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

Most watched eBay auctions    

Armorial French Silver Antique Dip Pen Letter Opener Seal Writing Set 1860 LapisRare 17th C. French Or Spanish Child's Rapier Sword With Fine Silver Inlaid HiltAntique Figural Gilded Silver Needle Case * French * Circa 1830Rare Silver Hunting Horn Vinaigrette Perfume Scent Bottle C. 19th Century FranceFrench Silver Empire Writing Set Antique Dip Pen Letter Opener Seal Box 1850Art Deco French .935 Sterling Silver Enamel Guilloche Chain Necklace Pendant BnwFrench Silver Empire Writing Set Antique Dip Pen Letter Opener Seal Box 1850Vintage Art Deco French Blue Enamel Sterling Letter Telegram Charm Think Of MeBeautiful Antique Floral Silver Thimble * French * Circa 1900sRare Large Silver French Deck Watch With Helical Hairspring By Edmond Jaeger.Antique Solid Silver Rare Fish Pill / Snuff Box - Stamped* - Made In France (?)Vintage S.t. Dupont Paris Lighter Silver Plated Made In FranceVintage S.t. Dupont Lighter Ligne Gatsby Duotone Silver Plated Made In FranceStylish Antique French Vesta Case Solid Silver Art Nouveau Ribbed Matchsafe BoxPair Jacques-henri Alberti French Strasbourg Sterling Candlesticks C1778363g Collection French Gallonado Center Allegorical Design Solid Sterling SilverAntique French Miniature Green Perfume Scent Bottle Silver Lid A/f Circa 1860Antique French Stanhope Pictures Sterling Silver Pistol Shaped ViewerAntique Silver French/swiss High Quality Jewelled Pocket Watch. Running.Vintage S.t. Dupont Paris Lighter Silver Plated Made In France With Box Papers A Beautiful French Art Nouveau Solid Silver Cane "native American" Headdress.French Ornate Art Nouveau Antique Silver ChÂtelaine Carpenters Pencil Desktop" Sterling " & French Enamel Pocket Perfume / VialVictorian Christofle France Lg French Silver Plate Warming Tray Warmer PlatterAntique Hallmark Scissors Sterling Silver French? England? Old Flowers 10 1/8Silpada 925 Bronze Green Howlite Dangle Hammered French Wires W1536 Excellent!!Vintage S.t. Dupont Paris, France Silver Plate LighterVintage Norma Sterling Silver Rhinestone French Man & Lady Brooch PairSilpada Sterling Silver French Wire Oxidized Dangling Circles Discs Earrings$55 Rare Sterling Silver & Bronzite Earrings On French Wires W1414 - Gorgeous!Antique French Silver Tea Strainer Excellent Large Antique French Solid Silver Fruit Seving Spoon, C. 1890/1900 Rare 18th Century French Silver Button Set W/open-backed Paste Jewels~7/8"Rare French Sterling Silver & Mother Pearl Baby Rattle Whistle Dieu Vous GardeAntique French Art Nouveau Sterling Etched Frame Glass Beaded Floral Motif Purse1863, France (2nd Empire). Silver "society Of Deposits And Accounts" Bank Medal.Large 18th Century French 950 Sterling Silver Soup Or Punch Ladle 8.85oztReed & Barton Sterling Silver French Renaissance 72 Piece FlatwareS.t. Dupont Roller Ball Pen Fidelio Silver Lignes Recoupees Finish Made FranceAntique French Sterling Silver Cup & Saucer Tasse Leon Champenois C.1890 RococoTiny Antique Doll's Mother Of Pearl Egg W/ Silver Sewing Set * French * C1870Antique France Hm Gilt Sterling Silver Mounted Crystal Perfume Bottle Vtg ScentVintage French Art Nouveau Silver And Ormolu Strawberry Spoon.French Dresden Silver Slipper Christmas Tree OrnamentRare Antique French Silver Gilt Enamel Scent Bottle Middle Xixe Perfume W/boxSterling Silver English Bulldog Top Walking Stick French Bull Dog Knob Cane 37"Hermes Paris Sterling Silver 925 Women Ring France Size 48 Us4.5-5 I-j With BoxAntique French 1. Communion Crucifix // Silver + Mother Of Pearl // Around 1900Original Vintage Lighter Silver Paris Made In France 1970'sAntique French Sterling Silver Guilloche Enamel Crystal Vanity Jars Bottles Set Beautiful Lily French Silver Metal Match Safe Box Art Nouveau Antique VictorianFrench Napoleonic Silver Rooster Brass GorgetAntique French Britannia Sterling 950 Silver Napkin Ring Floral Ribbon Scroll NrWaterman Paris France Silver & Gold Metal 18k Gold Nib Fountain Pen #92Huge Lot Veuve Clicquot Heavy 22 Key Chains France ���� Silver Oval Key Chain ��Unique Victorian French Solid Silver Hallmarked Bulls And Carriage Pin CushionBeautiful Art Deco French Jet Drop Earrings On Sterling Silver Screw Backs1902, France (3rd Rep.). Matted Silver Agriculture Contest Award Medal W. Case!Antique 1890s French Sterling Silver Dessert/petit Four Set 4 Pc Of Rococo Style410g Set 4 French Style Gallonados Centers Sterling Silver:sanborn, Perez Fdez..