The four marks that can be found impressed on a
piece of silver show its purity and where, when,
and by whom it was made
Most pieces of genuine silver will bear a hallmark to show that they are the real
thing. Sometimes a piece will just have the word 'Sterling' punched into the
back but usually there will be a series of at least three, often four, and occasionally
five marks set in shields or ovals.
The marks that always appear are those
that give the standard of the silver, the assay office where the piece was tested and the date it was made.
Additional marks will identify the maker, or will
show the head of the
reigning monarch, a sign that excise duty had been paid on the piece. Duty stamps were first put on silver in 1784 and
disappeared in 1890.
The marks may appear in any order or sequence; there is no set
way. Usually, they are stamped in a straight line, but once again this is by no means obligatory, and the design of the piece may require them to be in a
Hallmarks will usually be found on the back or base of a piece. However, they
can be difficult to pick out, especially if the item has an ornate pattern.
You may find them tucked away somewhere within the design. Don't be afraid to borrow a magnifying glass if you need to take a closer look.
THE EVOLUTION OF HALLMARKS
Silver has been a status symbol for centuries. In the days before banks, assets were stored at home in the form
A well-to-do family would have plates, goblets, spoons and serving dishes made from silver. The family silver was a clear indication of the status of the household.
Silver coin was made of silver, rather than nickel alloys, until not all that long
ago. The fact that both status and the currency were tied to a precious metal made its purity important.
It was vital that what looked like silver was silver. The nation's economy depended on it.
THE SILVER STANDARD
It was necessary, therefore, to have set standards of quality or purity, and a way of showing that a piece was up to standard, rather than made of some base metal masquerading as the real thing.
Hallmarking was introduced in 1300 as a way of protecting the consumer. If a piece carried the King's mark a leopard's head in the
very early days - it guaranteed that the piece was at least 92.5% silver. A symbol was used, rather than a letter, because few people could read.
This became known as the standard mark, and began to vary a bit depending on where the silver came from. Sterling silver standard marks often encountered include a walking lion (known as a lion passant) for silver assayed in England and a crowned harp for Irish silver.
Until 1913, the Glasgow standard was a rampant lion and Edinburgh's a thistle. After this, Glasgow showed both lion and thistle.
The standard was the only mark on silver until 1363, when silversmiths were required, by law, to add their own mark to any piece they made. Again, early marks were symbols. Later ones used the maker's initials.
The next introduction, in 1423, was the addition of the assay mark, which showed that the piece had been checked for quality by an assay office. Various offices were set up throughout the country and each office had its own mark.
For example, an anchor mark meant the piece was checked in Birmingham, a leopard's head, London, and a castle, Edinburgh.
Chester, Dublin, Exeter, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield and York also had their own assay marks. Take care with Edinburgh, Newcastle and Exeter; all of them use a castle as their symbol, although they can, with some experience, be told
A date mark was introduced in 1478 in the form of a letter. This way of marking the year in which a piece was made is still in use today.
Each year has its own letter. Twenty-five of the alphabet's letters are used in what is known as a cycle. The one left out of a cycle is either an i or a j.
Every 25 years a new cycle is begun in a new style. The letters go from upper to lower case, their shapes change and sometimes the shields they are set in are also altered.
One thing to look out for is Britannia standard silver. This mark was introduced in 1697 and indicated silver of a greater purity, nearly 96%. It was little used between around 1735 and the end of the 19th century.
The standard mark is either a seated Britannia figure - facing right in the case of the Edinburgh mark, left in other offices - or the head of a lion, known as a
'head erased', a heraldic term meaning 'torn from the boy'.