IT'S NOT surprising that the National Museum of Women in the Arts has opened an exhibition of exquisite antique English silver. What is surprising, even shocking, is that all the gleaming tea sets, tankards, salvers and serving pieces, made between 1685 and 1845, bear the hallmarks of woman silversmiths.

The work of three dozen of London's leading women silversmiths is represented in the hundred pieces on display. At least ten times that many women were working in silver and gold during the period, according to collector Nancy Valentine's excellent and eye-opening exhibition catalogue.

We're not talking about Industrial Revolution sweatshops here; working in precious metals was one of the few trades in which gentlemen and gentlewomen could work without loss of status. In a time when most women were defined by relationship to a man -- father, brother, guardian or husband -- women were designing and fabricating fine gold and silver objects.

The earliest guild records show women registering their own marks, being promoted from apprentice to journeyman, working as partners (not "helpmeets") with their husbands or fathers, and often running their own shops. Because they dealt in precious metals, keepers of such shops also served as informal bankers, storing milord's plate and helping tide him over financial reverses.

There were so many women silversmiths and they produced so much fine work that Valentine was able to assemble the collection in a relatively short time and largely from American auction houses. Nobody seems to have heavily specialized in female silversmiths before, she says, because there's nothing about the pieces that distinguishes them from the work of contemporary male silversmiths except the makers' marks.

Valentine's collection was purchased and donated to the museum by the family and friends of Lorraine and Oliver Grace (of the steamship Graces). It's a magnificent addition to the permanent collection, and nothing could be more appropriate to the museum's mission of celebrating women's works.

And what works these are. The Georgian period, when gold and silver plundered from the New World flooded Europe, was marked by such excesses as solid silver bathtubs, but the falling prices of precious metals brought silver goods within the range of the emerging middle class. Increased demand led to competition that produced a flowering of design and assembly-line production techniques.

Women such as Hester Bateman could be born in poverty and rise to great wealth on wits, skill and determination. Although Bateman was illiterate (she had to make her mark when registering her maker's mark), when she died in her eighties she left a family business that was one of the largest in London, producing silver pieces that were designed with elegance and made by practical, standardized methods.

One study shows that between 1660 and 1730 a third of the "women of property" listed on the London tax rolls ran their own businesses. Even Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist and infamous misogynist, repeatedly recorded praise of the business acumen of a certain Mrs. Bland.

The Wardens of London Goldsmiths' Company, the guild of precious metal workers, had but one standard for those made "free of the company," that is, qualified as journeyman. "Not withstanding you pretend to womanly weakness, we find that you have tricked us men a second time," they admonished a Mrs. Elvie of Exeter, in a letter informing her she was to be haled into court for selling substandard plate.

The exhibit is doubly appropriate for the women's museum because the tea services, in particular, symbolize the emergence of women into society. Before the introduction of tea into England at the end of the 17th century, Valentine relates, the beverages served at social occasions were wine and spirits, which ladies did not drink, at least in public.

Tea was both proper for women to use and much too expensive to be entrusted to servants. Women began preparing and serving tea at table, and the rest is history.

Gorgeous though the pieces in this show are, the display is lackluster. Crammed into two large cases, the silver is identified by numbers referring to a checklist, which was not available at least two days last week. The show could be mounted to better advantage in the museum's delicious central hall, where the soft shine of the silver would complement the cool gleam of the marble.