I sold cutlery/flatware for nearly 20yrs and ran a number of training workshops for staff too and I want to share some information with you that will demystify cutlery once and for all.
I've tried to keep it basic and condensed but the information is worth it so I do hope you'll read on.
Most of us will go shopping for cutlery at least once in our lifetime and if you have made this attempt you will know how bewildering it is to be confronted by row after row of boxes and displays of cutlery displaying lots of numbers that don't seem to make any sense.
Where do you start? What do you look for?
Cutlery is a big subject so I'm going to just talk about stainless steel and leave silver plate in a whole other category.
The first myth I want to dispel is about the very nature of stainless steel without getting into too many facts and jargon.
"Stainless steel stains less than plain steel. It does not mean rust proof"
Steel comes in many forms and grades and refers to an alloy that is made of iron and carbon to which other elements are added for strength, durability, appearance etc.
In terms of cutlery chromium is added to steel for durability and to resist corrosion.
Here we come to the first term you may have seen on some of those cutlery boxes,
This is the most basic cutlery and is serviceable and durable for everyday wear
I have tried to photograph some examples from my cutlery to show the difference between the cutlery pieces but I am no pro so it is difficult to see. It can also be difficult to the naked eye, especially when they are all brand new on the shelf. It's the wear and tear in the long run that the durability and quality shows.
In this photo above is a representation of basic 13%chrome teaspoons probably at least 20yrs old. They look silver-ish and shiny right? Maybe a few scratches?
Compare it to this photo....
The spoon in the middle this time is the next grade up in st/steel and here we come to the next confusing numbers...
Very simply, the steel mixture now contains 18% chrome (instead of 13%) and 8% nickel to make the steel even more resistant to corrosion and wear and to give it a desirable silvery lustre.
The teaspoon in the middle is also about 20yrs old and has had everyday wear. There are scratches but it has maintained it's look and lustre over the years because of the higher grade of steel mix and manufacture.
Once you understand these numbers, you can follow that 18/10 and 18/12 are again referring to the increased composition of nickel. Sometimes 18/12 is hard to distinguish between silver plate because of the silvery appearance.
So this is the first and most basic point of cutlery manufacture that is going to set prices apart. The difference in price is reflected in the difference in the metals themselves. You are going to live with your cutlery a long time so I would always recommend buying the best you can afford and paying the extra. Looked after properly, it really can be a lifetime product.
Manufacture also has a bearing on the price of cutlery too though.
As with any product, the more finishing required sets the price. Again without getting into too much technical process etc, cutlery shapes are "stamped" or cut from a sheet of metal and then smoothed and finished.
Feel the edges of the fork tines and the sides of the spoons. Run your fingers around the handles. Cheaper sets that have been finished quickly and economically have sharp inelegant edges. In most cases you really do get what you pay for.
The one manufacturing process that really does set cutlery apart is the knives. In the picture above the knife on the right is a solid piece of metal stamped out of one piece. The handle is solid and though slender quite heavy and certainly not balanced to the blade.
The knives on the left are "hollow handle" manufactured. Both sides of the handle have been made separately and a forged blade has been added. The whole lot is then put together and finished in such a seamless way that it is hard to know but it provides an ample and elegant knife grip without the excess weight and is perfectly balanced to the blade.
Hollow handles on either side and the solid handle (on it's side) in the middle to show you the density of the construction.
Whether you choose hollow or solid is completely an aesthetic point of view and that is why it is so important to feel the cutlery and hold it.
Once you have decided on quality, grade and manufacture to price point, now it is time to start considering patterns available in that range. Most people tend to look for pattern first but this is really the last and cosmetic consideration.
The two photos above show normal and expected marks on stainless steel cutlery. These marks are easily polished off and preventable.
Which brings us to care of your cutlery.
Remember it stains less it is not indestructible and is susceptible to pitting and rusting if subjected to enough moisture and corrosives.
The two most corrosive substances to your cutlery are egg (in fact any sulpher rich foods like asparagus etc but egg tends to stick to cutlery) and salt, so it is common sense not to leave your cutlery in contact with these foods. A simple rinse after dinner or place the cutlery in a dish of water to soak if you are not washing up straight away is sufficient. After washing in warm soapy water, drying the cutlery thoroughly and storing it in a drawer away from moisture ensures there is no spotting or rusting. If you are using a dishwasher, rinse thoroughly before placing in the washer and then drying after the cycle has finished is the best. Lets face it though, not all of us are that diligent so learn to live with some water spotting and polish occasionally with a recommended polish but most spots can be dealt with by dipping into very hot water and then buffing with a soft cloth. Never use scourers or harsh abrasives. Do use cutlery dividers that prevent or at least restrict a lot of movement each time the drawer opens and shuts to avoid unnecessary scratching.
Look for quality of steel and understand the terms 13%, 18/8 etc. and ask the staff if the cutlery is not marked as this has a direct bearing on how well your cutlery performs over the years.
The more chrome and nickel, the more harder and shinier, the less scratches and corrosion.
Look for the finish of the product and that the price will reflect the hours put into the manufacture.
Buy it wisely and buy it once.
One final word about the steel quality.
Have you seen unsightly grey scratch marks on your white china plates?
A lot of people mistake this for a fault or a breakdown in the glaze on the porcelain. In fact this is usually the fine marks left behind by a soft 13% chrome cutlery, usually a worn spoon edge after some years of use and replacing the plates is not the answer to this problem. If you can remove the grey looking scratches with a damp cloth and bi-carb soda then you need to be looking at your cutlery, not your plates.
A common saying in our house when we were children learning to use cutlery was
"Cut your food, not your plate"
I hope this has helped clear up some of the mysteries of the cutlery department and that you get a life time of good service from your purchase.