200-year run of silver in city coming to end Stieff plant's owner shifting production to factory in R.I.

'It was my life'

October 22, 1998|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

The caption for a photograph on the front page of yesterday's editions should have said that Kirk Stieff employee Terry Fletcher was softening a silver bowl by heating it, not that Joe Mekins Jr. was cutting a mold.

The Sun regrets the errors.

For two centuries, Baltimore enjoyed its station as one of the country's few centers of silver artistry. The city's three vaunted silversmiths, Stieff, Kirk and Schofield, turned out works of fine silver -- known for their trademark floral patterns -- that were hallmarks of Sunday family-dinner gatherings and were cherished possessions handed down from generation to generation.

Schofield Co. was bought out about 30 years ago by Stieff Co., which then took over Samuel Kirk & Son in 1979 -- only to be gobbled up by Lenox Inc. in 1990. Samuel Kirk had been founded in Baltimore in 1815, while Stieff Co. was founded here in 1892.


Now Lenox, a unit of the Louisville, Ky.-based Brown-Forman Corp., said yesterday it is shutting down Kirk Stieff's factory in Hampden and moving much of the operation to its factory in Smithfield, R.I.

The shutdown will take effect Jan. 15. The work that isn't done in Rhode Island will come from factories in such Asian countries as Malaysia and Indonesia.

"It's tough," said Rodney Stieff, who was chief executive officer of Kirk Stieff Co. at the time of its sale to Lenox. "It was my life and my father's life. That's the way it goes. . . . It's just a shame in a way. Sterling silver is out the window now."

The Stieff family intends to put the company's Wyman Park Drive building up for sale, said Stieff, who left the business when it was sold.

Gone will be the final 75 nonunion workers and -- with them -- the last vestige of the once-great silver trade that helped define Baltimore.

"Stieff is Baltimore," lamented Frank Farbenbloom, organizer of the annual Baltimore Summer Antique Fair, which draws 14,000 people.

Changing tastes and market dynamics dictated the move, said Phil Lynch, vice president of corporate communications for Lenox, who was in Baltimore yesterday to make the announcement to workers.

"The market for metal, pewter, silver plate and sterling silver [settings and pieces] has declined 50 percent in the last five years," Lynch said. "The increasing casualness of American culture has affected the metals business significantly."

The sterling silver tea sets that were once as much a staple of the family dinner table as the Christmas turkey would now cost $1,000 to make; consumers seem just as happy with the mass-produced, $110 silver-plated settings available through the big discount retailers even though the craftsmanship is lacking, Lynch said. And while brides-to-be still register for their china pattern and crystal settings, they seem content with silver-plated or stainless steel knives, forks and spoons instead of the nicely patterned sterling silver that came in the velvet-lined, polished-wood box.

"They're opting for silver plate or other kinds of metal flatware," Lynch said.

In recent years, the Hampden plant focused on so-called "hollow ware" -- decorative bowls, cups and other metal giftware such as picture frames. It even made the Woodlawn Vase replicas that are awarded to the winner of the Preakness each year.

But until a reorganization about five years ago, the Baltimore factory had been a consistent money-loser, Lenox's Lynch said. Even after the changes were made, the factory was a break-even venture at best -- unlike its more modern and profitable sibling in Rhode Island, known as the Gorham plant because of the Gorham brand of silver and crystal it churned out.

Production at the local factory will be phased out over the next few months, though some workers could remain until March to help shut down the plant and crate the machinery for its journey to New England. The Wyman Park Drive outlet store also will close after a clearance sale that should begin in a week or so, Lynch said.

Factory workers -- many of them the industry's few remaining U.S. craftsmen -- will get severance packages that include extended health benefits and help finding new jobs.

"It's sad, a loss for the community, a loss of traditional Baltimore," Lynch said.

The Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway has a Kirk Stieff exhibit that includes tools and old photographs.

"Kirk Stieff has had an illustrative history in Maryland's manufacturing past," said Ann Steele, deputy director of the museum.

Stieff, the former CEO, says he attended a wedding recently where one of the gifts the couple received was a set of flatware -- stainless steel, not sterling silver. He turned one piece over to see the Kirk Stieff brand name.

Accompanying the brand name were the words: "Made in Japan."

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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