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.

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    

Antique French Empire Silver Gilt & Enamel Desktop Letter Document Seal WritingAntique Filigree Silver Pl French Fleur De Leys Desktop Seal Letter Document French Blanzy Poure Writing Set Antique Dip Pen Pencil Letter Opener Silver BoxFrench Silver Agate Letter Desk Seal Heraldic Coronet Armorial Antique DesktopFine Antique 1880s French All Sterling Silver Tea Pot Rococo Style 20 Oz 9,6 In.Luxurious Antique 1900s (french Import) Sterling/solid Silver Tray/platterHandsome Clean Heavy French German Antique C1900 Solid Silver Tobacco Snuff BoxAntique French Silver Mounted Lancet Case Late 18th CFrench Art Deco Silver Vase, Beaker, S. Prudhomme Paris, 1920's, Fitted BoxFine Pair Of Antique French Silver Salts Gilded Interiors & Glass LinersAntique French Silver Needle Case * Circa 1900sAntique Silver Plated French Carriage Clock Enamelled Dial For Restoration A/f Antique Etui Sewing Kit French Sterling Complete W/ Leather Case-5 Piece SetFine Antique 1890s French Sterling Silver & Vermeil Sugar Bowl Louis Xvi StyleAntique Large Enameled Guilloche Sterling Silver Vtg Snuff Box Pillbox FranceChristofle France Silver Plated Weave Basket 11" X 7" Gallia Collection Silver Gold French Order Legion Of Honour Cross Miniature Badge On Ribbon FranceFrench Sterling Tea Set C1850 Maison Odiot 81 Ounces54 Piece Set Old French Gorham Sterling Silver. Monogram R Spaulding & Co.Pair: Early 19th C. French Silver Double Table Salt Cellars & StandsLarge French Multi-bladed Gentlemen's Tortoise Shell Knife, Silver Blade Denmark Silver Medal - Wwi 1920 Slesvig - Issued To English & French ForcesVintage Military Gent's French 1900 Silver Pocket Watch A+a+ ServicedAntique French Slate Clock With Ornate Enamel Dial-strikes On A Silver Bell Waterman-preface-silver-ballpoint-pen-used-nice-in-box-made-in-france Sterling Silverware Towle French Provincial, 6-piece SettingAntique Silver Wine Taster. French 950 1st Standard Circa 1890/1900S.t. Dupont Paris France, Gas Lighter, Silver Plated, Vintage, '90s Rare Art Deco Six Vintage French Knife Rests Silver Plated Animals French Sterling Silver Monogram Napkin Ring With MinervaArt Deco Six Vintage French Knife Rests Silver Plated Animals Parker 85 Made In France Sterling Silver Bark FinishArt Deco Six Vintage French Knife Rests Silver Plated Dachshund BoxedA 19thc French Silver Detailed Card CaseVintage Sterling Silver Jewelry Charm Bracelet Travel Europe France SwissFrench, Antique Religious Silver Pendant. St Virgin Mary Lourdes. Art Deco MedalVintage Mini France Turquoise & Silver Overlay 1 1/4" Purfume Bottle & FunnelVintage Rosary Religious Crystal Glass Beads France Stamped Crucifix & SterlingOld French Solid Silver Salad? Servers - Hallmarked With 'minerva' MarkAn Art Nouveau Christofle France Silver Plated Basket Bowl5 X Antique French 800 Silver Spoons Minerva Marked 3 By Albert Deflon No:580Old Vintage Wwi French Abbeville Sweetheart Brooch Somme Badge Genuine Silver ?World War One Medal 1914 1918 Silver Star France ? Germany ? Maltese Cross ?Vintage Christofle Silver Dinner Knife Hotel De Crillon Paris FranceTowle Sterling Silver 1973 Three French Hens 12 Days Of Christmas Ornament Vintage French Christofle Gallia Silver Plate Carafe Tray, Bottle Coaster X 2Roman Emperor Vitellius Bust French Christofle Silver Beer Bottle Opener~contauxAntique Nuns Pectoral Skull & Bones Crucifix Wood Inlay Silver Cross FranceMiniature Daisy&button Perfume Bottle W/silver-colored Funnel Made In FranceLot Of Vintage Jewelry For Repair & Parts-art Deco, Victorian- Sterling- France925 Sterling Silver French Rope Link Chain Bracelet 6.5"Sterling Silver French Rope Link Chain Egyptian Theme Charm BraceletRare Antique Edwardian French Hdmd Tiny Fine Silver Gilt Metal Scroll Trim Paris1995 40 Anvs French Resistance Contri Silver Plate Zippo 1330/2000 Free DeliveryWwi 1918 Engraved 2 French Silver Two Francs Coins Double Love Token BraceletAntique French Silver Plated Caddy Spoon Or Tongs - Unusual DesignAntique French Religious Art Deco Sterling Silver Virgin Enamelled MedalAntique French Belle Poque 3 3/8" Long Silver Plated Lace Crochet HookA Stylish French Solid Silver Beaker / Cup 1880-1890s Vgc 6cm High1940s Vintage French Metal "hot Air Balloon" Marked?~ Button~silver/pl Copper