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    

Asprey Sterling Silver English Art Deco Antique Cigarette Card Case Pocket BoxAntique Sheffield English Sterling Silver 925 Pierced Bowl Strainer Spoon Dwc NrExceptonal Quality Set 4 Georgian Form 1916 English Sterling Silver CandlesticksArts & Crafts Antique Stylised English Sterling Silver Business Card Case BoxGorgeous 1897 Victorian English Sterling Silver Repousse Centerpiece Basket Bowl1876 Silver Cased Waltham English Lever Pocket Watch In Working OrderSuperb William Iv English Silver Tea Canister C.1832 English Sterling Coffee Pot 1849 Weighs 30 Ounces Solid Sterling Silver English Fusee Lever Pocket Watch 1879 Cleaned & WorkingSuperb Antique English (chester) Silver Capstan Inkwell C.1919 Great 1781 Georgian English Sterling Silver Claw Footed Salver Tray Teapot StandTop Qualty Very Large Heavy 1953 English Sterling Silver Tea Coffee Service TraySuperb Victorian English (chester) Silver Card Case By John Banks C.1898 English Sterling Silver Fusee Hunter Case Pocket Watch, Reiner Bros, LandportSuperb Victorian English Silver Waiter By Mappin & Webb Limited C.1900 Lovely English Antique 1925 Solid Sterling Silver & Guilloche Enamel Glass DishAntique Thimble Acorn W/ English Sterling Silver * Hallmarked 18941815 Sterling Silver Presentation Cup Coggeshall England 776 Grams, 24.95 OzEnglish Sterling Silver Fusee Hunter Case Pocket Watch, Harrison LiverpoolGorgeousc1893 Victorian English Melon Form Silver Plate Bun Warmer Server BasketVfine 1903 Harold Child London English Sterling Silver Horse Riding Hunting HornSuperb Antique English Silver Cream Jug By Mappin & Webb C.1912 Antique English Silver Double Stamp Box (circa 1891)Antique 1929 English Hmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalSuperb 1913 English Sterling Silver & Aynsley Porcelain Cased Dessert ServiceVery Nice 1809 William Stroud Georgian English Sterling Silver Teapot Card StandMost Gorgeous Antique English Silver Plate 6pc Repousse Tea & Coffee Service SetSuperb Art Nouveau English Silver Brooch C.1910 No Reserv Hm 1894 G W Harvey & Co English Sterling Solid Silver Thimble Vintage Handsome 1947 Art Deco English Sterling Silver Cigarette Jewelry Desk Box CaseOrnate Antique English Sterling Silver Thimble * Hallmarked 18946 Antique Sterling Silver Fiddlehead Large Serving Spoons Ireland England 420gV.fine Pair 1922 Lee & Wigfull English Sterling Silver Brandy Wine Cups GobletsAntique British Sterling Silver Vesta Case & 1843 Vinaigrette By Nathaniel MillsAntique Irish Britannia English Sterling Silver 925 Large Stuffing Spoon Dcw Nr Antique Sterling Silver Mother Of Pearl Fruit Knife England Vintage 1800s OldNice Pair C1880 Victorian English Silver Plate Corinthian Column CandlesticksNo Reserve Hm 1888 John Thompson English Sterling Solid Silver Thimble Vintage Antique 1927 English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalFine 1909 Georgian Form Barker Bros English Sterling Silver Poultry Platter TrayVery Unusual 1901 English Sterling Silver Edward Vii Figural Sugar Caster ShakerAntique Sterling Silver 3-piece Cocktail Shaker 345g England Suckling 1924?Nice Quality English Hallmarked Silver Ring Box.. Birmingham 1913. H.w Ltd.Antique 1934 English Hallmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalSolid Silver Desk Inkwell Edward Vii Hallmarked Birmingham 1908 English AntiqueAntique C1903 English Sterling Silver Pierced Dish England W.d. Birmingham Antique 1929 English Hmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalFine Silver Bateman Old English 1804 Georgian Sauce Ladle 76 Grams Antique English Sterling Silver Cream Jug By Arthur Sibley London C.1855Assorted English Silver SpoonsAntique English Sterling Silver 925 Clam Scalloped Bowl Ice Sugar Tongs Dcw Nr British- Anglo-saxon Penannular Silver Spiral BroochAntique 1929 English Hmarked Solid Silver Albert Pocket Watch Chain Fob MedalSuperb Long English Antique 1909 Solid Sterling Silver Double Albert Watch ChainSuperb English Silver Corkscrew/bottle Opener By Asprey C.2004 Antique British Sterling Silver Cruet Set Trio By C.s.h C.1888-89 LondonFine Victorian English Silver Tankard By Walter & John Barnard C.1880 Britannia Silver Bank Of England 300th Anniversary Dish 1994Antique English Sterling Silver Double Albert Pocket Watch Chain, Links StampedGreat 1895 Victorian English Sterling Silver Butter Shell Dish James Deakin Sons