Mackay Silver Collection

On this past episode of Mineral Monday, Keck Museum curator Garrett Barmore takes viewers downstairs to look at one of the Museum's more famous exhibits. The Mary Louise and John Mackay Silver Collection is a stunning set of unique silver service pieces all ornately designed. Can you guess where most of the silver used to make this set was originally mined?

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The history of the 1250-piece sterling silver set

John W. Mackay (1831-1902) commissioned Tiffany and Company of New York to design and produce a silver service for his wife Marie-Louise. The result was a unique 1250 piece set of sterling silver dinner and dessert service for twenty-four completed in 1878. Charles Grosjean of Tiffany designed the service and Edward C. Moore supervised the project. Charles Carpenter in his volume Tiffany Silver notes that as the largest, the grandest, the most elegantly ornate and most famous set of its time, the Mackay service epitomized the sumptuous dining table of Victorian America.

Mr. Mackay, the so-called silver king for his success in developing the fabled Comstock Lode in Virginia City (which made him one of the wealthiest men in the country) shipped in 1877 approximately one-half ton of silver from his mines to Tiffany in New York. There, reportedly, two hundred craftsmen worked exclusively on the service for two years; a total of over one million man hours.

When complete, Mr. Mackay purchased the dies so that the service could never be duplicated. The service was delivered to the Mackays in Paris, accompanied by a silver clasped leather-bound album of photographs and fitted in nine walnut and mahogany chests, each mounted with a silver plaque detailing its contents.

Each piece of the service was individually decorated by hand in rich floriated designs including repetitions of the Irish Shamrock, the Scottish thistle, American garden and wildflowers. The designs had their origins in the dense overall decoration of Near Eastern metalwork. Referring to Persia and Mogul India, Tiffany called the design of the whole service Indian. Remarkable as an example of the silversmiths crafts and as a statement of high Victorian taste, the Mackay service is both an artistic and historic monument.