Silver lining for newlyweds maybe

The sparkle has gone back into a few slightly tarnished wedding plans. Sterling silver flatware, as traditional at American weddings as a white gown and white cake, may be working its way back onto the gift list of brides-to-be since the price of silver has dropped from stratospheric to just "very expensive."

Susan Trusset had "pretty much given up on the idea" of a silver service display at her coming wedding, says her mother, Margaret Trusset of Irvine, Calif. "We didn't even bother picking out a pattern when we registered at stores a few months ago. Twelve place settings would have cost more than the entire wedding, and you really can't expect guests to pay those prices. One fork alone cost more than an entire place setting when Heather [their other daughter] was married in 1970.

"The prices are still sky high, even with the sales, but they are within reach, and it is at least possible to start them with a few place settings they can build on. . . ."

Sterling prices could drop still farther, speculates Donald C. Thomas, manager of the silver department at Shreve, Crump & Lowe in Boston, "but we're not ready to follow the roller-coaster action of silver prices. We have to wait until they show some sign of stabilizing. If they do end up low, then silverware manufacturers will gladly cut their prices. They have been devastated by these high prices."

But prices will never go back to pre-1975 affordable levels, according to industry analysts. Sterling silver will always be unaffordable for the majority of couples getting married, they say. For that reason silver plate and pewter manufacturers have felt a steady upswing since 1975 and a recent surge in their sales.

Nonetheless, prices have dropped drastically, report silverware buyers from various parts of the country, and customers are cautiously edging their way back into the stores, although activity in the silver departments of jewelry and department stores cannot come close to February's rush of people anxious to sell their sterling sets.

"We had a definite increase this week and last week," says Mr. Thomas. The prestigeous stores carrying patterns ranging from relatively low-priced machine-made, US brands to hand-carved and high-priced pieces from Italy. "It's nowhere near what it use to be," he says, "but people are no longer afraid to come in and look and ask prices. We can have some sets on display. For awhile, we kept most of our sterling under lock and key.

"The store has cut many of its sterling flatware prices in half. The pointed antique pattern from Reed & Barton, for example, is on sale now for $591 compared to a January price of $1,183 -- a level Mr. Thomas terms "ridiculous."

The price last September was about $500. When the price of silver bullion started climbing from about $8 an ounce last June to an all-time high $50 an ounce in late January, sterling prices climbed right along with it. Prices reached a level of $300 for one teaspoon and $700 for a baby cup. Sterling sales dropped by about 50 percent nationally, although the dollar level has remained the same.

By mid-March, silver bullion prices began sliding back down the scale to $20 and $30 an ounce range. Manufacturers began dropping their prices, hoping to draw back customers initially frightened away by the $300 teaspoon. The floor really fell out of the silver market during the last week of March, dropping prices to $10.80 an ounce.

Sterling silver manufacturers have held off following suit this time, says an official of the Dallas-based Neiman-Marcus department store, waiting to see where silver prices stabilized. So have the droves of customers, hoping that sterling will become still cheaper.

Nonetheless, lower prices have prompted second thoughts for some who already own sterling silver but have been tempted to join the rush to sell it. Tina Herlinger of Durham, N.C., received two place settings of her grand baroque pattern at her wedding in 1970, at a cost of $120 each, and almost sold them when the prices hit $900. "I wouldn't consider it now, though, with prices dropping down to where I might reasonably hope to begin building the set again.

"The rekindled interest is there, though," comments Walter Hoving, chairman of the board of Tiffany's in New York. Tiffany manufacturers its own sterling and sells it through some 800 outlets across the country. The company had discounted prices twice in recent weeks, a total of 35 percent. Mr. Hoving terms "unconscionable" the manipulation of the silver market by a few wealthy individuals. He ran an ad recently in the New York Times articulating that viewpoint.

Although Mr. Hoving is optimistic that Tiffany prices will hold for the near future, his advice to young couples is to "buy now," while they still can.

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