobey was not folllowed by his son into the business. When William died in 1852 aged 41, he left behind 4 children. His only son George Ferris Sobey (b1840) was 11 at the time of his father’s death. George went onto become a solicitor in London. He married and had 8 children prior to his own death aged 46 in 1886.

After William’s death, his widow Elizabeth lived with their two youngest children Elizabeth Anne Sobey (b1843) and Fanny Lucy Sorbey (b1844) at St  James Place in Exeter. In the 1860s, Elizabeth Anne Sobey married William Borrough but she was widowed young. The youngest child Fanny died unmarried in 1871 aged 27.

For further details about the caddy spoon in Figure 1 contact

Investable Silver Part IV: Exeter Silversmiths John & Thomas Stone

The Exeter assay office was officially opened in 1700, and operated until 1883. In the 18th and 19th century Provincial was thought of as being inferior to the silver produced by the London silversmiths. How times have changed. Provincial silver is now very sought after, and pieces carrying the Exeter assay mark attract particular interest from collectors. This is pricipally because of the rarity of Exeter silver.

John Stone (1800-1868) was an Exeter silversmith. His assay marks were registered from 1825 until 1867. He produced mainly flatware items, such as spoons, butter knives, sugar tongs, often in the Fiddle pattern and Old English pattern (Figure 1).

John Stone Exeter Silver

John Stone is listed in White’s Devonshire Directory of 1851 at 30 New Bridge Street. The census returns show him resident at this address in 1841 and 1851. By 1861, John Stone appears in the census returns at 36 The High Street Exeter. The size of his workshop remains constant over this period, as he is shown as employing 6 men in all 3 entries.

John Stone had 3 sons and a daughter. He was followed into the business by his eldest son, Thomas Hart Stone. Born in 1838. Thomas appears at boarding school in West Teignmouth in the 1851 census. By 1861 he had joined his father in business, being listed on the census at 36 High Street. Thomas’ own assay mark was registered in 1863, and after the death of his father, John Stone in 1868, he took over the business and like his father, made silver flatware (Figure 2). Thomas married Frances Emily Rookes early in 1869, and the birth of their daughter Anna Matilda Stone was registered in Q4 of that year. The 1871 census shows him still at 36 High Street with his family and apprentice John Tyle. Unfortunately, Thomas didn’t long survive his father. He died in 1873 aged 36, and his apprentice John Tyle did not go on to register his own makers mark.Thomas Stone Exeter silver spoons

Investable Silver Part 3: The Silver Berry Spoon

The term berry spoon describes a spoon possessing a bowl that has been embossed with fruit, often berries, thus the name. In most cases the interior o the bowl was also gilded, so creating quite an attractive ornamental piece of silver. However berry spoon, have acquired a bit of a bad press. The problem lies in the fact that the vast majority of berry spoons didn’t start life as berry spoons, but were often plain spoons that were decorated at a later date (Figure 1). To some purist silver collectors this makes a Georgian spoon carrying a later berry decoration little better than a forgery. This is rather harsh because the Berry spoon has an important place in the history of silver flatware.

Georgian Berry spoon1

In the mid 19th century fruit was becoming steadily more available and the silver smiths of the day, ever with an eye to making a profit, designed the berry spoon to provide a decorative way of handling fruit.  The gilding of the bowl in this was all-important, for it protected the silver from the acidic fruit juices. By the early Victorian period some very fine silver berry spoons were manufactured, for example we have a lovely pair of heavy silver berry/preserving spoons manufactured by the excellent early Victorian Exeter silversmith John Stone in 1848 (Figure 2 – currently available for sale at our online Ruby Lane shop These spoons were true berry spoons designed and made for the purpose.

VIctorian Berry Spoons Exeter 1847

The demand for these new decorative items was high but the bespoke berry spoons would have been expensive. So many silver smiths met the demand for less expensive versions by taking earlier 18th and 19th century spoons and berrying them. This berrying of earlier Georgian and Regency spoons continued right into the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of these later decorated spoons were made.

So how can one tell the rare bespoke Victorian berry spoons from those with a later decoration. Well, there are three things to look for: date, spoon pattern and patina. The date of manufacture is a really big clue. The bespoke berry spoons were made after about 1840, so a berry spoon with an earlier (Georgian, Regency, George IV) date mark will have been decorated at a later time. Spoon pattern, the true bespoke Victorian berry spoons had handles and bowls that had bespoke designs that complimented the berrying and engraving (Figure 3A), whilst the berry spoons carrying a later engraving tended to be of a simple patter, i.e. the Old English pattern (Figure 3C and 3D). Then there is the patina. The true berry spoons of the Victorian period will carry signs of the age of their finish in the form of small surface scratches (Figure 3A and 3B), those patterned at a later date tend to carry fewer surface scratches because the berrying is more recent and that berrying process to all intents and purposes re-finished the spoon.

Spoon Comparison

Needless to say the more desirable spoons are those that were originally made as berry spoons. These are getting very hard to find, and examples by good makers will attract a premium. For example, the Pair of John Stone spoons  shown in Figure 2 are currently for sale at £480. This brings us to the question of should the spoons carrying a later berry decoration be considered as fakes. Definitely not. The work of the original silversmith is still very evident, the later decoration is normally of a very high quality and is very much the product of a Victorian and later social trend. Thus these spoons with a later berrying carry as much historical and aesthetic value as the bespoke versions. Unsurprisingly the spoons that have been subject to later berrying are still very collectable  but fetch lower prices because they were made in significantly larger numbers. For example the William M Traies example shown in Figure 1 is for sale at £105.

Please contact us at for more  information on the spoons shown in this blog.

The Bronte Birth Place March 23 2013

Spring is here, the flowers are in hiding and snow is falling snow upon snow. We were meant to be antiquing at the Arley Hall Antiques Fair today, but the Great British Weather had something else in mind for us – about 18 inches of heavily drifting snow! So having risen early to go to an antiques fair and finding ourselves stuck we decided to go for a health giving walk instead. After trudging for what seemed like miles and having had to recover ourselves and the dog from man sized snow drifts a few of times we eventually made it into the local village, Thornton, whose name to fame is being the birthplace of the Bronte sisters. Thornton didn’t look as if Spring had sprung but it did look quite picturesque under a blanket of snow. See what you think.



Top – The Bronte birthplace, Market Street Thornton, Bottom left a lovely little farmhouse with a well, and Bottom right the cottages along Sapgate Lane, just round the corner from the Bronte birthplace

A Mantique – The Hamilton Pacer

The Hamilton watch company was founded in 1892 and manufactured its first watch in 1893. In its early years, Hamilton strove to produce watches with a very high degree of accuracy, and Hamilton pocket watches were adopted as the official American watch for the railways. By 1917, the fashion for watches had changed and there was an increasing demand for wristwatches that could be worn by those going to fight in the trenches. To meet this need, Hamilton designed wristwatches based around the 0 – sized 17 jewel 983 movement. These watches were a great success. In the 1920s, Hamilton bought the Illinois watch company and expanded its range to include numerous lovely Art Deco wristwatches.

During World War 2, Hamilton stopped producing watches for the civilian market and instead produced a million or more watches for the troops being sent to Europe and the Pacific. After the war, Hamilton once again returned to commercial watch making and were lauded in 1957 for producing the world’s first battery powered electric watches, the two tone 14K gold filled Pacer and the solid 14K solid gold Venturer. These watches were something quite new, seeming to speak of the space age soon to follow. Popularity was assured, and even Elvis had one!

Unfortunately the first movement (the 500, Figure 1) was very delicate and traditional watchmakers didn’t feel capable of servicing them. This combined reliability issues resulted in large numbers of watches equipped with the 500 movement being recalled. The 500 movement was then replaced in 1962 by the 505, and this was far more reliable, but sadly couldn’t compete with the much more robust Bulova Acutron. It is believed that Hamilton’s foray into electric watches cost them dearly and that the early electric watches dealt a blow that contributed to the eventually demise of American made Hamilton watches. The Hamilton brand is now owned by Swatch.

Despite this, the design of the Hamilton electric watches, particularly the Pacer and the Ventura still holds the imagination. So much so that the Ventura featured in the film “The Men in Black” as the watch of choice for the hero. Subsequent to this, the value of good 1950s Pacers and Venturas shot up. New quartz and automatic Venturas were then manufactured under the Hamilton brand by Swatch.

Good original American Hamilton Pacers and Ventura are very hard to find in the UK, and are very much collectors watches. A good Pacer with a 500 movement will fetch upwards of £750, whilst a Ventura will set a buyer back £1700 – £2500. The electonic Pacers and Venturas of the 1950s and 60s may have been unreliable, but their iconic design assures a high demand today.

We had a very good American Hamilton Pacer in stock (Figure 2). The watch was is in a lovely condition and having been serviced by the electric watch guru Paul Wirdnam of Electric Watches  was sold at one of the Wetherby Racecourse Antiques Fairs before Christmas. My husband is sorry it sold!

The Watchmakers Box

Most people like wooden boxes. Visitors to antique fairs gravitate towards them, opening and closing the lid and drawers. The more compartments the box has, the better. The attraction is to have somewhere to put all the nick-knacks and small treasures that we accumulate during our lifetimes.

For some professions a well-designed and well-constructed box is very useful. For example a watchmaker uses a range of small tools, and needs somewhere to keep them along with small delicate mechanical watch components, so watchmakers boxes were designed to meet these needs.

The boxes needed to be compact, portable and not only provide adequate storage but also a non-slip and soft working surface. They often consisted of multiple felt-lined drawers or compartments of different depths mounted on some for of retractable felt lined worktop. These watchmaker boxes are hard to find and have often had rather a hard life.

We recently acquired a lovely example (figure 1). This box is made out of a lovely golden oak by DC Woodberry of Cardigan Road, Henleaze, Bristol (figure 2). It probably dates from the early to mid 20th century. The box is approximately the size of a large brief case but twice as deep, with a leather handle on the top. The simplicity of the design is stunning. It has 5 graduated felt-lined drawers arranged over a central felt-lined cubbyhole over a further 3 felt-lined graduated long drawers lower down. The retractable felt-lined working surface was designed to be removed and then function as the lockable box front. This particularly box is in very good condition.

Watchmakers watch 1

Figure 1 The early to mid 20th Century watchmakers box

At its first outing at the Bowman Antiques Fair March 2013 the box attracted a lot of interest, selling within 4 hours. The point here is that high quality, well-designed boxes with a clearly defined use are not just desirable, they are a hot commodity.

Watchmakers box2

Figure 2 The Makers label

Preparing for Stafford Bingley Hall Antiques Fair

Getting ready for an antique fair is always enjoyable. The preparations starts well in advance with a review of the stock. This is very important because different fairs have very different characters and attract very different buyers so the stock has to be matched to the venue. The next step is to put together a shopping list, this is a truly fun but a vital component of the preparation.  The shopping list has to be quite general, highlighting classes of antiques rather than specific items. Then comes the sourcing. Sourcing new stock can be both exciting and frustrating because success is very dependent on what is available at that time and being able to acquire desired items at the right price. Unsurprisingly, sourcing can be very time consuming, often involving hours in cold draft filled auction rooms or hours searching outdoor stalls at other antique fairs. However, there is the reward, a find that that fits the requirements at the right price. Buying stock isn’t the end of it, quite often new stock items have characteristics that need further research, for example an inscription on a piece of silver can add provenance, or an unusual makers mark on a piece of pottery or a piece of furniture. There is always an element of risk when buying, and that one item that looks good but you just need to check up on it to make sure. This adds a real thrill to the chase. The research component is accompanied by cleaning, servicing in the case of watches (All our watches are serviced by a very well established watch and clock maker JH Oxtoby and Sons) and photographing. We find that photographing our stock is very important. We keep a pictorial record of our purchases and this combined with good well-researched descriptions means that we build up a fantastic resource based on personal experience. Having done all that, all there is left to do is head off to the fair and set up.

For our next fair at Stafford Bingley Hall on the 8th, 9th and 10th of March we have sourced a whole load of goodies, see a tiny sample below (Figure 1). Come and visit us, we are easy to find being located on the red carpeted area by the ladies loos two stands down from the little shop.

Stafford pic 3Figure 1 shows A) An continental silver and gold Longines pocket watch dated to 1925, B)A silver footed bowl with hallmarks for Sheffield 1902 and makers marks for Fenton Russell & Co, weight approximately 16oz, C) An Edwardian 9ct gold double Albert watch chain (37 cm in length, weight approximately 18g) with a 9ct shield fob, D) A Victorian silver snuff box with hallmarks for 1859 and makers marks for Frederick Marson, and E) A Royal Worcester miniature porcelain tortoise, date marks for 1907.

Antique Silver and the Opportune Moment

Good silver is steadily becoming harder to source. Over the past 3 years, the silver price has been strong. As a result, vast quantities of Victorian, Edwardian and later good quality silver has sold at scrap prices to scap merchants. Even Georgian silver has fallen victim. The volume of silver that has been destroyed is incredible

Many of the scrap buyers relied on a growing silver price for their margin. Profit was made on a volume basis. Some merchants actually had hollow-ware crushers made, so they could rip off non-metal handles, and pack their purchases more effectively. Some of the metal dealers had huge monthly turnovers working to a margin of just a few percent. As a result, vast amounts of stunning silver has been lost from the antique market, and has probably be turned into components for computers, mobile phones, and other pieces of consumer-ware. Thankfully times have changed, and because of a shortage of good silver the price of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian silver has increased quite dramatically. This, combined with the fact that some investors have moved into tangible assets such as antiques, particularly those with an intrinsic as well as an aesthetic value has meant that sourcing antique silver has become more expensive. As dealers in antique silver, this is something we welcome. Yes we need to spend more to buy stock, but this means that now the lovely silver that 12 months ago was within the reach of the scrap merchants is for the time being safe from the short term profiteers. Is it a good time to buy good silver? We believe so, it is a case of supply and demand and at the moment demand is outstripping supply.

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