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 English Antique 1913 Solid Sterling Silver & Crocodile Skin WalletRare English Antique 1908 Solid Sterling Silver Desk Thermometer PaperweightAntique 1919 English Hmark Sterling Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob ChainFine Genuine English Antique 1907 Solid Sterling Silver & Crocodile Skin Wallet1901 Hallmark English Silver Ornate Link Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob ChainSilver English Fusee Lever Centre Second Chronograph Watch 1872 Cleaned, WorkingSuperb Decorative English Antique 1863 Sterling Silver Lock Down Travel Inkwell1915 English Sterling Silver Albertina Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob ChainLovely Clean English Antique Georgian 1828 Solid Sterling Silver Tea Caddy SpoonAmazing 1903 Art Nouveau English Sterling Silver Serving Platter / Dresser TrayPair 18thc Antique Georgian 1793 London English Sterling Silver Shakers, NrAntique Leather Cased English Sterling Silver Sewing Set * Hallmarked 1896-1902Rare Design Large English Antique 1900 Solid Sterling Silver Calling Card Case Solid Sterling Silver English Hallmarked Cat Vesta Case Match Safe With StrikerFine Large Curved English Antique Georgian 1814 Solid Sterling Silver Snuff BoxAntique 1911 English Hmark Sterling Silver Graduated Albert Pocket Watch ChainAntique English Sterling Silver Stiletto / Awl * Hallmarked 1903Suprb Heavy English Antique 1914 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainFine Large 8.25" X 6" English Antique 1918 Solid Sterling Silver Photo FrameAntique English Silver Tankard Mug London 1837 Weight 201 GramsVintage Art Deco English Sterling Silver Piano Easel Leg Photograph Frame 1927Great Estate Lot Birks & English Sterling Silver Hoof Footed Gravy Sauce BoatsNice Large Genuine English Antique 1939 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardFine Clean Heavy English Antique 1925 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainHandsome English Antique 1919 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainAntique Victorian Sterling Silver English Gents Graduated Pocket Watch Chain 42gBeautiful Quality Asprey English Antique 1938 Sterling Silver & Glass Table Box Vintage English Sterling Silver Travel Perfume Bottle FlaskArt Nouveau Antique English Sterling Silver Desktop Posy Flower Vase 1902Art Deco Asprey Hm English Sterling Silver Cigarette Case Presntation Case 1938Gorgeous Large International Silver Plate English Gadroon Wine Water Pitcher JugEnglish Sterling Coffee Pot London 1741 Handsome English Antique 1896 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainFine V Rare English Antique L1880 Solid Sterling Silver Vesta Match Case & TaperSuprb Clean Heavy English Antique 1923 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainIrish Rare Pair Old English Bottom Marked Circa 1770 Silver Dessert Forks 66g Antique 1894 Robert Gainsford Sheffield England Sterling Silver Salts Cellars NrMagnificent Hand Chased Antique British Sterling Silver Box Match SafeBeautiful English Antique Georgian 1819 Solid Sterling Silver Vinaigrette BoxStunning Heavy English Antique 1919 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainAntique Hm English Birmingham Sterling Silver Dining Table Sauce Boat 1903Stunning Clean English Antique B1926 Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainEnglish Sterling Tea Set Manner Paul Storr 64 OzRare Georgian Old English 1798 Richard Crossley Silver Meat Skewer 100 Grams Superb Set 6 Old English Silver 1985 Cutlery Dinner Knives 62g EachAntique Edwardian 1910 English Sterling Silver Double Sided Compass Fob CharmAntique Circa 1896 Hallmarked English Sterling Silver Tea Spoons Boxed Set Romano British / Roman Silver Ring All Seeing Eye Piece Metal Detecting DetectorNice Old English Hallmarked Silver Single Albert Pocket Watch Chain & Fob.Lovely 1873 Victorian English Sterling Silver Bright Cut Fish Slice Serving ForkWonderful Solomon Hougham Silver Old English 1797 George Iii Sauce Ladle 48g Sterling Silver Concorde British Airways Photo Frame Sheffield 1996 R Carr BoxedWonderful Eley Fearn We Wf Silver Old English 1807 George Iii Sauce Ladle 58g 2 Antique Sterling Silver & English Oak 8 3/8" Tall Candlesticks Dated 1931Antique English Sterling Silver Thimble * Hallmarked 1899Antique English Hallmark Sterling Silver Pocket Watch Chain Fob Medal 1936Large English Vintage Sterling Silver Pheasant Bird 615gms Antique Figurine OldLarge Estate Lot American English Continental Silver Nut Dishes Salt Bowls Box +Antique Vinaigrette, Sterling, British, Victorian, Marked A&s, J, Gold WashBeautiful English Antique C1885 Sterling Silver Albertina Watch Chain & Tassle