Photo by Andrew Haworth
CLAIM TO FAME: She’s The Charleston Silver Lady, an appraiser, collector and popular speaker specializing in antique silver items made before the Industrial Revolution
MISSION IN LIFE: Curate and share the stories of the Americans who made and used the pieces in her extensive collection
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: Corley is close to publishing her first book, 30 years in the making, Memories of Charleston
When Dawn Corley speaks of Southern coin silver—its silky feel, antimicrobial properties, durability, timeless beauty and the soothing way it warms to the human touch—the metal sounds almost magical. But, for the woman dubbed The Charleston Silver Lady, the real value of her 5,000-piece collection isn’t in the raw material, but rather the stories of the people who made and used each item.
“Everything in this house has a South Carolina story,” she says, surrounded by one-of-a-kind items, all handcrafted from before the American Revolution to shortly after the Civil War. “There isn’t anything in here that you can point to that I don’t know exactly who it came from.”
She began collecting in the 1970s as a young girl, often scouring the Charleston City Market with her great-aunt, Rae Meyer, who taught her how to find and evaluate the best historical pieces. “Even as a little kid, I thought this was really cool, because I realized that someone 200 years ago had held these things,” Corley says, but she never imagined it would become her career. “I didn’t really choose to do what I’m doing. It’s like it chose me.”
While parts of her collection travel with her to speaking engagements across the nation, and others are on loan to museums, Corley likes to keep some sentimental items close at hand, including the unadorned silver coffeepot made in the mid-1700s by a relative, Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie. Still as beautiful and functional as it was in the 18th century, the coffeepot was used by generations of her family—though not always as intended.
“When I got this from my great-grandmother, it had her hairpins in it and a receipt from Piggly Wiggly,” Corley says with a laugh. “It was too familiar. She didn’t recognize the value; she just wanted me to have it. Unbeknownst to her, there are two in the world, and she had one.”
For information on Dawn Corley’s speaking engagements, contact her at email@example.com.