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]

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    

Lovely English Antique 1904 Solid Sterling Silver Travelling Playing Card Box Beautiful Rare English Antique 1924 Sterling Silver & Enamel Cigarette Jewel BoxSuperb Clean Decorative English Antique 1904 Sterling Silver Double Stamp Case Large 22" English Solid Silver 2084g Twin Handled Serving Tea Tray 67oz Hm1939 Stunning Large 8" Heavy English Antique 1926 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxBeautiful Clean Heavy English Antique 1929 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxSuperb Heavy 72g English Antique 1902 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainHeavy Antique English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain C1896Handsome Large Heavy English Antique Art Deco 1929 Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxRare English 17th Century Engraved Silver Gilt Pomander Vinaigrette Circa 1680Handsome Large Clean English Antique 1845 Sterling Silver & Cut Glass Table Box Antique Sterling Silver Thistle Crochet Hook * English * Hallmarked 1906Antique 1897 English Hmark Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob ChainFab Large Clean Heavy English Antique 1945 Art Deco Sterling Silver Pint TankardEnglish 17th Century Jewelled Silver Filigree Pomander Vinaigrette Circa 1660Antique English Sterling 1815 Horse Trophy By Rebecca Emes & Edward BarnardAntique 1909 English Hmark Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob ChainAntique English Sterling Silver Envelope Stamp Case Fob Charm Blank CartoucheLovely Decorative English Antique 1908 Solid Sterling Silver Wine GobletGorgeous Antique Sterling Silver Thimble * English * Circa 1840Superb Quality Pair English Antique Georgian 1827 Sterling Silver Grape ScissorsSuperb Heavy English Antique 1924 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainStunning Sterling Silver Lot Of Repousee English Russian 649 Grams Not ScrapEnglish Barnard Sterling Silver Hunt Scene Rare Antique Tray No Reserve Auction1904 English Silver Hallmark Set Of 3 Small Perforated Pierced Bon Bon Dishes Ornate Antique English Sterling Silver Stiletto / Awl * Hallmarked 1902Handsome Large English Antique 1839 Sterling Silver & Glass Pot Pourri Table BoxEnglish Sterling Candlesticks George Ii Manner 32oz.V Handsome Large Heavy English Antique 1949 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxHandsome Clean Mappin & Webb English Antique 1969 Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxBeautiful Decorative English Antique Georgian 1812 Sterling Silver Caddy SpoonSuperb 5 Piece English Hallmarked Sterling Silver Miniature Dolls House Tea Set.Superb Clean Heavy 350g English Antique 1951 Sterling Silver One Pint TankardHallmarked English Sterling Silver Ornate Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob ChainEnglish Sterling Figural Canoe Salt Cellar By James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield 1912Beautiful Large Size English Antique 1910 Sterling Silver Cherubs Prayer BookEnglish Sterling Lighthouse Coffee Pot By Horace Woodward & Co, London 1906Superb Vintage English Silver Travelling Communion Set C.1935 Antique 1904 English Hmark Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob ChainJob Lot Of Scrap English Hallmarked Solid Silver Total Weight 300 Grams ( 99p Antique English Sterling Silver Albert Watch Chain Compass Charm Fob Initials JjHallmarked Sheffield Sterling Silver, Great Britain, Fine Crystal Wine DecanterLot 10 Pcs Sterling Silver Filigree Shots & English Egg Cup W/hallmarks Ornate Vintage English Hmark Sterling Silver Pocket Watch Chain Fob Medal 1902Pair Of English George I Sterling Serving Spoons By Samuel Green, London 1724A Large Vintage Silver Plated Serving Tray Made In EnglandUnmolested 1885 Sterling Silver Robert Bragge English Watch Co. Pocket WatchEnglish Sterling Table Snuff Box By Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co., London 1914Antique British Sterling Silver Vesta Case By Rolason Brothers Birmingham C.1910Viking Hack Silver From Ainsbrook Hoard Yorkshire. Recorded By British MuseumEarly English 1807 Sterling Silver 12 3/4" Serving LadleBritish Found Georgian Period Gem Set Silver Ring3 English Sterling Silver Pocket Knifes With Mother Of Pearl 1 SterlingA Large Vintage Silver Plated Gallery Serving Tray.made In Cavalier.Pair/set Of (2) Antique Sheffield England Sterling Silver Knife Rests~84g+ Tw!Gorham Sterling English Gadroon Ice Cream Forks Set Of 12Superb Antique English Silver Tea Canister By William Comyns C.1902 Vintage English Hallmark Sterling Silver & Gold Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalVintage English Hallmark Sterling Silver Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalOrnate Vintage English Hmark Sterling Silver Pocket Watch Chain Fob Medal 1919