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Times Shopper: Singapore

Exquisite Pewterware Selling at Bargain Prices

March 20, 1988|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer

In many of Singapore's fine gift boutiques and department stores, displays of lovely pewterware gleam appealingly with their special luster.

Sometimes it is only the price tag verifying that a classically designed teapot or etched picture frame is made of pewter and sells for just a fraction of the cost of a similar item made of silver.

Singapore is headquarters for many of the world's finest pewter manufacturers.

The malleable metal alloy, processed in factories there and in nearby Malaysia, appears as tankards and goblets, plates and serving platters, utensils, vases, candle holders and a vast array of objets d'art, including decorative statuettes and models of famous Singaporean subjects and sites, personalized trophies and jewelry.

Pewter items of all kinds are wonderful buys here, selling for about 60% less than their U.S. prices and about 40% less than prices charged at airport duty-free shops. Pewter tops the list of suggested souvenirs from Singapore.

Getting the Lead Out

For centuries, pewter tableware and utensils were mainstays in wealthy and tasteful households.

The alloy was used extensively by the Romans, who believed that drinking vessels made of pewter improved the flavor of wine. By the 14th Century it had replaced wood and pottery for tableware and utensils in many households.

But in this century, especially in the last decades, the material fell from favor largely because lead, formerly used as a secondary component in the alloy, was discovered to be toxic. Now all lead has been removed from pewter processing, and the alloy is having a renaissance in popularity.

Pewter associations in Singapore and most other pewter-producing countries set and maintain industry standards for product safety and quality. Contemporary pewter is about 91% to 97% tin, with 2% to 7% antimony and 1% to 2% copper.

When buying pewter objects in Singapore or elsewhere, there are things to consider in addition to the object's aesthetic appeal.

Prices depend upon the proportions of component metals. Those with a higher percentage of copper cost less because they are softer and more easily scratched, and may become discolored.

Another factor in pricing is weight. Items produced by casting are usually heavier, more expensive and more durable. Those objects that are spun or stamped are lighter weight and cheaper.

Respected Trademarks

Your best bet for best value is to buy items with recognizable and well-reputed trademarks.

In Singapore and around the world one of the most famous and respected of these trademarks shows a pewterer with hammer and anvil. This is the logo of Selangor Pewter, headquartered in Singapore at Thongsia Building No. 20-00, 30 Bideford Road.

This company produces and distributes an extraordinary variety of pewter pieces--about 700 items.

Styles range from traditional articles resembling Old English silver to ultra-contemporary objects with a Scandinavian modern look. Objects are designed by a team of 16 designers headed by Andrew Quistgaard and executed by highly skilled craftsmen.

Most recently, Selangor Pewter has introduced a collection of modern tableware by noted British designer Gerald Benney.

Almost the entire range of items is displayed and sold at Selangor's headquarters, at other shops at Singapore Handicraft Centre No. 02-12, 163 Tanglin Road, and at 356-W Alexandra Road, the factory outlet where you may enjoy an impressive demonstration of pewter processing and see pewterers at work.

Skilled Handwork

A great deal of highly skilled handwork is required. Component pieces of each object are hand cast and then assembled by hand by craftsmen using tin solder.

Each piece is burnished and polished by hand. Some designs require additional etching or dimpling--all done by hand. Selangor Pewter sells no seconds; any item that fails to meet production standards is put back into the melting pot.

It is difficult to walk away from Selangor's shops without buying something, either fanciful or functional.

For living-room curio cabinets or as small gifts, there is a menagerie of miniature animals, including cats, frogs, horses, elephants, owls, hippos, swans, koala bears, pandas and other species, for $8 U.S. each.

Picture frames with intricate patterns tooled along the borders cost $10 and up, depending on size. Singapore's symbol, the Merlion (a cross between a mermaid and a lion), is offered as a statuette ($9 and up) or engraved on variously priced souvenir plates, tankards and ashtrays. Fabulous chess sets with elaborately detailed pieces or others with simple contemporary lines sell for about $250 and up.

More functional items include complete serving sets for coffee or tea in exquisite traditional or ultra-modern styles, including a large platter, two pots, sugar bowl and creamer and priced from about $300 and up.

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