Pair of George II Paktong Candlesticks from IDHOME
by Nicholas Wells
England, circa 1740
A particularly fascinating part of the eighteenth century decorative arts relates to the little-known and often misunderstood so-called paktong silver, which in fact is not silver at all.
Paktong originated in China and is an alloy of copper ores with nickel and zinc. The metal was used by the Chinese for small table and decorative accessories for the domestic market.
Once called “Tutenag” or “Chinese white copper” it is now believed that English and European makers were experimenting with the alloy as early as the opening decades of the 18th century.
The imported alloy was used by silversmiths and by Birmingham brass manufacturers in imitation of silverware.
English makers, such as Matthew Boulton, saw the potential for making candlesticks and other goods from paktong as the metal could be cast, took a high polish and was slow to tarnish.
A page from one of Boulton’s books from the Soho factory in 1769 lists 22 “subjects into which it (paktong) may be manufactured”.
Most surviving paktong dates from the 1760-1780 period. Candlesticks are often found in paktong but other items were also created from the metal.
Robert Adam designed paktong firegrates for Syon House and a 1782 inventory of Osterly Park House records the firegrate, fender and fire irons as paktong.
Paktong died out as a product for high fashion candlesticks and other objects in the late 18th century because makers found it cheaper to concentrate on Sheffield plate.
In the 19th century, scientists eventually found how to make the alloy as a nickel silver alloy or “German silver” but this was rarely used to make cast candlesticks or high-fashion objects.