No one knows for sure, but some historians speculate that the word “sterling” is a corruption of “Easterlings,” the German silversmiths brought to England by Henry II to share their silversmithing knowledge with the British. What we do know is that the sterling standard of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 alloy, which tends to be mostly copper, originated around 1300 in England with Edward I.

Ever since, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and Silversmiths has enforced this standard. The Worshipful Company derives its authority from the Goldsmiths’ Hall, whose name is the origin of the word “hallmark.”

Because England used silver money until 1921, the crown relied on strict enforcement and heavy punishments to ensure the quality of British silver. Without these standards, silversmiths could debase currency by melting down coins, reducing their silver content, and then passing them off as pure. Hallmarks guaranteed a standard of quality, and the force of the law gave weight to the standard. Indeed, in 1757, those found guilty of imitating hallmarks were sentenced to death.

Each piece of British silver had at least four marks that told its story: the standard mark, town mark, date letter, and maker’s mark. These marks were stamped on finished pieces when craftsmen brought their products to the local assay office, where officials tested the metal content of each product.

The sterling silver standard mark guaranteed that the silver content of a piece was at least 92.5 percent. In 1300, this mark was a leopard’s head. In 1478, the head was modified to include a crown. In 1544, during a time of coin debasement under Henry VIII, the mark was changed to a profile of a lion walking left, known as lion passant. This mark was changed again in 1820 to an uncrowned lion head.

For a short interim starting in 1697, the crown required silverware to be 95.8 percent pure silver, rather than 92.5 percent. This requirement was known as the Britannia standard, and the goal of its implementation was to prevent silversmiths after the Restoration from melting down coins (which were sterling standard) and using that to make their wares.

Britannia silver bore the profile of a lion’s head in place of the sterling mark. This higher-quality silver was softer and easier to work with, but the standard was phased out i...

The town mark indicated the origin of a piece; a large number of different town marks are known today. London used a leopard’s head, but marks elsewhere were often inconsistent. Thus, unique or rare marks often make a piece more collectible.

The date letter mark was first used in London in 1478 and is still enforced by the Worshipful Company today. The date mark indicates the year the piece was assayed—usually but not necessarily the same year as it was produced—with a letter of the alphabet, which changed every year. On special occasions, like the 25th wedding anniversary of George V and Queen Mary in 1934 and 1935, silversmiths would sometimes add an extra mark to commemorate the event.

The maker’s mark became mandatory in 1363 to ensure that a buyer could trace a bad or faulty good back to its maker. Because literacy rates were so low at the time, this mark started out as a sign or symbol, but this was changed to the first two letters of the maker’s surname in the late 16th century. In the 1720s, the mark changed again to the maker’s first and last initial.

Aside from these four marks, pieces from 1784 to 1890 also included a portrait of the current ruler. This mark proved to the government that the piece’s duty had been paid—a most important consideration given England’s massive debt following the American Revolution. This duty was repealed in 1890, and the sovereign mark disappeared along with it. Additionally, silver imported from 1867 onward had an “F” in a shield stamped on it to indicate its foreign origin.

Although marks tell a great deal of information about a piece, collectors should beware of fake marks. Whereas silversmiths used steel dies to punch their marks, forgers often used brass instead, resulting in a blurry mark. These forged marks are sometimes known as soft punches.

Stylistically, British silver followed the trends of the art world around it. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Baroque was all the rage, with heavily ornamented and elaborate pieces. From 1702 to 1727, styles shifted to the much more restrained and austere Queen Anne and Early Georgian styles.

From then until 1837, the Rococo style took hold, with its organic, asymmetrical, and curved designs. The year 1837 marked the ascendancy of Queen Victoria and the rise of the Victorian silver, which was extravagant and heavily ornamented. In the 1890s, the whiplash curves and organic, asymmetrical shapes of Art Nouveau began to replace the Victorian style, with Tiffany & Co. producing high-quality vases, pitchers, and other types of hollowware.

Art Nouveau itself gave way in the mid-1910s to Art Deco, with its more geometric, stylized designs. Since 1945, the design of decorative and functional silver objects has been mostly modern, incorporating sculptural, organic, and abstract shapes.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Chicago Silver

Chicago Silver

Paul Somerson's incredible reference on handwrought metalwork from the American Arts and Crafts movement of the ear… [read review or visit site]

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

An extensive reference guide to silver marks, hallmarks, trademarks and maker's marks found on antique and vintage … [read review or visit site]

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

This is a great reference site on silver, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can view silver items acc… [read review or visit site]

The Gilbert Collection

The Gilbert Collection

The late Sir Arthur Gilbert's collection of European silver, gold, enamel, and other items is now housed at the Vic… [read review or visit site]

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

“Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj” was the title of a 2008 exhibition at Columbia University’s Mi… [read review or visit site]

TheStieffCompany.com

TheStieffCompany.com

Scott Perkins is an enthusiastic evangelist for The Stieff Company, a significant Baltimore silversmith and maker o… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Most watched eBay auctions    

English Sterling Coffee Pot C1780 John Dutton 31 Ounces English Sterling Tray James Dixon 1875 Leaf & ShellGeorgian English James Wilks Sterling Silver Serving Spoons Fork C. 1798 1802/05Quality Large Heavy Pair English Antique 1914 Solid Sterling Silver CandlesticksWilliam Iv English Silver Teapot C.1832 English Sterling Teapot Tray 1793 Hand Rising From Crown CrestSuper Rare Antique 1785 English Georgian Sterling Silver Basting Skimming SpoonEnglish Sterling Chamber Candlestick 1904 George Iii Form 10 OzSilver English Fusee Lever Centre Second Chronograph Watch 1882 Cleaned, Working Peter Ann William Bateman English Sterling Silver Oval Tray Ca 1801 Lovely Heavy English Antique 1896 Sterling Silver Cigarette Jewel Box Solid Lid Vtg 1939 Gorham Sterling Silver 5 Serving Pieces. English Gadroon 239.4 Gr ScrapBeautiful Rare English Antique 1905 Solid Sterling Silver Double Stamp Case Lovely English Antique Victorian 1900 Solid Sterling Silver Pill Snuff BoxAntique Hallmarked Silver Clock 1906 Movement By The British United Clock CoBeautiful English Antique S Mordan L1890 Sterling Silver Chatelaine Scent BottleLovely English Antique 1967 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette Jewel Box On FeetLovely English Antique Edwardian 1906 Solid Sterling Silver Snuff Box Nice ShapeV Handsome Large Heavy English Antique 1949 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxFine Georgian English Silver Serving Spoon By Hester Bateman C.1784 Ca 1780-1800 English Sterling Silver Muster Pot W/ Blue Glass Insert English Sterling Silver Pitchers (2) 1893 & 1803 3 Fantastic Antique 1908 George Hape British Sterling Silver Serving Spoon SetFabulous Ca 1761 English Sterling Silver Cruet Set Made By John DempsterBottom Mark Sumner Crossley Georgian Silver Old English Tablespoons 150 Grams Ca 1762 English Sterling Silver Tankard Mug Maker Hpc Barrel Formed MugFine Rare Georgian English Silver (york) Serving Spoon By William Astley C.1807 Pair Of Victorian Style Heavy English Silver Plated 3 Branch Candelabras10x10 InBottom Marked Ebenezer Cokergeorgian Silver Old English Tablespoons 141 Grams Lovely Clean Condition English Antique 1952 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxFine English Antique Victorian 1850 Sterling Silver Screw Down Travel Inkwell Ca 1834 English Sterling Silver Creamer Made By Wrangham & Moulson Handsome Heavy English Antique 1902 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainBeautiful English Antique 1889 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainAntique Silver Spoons- Birm 1928- Barker Brothers Silver-old English Feather-4oz Unusual English Silver Wine Taster/quaich,taste Au Vin( Maker R.h London 1878)1903 Hallmarked Antique English Solid Silver Double Albert Pocket Watch ChainAntique English Sterling Silver Sewing Set /scissors / Thimble * Hallmarked 1904Vintage English Sterling Silver Repousse Cherubs Heart Picture Frame 1988 1849 English Sterling Childs Cup W/ Engraved Outside Scene Of A Dog Cat & BirdEnglish Sterling Silver H Bros Harman Cigarette Box 1956 Wood Lined1879 Victorian English Vinaigrette Sterling Silver Nice No ReserveHandsome Heavy 63g English Antique Solid Sterling Silver Albert Watch ChainLovely Rare English Antique 1892 Sterling Silver Novelty Desk Letter Note Clip Heavy Set Of 6 Old English Antique Solid Silver Tea Spoons 1911/ 13.2 Cm/ 122 GHandsome Large Heavy 555g English Antique 1963 Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxTudor Or Stuart Silver Ring With Amethyst Stone-british Detecting Find19thc English Tantalus Decanter Set Cut Glass & Silver Nice!Sterling Silver Gorham 203g Large Serving Spoon + 4 Tea Spoon English Gadroon Vintage English Hallmarked Sterling Silver Tea Strainer & Bowl - Weight 111g6 Sterling Silver Demitasse Spoons England Fully Hallmarked Art Deco Antique English Sterling Silver Vinaigrette Snuff Box Hallmarked Joseph WillmoreCa 1805 -1808 English Sterling Silver Wine Coaster Made By John Roberts & Co 1841 English Sterling Silver Salver By Richard Sibley Diameter 6 InchesSuperb Rare Victorian English Silver Vesta Case/match Safe C.1882 English Sterling Bowls (2) 1949 Mappin & WebbLovely English Antique 1902 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch Chain Old Vintage Antique English Sterling Silver Hallmarked Cigarette Case Box 1926Set Of British Hallmarked Solid Sterling Silver Hoopers Jewellery 1987 ThimblesVictorian English William Eley Sterling Silver Gold Etched Book Box Vinaigrette