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]

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    

Superb Lrge English Antique Georgian 1810 Solid Silver Magnifying Reading Glass Superb Clean English Antique 1847 Solid Sterling Silver Lock Down Travel InkwellSuperb Rare English Antique Asprey L1893 Solid Silver Lock Down Travel InkwellFine Heavy English Antique 1915 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainBeautiful Condition Large English Antique 1903 Solid Sterling Silver Photo FrameGood Working English Fusee Verge Solid Silver Pocket Watch Superb Heavy English Antique 1913 Solid Silver Double Albert Watch Chain & MedalAntique English Sterling Silver Cradle Pincushion * Hallmarked 1896Beautiful Rare Kewpie Doll English Antique 1914 Solid Sterling Silver Bookmark1919 Antique English Hallmarked Solid Silver Double Albert Pocket Watch Chain Large Solid Silver English Fusee Lever Pocket Watch 1878 Cleaned & WorkingSuperb Large Heavy English Antique Victorian Rococo L1844 Solid Silver Cream JugBeautiful Rare English Antique 1906 Solid Sterling Silver Guitar Snuff Pill BoxStunning English Antique Victorian 1901 Solid Sterling Silver Playing Card Box Lovely Genuine G Unite English Antique 1913 Solid Sterling Silver Pill Rouge BoxEnglish Sterling Mug Made In 1718 95.8 PureGeorgian Sterling Silver Hunting Scene Snuff Box Case 1811 Hound & Hare EnglishSuprb Rare Small English Antique Georgian 1814 Solid Silver Chamber Taper Stick Antique Art Nouveau English Sterling Silver Piano Desk Or Table Photograph FrameStunning Large Heavy English Antique 1893 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardBeautiful English Antique 1925 Solid Silver Gilt Vanity Set In Orig Leather CaseSuprb Rare English Antique 1906 Solid Sterling Silver Grand Piano Snuff Pill BoxSuperb Heavy Chunky Antique English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Watch Chain English Sterling Coffee Pot Chinese 1825Superb Quality War-time English Antique 1942 Solid Sterling Silver Communion SetSuperb Very Clean Heavy English Antique Art Deco 1954 Solid Silver Cigarette BoxEnglish Sterling Tray Royal Hussars 1838 84ozAntique English Hallmarked Solid Silver Double Albert Pocket Watch Chain W FobEnglish Sterling Mug John Rowe 1740Superb Antique English Silver Guilloche Enamel Perfume/scent Bottle C.1928 Antique Early English Sterling Silver Needle Case - Hand Engraved * Circa 18001878 Large English Chronograph By Thomas Bennett Solid Silver Pocket Watch1893 Antique English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain W Fob Solid Sterling Silver English Hallmarked Birmingham Real Jem Set Snuff Pill BoxEnglish Sterling Tray Queens Old CastleEnglish Sterling Teapot 1812 Bateman Family1926 Antique English Hallmarked Solid Silver Double Albert Pocket Watch Chain Superb Large Heavy English Antique 1945 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardFab Lrge Heavy 210g English Antique 1938 Solid Silver & Rose Gold Cigarette CaseEnglish Sterling Tea Urn Made 1795 133 Oz English Sterling Salver 1741 Robert Abercromby CrestEnglish Sterling Teapot J. Denzilow 1793-1796 English Sterling Silver Pitcher Ewer Batemans 1810Antique Heavy English Solid Silver Double Albert Pocket Watch Chain,chester 19061917 Antique English Hallmarked Solid Silver Double Albert Watch Chain W Fob Antique 1881 Victorian 8¼" Sterling Silver English Hm Picture Photo Frame/ovalAntique English Solid Sterling Silver Pierced Pea Corn Spoon Ladle Strainer VbdHeavy(428gm) English Antique Sterling Silver Candlestick By Charles Boynton 1892English Sterling Argyle 1804 Goldsmith To King Lovely Quality English Antique 1963 Solid Sterling Silver Egg Cup Heavy 37gEnglish Sterling Argyle Warm Gravy BoatSilver Icon Depicting Saint George Killing Dragon. British Georgian, C. 1800 Ad.English Sterling Entree Dish 1813 79 Oz2 Antique English Sterling Silver Thimbles * Hallmarked 1907Nine Assorted Antique English Hallmarked Silver ThimblesAntique English Sterling Silver Oyster Clam Scalloped Shell Candy Nut Dish BowlVintage Set Of 4 Barker & Ellis Co. England Silver Plate Salt Pepper Shakers VbdEnglish Sterling Tray Made In 1860 Grape And LeafGeorge V Hand Chased English Sterling Silver (84.6gm) Cigarette Case 1916. Nice Edwardian English Silver Mustard Pot By Asprey C.1908