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    

Montblanc Boheme Safety France 925 Sterling Silver + Blue Jewel M Nib My1016402Vintage Hermes Belt And Buckle Sterling Silver Made In France CufflinksSilpada Estate Sterling Silver 925 Genuine Amber Drop French Wire Earrings Antique French Solid Sterling Silver & Enamel Chain With Key For Pocket WatchFrench Sterling Pepper & Salt Caster Robt. Linzeler, Cartier 4 PcsVtg Dunhill Bp, Sterling, Superb Cond, FranceAntique Early 19th Century French Mother Of Pearl & Sterling Silver Etui Case NrFrench Sterling Silver Verge Fusee Pocket WatchOld Pawn Navajo Green Fox Turquoise Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -3.8gAntique 18th Century French Sterling Silver Etui Case Gilt Gold Exquisite Long Michael Dawkins Signed Sterling & Facetted Citrine Earrings W/french Clip BacksFine Antique French Sterling Silver Mounted Ebony Abalone Carved Wood Violin BowOld Pawn Navajo Mother Of Pearl Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -6g NrVintage French Double Capped Cube Rock Crystal Rosary Sterling Silver W Tag NrOld Pawn Navajo Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -8.2g No ReservePuiforcat- Antique French Sterling Silver Vermeil & Crystal Fruit Dish- Minerve20 Pc Antique Vintage Rosaries Crucifixes Crosses Lot-rome Italy France SterlingHigh End Old Cut Genuine Diamond Sterling Silver French Wire Dangle EarringsOld Pawn Navajo Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -6.8g No ReserveA Vintage 925 Silver And Marcasite French Poodle Brooch With Mother Of PearlAntique Debain Flamant Paris France Sterling Silver .950 Tea Pot Or CreamerParker Sonnet Sterling Silver Fougere Fountain Pen, Original 18k Gold Nib-franceVintage Vintage Turquoise Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -8.1g No ReserveNew Navajo Turquoise Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -9.7g No ReserveOld Pawn Navajo Lapis Lazuli Kokopelli Sterling French Hook Earrings -2.6g NrOld Pawn Navajo Valley Blue Turquoise Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -6.6gOld Pawn Zuni Spider Web Royston Turquoise Sterling French Hook Earrings -5.5gTwo 70's Towle Sterling Silver Charms 12 Days Of Christmas 7 Swans 3 French HensReed & Barton French Renaissance (sterling) Cold Meat Serving Fork 1941Wwi French Death The Reaper Pilot Wings Spad 94 Sterling Silver Reed & Barton Sterling Silver Sugar Spoon In "french Renaissance" "shell Bowl"Old Pawn Navajo Tiger's Eye Sterling Silver French Hook Set - V -3.8g No ReserveNavajo Sterling Silver Green Turquoise French Hook Dangle EarringsVintage Lapis Lazuli Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings _- -4.2gSterling Silver - Black Onyx & Cz 7.1g - French Clip Earrings Jq4141Vintage Vintage Multi-stone Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -2.9g NrTowle French Provincial Sterling Pickle & Lemon ForksNavajo Opal Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings _- -4.8g No ReserveVintage Amber & Citrine Christmas Tree Sterling French Hook Earrings _- -3.2g Nr6.25gms French Love Queen Emblem Marcasite 925 Sterling Silver Pendant E21443Vintage Cat Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings _- -2.2g No ReserveLarge Antique French Adolphe Boulenger Sterling 950 Silver Napkin Ring,marcel6 French Renaissance Salad Forks Reed & Barton Sterling 6 1/4"Early French Sterling Silver Mustard Pot Louis Manant Ca 1838G400 Vintage Sterling Silver Ice Tongs 75.8gr Philippe Bertier French 1850'sRetired James Avery Sterling Silver Hammered Oval French Clips Earrings Ja .925Towle French Provincial Sterling Cream Soup Spoon 35gAntique Sterling Silver Vanity / Grooming Set W/ Bone Brushes FranceVintage Vintage Multi-stone Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -4.5g NrDeco 6.00ctw Gem Ruby & White Sapphire Sterling Silver French Wire Earrings 12gOld Pawn Navajo Valley Blue Turquoise Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -4.4gOld Pawn Navajo Roadrunner Sterling Silver French Hook Earrings -3.2g No ReserveInternational Stratford Sterling Knives French Blunt Blade 9 3/4", Qty 4, 1902Lot Of 3 Antique French Cutlery In Sterling Silver (one Tea Strainer & 2 Spoons3 Reed And Barton Sterling Silver French Renaissance 6" Flat Butter SpreaderVintage Sterling Silver French Jet Enamelled Earrings Flower Enamel Silpada N2190 Sterling Silver Pink Soapstone Pendant Necklace French CabaretTowle French Provincial Cracker Scoop Serving Spoon Sterling Silver 1948 ShellJames Avery French Heart Pendant Sterling Silver Pendant Free Shipping!!!Navajo Sterling Silver Turtle French Hook Earrings - Stanley Gene No Reserve