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Antique silver highlights High Tea event

| Monday, April 1, 2013, 1:11 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Dawn Corley shows off an 1800 bag adorned with whitvey jet — beads made of burnt wood — and a silver lid the silversmith designed to open wide then return to its original small size.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Folks had a chance to see and touch coin silver from the 18th and 19th centuries in South Carolina.

When it comes to antique silver, Dawn Corley is an expert.

She shared some of that knowledge recently with a group at Youghiogheny Country Club in Elizabeth Township. The High Tea event was hosted by Synergy Financial Group.

“These pieces were made for individuals,” Corley, known as The Charleston Silver Lady, said. “They represent a lifestyle from 17th century.”

Corley displayed a portion of her 5,000-piece collection, which she has been acquiring since before she was 20. She knows the history of each piece, which she says is important. “If you know the history of a piece, write it down,” she told the group, noting the history can be more valuable than the piece itself. “The joy of all of these pieces is I know who owned them and what plantation they came from.”

Each piece in her collection has a link to a lowcountry family or plantation in South Carolina from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Charleston native has a maternal lineage to one of the city's colonial silversmiths. The self-taught expert was chosen to appraise the jewelry recovered when the Civil War submarine Hunley was raised from Charleston harbor.

Talking about her collection, Corley said, “These items were treasured from generation to generation. Each piece was made from melted silver coins and are coin silver. These were all made by hand.”

While today's silver is shiny, she said coin silver is not because it does not contain copper alloy found in sterling. Coin silver also is soft, she said, noting the dents in one of pieces and showing the flexibility of a knife.

Because each piece was made for a specific family, Corley said they are unique. She had a candlestick from a home along Church Street in Charleston.

“It was a set of 12,” she said, noting they served as tools not decoration. “This predates the Victorian period by 150 years or more. There would have a been a candlestick for each person sitting at the table so each person could see. They were also carried from room to room for light and they function just as well today as they did then.”

She noted some safety features of the candlestick. Ballast — the same material used in cannonballs — was added on the bottom to create stability. The holes were filled with sand to add more stability. “You probably have pieces from your grandmother who had green felt on the bottom. That's because the pieces would leave a ring on a white tablecloth and they didn't like that.”

She showed a chatelaine bag, which dates back to the siege of Fort Motte in 1781. Rebecca Brewton Motte reportedly shot flaming arrows into her family home, which had been taken over by the British as a military outpost. The chatelaine bag, which was hidden under her clothing, contained the deeds to the home and other legal documents proving her family's ownership of the plantation.

A unique piece created by a silversmith in 1800 was a bag made of whitvey jet, beads made of burnt wood. Two chains on the lid allowed the bag to open wide then, when released, returns to its original small opening. “It's amazing that a silversmith at that time had the ability to make a lid like that.”

When storing antique silver, Corley said it should be wrapped in a white cloth — a sheet or pillow case — and kept in a dry environment. Cleaning can be done with plain toothpaste and rinsed in hot water.

Corley said silver has a unique quality. “It is the only antiseptic or antiviral metal. In Roman times, soldiers would drop coins into the water to make it safe to drink. That's why babies are given silver spoons and cups. They put the spoons in their mouth and it would clean their mouth of germs. The metallic taste you get when using a silver spoon or cup results from the silver killing germs.”

A cream by Curaid contains silver and, according to Corley, is the only product that offers a defense against MRSA.

Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1916, or

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