Pewter is a malleable metal alloy, traditionally 85-99% tin, with the remainder consisting of copper, antimony, bismuth and lead. Copper and antimony act as hardeners while lead is common in the lower grades of pewter, which have a bluish tint. It has a low melting point, around 170–230 °C, depending on the exact mixture of metals. The word pewter is probably a variation of the word spelter, a colloquial name for zinc.
Pewter was first used around the beginning of the Bronze Age in the Near East. The earliest piece of pewter found is from an Egyptian tomb from 1450 BC.
The constituents of pewter were first controlled in the 12th century by town guilds in France. By the 15th century, the Worshipful Company of Pewterers controlled pewter constituents in England. This company originally had two grades of pewter, but in the 16th century a third grade was added. The first type, known as "fine metal", was used for flatware. It consisted of tin with as much copper as it could absorb, which is about 1%. The second type, known as "trifling metal" or "trifle", was used for holloware. It is made up of fine metal with approximately 4% lead. The last type of pewter, known as "lay" or "ley" metal, was used for items that were not in contact with food or drink. It consisted of tin with 15% lead. These three alloys were used, with little variation, until the 20th century.
Modern pewters must contain at least 90% tin and be alloyed with copper, antimony, or bismuth to be considered a pewter. Lead is commonly not now permitted to be an alloying element. Older pewters with higher lead content are heavier, tarnish faster, and oxidation gives them a darker silver-grey color.
A typical European casting alloy contained 94% tin, 1% copper, and 5% antimony. A European pewter sheet would contain 92% tin, 2% copper, and 6% antimony. Asian pewter, produced mostly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, contains a higher percentage of tin, usually 97.5% tin, 1% copper, and 1.5% antimony. This makes the alloy slightly softer.
Full article ▸