Pewter is a blend of metals made up primarily of tin with the remainder being copper, alimony, bismuth, and lead in various amounts. This blend of metals is called an alloy and the percentage of tin in pewter alloy is typically 90% or greater in modern pewter, although it can be as little as 51%. The alloy nature of pewter allows it to readily be crafted into countless items, from jewelry and decorative figurines to dinnerware, statues, collectibles, and many other things.
The metals that comprise pewter are not ideal to work with individually but their combination into an alloy is responsible for its malleable nature. Tin is a soft metal while copper and alimony are harder metals and which metals will comprise each pewter piece is determined by the craftsperson’s intended creation. Pewter made with lead tends to be darker in color than pewter made without lead, and over time, all pewter forms a dark, satiny, or grainy patina that generally makes it more valuable to collectors.
Pewter has been a part of documented history as early as 3000 B.C. Antique pewter was routinely made with lead while modern pewter rarely contains any lead at all. This is due to the current knowledge of the toxicity of lead entering our bodies through ingestion or inhalation. Some modern pewter craftspeople still make pewter that contains lead and even though the amounts are small and likely harmless, it is always best to find out if your pewter piece contains lead or not, especially if you have pewter dinnerware. Using lead in modern pewter making is generally discouraged.
People who collect pewter divide it into three main categories: American, English, and Continental. American pewter is further divided into three time periods: pre-Revolutionary, middle period, and Britannia. American pewter tends to have less embellishment and simpler shapes than other types of pewter. English pewter has more elaborate adornments and contours, with gadrooned or notched edges on dinnerware, basins, and bowls. Continental pewter is the most embellished and festooned, with pieces that are intricate enough to serve as architecture on buildings and in homes.
Pewter rarely requires cleaning, as it is relatively tarnish-resistant and the more it is handled, the more quickly it will develop its valuable patina. If it becomes necessary to clean pewter, however, it can be polished with a soft, dry cloth or washed with mild soap and warm water, then gently and thoroughly dried with a soft cloth. Never expose pewter to high temperatures, as it may warp due to its soft and flexible nature. Acid-based cleansers such as vinegar can damage the patina of pewter so their use is discouraged. Older pieces of pewter may develop some tarnish over time, especially those pieces made with lead, and removing the tarnish usually requires a commercial pewter cleanser or a homemade paste of baking soda or limestone and water.
Pewter varies in its monetary value among collectors. Antique pewter pieces, particularly those from the pre-Revolutionary period, are extremely rare and have a high monetary value associated with them. Modern pewter is not all that valuable in the monetary sense but it is still a popular choice among collectors due to its classic beauty and quality. Pewter has stood the test of time and continues to do so thanks to its timeless charm, low maintenance, and versatility in crafting.