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    

Lovely Art Nouveau Silver Vesta Case French Seaweed Antique Match Box MatchsafeA Rare Solid Silver/gold French Pocket Wick Lighter Marin Paris C1940 N/r Antique Silver Thimble Magic Lantern Cat Dog French Hallmarks Pictorial SewingFrench Silver & Pearl Victorian Art Nouveau Antique Desktop Dip Pen WritingFrench 19th C. Papier Mache Lacquer Painted Sewing Etui Case Box Sterling SilverAntique French Silver Needle Case * Vase Of Roses Design * Circa 1900sSpectacular Antique French Sterling Silver Tea & Coffee Set Xviiith Style 85ozS.t. Dupont Cylinder Table Lighter - Silver Plated - Made In France 1970Fine French Napoleonic Silver Portrait Miniature Frame With Winged CherubVictorian Solid Silver Miniature Tankard Cupid Finial 1894 French SilverVintage French Sterling & Enameled Charm W/ Pig & "bonne Chance" - Good LuckCree Pour Pavillon Christofle France Silver Plate & Glass Butter / Jam Dish PotVintage Art Deco Era French Silver Handled Page Turner & Seal In Original Box Huge Antique French Silver & Saphiret Rosary 86 GramsSuperb Large French Sterling Silver Gilt Chalice Adelaide Dumenil Paris Ca 1895Antique France Marcasite Sterling Silver Open Work Pin NrOriginal Silver Plate Figural Gargoyle Toothpick Holder By Christofle FranceFrench Silver Antique Snuff Box C1870 Comptoir GeneralVintage French Solid Silver Cup / Egg Cup Napkin Ring Christening Set Gold WashAntique Victorian French Hand Carved Gold Silver Inlays Sticks Figural Scene FanC1899 French Art Nouveau Silver Thimble, Possibly P Genty, CrÉtiel - DÉ À CoudreLarge Antique Art Nouveau French Solid Silver Cake Server Paris 1890 - 130gFrench Sterling Silver Tray Bacchus Head Paris, C1880 A/c & AnchorFine C1920 Cartier French Sterling Silver & 14k Gold Note Pad Card CaseAntique French Damask Fabric Silk & Silver Metallic Thread Early 1800's French Sterling Silver Figural Eggcup Eggshell With 3 Chicken FeetAntique Lyon French Brocade Fabric Silver Metallic Silk Thread Georgian Dress Asterix&obelix 12x10 Euro Silver Coin Set France 2015 "romans Are Crazy"sold OutAntique French Silver Stiletto / Awl * Circa 1890sSouthwestern Blue Turquoise 925 Sterling Pendant French Rope Chain NecklaceVintage 4ctw Natural Cabochon Amethyst Sterling French Wire Earrings 3.5gVintage Reed & Barton Silver Soldered French Lick Springs Hotel 3oz Creamer2 Yards 18th C Antique Fancy French Silver Metallic Bullion Tassel Fringe Trim Parker 75 Ciselé In Sterling Silver, Made In France 18k Nib Bent.Antique French Art Nouveau Deco Silver Button Joan Of Arc Horse Saint Of FranceTowle Butter Knives Set Of 4 Sterling Silver Handle French Provincial FlatwareSterling Silver - Mid-century France Coin Charm 30.5g - Bracelet (7.5") En8142 France Eloi Pernet Letter Opener W/ Silver CoinsAntique 19th C French Aesthetic Silver Plate Engraved Egg Cup Baby Chicks HirschFrench Sterling Silver / Glass Small Powder JarChristofle Air France Concorde Silver Plated Limited Edition Bottle Opener 1985Vintage Mercury Glass Christmas Garland Long French Silver Tube Beads With GreenSilver Over Cast Iron Metal French Bulldog Boston Terrier Figurine1900s Antique Silver? French Large Medal Mary Miraculous Nun Rosary VintageFrance "la Revanche 1914 " World War I Propaganda Medal Looped, Silver PlatedSterling Silver - Pebbled Amethyst Oval French Wire 5g - Dangle Earrings Hi3182Sterling Silver - Avon Marcasite Jadeite French Wire 3g - Dangle Earrings Hi5272Unused Roll 100mtrs Antique French Silver Lame Ribbon - Last OneSterling Silver - Bali Pebbled Pink Mop French Wire 6g - Dangle Earrings Hn05121930's French Art Deco Glass Chrome / Silver Plated Streamlined Cocktail ShakerVintage Algerian Briar Well Tobacco Pipe Made In France Hallmarked Silver Band Vintage 1980's French Pewter Button W/silver Flower Under LuciteFrench Sterling Silver Handled Bone Holder No MonogramSterling Silver - Bali Blue Topaz French Wire 3g - Dangle Earrings Hf6542Sterling Silver - French Fleur-de-lis 1.1g - Charm Pendant Fs2972Towle Dinner Knives Set Of 4 Sterling Silver Handle French Provincial FlatwareWwii Soldier's "souvenir De Marseille France" Sterling Silver Initialed BraceletSterling Silver Ladies Beaded Wolf Earrings 4" Long With French Wires4 1876 French & Puffer Advertising Trade Cards Silver & Plated Wares Lowell MassFrench Silver Plated And Glass Punch / Tea Set With Planished Tray.duralex