by Elizabeth Knight
Photography by Sarah Swihart
A sumptuously set traditional table makes a dramatic welcoming statement. Its bounty invites guests to linger, to savor the last drop of hospitality. China patterned with lushly embellished surfaces, gilded trim, and elaborate details recaptures bygone grandeur. Metal works its alchemy on the tabletop, too. Silver's shimmer reflects the sparkle of crystal and enriches china and linens. Traditionalists cherish period pieces whose pedigrees might date to George I or Great-Aunt Martha.
One of the best places in Manhattan to reconnect with the past is James Robinson Antiques. In 1912 on Madison Avenue, James Robinson founded a firm that specialized in antique silver and Chinese porcelains. Brother-in-law Edward Munves strengthened the antique silver, English and French porcelain, and glass assortments, when he became head of the company upon Robinson's death in 1936. Almost two decades later Edward Munves Jr. affiliated with the family business, adding jewelry to the inventory of luxury items. A third generation became part of the firm in 1979 when his daughter, Joan, joined him and her grandfather. She is now president of James Robinson, Inc., although her parents are still involved in the business and work in the store a few days each week, greeting customers and freely sharing their extensive knowledge of the impressive arrays of antiques.
James Robinson Antiques' current storefront is an ample 3,500-square-foot showroom at 480 Park Avenue at 58th Street. Natural daylight streams in through the large windows, allowing customers a great view of the gleaming inventory.
The company is best known for its 19th-and 20th-century jewelry; antique silver from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries; and antique table glass and porcelain service from England and continental Europe. It also produces unique handmade sterling-silver reproductions of flatware and hollowware, including candlesticks, trays, and tea and coffee sets, using the same techniques used to craft the pieces in the 18th century. There's even a mote spoon*!
Although the green-felt-clad back room at James Robinson Antiques might resemble a museum, unlike at a museum, shoppers seeking unique pieces to augment their tea tables may view and handle serving pieces. If you're lucky, Mr. Munves himself might be on hand to explain how and why tea wares evolved over the centuries.
To view a slide show of images, click here.
*A mote spoon was used in the 18th century to convey tea leaves from the caddy to the teapot and to dislodge any wet leaves that blocked the teapot's spout. The spoon's decoratively patterned bowl was used to skim "motes" of loose tea from the cup's liquid surface.
A certified English Tea Master, Elizabeth Knight is the author of several best-selling books on the subjects of tea and entertaining including Tea in the City: New York (2006, Benjamin Press). Elizabeth is a popular guide for tea tours of New York City, which often include stops at James Robinson Antiques. For more information, go to teawithfriends.com.