Silver napkin rings add high style to dinner tables

An 1885 Reed & Barton curly hair horse napkin ring sold for $3,750 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

An 1885 Reed & Barton curly hair horse napkin ring sold for $3,750 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Napkin rings were introduced in France around 1800 and soon became a fixture on dining tables across Europe. American companies took them to the next level with silver-plated figural napkin rings that were miniature works of art.

Often lavishly engraved or repoussed and boasting three-dimensional elements, figural napkin rings were made in America starting in the late 1880s, at the height of the Victorian era, by a handful of companies such as Meriden Britannia, Reed & Barton, J.W. Tufts, Simpson, Hall & Miller and Wm. A. Rogers Co. Hundreds were made during the peak of their popularity, and they took the forms of people, animals, people with animals and even horse-drawn carts with moving wheels. Horses were a popular variation; an 1885 Reed & Barton curly hair horse napkin ring sold for $3,750 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Cupids are eternally popular in the world of collectibles, and that holds true for the realm of napkin rings as well. A grouping of Cupid-themed napkin rings earned $2,338 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd.

A grouping of Cupid napkin rings, three of which are shown here, earned $2,338 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Miller & Miller Auction Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers.


A group of nine Cupid napkin rings, three of which are shown here, earned $2,338 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Miller & Miller Auction Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers.

Often, a ring was marked with the initials or name of its original owner, as these items were usually reserved for one member of the family. Specifying its owner was useful for holiday entertaining and also a boon during the Victorian era, when napkins were reused at least once before laundering, and laundry was not a daily occurrence. The rings often reflected the owner’s personality or interests. Napkin rings for children were commonly modeled to resemble a favorite pet.

A group of 12 figural napkin rings made $2,600 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2017. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

A group of 12 figural napkin rings made $2,600 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2017. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Children’s literature often inspired napkin ring designs, and Victorian-era children’s author Kate Greenaway was evidently a favorite. Several napkin rings by Simpson Hall & Miller feature children that closely resemble illustrations in her beloved books. A dozen figural napkin rings that realized $2,600 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2017 at New Orleans Auction Gallery includes a period Reed & Barton example with a cherub and a bud vase as well as contemporary napkin rings featuring children depicted in Greenaway’s style.

In a grouping of five Aesthetic Movement napkin rings, which sold for $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022 at Clars Auction Gallery, several hobbies and interests are reflected, including a pair of male and female tennis players flanking a cylindrical napkin ring; a Meriden & Co figure of jester leaning against its ring; and a Simpson Hall & Miller figural napkin ring held up by a hunter depicted with his dog.

A lot of five Aesthetic Movement napkin rings realized $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

A lot of five Aesthetic Movement napkin rings realized $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Napkin rings have largely fallen out of favor, but collectors still treasure the antique artful objects for their craftsmanship and personality. Among their most ardent admirers is Linda Tarasuk, co-owner of La Belle Epoque Auction Gallery in New York City, who estimates her collection totals about 60 examples.

The more elaborate a ring is, the more desirable it is. Proving the point is a J.W Tufts-made napkin ring fashioned in the form of a horse-drawn cart that has moving wheels. It was not just a napkin ring but a multi-tasking table tool fitted with a detachable salt and pepper dispenser and a butter pat holder. It is one of Tarasuk’s favorites.

This very ornate napkin ring from Linda Tarasuk’s collection is also fitted with a salt and pepper shaker as well as a container for a butter pat. The functioning wheels move the cart, adding to its value. Image courtesy of Linda Tarasuk.

This very ornate napkin ring from Linda Tarasuk’s collection is also fitted with a salt and pepper dispenser as well as a container for a butter pat. The functioning wheels move the cart, adding to its value. Image courtesy of Linda Tarasuk.

Novice buyers need to be wary regardless of whether they’re interested in a contemporary napkin ring or authentic antiques. Some contemporary examples are made to resemble antique models, and some unscrupulous people solder pieces from other antique napkin rings to boost value or create reproductions without identifying them as such. As with all antiques, it’s important to check identification guides and check with experts to make sure the napkin ring under consideration is genuine.

Tarasuk notes she is no longer avidly collecting, but she paid premium prices back in the day for special ones. “Many, many years ago, I would pay $800 to $1,000 each for those,” she said. “They are charming and I use them all.” Half in jest, she said she sets such elaborate tables for special occasions that it can take two weeks to complete her vision but mere seconds for it to be disassembled by parties of up to 40 guests. But she accepts this inevitability with grace, adding: “Each napkin ring has its own charm, whether it is an animal or a person or one that has wheels.”