Normally when we think of antique sterling silver we think of England, where the tradition of hallmarking the metal for quality control goes back to the 13th century. French sterling silver hallmarks and maker’s marks were not as systematic as their British counterparts, but they and French sterling silver itself have quite an extensive history.
When French silversmiths first began marking their pieces, they used “maison commune” marks, which indicated the product’s town of origin. This system was complex, as each town had its own identifying symbol, and was complicated by the fact that each component of a final piece had its own identifying mark—for example, the handle of a silver pitcher would have a different hallmark than the pitcher it was attached to.
Maker’s marks first appeared in Paris in the 14th century and then spread outward into the rest of France. The marks were stamped inside a lozenge, a diamond with four equal sides. In 1460, the crown mandated date letters to indicate the year the piece was made, surmounted by a royal crown. In 1543, the countermark became the first official standard mark guaranteeing the silver quality of a piece.
With this new standard, French sterling could have only 4.2 percent alloy; British sterling, by comparison, could have up to 7.5 percent alloy. As a result, French silver was quite soft, so silversmiths often finished pieces with a technique called burnishing, in which a silversmith compacted the surface of a piece by pressing it with the rounded edge of a steel blade. This process made the surface denser and consequently more resistant to wear and scratches.
When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, an estimated 250,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) fled the country for fear of persecution. Many of these emigrants were skilled silversmiths who took their talents to more tolerant nations.
In 1689, the crown required all nobles to relinquish their silver to the monarchy in order to pay for foreign wars. As a result, many large pieces were simply melted down. As the rule of Louis XIV’s regime tightened, decorative styles in silver followed suit, as ornate baroque patterns gave way to more rigid, geometric styles.
With the French Revolution in 1789, even more silver was melted down, and the traditional guilds were disbanded. At the same time, the new government dramatically relaxed silver ...
The political upheaval dramatically diminished the number of customers who could afford fine silver. Thus, many pieces from this period, despite their fine design, were made using cheap methods—decorations were often crafted separately and then attached to the piece afterward, for example.
When Napoleon took power as a dictator in the early years of the 19th century, styles shifted from the Greek neoclassicism favored by the Revolution to the more formal, Roman look of the French Empire style. In the late 19th century, Art Nouveau arose out of dissatisfaction with industrialism, with asymmetrical designs and natural forms. With the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Art Deco (known then as Art Moderne) rose to prominence, with its angular, restrained design.
As styles changed over the decades, so did French hallmarks. From 1878 to 1973, French pieces marked for export carried the profile of the Roman god Mercury; when the mark included the number 1 or 2, the piece contained 95 or 80 percent silver, respectively.
Still used today, the famous Minerva mark—a profile of the Roman goddess, complete with helmet—also indicates the standard of a piece of French silver. Pieces with large Minerva marks bearing the numbers 1 and 0 are 92.5 percent silver; those with the number 2 are 80 percent silver, as are small Minerva marks with no number at all. The vase mark is the highest mark for French silver today, indicating 99.9 percent silver. Other marks include the weevil, swan, crab, and boar head.