Silver marks are usually shown in groups of anywhere from two to as many as six marks. The main reason for this plurality of silver marks on antiques is that silver was marked primarily for Taxation or Duty Collection reasons. Silver is a “precious metal” and as such it was heavily regulated throughout its history and until very recent times. Most countries stopped regulating silver in 2003. Silver and silver items were regarded as part of the National Treasure or Federal Reserve of many countries and authorities devised copious methods of assessing its value and also constantly monitored the overall quantity of available silver within the national borders at any given time, whether in the form of raw silver ingots or silver jewelry and artifacts.
Part of the reason was that Silver could be easily converted to currency or be used as a valuable bargaining or bartering resource in trading with other nations, such as allies and those who had other commodities to exchange that would be vital at war or times of crisis. For example, many countries rich in silver, whether already in the form of artistic or decorative items or as a pure metal, exchanged it for Chromium or other related materials used in making weaponry and dynamite. In fact, many countries, including the US, changed the standards of how much content of pure silver a decorative or utilitarian item may have so that it can quickly be converted to currency without much chemical processing. This is why most American Silver antiques made ca 1860s – 1900 are termed “Coin Silver” because the silver content of such items was the same as in the recipe used in making actual currency coins at the US National Mint.
These protectionist practices for silver (and Gold or other Precious Metals) around the world, especially in Europe and America, resulted in silver antiques having many marks, most of which are Duty marks. Usually, only one or two of these silver hallmarks are the actual makers marks of the silversmith or artist. Countries most notorious for requiring all these silver marks include Great Britain, France and Germany. Not only did each silver or precious metal item had to have the Assay (or Purity or Silver Content) mark, but it also included the Town or City mark (London, Birmingham, Sheffield etc in the UK or Dijon, Paris, Montpellier etc in France). Especially in smaller towns where an Assayer authorized or appointed by the "Crown" is not present, it was stamped by the Deacon or Head of the local Parish to attest as to the Purity of the silver content and to ensure that the proper Taxes or Levies were dully paid. Furthermore, as the silver purity or content standards changed over time, silver marks kept multiplying in number and now, as a result, we have literally thousands of marks to shift through in order to properly identify silver antiques.
Another silver mark placed or struck near the aforementioned Assay and City & Province marks, was that of the Date cipher used to identify the year that a silver item was made or assayed. In Great Britain, these were usually letters that ran from A to Z and changed in font and size, and there are now extensive Date Tables that we can use to date antique silver, a set per City.
However, the most frustrating of all silver marks to identify are those of certain Central European countries, collectively called Bohemia (Bavaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia etc). Because the borders of these countries kept changing frequently after each little war or territorial scrimmage and many residents migrated often, each new sovereign was forced to re-assess the National Treasure through massive silver inventory drives to count and weigh all available silver within the “new” borders. This led to yet another mark struck on several antique silver items from these countries to signify that an item was indeed included in the count. Of course, when borders changed again, a new inventory drive produced yet another silver mark and so on. In spite of how ridiculous this is, these additional silver hallmarks, when properly recognized, can give us additional clues as to the age of a given silver antique.
American silver marks, and in the spirit of de-regulation and independence from the British and other European rulers, were not required to include any actual Assayer’s marks. Consequently, most American silver hallmarks and jewelry marks are single logos or initials & names of the actual silversmith, studio or factory. These are true makers marks, usually punched or incised at the bottom or lower down on a side of a piece, commonly called "touchmarks". A rather large exception can be seen on silver makers marks used in America during its early period of silver production, when most imported silver items came from Europe and particularly Great Britain. In imitation of English silver marks, American silversmiths and retailers begun using an array of two to four different silver makers marks that resembled those used in Britain. These silver hallmarks are termed “pseudomarks” and although they are deliberate variations of original English Silver Hallmarks, they are as much real and authentic early American Silver makers marks as they can be. Most of these pseudomarks are found on American silver antiques and jewelry dating ca 1840s – 1920s.
Most Mexican silver hallmarks known today are found on pieces made ca 1860s onwards. Although the authorities tried to regulate silver and purity content at various times, the standards and notation of silver marks changed frequently and, more importantly, were not strictly adhered to by the various silversmiths in Mexico. Consequently, we have two to three periods of ten or so years, when certain silver marks were used to signify Registration or "Tax Paid", such as the Mexican Eagle found on many ca 1940s – 1970s silver jewelry, to initials plus numbers after 1980. Most Mexican silver antiques made during 1860s – 1930s bear only the words “Sterling” or “Silver”. The vast majority of Mexican silver antiques and jewelry were made with at least 925 silver content.
China does not have much of an antique silver tradition, primarily because Chinese people believed that silver is a material that belongs to the Deities or Gods and as such should not be disturbed. What very little silver antique production from China we know of, comes in the form of highly utilitarian items mostly destined for use at religious ceremonies. The only brief exception is that of Hong Kong that saw many Chinese silversmiths set up shop in imitation of the British that had colonized the region at that time. Most of this activity is ca 1890s – 1930s, although it is rigorously reviving again today and is spreading throughout China’s mainland. These early Hong Kong silver makers marks were usually the initials of the Silversmith in Kanji (simple Chinese) and sometimes followed by a few Latin letters or numbers. Japan followed similar beliefs and most Japanese silver production is recent, ca 1960s to Present.
Numbers seen next to or near silver hallmarks or makers marks usually denote the actual Silver content of pure silver used when making the item. Some countries, especially during the 16th through the 19th centuries, used their own Measures & Weights units system, for example Germany and some nearby countries used the Lothige or Loth and Russia used the Zolotnik. However, the vast majority of numerical silver marks are represented in Thousands, for example 925 for .925 or 92.5% sterling silver content.
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