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    

English Sterling Coffee Pot James King 1770 29ozEnglish Sterling Soup Tureen Bowl 1777 108 Oz1969 Heavy English Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Bracelet Old Vintage Chain BangleEnglish Sterling Tea Caddy Francis Crump 1755 11 Oz Solid Sterling Silver English Hallmarked Owl Baby Rattle Real Bone HandleAntique English Sterling Silver Thistle Chatelaine Pin Cushion * Hallmarked 1900Rare Antique Very Fine English George Iii Teapot London 1780 Sterling Silver NrSuperb English Antique Ch1921 Solid Sterling Silver Albert Watch Chain & MedalEnglish Sterling Tea Set Manner Storr 1915 Mappin WebbAntique Steel Scissors & Sterling Silver Sheath * English * Circa 1800Georgian George I English Sterling Silver London 1725 Meat Skewer Letter OpenerLondon 1860 Sterling Silver Victorian English Teapot Melon Finial Hand Chased NrEnglish Sterling Tea Caddy Thomas Heming Royal Goldsmith 1756Fine Heavy 58g English Antique B1901 Solid Sterling Silver Albert Watch Chain Beautiful Large Heavy English Antique B1923 Solid Sterling Silver Wine GobletStunning Large Heavy English Antique 1974 Solid Sterling Silver Table CandelabraEdwardian Style Sterling Silver English Hallmarked Bangle With Engraved Detail.English Sterling Tea Kettle Teapot 1915 86oz Ornate Antique Filigree Sterling Silver Scissors & Sheath * English * Circa 1850English Sterling Dragon Bowl Sibray Hall Co., 1902Fine English Antique B1963 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette Jewellery Box English Sterling Silver Shell Dish Center Bowl 1904English Sterling Coffee Pot Martin & Hall 1865 35 OzAntique English Ebony Wood Conductors Baton Sterling Silver Mounts 1920sEnglish Sterling Coffee Pot Dragon Spout Queen Anne StyleVintage Sterling Silver Collectors Regional British Hallmark Tea Spoon Set 1953English Sterling Silver Sauce Boat Maiden Walker & HallEnglish Sterling Bowl Floral Shell Diamond 1901Antique English Sterling Silver Angel Or Cherub Crochet Hook * Hallmarked 1904Antique English Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet - Hallmarked Heavy, Saftey ChainVtg Antique English 1912 Edwardian Sterling Silver Guilloche Enamel Brooch P&tFine English Antique Edwardian 1912 Solid Sterling Silver Double Sovereign CaseFine English Antique B1919 All Solid Sterling Silver Hip Spirit FlaskVintage 64g English Sterling Silver Oval Trinket Box, 1922 Horton & Allday, H&a1881 Antique 19thc Charles Stuart Harris Small English Sterling Silver PitcherLovely English Antique Edwardian B1907 Solid Sterling Silver Pill Rouge Box Antique William Aitken English Birmingham Sterling Sliver Pitcher, 15.30 TroyMagnificent & Heavy English Sterling Double Ink Stand - London 1916 LacEnglish Sterling Silver 8" X 6" Universal Wooden Back Photo Frame From SheffieldReed & Barton English Provincial Sterling Silver Flatware Set - 39 PiecesPair Estate Sterling Silver Compotes Comport Tazza Bowls Sheffield England 1906 Vintage 1930 Asprey London English Sterling Silver 104g Round Patch Trinket Box Fine 1939 E. Viners English Hallmarked Sterling Silver Toast Rack #2 NrA+ 3 Matched William Iv English Sterling Silver Spoons By Ab Savory London 1832English George Iii Sterling Silver Sugar Shaker / Caster - George Smith C.1789Excellent English Sterling Silver Napkin Ring Engraved "b"A+ Rare! London English 1786 Georgian Sterling Silver Gravy / Sauce LadleAntique English William Sudell George Ii Sterling Silver Footed Cream PitcherVintage 1899 Horton Allday English Scalloped Sterling Silver Tray Dish Bowl, 53gVintage 1918, 72g English 3" Round Sterling Silver Dish Bowl, Fine Estate PieceAnitque English Copper~sterling Silver Wine Coaster Bucket Holder Lion Dovetail!Solid Sterling Silver English Fusee Lever Pocket Watch 1864 Cleaned & WorkingVintage Small 1901 English Sterling Silver Round Pill Trinket Box By T&s Trevitt Sterling Silver Handle 12 Steak Knives Ornate W/stainless Blades EnglandFine 1939 E. Viners English Hallmarked Sterling Silver Toast Rack #1 NrSterling Silver - Heavy British Scroll Bangle 40g - Bracelet (7") Ez6624 Vintage Kf Ltd English Sterling Silver Spirit Bottle Labels Scotch Sherry WineEnglish Sterling Silver Pepper Grinder By J.a. Campbell Hallmarked London 1987English Sterling Silver Fusee Pocket Watch Hunting Case 44mm Mvtseat 53mmcaseExtremely Rare Antique British Sterling Silver Snuff And Match Box

Recent News: English Sterling Silver

Source: Google News

Silver gets a stylish sheen
The Hindu, October 23rd

While some come in sterling silver, others come blended with different textures and patterns. Says Suhaas Rao, managing director, Bhima Jewellery: “Most jewellers hold festivals celebrating ... There are traditional pieces of jewellery such as...Read more

Garth's Branches Out
Maine Antique Digest, October 23rd

Garth's strapped a blood-pressure cuff on the arm of the antiques industry and checked the numbers. The results also said something about the company's ability to put together the right material, find potential buyers, and ... There was a Gustav...Read more

7 Ligonier galleries partner to present early holiday shopping opportunity
Tribune-Review, October 22nd

The shop offers a variety of splendid estate jewelry, antique sterling silver wares and upscale home consignment finds. “We're looking forward to another great Artwalk with P J Zimmerlink and, in keeping with our affordable theme, original framed...Read more

Visit Raleigh's little shop of horrors
The Independent Weekly, October 22nd

The porcelain bedpan sitting in the chair by the door, filled with old medical devices? The dead animals preserved in jars of rubbing alcohol? In a back room, I find a sort of adorable (okay, I squealed) two-headed baby box turtle the size of a silver...Read more

JoANN JAACKS: Tag Sailing
Litchfield County Times, October 21st

They walk away, whispering conspiratorially. At the end of the third table purveying a new-in-the-box juicer, Limoges plates, imitation leather handbags, real leather handbags amid tarnished sterling silver pieces, they halt, casting one final backward...Read more

Wild Rufus founder opens new record and CD shop in Camden, October 17th

Q: Have some of your old customers come back for your opening? A; The first few days have been ... Karyl's favorite medium is sterling silver and not only does she craft original designs, she works on commissioned pieces as well. “I've been working...Read more

Collector's biscuit jars reminder of times past, October 17th

While living in Minnesota for over 20 years, Leonard acquired jars at antique stores or yard sales. Those jars have a flat design that reflect their Swedish ... Some of the German-made jars have sterling silver tops. Continuing her quest today in...Read more

The 2014 Baltimore Summer Antiques Show
Maine Antique Digest, October 14th

The Baltimore Summer Antiques Show is like no other, and it has a long history. Where else can one spend $475 on a sterling silver container for Silly Putty, $3500 for a vintage 1960s surfboard, $47,500 for an Hermès runway handbag, or $1.85 million...Read more