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    

Beautiful C1890 Art Nouveau French Sterling Silver Cut Glass Triple Decanter SetArt Deco Sterling Silver Powder & Rouge Compact Enamel French London Import 1925English Sterling Silver Cased Egl Paris French Repeating Carriage Clock RepeaterJohn Hardy Dot Retired Sterling 925 18k Gold French Clip Earrings (14.5g) (nr)Amazing Set 6 Antique French 950 Sterling Silver Cut Glass Wine Glasses GobletsTiffany & Co. Mother Of Pearl Sterling 925 18k Gold French Clip Earrings (15.3g)Sterling Silver - Judith Jack Macasite 6.4g - French Clip Earrings Tn1681Authentic Hermes 100% Silk Horse Pattern Scarf White/yellow Made In France 925Bodum Chambord 8 Cup, 34oz Sterling Silver Coffee French Press, NewUsed Coco Chanel Women Ring Sterling Silver 925 Made In France Argent 52 Us 6.5James Avery French Heart Sterling Silver 925 Heart Slide Pendant (7.7g)Used Coco Chanel Women Ring Sterling Silver 925 France Cahnel Logo 55 Us 7.5-8James Avery French Heart Sterling Silver 925 Heart Charm Pendant (2.0g)Puiforcat : Rare Pair Of Antique French Sterling Silver & Crystal Decanters 19thFrench Sterling Plate Tray C1850 Maison Odiot Antique French Sterling Silver Tea & Coffee Set 60,14 Oz Circa 1880 Rococo StyleFrench Art Deco Sterling Silver Sugarloaf Cabochon Emerald & Diamante Paste RingSterling Silver - Gold Accent Cable Pink Cz 11.4g - French Clip Earrings Tg5741Sterling Silver - Judith Jack Marcasite 11.6g - French Clip Earrings Tg9081Sterling Silver - Judith Jack Marcasite Mop 9.4g - French Clip Earrings Tn1501Antique Honneur Patrie Classic Period French Legion Of Honor Sterling MedalTiffany & Co. 1990 Roped X Sterling Silver 925 18k French Clip Earrings (10.9g)Silpada Hammered Sterling Silver Drop Dangle Earrings On French Wires # W0991Judith Ripka Citrine Cz Faceted Sterling 925 French Clip Earrings (8.5g)Antique / Vintage Opera Glasses / Binoculars - Colmont Paris France - Sterling??Antique French Sterling Silver Sauce Or Punch Serving Ladle From Paris Circ 1895Sterling Silver - French Scroll Fleur-de-lis 6.4g - Pendant Tl0381Early Antique French English Sterling Silver Snuff Pill Trinket BoxSterling Silver - Diamonique Round-cut Cz 7.4g - French Clip Earrings Tn1131Lovely French Wires/genuine 9.35 Carat Ruby Drop Dangle Earrings/sterling/estateAntique French Sterling Silver Sugar Bowl Or Sugared Almonds Pot - Empire Ep.Sterling Silver - Blue & Green Quartz 18.4g - French Clip Earrings Sn7281Art Deco Sterling Silver Butterfly Wing Ring French Ring925 Sterling Silver French Designer Rope Necklace Trendy Chain Jewelry F80627Vintage Sterling Silver Ornate French Tea Spoon #2 100Vintage Green Jade & Sterling Silver Ring. Size Uk M Usa 6 French 52 3/4Silpada Pink Soapstone Sterling Silver French Cabaret Necklace N2190 RetiredSilpada Sterling Silver Labradorite Petal French Wire Earrings W2213 *free Ship!Sterling Silver Jewelry Brooch Pin French Vase For FlowersSterling Silver - Victoria Townsend Blue Topaz 6g - French Clip Earrings Tn622112.82gms French Designer Beads Rope 925 Sterling Silver Bracelet Jewelry F76640Cardeilhac France Wine Taster Cannes 1967 Tastevin Taillevent Sterling SilverVintage Sterling Silver Signed Ma French Poodle Dog Critter Pin Brooch925 Sterling Silver French Designer Rope Necklace Trendy Chain Jewelry F80630Sterling Silver - Antique Paris France 6.8g - Souvenir Spoon Tp0211Silpada 925 Sterling Silver Square Hammered Dangle French Wire EarringsPandora Ale Eiffel Tower Paris France Sterling Silver 925 Bead Charm 791082 ~!Sterling Silver - (gold Post) Scalloped Wing 8.5g - French Clip Earrings Tn1121Ladies Teardop Natural Ruby Cocktail Dangle Sterling 925 French Hook EarringsWonderful, Art Deco, Sterling Silver, French Jet And Marcasite Panther RingJames Avery Swirl Sterling Silver 925 Single French Clip Earring (5.5g)Lapis Puffy Heart Sterling 925 18k Gold French Clip Earrings (6.9g)4ct French Pearl & White Topaz 925 Solid Genuine Sterling Silver EarringsVintage 1.00ctw Red Turquoise 925 Sterling Silver French Wire Dangle EarringsNative American Rb Robert Becenti Opal Oval Bead French Hook Sterling Earrings10x Sterling Silver Earwires Ball Dot French Hook 925Estate 925 Sterling Silver 16.00ct Blue Turquoise French Wire EarringsTowle Sterling Silver 6" Tea Spoon French ProvincialSterling Silver - Signed Gold Plate Crossover 8.5g - French Clip Earrings Tg9111Antique French Design Sterling Silver Small Demitasse Spoon