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

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique English Victorian Sterling Covered Repousse Cut Glass Dresser Jars BoxesEnglish Sterling Tea Urn Teapot 1787 Coat Arms 98oz Great Estate Lot Antique English American Sterling Silver Cut Glass Dresser JarsSmall Antique Sterling Silver Embroidery Scissors * English * Circa 1840Amazing Pair English London Sterling Silver Figural Column Candlesticks W ComynsOrnate English Georgian Sterling Silver Candle Snuffer R Emes & E Barnard 1815Kristall-karaffe Mit 925er Silber-montur Sheffield - England Um 1920, 22,8 Cm H.English Sterling Tea Caddy London 1768 Lovely English Antique B1933 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette Box Estate Lot Beautful English Sterling Silver Figural Floral Repousse Photo FramesLovely Genuine English Antique Edwardian B1904 Solid Sterling Silver Photo FrameVintage Large Jumbo Sterling Silver Lighter - Hallmarked - Made In England CLovely English Antique B1914 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainEnglish Sterling Silver 1877 Thomas Russell & Son Full Hunter Pocket WatchSuperb Heavy English Antique B1940 Solid Sterling Silver 1/2 Half Pint TankardSolid Sterling Silver English Fusee Lever Pocket Watch 1848 Cleaned & WorkingFerndown Bark 2 Star Estate Pipe Sterling Silver Band England No ReserveLovely English Antique B1913 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainAntique Gamblers Bamboo Walking Stick/cane With Sterling Silver Top English English Sterling Silver Bowl Figural 1894 45ozNice English Antique B1937 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette Or Jewel Box Antique English Hallmarked Large Sterling Silver Muffineer Caster Shaker 64gCased Antique English Sterling Silver The Spa Hg & S ThimbleHandsome Heavy Antique English Ch1903 Solid Sterling Silver Albert Watch ChainEnglish Sterling Tea Set Doran Family 1892Large Estate Lot C1920 American English Sterling Silver Vanity Brushes Mirrors +Lovely Genuine English Antique B1927 Solid Sterling Silver Photo Frame1901 Birmingham England William Devenport Cased Sterling Salt Cellars & SpoonsLarge Gorgeous English Sterling Silver Repousse Tea Caddy Sugar Box London 1896Lovely English Antique Ch1902 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette Box With Solid LidEnglish Sterling Silver Yard-o-led 1970s Mechanical Propelling PencilSilpada Sterling Silver English Channel Hoop EarringsEnglish Sterling Entree Dishes 1856 Samuel Hunt Late Paul StorrSuperb English Antique B1924 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainSterling Silver Hardy Brother Smelling Salts Bottle & English Silver Pill BoxJohn Grinsell & Sons England Antique 1902 Figural Sterling Silver Victorian ShoeLarge Heavy English Sterling Silver Cigar~cigarette Box By William Base~19222 Vtg Chester England Sampson Mordan & Co Sterling Pheasant Place Card HoldersVintage Sterling Silver Goblet / Chalice James Dixon 1907 Sheffield EnglandLovely English Antique Edwardian B1906 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette Box Antique C.1908 English - Sterling Silver - Cigarette Case By Shepheard & Co 2 English Dishes Vases Compotes Sterling Silver Old Sheffield Heavy Repousse 19cPair Of Ornate English Sterling CandlesticksSterling Silver Cream Jug / Pitcher Deakin & Francis - Birmingham England 1908Very Early Georgian English Sterling Silver Salver London 1801 Good MakersAntique 1920 Hmark English Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalVintage Bbb Tobacco Smoking Pipe With Sterling Silver Ferrule English Two X Antique 1900s Solid English Sterling Silver Vesta Cases Weight 51gm. Vintage Sterling Silver Wedgewood England Jasperware Ring~greek Goddess~sz. 7.75English Victorian 1860's Robert Harper Sterling Fancy Tea Pot 30ozsEnglish C.1785 Sterling Silver Candle Holder Snuffer Thomas Law Sheffield No RsvSterling Silver Pocket Watch Express English Lever - Chester - Jg GravesEnglish Sterling Sugar Shaker Royal MonogramHeavy Glass Sterling Silver Holder Match Safe Striker Tabletop EnglandVintage British Hall Marks Jubilee Silver Sterling Silver Spoons Lot Of 6 Antique 1925 Hmark English Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob Medal 1857 English Victorian Sterling Silver Coffeepot William Hunter England 31ozsEnglish Hallmark 1998 Sterling Silver Bull & Bear Cufflinks Stock Market MibVintage Antler & Sterling Silver Handled 5 Piece Carving Set England (11.14z)Antique English Atkin Bros. Sterling Silver Fruit Carving Service For 6

Recent News: English Sterling Silver

Source: Google News

From cast-off material, unique jewelry, November 21st

Perkins purchases sterling from Hoover and Strong, a U.S. refinery that has been in business for about 100 years. The company takes unwanted jewelry, old sterling dinnerware, silver from electronics and scrap and puts it through a refining process. She...Read more

18 Ingenious Names from the World of Steampunk
Huffington Post, November 21st

Agatha. Agatha has the antique side of steampunk down pat. It's the ultimate old lady name. Yet, the name gets a youthful spin in Girl Genius, a comic series with the tagline "Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!" Young heroine Agatha Heterodyne makes the...Read more

Style Scene: Two Tulsans featured in British Glamour
Tulsa World, November 17th

Quality antique silver and jewelry often have marks to provide information about authenticity. Solid silver is rare because it is too soft to hold up to use. Most silver is either sterling or silver-plated. Sterling is marked as STR or 0.925. Silver...Read more

Art aplenty in Ocean Springs, November 15th

13. Milleur began working in pewter when he sought to make a sterling silver trim to cover the base of a chipped antique vase he owned. A local pewtersmith suggested he try pewter instead of sterling. This was Milleur's introduction to working with the...Read more

Antiques | How did Uncle Sam become famous?
The Courier-Journal, November 14th

Bookcase, Regency style, mahogany, carved, reeded surround, Anglo-Colonial, 89 x 55 in. $955. • Sterling-silver meat platter, Maintenon pattern, laurel border, oval, Gorham, 1925, 18 ½inches, $1,188. Write to Kovel at King Features Syndicate, 300 W...Read more

New England antique shop relocates here
Andalusia Star-News, November 12th

“We have baskets, china, sterling silver, quilts, wood furniture, jewelry and rare collectibles,” Correro said. “One thing we feature that not a lot of people around here have is Majolica pottery and porcelain.” The shop also carries Royal Doulton...Read more

What's old is new again for Stamford collector
The Advocate, November 9th

The entrepreneur was selling scarves, jewelry, trinket boxes, antique perfume bottles, hair bands, decorative glass balls, sterling silver pieces, estate pieces and more. "What I brought here is a lot of vintage pieces or one-of-a-kind," she noted...Read more

Summer Auction 2014
Maine Antique Digest, November 5th

An 18th-century spice cabinet in old green paint that had a single door opening to a multi-drawer interior generated substantial excitement at the Marion Antique Auctions summer sale on July 26 in Marion, Massachusetts. It piqued the interest of a...Read more