It was a demonstration that stopped the passing crowds more than most at Chicago's recent National Hardware Show: Two women converting now discontinued English pennies (large copper coins) into what could be taken for silver dollars but for the Queen's inscription. This was not an illusion -- copper given a temporary silver sheen, as has happened in the past when cyanide-based solutions have been rubbed on -- for the pennies were being genuinely coated with silver. By the simple expedient of polishing the pennies with a special solution, the copper was being plated with silver -- admittedly only a fraction of a micron thick, but pure silver nonetheless.
Manufacturers the world over beat a path to Chicago and the National Hardware Show every August if they have a product they believe is ripe for the American market, particularly if it is something new and unique. And this British breakthrough in molecular chemistry turns silver-plating into a simple do-it-yourself project. Anyone who can polish brass or cutlery can now silver-plate base-metal objects.
Earlier this year, the polish received the London Daily Mail's Blue Ribbon Award for the best new consumer product of the year. This internationally recognized award is given, according to the Daily Mail ``the most outstanding new household product that presents a completely new idea or concept.'' In the past the award has always gone to an appliance or other piece of machinery (Polaroid's Land Camera is one example), but never before, according to the Daily Mail, has a polish even been considered.
What seems like a medieval alchemist's dream come true involves some complicated chemistry: The pure silver is held in suspension, yet immediately released and bonded to the metal within 15 seconds of application.
The result of this discovery, following almost 16 years of research, is that silver-plating is now everyone's do-it-yourself project. So a pair of inexpensive copper earrings easily becomes a sparkling silver set. Similarly, a stainless-steel souvenir tray becomes a silver one, and a pair of brass candlesticks are quickly made to look far more valuable than they are.
What is now reality began in the early '70s as some wishful thinking in the world-renowned silver vaults of London's Chancery Lane. Lawrence Perovetz, a third-generation antiques dealer, had recently joined the family business. Concerned over the way conventional electroplating destroyed the finer engravings on a piece of silverware and, worse still, turned a genuine antique into something that looked modern, he wondered if it wouldn't be possible to add silver simply by polishing it on.
Most industrial chemists laughed him right out of the laboratory until he approached a Dr. Stern, whose first name Mr. Perovetz has never known. Dr. Stern's response: ``Interesting concept. I'll work on it.''
Three years later, Stern phoned Perovetz, and said simply: ``I've done it.''
In fact he had not, at least not quite. There were many problems to be overcome, but the basic principles had been established. It took 12 more years of trial and error to work them all out. In October 1985, the product was released in Britain -- though only to antiques dealers, and they embraced it wholeheartedly.
``That,'' says Perovetz, in Chicago for the introduction of his product to the US, ``was the ultimate compliment,'' for antiques dealers by nature abhor anything new.
The Silver Solution will bond to any base metal, and while it will eventually wear off, it will never crack or peel away, says Perovetz. He has silver-plated everything from pens and key rings to mail boxes and lawn ornaments. But principally the product was designed to keep genuine silver plate looking good.
Standard practice has always been for people to buy one-year (one micron thick), five-year (5 microns) or 10-year (10 microns) guaranteed silver plate. But this product, says Perovetz, ``eliminates the need to buy anything more than one-year silver, because you can now keep it looking good for ever.''
If the chemistry works with silver, why not gold? Perovetz is asked. Another broad grin. ``The Gold Solution,'' he says, ``will be on the market next year.''
The Silver Solution is manufactured in this country by Sheffield Plate Polish Co., Ltd. (US), 1600 Orrington Avenue, Evanston, Ill. 60201.