Monday, July 04, 2005

London Silver Vaults

My grandmother was one of the world’s great shoppers. It was not beyond her to purchase things which she would leave at the store because she just didn’t have any more room in her house. But even an enthusiast like my grandmother would find today’s homogenised shopping experience greatly diminished. Whether you are in Selfridges in London, Galleries Lafayette in Paris or Bloomingdales in New York, it’s all the same stuff. You could be anywhere and what you bring home says little about where you have been. It was probably made in China anyway.

That is why I jumped at the chance to visit the London Silver Vaults in pursuit of an important gift which all the givers, spread across two continents, agreed should be silver. Finally, I had a reason to shop for something unique and authentically English, recognised throughout the world for the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship. I was anticipating a great “No Crowds” shopping experience.

The Silver Vaults opened in 1876 to rent storage vaults to London’s elite for the safekeeping of their silver, jewellery and documents. Over the years, silver dealers have taken over, until today there are approximately 37 dealers offering the world’s largest collection of fine antique silver.

Entering the Silver Vaults by a side street off Chancery Lane, you know these guys mean business. Very serious, rather polite guards at the front desk search your bags and direct you down the stairs. After passing through the thick vault doors and wandering down several corridors, I arrive at the first dealer, in a somewhat intimidating overly crowded small room. Thinking it is too obvious and probably not a good tactic to start with the first door on the right, I progress down several more corridors and around several corners until I come to a shop that has a welcoming air.

John Binks of Stephen Kalms was unpacking boxes of silver having just returned from a large exhibition of art and antiques. I explained my mission and received my first of many short and interesting classes in the history of silver. Mr Binks showed me several wonderful pieces, explained the background, translated the hallmarks, and seemed genuinely interested in helping me find the piece I was looking for. With this good experience under my belt, I went on to explore the other shops, finally finding and purchasing a beautiful silver tray back at Stephen Kalms, this time directly from Stephen.

This was a first class shopping experience. I learned a tremendous amount about the history of English silver from knowledgeable and agreeable instructors. No one rushed me. The shops were never crowded with people although occasionally crowded with silver. It was a hot summer day but cool underground. Most importantly, I had acquired a unique and lovely object where the place of origin, the company and the year could be identified. I knew that the lucky recipient of the gift would not find anything like it in Selfridges, Galleries Lafayette or Bloomingdales and that made me very happy.

I think a visit to the London Silver Vaults is a great idea even if you are not a silver collector. For as little as £50, you can find small objects such as napkin rings which are beautifully made and steeped in history. I found the dealers to be a nice group of people and happy to share their considerable knowledge whether you buy or not. Combining a shopping excursion to the Silver Vaults with a visit to the Sir John Soanes Museum and a stroll through the Inns of Court, strikes me as a perfect way to spend the better part of a day in London.

Emerging into the 90 degree heat of street level with my purchase complete, I was almost tempted to turn right back around to re-enter that wonderful, uniquely English treasure trove of some of the most beautiful objects you can find anywhere in London. And oh how my grandmother would have loved it.

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