Antique Silver Markings come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many new comers to the world of collecting Silver often become confused with the large variety of markings on Silver Items. The new collector should focus first on trying to identify whether the item is in fact a Silver Item.
Since the 16th century there have been various methods of coating a base metal with Silver or Gold. The first being Mercury or fire plating where a base metal was heated in a furnace and a solution of mercury and silver was applied and the item re heated. The Mercury evaporated and left the Silver coating.
There followed other methods such as coating an object with tin and then a thin film of silver was laid onto the top of the tin. This was heated to a exact temperature until the tin fused with the silver.
This was referred to as Close Plating. Finding objects made from either method today would be very difficult as few survive.
The most famous method of Silver Plating is attributed to Thomas Bolsolver in the 1740’s called Sheffield Plate.
This method consisted of a process where a thin sheet of silver was fused by heat to a much thicker copper ingot. The two metals then acted as one and could be rolled and shaped. Bolsolver quickly realised these items looked exactly like a Silver item but could be made at a fraction of the cost.
This coincided with the expanding middle class in British Society who could not afford solid silver items but bought large quantities of Silver Plate.
Sheffield Plate is very collectible today.
Often pieces are badly worn and the copper shows through (often referred to as bleeding due to the colour red) and this reduces the value.
Today’s mass produced Silver Plate is done by suspending a base metal item in a solution of silver whilst electricity is passed through it causing the silver to bond to the item by a process of electrolysis. (it is slightly more detailed than this but it would take forever to detail the acid cleaning and preparation etc.). What it did mean was items could be mass produced.
This brought the cost right down. However some firms only left the item soaking for very short time allowing only a thin layer to build up. This would quickly wear through with cleaning and expose the base metal. This led some firms to market names like “Double Plated” or “Triple Plated” on the base of their wares to indicate the depth of silver plating.
The base metal on which the silver was placed was also important.
Brittania Metal (made of Tin, Antimony & Copper) was often used on cheaper items and would be stamped on the base EPBM standing for Electro Plated Brittania Metal.
This was often used on Larger items such as Tea Sets. Flatware such as cutlery was often made with a base metal of Nickel Silver. These items would often be stamped with the letters EPNS standing for Electroplated Nickel Silver.
Manufacturers of Silver Plate were keen to have their items stamped with marks very similar to solid silver items. It would therefore be very confusing for the buyer to tell which was which.
This became so bad in 1773 parliament banned marks being stamped on any silver plate. It was repealed in 1784 however when Plate Makers were allowed to strike their wares with surnames plus any “mark figure or device” they might choose.
This has caused confusion over the years for the inexperienced collector who picks up a silver coloured item and looks at its base to see markings that look like silver markings but are not.
There are many good reference books which cover the world of Silver Plate Markings – I find Understanding Antique Silver Plate by Stephen J Helliwell a good book to start on for the beginner.
Here are some examples of Silver Plated Marks
The British Hallmarking system was first introduced around 1363 when the Mayors of all cities and Boroughs in England were required to maintain the Silver Standard.
In 1478 in London a date letter from the alphabet was first introduced.
In 1544 the Goldsmith Company established a guarantee of quality with the introduction of the Lion Passant stamp.
Soon the regional centres began to create their own city stamp. The Silver Standard had been set at 925 parts per thousand.
The only change to this standard occurred in Charles II reign where the standard was raised to 958.4 parts per thousand and was entitled the Brittania Standard and was stamped with a Brittania Cameo and a Lions Head.
This standard remained until 1720 when the standard reverted to 925.
Below you will see a typical modern silver hallmark.
- A is the Sponsors Mark or Makers Mark. Each Maker had its own distinctive mark registerd at the Assay Office for his Region.
- B is the lion Passant which denotes the Sterling Standard of 925 per thousand parts.
- C is the Leopards head stamp which denotes the London Assay Office.
- D Then the final stamp is the date letter for the year it was assayed. In this case it denotes the year 1911 / 1912.
These are the four standard marks you can expect to find on modern silver.
Let us take a look at them individually
This stamp of the Lion Passant denotes English Sterling Silver which is 925 parts per thousand pure silver. The Lion mark has been used since the mid 1500’s and is a guarantee of the quality of the silver.
The Anchor stamp denotes the Assay Office of Birmingham
The Leopard Head denotes the assay office for London
These are the current English Assay offices.
There have been many other Provincial offices such as Newcastle and Exeter which no longer function. Each had its own stamp.
There are of course assay offices for Ireland and Scotland. Here you see the stamp for Edinburgh Scotland. These countries too had provincial offices with their own stamps.
Click the image below to Visit the Birmingham Assay Office Comprehensive date Letter guide
The date letter stamp is really helpful in identifying the year the silver item was assayed. The above date letters are for the Sheffield Office.(click the image to see a comprehensive guide at the Birmingham Assay Office Website)
Take note of the different fonts and shield shapes.
This is important information in deciding which stamp refers to which year.
There can be other voluntary stamps on English silver. Above you see a Coronation mark for Queen Elizabeth the second.
There are also duty marks added. A monarchs head was stamped to show that the appropriate duty or tax had been paid. Above you see the head of Queen Victoria.
Import marks were added to silver brought into England from abroad which met the 925 standard. Above you see a letter F in a shield denoting foreign silver passing through the London assay office.
Please also note the shapes of all the stamps outer borders.
In the 1970’s the influence of Europe creeps in and it became a requirement to stamp the 925 convention mark.
It is really important to differentiate between the shape of the stamps as these changed regularly.
Above you see the different stamp shapes for the Birmingham Assay Office.
For the beginner A really good starting point is to by a copy of Jacksons Hallmark Guide.
The paperback version is cheap to buy on Amazon if you click the link above.
(Steve Freeman is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk)
The Hallmarking regulations 1998 however has changed this thanks to the influence of European Legislation the Regulations now state
“Articles may, on request to the assay office, be struck with any of three optional marks—a date letter, in accordance with such distinct, variable date letter as directed, in writing, by the British Hallmarking Council (the date letter was previously a mandatory requirement), the relevant pictorial mark denoting the standard of fineness of an article of precious metal (also previously mandatory) and such other mark as may be directed by the British Hallmarking Council (regulation 2(7)). Provision is made to the effect that failure to mark an article of precious metal with any of the three optional marks will not render an article unhallmarked (regulation 2(8)).“
So Silver items post 1998 may not be possible to date where they have not added the date letter stamp.
This in my humble opinion is a major retrograde step as one of the major benefits of traditional English Silver is the ability to accurately date it.
The Rest Of The World Marks
Now there is not enough time or space in this article to even scratch the surface of other Countries Antique Silver Markings.
A very good starting reference for the beginner is International Hallmarks on Silver Collected by Tardy
I have now withdrawn my collection of makers marks images from this website. I chose to do this as there are now at least two much more comprehensive guides on the web which I list below.
You should be able to identify most sponsors marks at one of these sites
Have you ever looked at you sterling silver and asked, How do they apply a Hallmark?
If you are interested in Silver collecting them you may well find this video informative and interesting.
It would also help if you were able to click one of the social share buttons below