Every properly set
tea table requires the addition of a pair of silver sugar tongs. As beautiful
as they are functional, lustrous silver sugar tongs are the only acceptable way
of handling the sugar cubes that sweeten our cups of tea.
The inception of
this requisite tea tool dates back to the early 18th century. It was introduced
in Europe when sugar was sold in compressed cones. The word tong is derived from the
European-Indonesian word denk, which
translates to “to bite.” In fact, early renditions of sugar tongs were called
sugar nips or nippers. These tongs resembled scissors in both shape and
operation and were quite efficient at breaking serving-size pieces from the
From the initial
scissorlike versions evolved the more commonly recognized bow-shaped tongs. For
a short time, in the late 1700s, cast sugar tongs appeared on tea tables. Made
of three separate pieces, the two arms and the bow were soldered together, with
the maker’s mark stamped at the joints. These tongs were very delicate, and
consequently, few undamaged examples survive today.
The bow sugar
tongs began as fairly straightforward utensils with little ornamentation. But
as bright-cut engraving became the fashion, silver sugar tongs became
increasingly elaborate. Bright-cut engraving required the use of a polished
graver, resulting in an exposed surface that reflected light. This process
produced a gleam that enhanced the engraved design of the piece.
Because of the
very nature of hand engraving, these pieces are valued for their uniqueness.
Though certain common themes might be repeated, each piece is one of a kind.
These items were often decorated with monograms, as silver sugar tongs were
popular wedding gifts. Other prominent features were beading, scrolling, and
floral embellishments. The variety of cup (or bowl) shapes is also remarkable.
Whether sculpted as scalloped shells, claws, or simple ovals, the cups added to
the individuality of the piece.
introduction of standard silver patterns around 1820, bright-cut engraving fell
from favor, and the result was plainer, less-adorned pieces. Fortunately, many
beautiful heirloom silver sugar tongs have been passed down through generations
so that we might enjoy them still.