A sterling silver object that is to be sold commercially is, in most countries, stamped with one or more silver hallmarks indicating the purity of the silver, the mark of the manufacturer or silversmith, and other (optional) markings to indicate date of manufacture and additional information about the piece. In some countries, the testing of silver objects and marking of purity is controlled by a national assayer's office.
Hallmarks are applied with a hammer and punch, a process that leaves sharp edges and spurs of metal. Therefore, hallmarking is generally done before the piece goes for its final polishing.
The hallmark for sterling silver varies from nation to nation.
United Kingdom and Ireland
One of the most highly structured hallmarking systems in the world is that of the United Kingdom, (Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland), and Ireland. These four nations have, historically, provided a wealth of information about a piece through their series of applied punches:
- A stamp indicating the purity of the silver is called the assayer's mark. The mark for silver meeting the sterling standard of purity is the Lion Passant, but there have been other variations over the years, most notably the mark indicating Britannia purity. The Britannia standard was obligatory in Britain between 1697 and 1720 to try to help prevent British sterling silver coins from being melted to make silver plate. It became an optional standard thereafter, and in the United Kingdom and Ireland is now denoted by the millesimal fineness hallmark "958", with the symbol of Britannia being applied optionally. The purity mark for Irish silver is the harp crowned.
- The date mark is a letter indicating the exact year in which the piece was made. The typeface, whether the letter is uppercase or lowercase, and even the shape inside which the letter is stamped, must all be taken together to determine the year.
- The city mark is used to indicate the city in which the piece was assayed. For example, a crown of a certain style indicated the city of Sheffield, while an anchor indicated the city of Birmingham.
- Each silver maker has his or her own, unique maker's mark. This hallmark is usually a set of initials inside an escutcheon.
- Irish silver also contains the image of Hibernia. This mark was introduced in 1730, and is still in use today.
The series of hallmarks described above are still in use in today.
However, there are two silver hallmarks that have been discontinued:
- Beginning on 1 December 1784, British law mandated that a duty mark be applied to silver pieces. This showed that the requisite tax had been paid to the Crown. The duty mark was a profile of the head of the current reigning monarch. The mark was discontinued in 1890.
- An additional British hallmark that is no longer used is the tally mark, which was the unique mark of a journeyman finishing his apprenticeship. These marks were used as a record of the pieces made by each journeyman so that each could be given proper payment.
The French assay mark for sterling silver is the head of the goddess Minerva. In fact, the French standard for sterling silver is higher than that of other nations, requiring a silver content of 950 parts per thousand, or 95% silver. Silver items with a slightly lower grade of silver, 800 parts per thousand, are marked with the head of Minerva, next to which is a "2".
French silver made for export carries an assay mark in the shape of the head of Mercury, along with a number to indicate the millesimal fineness: "1" for .920, "2" for .840 and "3" for .750.
French silver also is punched with the mark of the maker.
In the early United States, no national assaying system was adopted, although the city of Baltimore did maintain its own assay office between 1814 and 1830. Prior to the general adoption of sterling silver as the standard of purity in 1868, silver was generally obtained from the melting of coins. Since these could vary considerably in purity, from around .750 millesimal fineness to around .900, silver known as "coin silver" varies in purity. Silver at that time was sometimes marked "COIN" or "PURE COIN", but can also be without a standard mark altogether. After the adoption of the sterling standard, pieces were marked with "STERLING", the number "925" or the notation "925/1000".
While American manufacturers did not apply assay marks, city marks or date marks, they did (and still do) apply a maker's mark. For example, pieces from the Gorham company could be identified by a Lion Passant (or Lion Rampant, depending on the year), an anchor and the letter "G". The letters "T. and Co." indicated a piece manufactured by Tiffany and Company. These stamps were as unique as today's logos, and disputes often arose when one company copied another's stamp.
The difficulty with hallmarking systems other than those of the United Kingdom and Ireland is that in most cases one cannot pinpoint the manufacture to a specific year, but instead to a range of years during which the company or silversmith was in business. Many larger companies did put out yearly catalogs, however, and these, coupled with patent dates, can often be used as a reference to narrow down the date of a specific piece; some individuals make a living doing research on the history of specific sterling pieces.
Between 1867 and 1933, Austria-Hungary and later, Hungary used the crescent moon crowned head of antique greek heroine Diana as the hallmarking symbol of legal silver alloys. The head was encircled by a frame, optionally composed of convex, concave and straight lines. One concave line represented 140/1000 fineness, a straight one 150 and a convex one 160. For example, a Diana head within a frame made in the shape of a 5-petal flower represented 5x160 = 800 thousands fineness, a local silver standard commonly used in eating forks and spoons. Meanwhile a hexagonal frame represented 900 fine silver. The same logic was also used to frame gold hallmarks.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hallmarks.|
- John Bly: Discovering Hallmarks on English Silver, Shire Publications Ltd., seventh edition 1986, Aylesbury, Bucks ISBN 0-85263-796-9
- Cinamon, Diana Sanders (2007). All About Antique Silver with International Hallmarks. San Bernardino, CA: AAA Publishing,. ISBN 0-9785168-0-X.
- Venable, Charles L. (1997). Silver in America, 1840 – 1940: A Century of Splendor (third edition ed.). New York, NY.: Harry N. Abrams.
- Hood, William P. Jr. (1999). Tiffany Silver Flatware, 1845 – 1905: When Dining Was an Art. Suffolk, England.: Antique Collectors Club.
- Rainwater, Dorothy T.; Redfield, Judy (1998). The Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers (fourth ed. ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing.
- Wyler, Seymour B. (1937). The Book of Old Silver, English – American – Foreign, With All Available Hallmarks Including Sheffield Plate Marks. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.
- original author unknown (2000). International Hallmarks on Silver Collected by Tardy (reprint ed.).
- Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Maker's Marks, comprehensive research site documenting American & International silver hallmarks
- http://www.sterlingflatwarefashions.com A comprehensive guide to American sterling silver flatware. Makers mark library, history, and care of silver.
- British and Other Worldwide Sterling Marks
- A Small Collection of Antique Silver and Objects of vertu, created by Italian Giorgio B.
- Weldons of Dublin Blog with information on Irish silversmiths and Irish Hallmarks]