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 Silver & Guilloche Enamel Art Deco Ladies Wrist WatchVery Rare English Antique 1905 Solid Sterling Silver Cased Tape Measure W Comyns1913 English Sterling Silver Pocket Watch Stand & Travel Case Synyer & BeddoesLovely English Antique B1907 Solid Sterling Silver & Gilt-lined Jewel Ring BoxGilt Sterling Silver English Full Hunter Fusee Lever Watch 1849 Cleaned & WorksLarge 1819 English London Sterling Silver Very Ornate Tea Pot 798 GramsGorgeous English Sterling Silver Art Nouveau Picture Photo Frame 1923Antique English Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil / Seal * Circa 1900Fine Art Deco Solid Sterling Silver English Toast Rack C1936 100 Grams!A Fine Quality English Vintage 1981 Solid Sterling Silver & 9ct Gold Snuff BoxEarly Georgian Antique English Sterling Silver Repousse Lion Footed Creamer LoeEarly Georgian Antique English Sterling Silver Repousse Tankard Handled Cup LoeHandsome English Antique Art Deco 1961 Solid Sterling Silver Cigarette BoxEnglish Sterling Silver Antique Victorian Vesta Case Matchsafe Match Snuff BoxLovely Genuine English Antique Edwardian 1904 Solid Sterling Silver Photo FrameEnglish Sterling Teapot & Stand Lion Atop Castle Turret Crest 1784Antique Vintage British Sterling Silver Box Jewelry Cigar Cigarette Wood LinedAntique English Sterling Silver Hallmarked Mustard Cobalt Glass Jar Tankard LoeFine Small Antique Sterling Silver English Hallmarked Snuff Or Trinket Box2 Antique Salad Forks Tiffany & Co English King Sterling Silver Gold Wash Nr!Antique English Sterling Silver Table Top Snake Form Fluid Lamp - Very Unusual!!English Sterling Silver Pitcher Wine Ewer Goldsmiths 1892Solid Sterling Silver English Fusee Lever Pocket Watch 1879 Cleaned & WorkingEnglish Sterling Silver Tea Strainer With Original Bowl By C J Vander~lon 1972English Sterling Silver Plates 2 Hunt & Roskell Ex Firm Of Paul StorrSuperb Large Heavy English Antique L1965 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardUnique English Sterling Silver Table Bell Birmingham 1980Vtg English Hallmarked Sterling Silver Edwardian Art Deco Liquor Hip Flask LoeEnglish Sterling Sterling Coffee Pot London 1744 Sterling Silver - British 1 Oz Bullion 31.1g - Pendant Mens Xl6761English Sterling Tankard Bacchus Spout Henry Wilkinson 1893 24oz5 Sterling Silver New French Knives Tiffany & Co English King Nr!English Sterling Bowl Drew Family Crest & Motto 1899 Bull & WheatLinks Of London English Sterling Silver Graduation Owl Figural Jar Box Miniature1838 William Iv English Sterling Silver Rum Liquor Decanter Bottle Label TagJewish English Sterling Silver Goblet Pair Kiddush Cups London & Birm 1905-10English Sterling Silver Mug Celtic Dragon Adie Bros 19582 Antique English Sterling Silver Thimbles * Hallmarked 1910 & 1916Vintage English Charm C1960 Sterling Silver Opening Nuvo Bookcase Enamel Books5pc Vintage English Sterling Silver Salt Cellar Set In Orig CaseSuperb English Sterling Silver 8 3/4" Tall Antique Style Photo Frame Dated 1994English Sterling Entree Dish Hope-scott Family Arms 1858 49ozSheffield Sterling Silver Coffee Pot English Viners Ltd. Emile Viener Viner English Sterling Silver Tray Lion Heads 19082 Antique Sterling Silver Forks Tiffany & Co English King "m" Mark Nr!Aynsley England 5 Cobalt & Gold Demitasse Cup & Saucers With Sterling HoldersVintage English Sterling Silver Thimble By Stephen J. Rose * Hallmarked 19692 Antique Sterling Silver Salad Forks Tiffany & Co English King "m" Mark Nr!English Sterling Silver Compote Tazza Coiled Cobra Crest 1888Sterling Silver - Heavy British Braided Cuff 78g - Bracelet (6") Ws9341Antique Henry Mathews British Sterling Card Case / Purse - Unique Scallop ShapesLovely English Antique 1911 Solid Sterling Silver Double Compartment Stamp Case Birmingham England Hallmarked Sterling Silver Sugar Caster Sifter Muffineer LoeEnglish Sterling Silver Salt Casters Cruet Britannia 95.8% SilverSterling Silver 18th Century,old English Basting Spoon, London 1767.1819 George Iii English Sterling Silver Sherry Liquor Decanter Bottle Label Tag8 Antique 188g Sterling Silver Old English Shell Handle Tea Spoons Dated 1924Sterling Silver Sheffield England Mother Pearl 1845 Pocket Knife Aaron HadfiedAntique Sterling Silver Birmingham English 1787 Or 1813 Fusee Pocket Watch Scrap Or Use Sterling Silver Forks 187 Grams English Hallmarked

Recent News: English Sterling Silver

Source: Google News

Antique wedding dresses focus of exhibit at Patrick Ranch
Chico Enterprise-Record, July 6th

But it still has the bead, pearl and sterling silver (now tarnished) adornment that Compton had added to her gown for her 15th wedding anniversary. The shoes Compton wore are in excellent condition, although the tulle veil is not. Her bouquet, made of ...Read more

Decorated World War II fighter pilot Gibian receives a gift
Montgomery Advertiser, July 5th

Sam Marshall received numerous decorations with the squadron, including the Silver Star, America's third highest military award. Capt. Gibian also saw extensive combat, flying 87 missions. He received several military awards but doesn't flout them or...Read more

Festival Vendor List, July 2nd

Booth #149 – Lia and Jim Harmon of Middle River, MD will be selling antique silverware made into jewelry sets with stones and glass. Booth #150 – Pia ... Booth #154 – Larry and Diana Carby will be selling sterling silver pendants and wire-wrapped jewelry...Read more

Kelly Wearstler's Lighting Collab; Hammer and Spear Gets a Refresh
Los Angeles Confidential, July 1st

silver, and gunmetal juxtaposed with unexpected materials such as alabaster, marble, and other natural stones. Ranging from $275 for a glass sconce to $7,350 for an antique brass chandelier, the collection's subtly chic color palette is...Read more

Senior center calendars, July, August 2015
West Hartford News, July 1st

July 10: How to…. Make Natural Home Cleaning Products, 10 a.m. Learn how to clean your home with ingredients that are not harmful to you and the environment. Using ingredients from your pantry and recycled items from around the house, you can make ...Read more

Americana, Paintings, and Sporting Art Sold on the Cape
Maine Antique Digest, June 29th

A stylish silver-plated cocktail shaker by Napier in a penguin form, 12½" high, sold for $1440. A sterling silver puzzle game by Tiffany & Company was made for Thomas W. Lawson of Scituate, Massachusetts, known as the Copper King, for his 175' yacht ...Read more

Cutler Bay thrift shop is a gold mine for treasure hunters
Miami Herald, June 26th

The thrift store attracts collectors and dealers, as well. Denise Batura, an antiques dealer, has shopped here almost every Tuesday for the past dozen years. She has found sterling silver and Roseville pottery for a song. One time, she bought a...Read more

The Bedford Spring Antiques Show
Maine Antique Digest, June 25th

“There was a rush at the end of the day,” said Debbie Turi, an antiques dealer and show promoter from Roseland, New Jersey. “I made my booth more decorative this year and sold case and wall stuff and small furniture.” Items sold included “sterling...Read more