Silver has been valued by mankind for thousands of years, along with its big brother, gold. Silver has had a big impact on our lives and our language, although we don’t always realise it. A silver spoon. Silverware. The Pound Sterling. A hallmark of quality. Up to scratch. Acid test. These are all expressions or phrases which have their history in mankind’s love affair with silver. So, what is silver and what are we looking at in this posting?
Silver is an elemental metal. In this posting I’ll be covering what silver is used for, the various grades of silver, and how to identify silver hallmarks. Let’s begin!
What Is Silver?
Silver is an elemental metal – a metal that appears in nature – and has been used for thousands of years to make everything from coins to cups to candlesticks. Silver can be melted down and reformed, it can be used to make almost anything, and it has been mined everywhere from China to Europe, England to South America. For centuries, conspicuous ownership and use of silver was seen as a status symbol. Grand households could, and did, amass great quantities of silverware – everything from shaving scuttles to candlesticks, ice-buckets to chamber pots!
What are Hallmarks and Why do they Exist?
Hallmarks are the little symbols, pictures, letters and numbers stamped onto the little (and big!) pieces of silver that we buy from places like antiques shops, jewelry shops, watchmakers and silversmiths. They have existed for centuries and centuries of history, in one form or another and are generally recognised as being the oldest regulated form of buyer-protection in the world.
It is impossible to tell, just by looking at a piece of gold, or silver, what level of purity the metal is. It could be 10 percent, 20 percent, 40 percent or 90 percent purity. It could be solid silver, pure silver, silver plated, or not silver at all! So, how do you know?
You don’t! Not unless you have it tested. But to have everything you own tested and checked all the time would be a pain in the ass! Right? As Yente would say: “Of course right!”
The Assay Office
Because it would be impractical to have every single piece that a person buys, tested for silver purity, the way to ensure consistency, honesty and proper regulation was to introduce a system whereby every piece of silver which could be legally sold, had to be independently tested and indelibly marked as being made of silver.
Enter the Assay Office.
An Assay Office was the institution or body which regulated the testing and marking of silver and gold. The oldest surviving one in Great Britain is the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, which dates back to the 14th century! It was made law in England and France in the 13th and 14th centuries, that all silver had to contain hallmarks – symbols that swore to the fact that the metal had been independently tested for purity – before it could be legally sold on the open market.
Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. This building (or rather, the original built on this site; this is the third such Goldsmiths’ Hall) gave us the origin of the term “Hallmark”.
It is from the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London which the term ‘hallmark’ originates. They still carry out hallmarking services there to this day.
Hallmarks are not only found on silver – they’re also found on gold and platinum, but in this posting, I’m concentrating on silver marks.
How old are Hallmarks?
Hallmarking is the oldest form of consumer protection in the world that still exists today in something approximating its original form. It was established in the FOURTH CENTURY (300s), and more or less the same form of hallmarking has existed, in one way or another, ever since.
Hallmarking as we recognise it today was first standardised in the medieval period, starting in France in 1275, and then in England, in 1300. The types and numbers of hallmarks rose and fell over time, depending on the laws and regulations of the era. A traditional set of European hallmarks will be anywhere from four to six in number, by which they can be dated, identified and certified as being gold, or silver.
Throughout the succeeding centuries, extra hallmarks and standards were introduced, such as creating proper, well-regulated assay offices, assay marks, date letters, and maker’s marks, in addition to simple purity or ‘fineness’ marks.
Types of Hallmarks
There are a number of different hallmarks in the world, and they vary wildly by country, but there are only about half a dozen specific *types* of marks, that you really need to be aware of. I’m going to talk about them here.
The first mark you’re likely to find on a piece of silver is the fineness mark. This mark indicates the purity or ‘fineness’ of the silver, whether it’s 750/1,000, 800, 900, 925, 935, 950, etc. There are two types of fineness marks: Traditional fineness marks (usually represented by animal symbols) and numerical fineness marks (called ‘milesimal’ fineness marks). Traditional fineness marks are more old fashioned and stylistic; milesimal fineness marks are a more modern method of marking.
Degrees of fineness vary from country to country, as each nation or continent has a minimum standard of silver purity which may be classified as “solid silver”. In Britain, ‘solid silver’ has to be at least 92.5% purity (called ‘sterling silver’). The lowest legal grade in Europe is 800/1000 silver (80% pure), which is enforced in countries like Germany. Consequently, 800 silver is generally known as ‘Continental’ silver. Countries like Switzerland have a slightly higher grade, which is 935 silver (93.5% pure). For a short period in Britain, the standard was 950 (95% pure), although that was discontinued in 1720.
The traditional fineness mark in Britain is the symbol of a lion walking to the left, called a ‘Lion Passant’, which indicates Sterling Silver (92.5% pure). A higher grade of silver (95%) was traditionally marked with the picture of a woman, sitting down, with a shield at her feet (Lady Britannia). This grade of silver is known as Britannia Silver.
Britannia-grade silver was discontinued in Britain in 1720, because while it was a higher grade of silver purity, the lack of enough alloying copper made the metal far too soft to work properly and silversmiths were complaining that their finished pieces were suffering in quality as a result. So the old sterling standard was reintroduced in the 1720s. It has remained the standard in Britain ever since.
I’ve always called these things assay marks. Some texts call them City Marks, Town Marks…whatever…
The assay mark is the official hallmark of the assay office which assayed (tested) the piece of silver that you’ve got in your hand. This mark on your silver tells you that the piece was independently tested and certified to be (or be above) a specific purity of silver.
Assay marks still in use in Britain today include the Castle (for Edinburgh), the Anchor (for Birmingham), the Rose (for Sheffield. Previously, this was a Crown), and the Leopard’s Head (for London). There used to be several assay offices scattered throughout Britain, but now only a handful remain. Silver pieces with the marks of defunct assay offices on them can command high prices due to their comparative rarity.
Compulsory in Britain since the mid-1300s is the Maker’s Mark. The Maker’s Mark is usually the initials of the silversmith, or the company, which manufactured the piece. Maker’s marks are highly individual. As some initials can be repeated between makers, different sizes, styles, fonts, and arrangements of letters were used to make each mark recognizable. Different styles, shapes and sizes of borders around the marks also helped to make them stand out, and be identified by the general public.
The date letter system was introduced so that people would know how old their silver was. Each assay office would have bordered sets of letters in alphabetical order, and these were used to mark each piece sent through the office to act as a date reference later on. Dating pieces can be tricky – letters changed all the time – capitals, lowercase, italics, serifs, sans serifs, different border-shapes…the list goes on. And then there’s the added factor that each set of date letters is unique to the specific assay office which marked the piece. You can’t use London date letters to date a piece assayed in Birmingham, for example – it wouldn’t work.
From 1784, until 1890, an extra mark was required on British silver called a duty mark. The presence of this mark indicated that the required silver duty (silver tax) had been paid to the Crown. The Duty Mark was represented by a profile portrait of the reigning monarch of the day. There were four duty marks: George III, George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria. The presence, or absence of a duty mark can help date the age of your piece.
A full set of traditional English hallmarks. L-R: [D&LS] (David & Lionel Spiers. Makers). [I] – date-letter for 1885. [Anchor] – for Birmingham. [Lion Passant] – for Sterling Silver. [Monarch’s Head] – Duty Mark.
These days, the most common type of hallmark that you’ll see on modern silver is what’s called a ‘milesimal’ fineness mark. These marks or stampings indicate the purity or ‘fineness’ of the silver in a numerical manner, instead of a symbolic manner (such as the Lion Passant).
Common milesimal marks include:
950 – 950/1000, or Britannia Silver.
935 – 935/1000, or Swiss silver.
925 – 925/1000, or Sterling Silver.
900 – 900/1000, or 90% silver by purity.
800 – 800/1000, or 80% silver by purity. AKA German Silver or Continental Silver.
You sometimes see silver purity below 800, although this tends to be rare.
One mark you might sometimes see (exclusively in American silver) is the term “COIN”, “COIN SILVER” or “FINE COIN”. This indicates that the silver piece in your hands came from the melting down of a whole heap of old, out-of-circulation silver coins. The standard purity is usually 800.
When is Silver Not Silver?
Silver has been prized by man for centuries – its colour, its sheen, its sparkle – have all made it desirable. But its price has not. To this end, silver-imitating metals have long been popular silver-substitutes, and craftsmen have often made items out of such metals to sell to people who would like something in their homes or lives that looks like silver…but which isn’t…most likely because they can’t afford the real thing.
Another white metal which has been used, if not prized, throughout history, is one called pewter. Pewter is a mix of copper and tin, in this case, high levels of tin and low levels of copper; in older times, lead was also included. The opposite (high levels of copper, low levels of tin) gives you bronze.
Pewter has a darker, greyer colour than silver, but was nonetheless used for things as diverse as candlesticks, spoons, cups, mugs, flagons, plates, bowls and many other things. It’s sometimes plated in silver and it may have the letters ‘EPBM’ stamped on some silver-plated pewter items.
EPBM is Electroplated Britannia Metal – This means that it is silver-plated pewter. It is NOT Britannia SILVER, which is 95% silver by purity.
Another common metal which is sometimes mistaken for silver is a material known as Nickel-Silver, which despite the name, doesn’t have any silver in it at all! Nickel-Silver is made out of an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc – it has the superficial appearance of silver, at a glance, but contains no real silver in the mix, unless it’s been silver-plated.
Nickel silver is usually marked “N.S.”. Electroplated nickel silver is “EPNS”. It’s also called German Silver, and alpacca, among many other names.
Deciphering Silver Marks
Finding out what the marks on your silver mean can be challenging. Two great online resources for finding out what they are, are the following websites:
Silver Maker’s Marks for British & Irish Silver
This isn’t an infallible site, but it lists the marks of almost every British and Irish silversmith. Useful for finding out who made your piece.
The online silver encyclopedia. Not always the easiest of resources to navigate, I’ve found, but the information it provides is good, once you’ve tracked it down.