Normally when we think of antique sterling silver we think of England, where the tradition of hallmarking the metal for quality control goes back to the 13th century. French sterling silver hallmarks and maker’s marks were not as systematic as their British counterparts, but they and French sterling silver itself have quite an extensive history.

When French silversmiths first began marking their pieces, they used “maison commune” marks, which indicated the product’s town of origin. This system was complex, as each town had its own identifying symbol, and was complicated by the fact that each component of a final piece had its own identifying mark—for example, the handle of a silver pitcher would have a different hallmark than the pitcher it was attached to.

Maker’s marks first appeared in Paris in the 14th century and then spread outward into the rest of France. The marks were stamped inside a lozenge, a diamond with four equal sides. In 1460, the crown mandated date letters to indicate the year the piece was made, surmounted by a royal crown. In 1543, the countermark became the first official standard mark guaranteeing the silver quality of a piece.

With this new standard, French sterling could have only 4.2 percent alloy; British sterling, by comparison, could have up to 7.5 percent alloy. As a result, French silver was quite soft, so silversmiths often finished pieces with a technique called burnishing, in which a silversmith compacted the surface of a piece by pressing it with the rounded edge of a steel blade. This process made the surface denser and consequently more resistant to wear and scratches.

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, an estimated 250,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) fled the country for fear of persecution. Many of these emigrants were skilled silversmiths who took their talents to more tolerant nations.

In 1689, the crown required all nobles to relinquish their silver to the monarchy in order to pay for foreign wars. As a result, many large pieces were simply melted down. As the rule of Louis XIV’s regime tightened, decorative styles in silver followed suit, as ornate baroque patterns gave way to more rigid, geometric styles.

With the French Revolution in 1789, even more silver was melted down, and the traditional guilds were disbanded. At the same time, the new government dramatically relaxed silver ...

The political upheaval dramatically diminished the number of customers who could afford fine silver. Thus, many pieces from this period, despite their fine design, were made using cheap methods—decorations were often crafted separately and then attached to the piece afterward, for example.

When Napoleon took power as a dictator in the early years of the 19th century, styles shifted from the Greek neoclassicism favored by the Revolution to the more formal, Roman look of the French Empire style. In the late 19th century, Art Nouveau arose out of dissatisfaction with industrialism, with asymmetrical designs and natural forms. With the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Art Deco (known then as Art Moderne) rose to prominence, with its angular, restrained design.

As styles changed over the decades, so did French hallmarks. From 1878 to 1973, French pieces marked for export carried the profile of the Roman god Mercury; when the mark included the number 1 or 2, the piece contained 95 or 80 percent silver, respectively.

Still used today, the famous Minerva mark—a profile of the Roman goddess, complete with helmet—also indicates the standard of a piece of French silver. Pieces with large Minerva marks bearing the numbers 1 and 0 are 92.5 percent silver; those with the number 2 are 80 percent silver, as are small Minerva marks with no number at all. The vase mark is the highest mark for French silver today, indicating 99.9 percent silver. Other marks include the weevil, swan, crab, and boar head.

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    

Impressive Heavy Antique French Sterling Silver Tea & Coffee Set 4 Pc Empire St.Antique Sterling Silver Carved Jade & Marcasite Lorgnette W/ French PunchmarksAntique French Sterling Silver 950 Minerve Tea/coffee Pot. Silversmith EbainAntique French Sterling Silver 950 Tea/coffee Pot. Paris 1819-38ssEarly Georgian C1780 French  verge Fusee Repeater Sterling Silver Pocket WatchAntique French Sterling Silver /petit Point Suede & Marcasite Evening Bag /purseSterling Silver - Signed Fire Opal Oval French-wire 3g - Dangle Earrings El1962Reed & Barton Sterling Silver Handled Bottle Opener French Renaissance 1941Gorgeous Antique French Sterling Silver & Crystal Claret Jug/decanter Circa 1880Exquisite Vintage H-engraved French Sterling Silver Cup & Saucer W Minerva MarkVintage French Art Deco Sterling Silver & Rhinestone Brooch Pin NrEmpire Style French 2nd Standard Sterling Silver 16" Tray Eugene Lefebvre 954gVery Fine Georgian French Verge Fusee Sterling Silver Case Pocket WatchVery Nice Georgian C1774 French Verge Fusee Sterling Silver Case Pocket Watch60 Pcs. Towle Sterling Silver French Provincial Flatware W/ Serving Pieces CaseVintage Rosary Lot 7 + 2 Medals Pendants Italy Sterling Ebony France Signed7 *used* Gorham Sterling Silver Fairfax French Hollow Knives-9 5/8"-no Rsrv!Lagos Caviar Sterling And 18k Beaded Earrings Onyx Stone French Chip (17.5g)Reed & Barton Sterling French Renaissance Carving SetGorgeous Antique French Sterling Silver Tea Pot Napoléon Iii Style Around 1900Antique French Sterling Silver 950 Minerve Cup&coblets.Antique Georgian French Verge Fusee Movement Sterling Silver Case Pocket WatchEloi/hermes France Double Cigar Point Cutter Sterling Silver.950 Sterling Silver Overlay Glass 4 Chamber Decanter / Cruet Made In France6 ~ Reed & Barton Sterling Silver 9" Knives French Renaissance 1941James Avery Sterling Silver French Heart Necklace 16"Old Pawn Navajo Handmade Turquoise Sterling Silver Bear Paw French Hook EarringsSterling Silver - Pandora French Fleur-de-lis Bead 2.3g - Charm Pendant Ew1662Eloi Pernet France Cigar Cutter Sterling Silver4 ~ Reed & Barton Sterling Silver 9 3/8" Dinner Knives French Renaissance 1941Vintage Sterling Silver - Towle 3 French Hens 25.7g - Christmas Ornament Eg6922Sterling Silver - 1973 Towle 3 French Hens 25.8g - Christmas Ornament Ex0012Gorham Sterling Old French Large Sugar TongsRare Castlecliff Sterling Silver Chic French Fluer De Lis Intaglio Glass Brooch Silpada Handcrafted Intertwined Sterling Silver Earrings On French Wires W1487Sterling Silver - Israel Electroform Knot 16.5g - French Clip Earrings Ek7992(4) Towle Sterling Silver French Provincial Cream Soup Spoons1800 S French Sterling & Gold Serving SetSet Of 8 Antique Reed And Barton Sterling Silver French Renaissance Dinner ForksFrench Sterling And Enamel BrushAntique French Sterling Minerva 950 Double Cobalt Salt Cellar 420 Grams Total WtSterling Silver .925 Scroll Cut Out Dangle Earrings With French HooksSterling Silver - Israel Electroform J-hoop 21.1g - French Clip Earrings Ek7892Sterling Silver - Charles Garnier Textured Dome 5g - French Clip Earrings Eu971210x Sterling Silver Earwires Ball Dot French Hook 9251ct French Pearl & White Topaz 925 Solid Genuine Sterling Silver Pendant925 Sterling French Wire Double Dangle Design Earrings With Purple StonesReed & Barton Sterling Silver Handled Pie Server French Renaissance 19412ct French Pearl & White Topaz 925 Solid Genuine Sterling Silver Pendant Sterling Silver - Red Quartz & Moonstone French-wire 4g - Dangle Earrings Ex4022Sterling Silver - French Bulldog 1.3g - Charm Pendant Ex483210 Sterling Silver Hoop Fancy Earwires French Hook 92510x Sterling Silver Earwires Ball Dot French Hook 925Parker 75 Sterling Silver No Nib Crosshatch Cisele France; Fountain/roller Ball?Antique French Sterling Silver Cobalt Salt Cellar 950 Minerva Tw 420 GramsTowle Sterling Silver Salad Forks, French Provincial, 1949, Really Nice !!Antique French Sterling Silver Figure Of A Russian Street Merchant 19thc 6.25"Towle French Provincial Sterling Silver Lemon ForkAntique French Sterling Silver Round Box - Cupid & Lions - HallmarkedVintage Religious Medals Charm Bracelet Some Sterling Creed Jmf France Italy