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    

Silver English Pair Case George Iii Fusee Verge Watch 1816 Cleaned & WorkingFabulous English Silver Antique Chinoiserie Pique Jewellery Vanity Trinket Box Beautiful Large Genuine English Antique 1897 Solid Sterling Silver Photo FrameBeautiful Decorative English Antique 1901 Solid Sterling Silver Sovereign CaseBeautful Quality Rare English Antique Georgian 1831 Solid Silver Candle SnuffersHandsome Large Decorative English Antique 1903 Solid Silver Snuff Tobacco Box Unusual Decorative English Antique 1893 Solid Sterling Silver Vesta Match CaseLovely Heavy English Antique 1919 Solid Sterling Silver Travel Playing Card Box 1890 Waltham Silver Cased English Lever Pocket Watch In Working OrderSuperb Clean Pair English Antique Georgian 1770 Solid Sterling Silver Sugar NipsEnglish Sterling Cup & Cover Charles Ii Form 36 Oz.Fine Early Victorian English Silver Vinaigrette By Nathaniel Mills C.1841 British Edwardian Silver Button Set Of 6 In Original Leather Box!!! - MusiciansLovely Decorative English Antique Victorian 1890 Solid Sterling Silver Table Box9 Inch Dial Wall Clock English Stepped Surround 8 Day Silver Dial Wall ClockSolid Sterling Silver English Fusee Lever Pocket Watch 1896 Cleaned & WorkingBeautiful Genuine English Antique 1880 Solid Silver Albertina Pocket Watch Chain(#13) Pair Of Antique English 925 Weighted Sterling Silver Candlesticks 1,237gCharles S Green Sterling Silver Birmingham England Footed Tea Coffee Set Vintage Lot Sterling Silver English Frame Sharkers 5 Candlesticks Use Fix ScrapAntique British Sterling Silver Snuff Box Birmingham Hallmark With Assay StampEnglish Sterling Tray 1732 Lion & Star Crest Thomas Farren6 William Suckling Ltd Guilloche Enamel English Sterling Silver Demitasse SpoonsEnglish Sterling Toast Rack 1816 William Bennett Antique English Silver "teddy Bear" Pepperette (gourdal Vale Circa 1909)Antique Etched Sterling Silver Overlay Green Glass English Perfume Scent BottleLovely Clean Pair English Antique Georgian 1760 Solid Sterling Silver Sugar NipsElegant Antique Hallmarked English 900 Silver Tea Strainer & HolderEnglish Sterling Basket C1920Circa 1788 Authentic English London Sterling Silver Ladle Wildman Smith CrestedRare Vintage English Sterling Silver Stone Inset Thimble - Full HallmarksA Beautiful Engraved English Hallmarked Sterling Silver Large Double Stamp Case1884 English Sterling Silver Match Safe Figural Lady's ShoeEnglish Sterling Ink Stand 1891 Grape & Leaf Original Wells Beautiful Clean Large English Antique 1912 Solid Sterling Silver Wine GobletLot Of 3 English Sterling Silver Tea Caddy SpoonsLot Of 5 English Silver Tea Caddy Spoons Fine Antique Georgian C.1793 English Sterling Silver Chamberstick Candle StickAntique English Sterling Silver Cream Jug CreamerPretty Vintage English Sterling Silver Thimble * Circa 1920s18th Solid Sterling Silver Milk Jug 1761 Whipham & Wright London EnglishIndian Silver Tray C1905 British Indian Army 4th Brigade Lucknow1911 English Sterling Silver Calling Card Case Engraved Scroll & AcanthusSheffield England Silver Plated Egg Cup Server Stand Copper Gold WashAntique Silver Spatula-english?hallmarks-hh-face-m-lion Face-lion-12in-4.3oztFine English Sterling Silver Stuffing Spoon London Circa 1802Lovely Quality English Sterling Silver Sauce / Gravy BoatAntique Mappin & Webb English Hallmarked Sterling Silver, Sauce Boat No Reserve!Vintage Hallmarked English Sterling Silver Nurses Belt Buckle Birmingham EnglandAntique 1910 Sterling Silver Spoon Lot L&s Whl Wjh England Scotland Germany 58grClassic Antique English Sterling Silver Drum Mustard Pot - Birm 1913Cj Vander Bacchanalian English Sterling Silver 5-pc Place Setting Hunt SceneSuperb Heavy Large English Antique 1960 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardStunning Lrge Heavy English Antique 1899 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint Tankard Reed & Barton English Chippendale Sterling Silver 4 Pc Place Setting UnusedLovely English Antique 1888 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainLovely Quality English Antique Vintage 1974 Solid Sterling Silver Photo FrameCollection Of 24 Antique English Silver Salt/mustard Spoons English Sterling Coffee Pot Renaissance Revival 26 Oz.Nice English Antique 1899 Solid Sterling Silver Fancy Link Albert Watch Chain