SALISBURY, MD. -- An unassuming blue building along the highway north of town boasts a sparkling silver goblet atop a sign that says "Salisbury Pewter, Buses Welcome, Gift Shop."
Sound like one of those tourist places to buy last-minute gifts for relatives you forgot about while on vacation? It is. Prices start at $5.
But Salisbury Pewter is more than a place to buy inexpensive presents. It has earned a reputation as the maker of pewter for presidents.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan took 352 pewter jewelry boxes from Salisbury Pewter to the summit in Helsinki in 1988. Nancy Reagan gave pewter candy dishes, engraved with her signature, to senators' wives. The couple once ordered six-inch trays engraved with the presidential seal and both their names.
"We did a mess of work for the Reagans," said Terry Gladden, Salisbury born and bred, and president and co-owner of the company, which is projecting $1.5 million to $2 million in sales this year.
Vice President Quayle orders small, rounded baby cups engraved with an image of the vice president's Washington residence. The Quayle name is stamped on the bottom.
"They usually get about 25 to 50 at a time. I guess they give them out as gifts to friends with babies," Gladden said.
Regular customers include members of Congress, every branch of the armed services, colleges and universities throughout the nation, the Maryland legislature, the Du Pont Co., Ashland Oil -- the list goes on.
Tiffany & Co.'s 1990 corporate Christmas catalog included four items from Salisbury Pewter -- a candy dish, a cup, a jewelry box and a mirror for a purse.
Tiffany has been a customer for several years, but all of its products must be stamped with Tiffany's name, Gladden said.
The name on the product doesn't matter. Gladden and his employees know who made it.
"I never thought I'd be in a Tiffany catalog. But it's because of the quality of the work we're giving," Gladden said. His employees "really get fascinated when we get these special orders in here. It builds their ego."
He said 85 to 90 percent of the business is custom work.
The secret to the quality is that each piece is made by hand with a polished pewter that looks like silver, but is much cheaper, Gladden said.
The most expensive item in the gift shop is a 10-inch punch bowl for $250. The baby cups bought by the Quayles sell for $25. An engraved sterling silver cup would cost about $250 and still look like one of Salisbury Pewter's cups, Gladden said.
The company also does "beading," a decorative process usually done around the rim of a cup.
The company will also engrave a thin line around the midsection or near the rim of a cup for decoration.
"Everything here is made one piece at a time. It's all handcrafted like it was in the 1800s," Gladden said.
The pewter pieces are made on the premises, next to the gift shop.
"It's hand-spun, then hand-trademarked, then hand-polished. If it goes to soldering, it's hand-soldered, then it goes to engraving," he said.
Some engraving is done by hand; the rest by computer.
Lynn L. Parsons is the engraving supervisor. She engraves by hand if the design is not available on a computer disk.
"You have to learn the right pressure for your hand so you know how deep to go. It takes a steady hand," she said.
An engraving of the Maryland state seal on a serving tray, along with the recipient's name and title, takes about four minutes by computer and 15 to 20 minutes by hand.
It can take from 12 to 15 minutes to make one pewter piece, such as a baby cup.
"If it was not handcrafted, you could probably do it in half the time, but you wouldn't have the quality. You wouldn't have the decorative beading on it," Gladden said. "It would just be a plain cup."