British Hallmarks and maker's marks on Sterling Silver
Silver marks are usually shown in groups of anywhere from two to as many as six. Some of these symbols are for Taxation or Duty Collection purposes. Silver is a “precious metal” and as such, it was heavily regulated throughout its history and until very recent times. Precious metals 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 quantities available within the national borders at any given time, whether in the form of raw silver ingots or silver items and jewelry. Most countries stopped regulating silver in 2003.
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, including allies and those who had other commodities to exchange that would be vital at times of war or crisis. For example, many countries rich in silver 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 is allowed to be contained even on decorative or utilitarian items so that it can quickly be converted to currency without much chemical processing. This is why most American antique silver made ca 1860s – 1900 is termed “Coin Silver”. The silver content of most items from that period was of the same proportions as in the recipe used in making actual currency coins by the US National Mint.
American coin silver presentation mug with marks - ca 1830s
These protectionist practices for silver and of course 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, and only one or two are those of the silversmith or company that made them. Countries most notorious for requiring precious metals to be signed in this manner include Great Britain, France, Germany, most Scandinavian countries and others. As a consequence, not only did each silver item had to have the Assay Hallmark (also known as the Purity or Silver Content mark), but it also included the Town or City symbol (London, Birmingham, Sheffield etc in the UK or Dijon, Paris, Montpellier etc in France). In smaller towns where an Assayer authorized or appointed by the "Crown" was not present, items to be assayed were stamped by the Deacon or Head of the local Parish to attest as to their purity and to ensure that the proper taxes or levies were dully paid. Furthermore, as the purity and content standards changed over time, silver hallmarks kept multiplying in number and as a result, we now have literally thousands of Country & City marks to sift through in order to properly identify old silver from those countries.
Another mark placed or struck near the aforementioned Assay and City & Province hallmarks was that of the Date cipher that indicates 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 every 2 or so decades. These differ from city to city and have been tabulated extensively in the literature as they help in dating and determining the origin of items made of silver and other precious metals.
Hallmarked American, Mexican and Japanese silver hollowware and flatware
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 precious metals inventory drives to count and literally weigh all available silver within the “new” borders. This led to yet another symbol 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 mark and so on. In spite of how ridiculous this may seem, these additional hallmarks, when properly recognized, can give us additional clues as to the age of a given antique silver item or piece of jewelry.
American silversmiths, and in the spirit of deregulation and independence from the British and other European rulers, were not formally required to include any actual Assayer’s marks. Consequently, most American silver and jewelry are signed with logos or initials & names of the actual silversmith, workshop 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 and very notable exception was during the very early years of silverware production in America when most imported silver items came from Europe and particularly Great Britain. In imitation of English hallmarks, American silversmiths and retailers began adding an array of two to four different symbols that resembled those used in Britain. These are termed “pseudo-marks” and although they are deliberate variations of original English silver hallmarks, many have been officially registered or at least documented and are genuine makers' marks. Most of these pseudo-marks are found on American silver and jewelry dating ca 1840s – 1920s.
CENTRAL AMERICAN FINE SILVER ICE BUCKET. Unknown makers hallmark
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 symbols 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 marks were used to signify Registration or "Tax Paid". For example, the Mexican Eagle is found primarily on silver around 1940s – 1970s (some details changed over these years), while some initials, not necessarily those of the silversmith, plus some numbers were used after 1980. Most antique Mexican silver items made during 1860s – 1930s bear only the words “Sterling” or “Silver”, mostly to appease early rich American visitors to that beautiful country. In general, the vast majority of new or older silver items and jewelry made in Mexico contains 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 antique silver production from China we know of, comes in the form of highly utilitarian items mostly destined for use in religious ceremonies. A brief exception is that of Hong Kong that saw many Chinese silversmiths opening workshops in imitation of the British that had colonized the region at that time. Most of this activity was ca 1890s – 1930s, although it is rigorously reviving again today, especially for mass-produced silver jewelry, and is spreading throughout China’s mainland. Early Hong Kong silver 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 observed 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.
Check our research guides to help you in identifying and appraising your own collection at marks4antiques.com.