This work, a departure from machine-made commercial flatware and hollowware, was named martelé, from the French verb marteler, "to hammer". It was made from 1896 through the 1930s by the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island under the direction of Gorham's chief executive, Edward Holbrook, and his chief designer, William Christmas Codman who was brought over from England in 1891.
The metal used in martelé was softer and purer than the sterling standard (950/1000 parts of silver, where sterling is 925/1000) in order to make the silver more malleable and easier to work by hand. Each object began as a flat piece of silver, raised with hammering to the desired shape before being passed on to the chaser. The finished pieces show the hammer marks because they were not buffed, another reason they were called martelé.
A martelé dressing table took nine hundred hours to make and nearly fourteen hundred hours to chase, all in the context of a sixty-hour week. A coffeepot was raised in about seventy hours and chased in about seventy more, while a labor-intensive peppershaker could not be produced in less than about twenty-five hours, with another twenty hours for chasing.
Only 4,800 pieces were produced (other accounts put the number at 7,000 to 8,000), and only 1500-1700 are still extant. When the price of silver went up in the 1980s, much martelé silver was melted down.
Although It was introduced at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1897, they waited to officially announce the introduction of this new line at the Exposition Universelle (1900) in Paris were 50,000,000 people attended.
The Martelé line was enthusiastically received by both critics and an enamored public at this world exposition. Gorham’ chief executive officer, Edward Holbrook, was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur (the highest civilian honor given by the French government), and the chief designer for the Martelé line, William Christmas Codman, was awarded a gold medal. Gorham went on to win five gold medals for its silver at the Exposition Universelle.
Martelé items include tea and coffee services, vases, candelabra, tankards, platters, and love cups. They are often made in Art Nouveau style, with classic and fantastic figures of female figures, floral and leaf decorations.
Each piece is different in that they were individually designed, and then hand made and chased which by nature produces uniqueness, where no two pieces can be the same
Martelé pieces were marked with the word "martelé", over an eagle that topped the usual Gorham Hallmark at the time (a lion, anchor, and initial G). Underneath it was marked 950-1000 FINE. In order to keep track of each piece, all of the items were uniquely identified by a numerical or letter code, with the code indicating whether the particular item was a sample or a special order.
From the beginning, the martelé line was expensive and exclusive, and received many awards. Prices remain high for collectors today; current prices range from $6,500 to $180,000 for individual pieces to as much as $1 million or more for elaborate designs, including museum-quality pieces like the ewer made for the 1900 Paris Exposition.
Reed & Barton's answer to Gorham's famous Martelé silver line was to produce objects of a similar style and quality. They also used a higher silver standard similar to Martelé, 950/1000 silver. In comparison to Gorham's not so uncommon Martelé line, Reed & Barton's .950 silver line is very rare.