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    

Superb Large Heavy 261g English Antique 1891 Solid Sterling Silver Tea Caddy BoxEnglish Silver Mounted Enamel Sewing Etui C1780Superb Decorative English Antique 1906 Solid Sterling Silver Calling Card CaseAntique Flask And Cup Sterling Silver British 1915 Gb & Co Massive Flask Fine Rare English Antique 1899 Solid Sterling Silver Loose Tea Infuser SpoonHuge British Punch Bowl Old English Sterling Silver Heavy Roberts & Belk Rare NrStunning Large Clean English Antique 1919 Sterling Silver & Guilloche Enamel BoxHandsome Large Heavy English Antique Art Deco 1954 Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxBeautiful English Antique Vintage 1989 Solid Sterling Silver & Gilded Pill BoxThe Perpetual Calendar Patent English Antique Sterling Silver Fob Pendant 1903Beautiful Clean English Antique Victorian 1897 Solid Silver Scent Bottle & CaseFine English Antique 1917 Solid Sterling Silver & Faux Tortoiseshell Snuff BoxStunning Rare Large Heavy 510g English Antique 1903 Sterling Silver Table Box Solid Silver Full Hunter George Iii English Fusee Verge Watch 1807 Fully WorkingLovely Decorative English Antique 1897 Solid Sterling Silver Tea Caddy CanisterCirca.1700 - 1800 A.d British Found Georgian Period Gem Set Silver RingEnglish Sterling Silver & Enamel Flower Pin Brooch Art Deco Nouveau AntiqueSuperb Large Heavy English Antique 1968 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint Tankard1887 Silver Cased English Lever Pocket Watch Henry Nicholls London WorkingAntique Scottish Or English Fox Deer Hunting Horn With Silver Mounts 1800sFine Antique Victorian English Hm Silver Repousse Ice Skating Snuff Box 1894 Lovely Rare English Antique Art Nouveau 1905 Sterling Silver Prayer Hymn BookVintage 1930s Sterling Silver Egg Cup A J Bailey Holder Stand Old English DesignFine Large English Antique Solid Silver Cigarette Box; Birmingham 1918Superb Rare English Antique 1910 Solid Sterling Silver Novelty Boot Pin Cushion Fine Rare English Antique 1906 Solid Sterling Silver Perpetual Desk Calendar1894 English Hallmark Sterling Silver Long Pocket Watch Chain Or T Bar Necklace1935 Heavy Vintage Sterling Silver Bracelet Old English Art Deco Cuff Bangle1905 Samuel Levi English Sterling Silver Hallmarked Vesta Case.Superb Chunky Heavy 76g English Antique 1899 Sterling Silver Albert Watch ChainSuperb Clean English Antique 1912 Solid Sterling Silver & Guilloche Enamel Box Handsome English Antique Victorian 1895 Solid Sterling Silver Albert Watch ChainSuperb Genuine English Antique C1885 Solid Silver Albertina Pocket Watch ChainHandsome Large Heavy English Antique 1893 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardBeautiful Rare English Antique 1915 Solid Sterling Silver & Enamelled Stamp CaseAntique 1924 English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalSuperb Large Decorative English Antique Victorian 1883 Sterling Silver Table BoxAntique 1927 English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalRare English Sterling Silver Hare Stirrup Cup Hallmarked 1800's Jacob WintleFine Genuine Early English Antique Georgian 1737 Solid Sterling Silver Cream JugSuprb Clean English Antique 1910 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainRare Design English Antique 1904 Solid Sterling Silver Slide Action Stamp Case Rare Design English Antique 1913 Solid Sterling Silver Slide Action Stamp Case Lovely English Antique 1919 Solid Sterling Silver & Faux Tortoiseshell Table BoxAntique 1925 English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalHandsome Large Clean English Antique 1910 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardFine Clean Heavy English Antique 1912 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainBeautiful Large Rare English Antique 1906 Solid Sterling Silver Sword BookmarkVelvet Cased Fine C. 1915 Sterling Silver .925 Shefflied English Tea Spoon SetFine Early English Antique Georgian 1836 Solid Sterling Silver & Glass Cream JarCirca.1750 - 1850 A.d British Found Georgian Period Gem Set Silver RingBeautiful Genuine English Antique 1880 Solid Silver Albertina Pocket Watch ChainLovely Rare English Antique 1901 Sterling Silver Fancy Link Albert Watch ChainSolid Silver British Military Issue Officers Tracheotomy KitNice 1919 Hallmarked English Sterling Silver Condiment / Mustard / Sugar Pot.Fine English Antique Georgian 1809 Solid Sterling Silver Pierced Tea Caddy SpoonVintage English London Sterling Silver Pen Light Flashlight 4 & 1/4"Exquisite English Antique Solid Silver Snuff Box; Joseph Gloster Ltd; Bham 1935Antique 1897 English Sterling Silver Pocket Watch Chain & Fob, Links StampedFine English Hallmarked Sterling Silver Horse Racing Jockey Cap Tea Caddy Spoon