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    

Sterling Silver - Marquise-cut Green Peridot 5.9g - French Clip Earrings Yd8571Art Deco Sterling Filigree Green Peridot Glass Onxy French Paste EarringsVintage Southwestern Modernist Lapis French Back Sterling Silver Dangle EarringsAntique Edwardian French Paste Sterling Intaglio Glass Pendant Necklace NrSterling Silver - Gold Plate Emerald Pearl 8.8g - French Clip Earrings Yd7081Vintage Guilloche French Enamel Sterling Silver Locket W Enamel Slide On ChainJudith Ripka Sterling Silver London Blue Topaz & Cz French Clip EarringsSterling Silver - Bali Orange Amber French Wire 2.2g - Dangle Earrings Yd8691Old Pawn Navajo Multi Stone Sterling Silver French Hook EarringsCelebrity Style 2 Ct Round Brilliant Cz Dangle Drop French Wire 925 EarringsJames Avery Sterling Silver French Clip Christina 1 Single Earring- No Reserve!Towle Sterling Silver French Hen OrnamentWallace "rose Point" 6 Sterling Silver Dinner Knives - French Blades (s/s)Vintage 1973 Towle Sterling Silver 3 French Hens Christmas Ornament MedallionSterling Silver Vesta Case Match Safe FrenchFrench Style Goodnow & Jenks Chocolate Pot Sterling Silver 440 Gr Nr $9.99 Andre Aucoc (french, 1887-1911) Sterling Silver Gravy Dish .950 SterlingEstate James Avery Sterling Silver Christina French Clip Pierced Earrings W Box2 Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique 7.5" Table Spoons 100g #1Sterling Silver - Swimming Turtle French Wire 5.2g - Dangle Earrings Yd6901Sterling Silver - Gold Plate Cz Flowers 4.5g - French Clip Earrings Yd6001Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique Lg 7 3/4" Dinner Fork 72g #2 Fine Antique French First Standard 950 Sterling Silver Fish Set Minerva Mark2 Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique 7.5" Table Spoons 101g #2Sterling Silver - Oval-cut Opal French Wire 1.2g - Dangle Earrings Yd6751 Solid Sterling Silver Table Snuff Box French Hallmarked Birmingham C 1890Antique French Sterling Silver Figure Of A Russian Street Merchant 19thc 6.25"Antique French Fleur Del Lis Oval Blue Enamel Sterling Silver ButtonsGorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique Lg 7 3/4" Dinner Fork 71g #3Vintage Smooth French Bulldog Sterling Silver 925 Charm Pendant (1.2g)James Avery Sterling Silver 925 Retired Flare French Clip Earrings HammeredBeautiful Antique French Sterling Silver Serving Fish SetG.h. French & Co. Ghf Sterling Silver Tea Infuser Strainer Ball Bucket C1920-39Antique Sterling Silver Floral Pierced Wide Hinged Cuff Bracelet French Marks6 Pieces Of Towle French Provincial Sterling Silver FlatwareHigh End H-si Genuine Diamond Sterling Silver French Wire Chandelier Earrings 5gGorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique Lg 7 3/4" Dinner Fork 72g #1Gorgeous French Antique Guilloche Enamel Lourdes Bar Pin Sterling Gold VermeilSterling Silver - Gold Accent Scalloped Top 22.4g - French Clip Earrings Yd4851Towle Silversmiths "french Provincial" 7 Sterling Silver Dinner Knives Rare Silpada Designs Curved Hammered French Hook Earrings Sterling Silver W0991Silpada Sterling Silver Drop Earrings On French Wire Hammered Disk W1549 RetiredSilpada Filigree Rectangular French Hook Earrings Drop - Sterling Silver 925Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique Lg 7 3/4" Dinner Fork 72g #4French Rope Chain 925 Sterling Silver Necklace 7g 24"Navajo Sterling Silver Cardinal French Hook EarringsSterling Silver - Bali Smoky Quartz French Wire 8g - Dangle Earrings Vb9711Vintage Tiny French Bulldog Sterling Silver 925 Charm Pendant (1g)French Hallmarked Sterling Silver Wide Wire Link Toggle BraceletSilpada Sterling Silver Earrings Sponge Coral & Beads French Wires W15602 Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique Cream Soup Spoons 109g #4Vintage Sterling Silver French Rope Chain Necklace 20" (6.2g) - 448491Sterling Silver - Elongated Bar French Wire 4.1g - Dangle Earrings Yd6891Sterling Silver - Mexico Sodalite 8.1g - French Clip (single) Earring Yh2721Sterling Silver - Bloodstone Cabochon 5.6g - French Clip (single) Earring Yh2521Sterling Silver - Signed French Fleur-de-lis 2.4g - Hat Stick Pin Yq0541Sterling Silver - Puffy Bead French-wire 7.1g - Dangle Earrings Yd8181925 Sterling Silver French Rope Link Bracelet Size 6.75" 5.4gSterling Silver - Signed Enamel France Flag 3.5g - Charm Pendant Yn9821Gorham 925 Sterling Silver 1904 Old French Antique Soup Spoon & Dinner Fork 128g