There was a time when stainless steel flatware was reserved for when company wasn't coming. It was the everyday set, the one you used when you didn't trot out the elegant sterling silver.
Much less expensive than sterling, it could be bought, in service for eight, for $50 or less through promotions similar to those still done with tableware in supermarkets.
Today, stainless steel flatware is showing up on some of the best-dressed tables.
Stainless steel has acquired style and panache. It can be combined with wood, bronze or other metals. It can be polished, hammered, lacquered or enameled. It can be quite shapely. Mating it with plastic allows a rainbow of colors.
You can choose a pattern to complement your decor or your favorite style of art or architectural style, from modern to Southwestern to neoclassical.
In fact, Greek and Roman classic architecture is recalled by Robert Venturi, who interpreted the three basic column types in his flatware.
Designed for Swid Powell and produced by Reed & Barton, the large-scaled flatware is in the shape of flattened columns, whose capitals are scored, with Doric for the spoons, Ionic for the knife and Corinthian for the forks. Weighty and handsome, the pieces are not awkward because of their balance. The flatware is $50 per five-piece place setting.
You can even match your jewelry:
Ralph Lauren used the Rolex watchband design in a flatware pattern called Watchband, which is available in solid stainless or with a gold center band ($62.50 per five-piece place setting; $93.75 with gold).
If you have doubts about how stainless steel can rival sterling silver in glamour, consider the radiant table setting shown above.
Start with a 13-inch baroque-edged lacquered charger. Top it with colorful china, such as this porcelain pattern bordered in jewel-toned draping, swagged with cording and tassels of 22-karat gold. Then choose from ruby, sapphire, emerald or pearl stainless steel flatware from Scof -- or mix it up with a place setting of each.
The Pearled Pompadour flatware, which Scof calls its "crowned jewel," has silver-plated bolsters and pearlized handles with a lacy cuff. The handles are made of stain- and chip-resistant acrylic. A five-piece place setting sells for $130 from the Horchow Home catalog.
As festive as the design can look with patterned dishes, it can take on another personality with solid-colored dinner plates, perhaps suiting a more modern environment.
Besides being good-looking, the Pearled Pompadour pattern, along with most stainless flatware, is dishwasher-safe. Some patterns, however, require careful handling because not all stainless is the same.
Stainless steel is an alloy made of steel, iron, chromium and nickel. The chromium keeps the iron from rusting, and the nickel enhances the finish. The best stainless usually is labeled
18/8 or 18/10, a reference to the ratio of chromium and nickel within, or 18 percent chromium to 8 percent or 10 percent nickel. A higher nickel content assures a satin-like sheen.
The weight of the stainless also is an indication of quality, as is the balance of the piece -- really the only way, before the numerical designations, consumers were able to distinguish the ordinary from the best, aside from price and manufacturer reputation.
Finishes range from mirror bright to matte. Oxidation is another technique that may be incorporated into the design by purposely leaving black deposits in the curves of the pattern for accentuation. Stainless also may be gold-accented, with the gold electrostatically applied in a bath, or entirely gold-plated.
Combining stainless steel with other materials has greatly expanded the choices, opening the door to a kaleidoscope of colors.
* Horchow, P.O. Box 620048, Dallas, Texas 75262-0048; (800) 456-9713
* The Ralph Lauren Home Collection, 1185 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10036; (212) 642-8700
* SCOF: For a store near you, call Mariposa at (800) 788-1304
* Swid Powell, Reed & Barton Inc., 144 W. Brittania, Taunton, Mass. 02780; (508) 824-6611; (800) 822-1824