Do you know how to identify the country or era your antique silver piece is from? Hallmarks are the official stamps placed on a crafted piece of silver to properly identify many of its properties. They are easier to find than they are to interpret unless you have the help of a professional collector. Antique silver hallmarks attempt to tell the story of who made the piece, when it was made and various other tidbits of information that hold vital interest to collectors and determine the value.
Origin of Antique Silver Hallmarks
Originally, marks were stamped into the silver using a hammer and punch for the sole purpose of regulating the trade during a time when some craftsman were producing ‘drossy’ work. This took place in England through the regulating guild known as the Goldsmiths’ Company, for the sole purpose of ensuring that a standard was upheld. The Goldsmiths’ Company began their work as a guild in 1300 during the peak of a silver boom, and was established in 1327 with the issuance of a royal charter from Edward III. They operated out of the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London and immediately began inspecting pieces and keeping official records. They coined the term used for stamping the silver as Hallmarks because the silver pieces had to be brought to ‘the Hall’ for assaying and marking. They are still hallmarking today and stand as a leading international expert.
Interpreting Hallmarks on Antique Silver
Today, many nations have their own hallmarks to uphold standard regulations surrounding the industry. Because England was the first to implement such a system, they are the most widely circulated. Here are some of the most common:
1. The Leopard Head
The very first documented reference to a Hallmark was the leopard’s head. The iconic symbol stood for the ‘guardians of the craft’ and was the assay mark from the Goldsmiths’ Company of London. At one point it was crowned and remained so until 1821, when the crown was removed. Today, it is still used as the London assay hallmark.
2. The Lion Passant
This hallmark was instituted in 1544 and is one of the most common throughout all of British silver because it denotes the national standard purity of the piece. It is of a lion poised for attack and may or may not have a crown upon the head. If it has an authentic lion passant, the antique silver piece is made with 92.5% silver and is officially Sterling.
3. The Britannia Standard Mark
Lion passant hallmarks were replaced across much of England during 1697 to 1720 by the Britannia standard mark. The standard purity level of silver was raised during this time period to 95.84% and was indicated by Britannia (the female personification of the island of Great Britain) sitting down with a shield at her left side. Scotland and Ireland did not adopt this standard, while London no longer used the leopard head during this time period, but rather a side facing lion to denote the higher standard.
As you can see, the world of antique silver hallmarks is a complex and historically rich system that many collectors and dealers spend their lives researching. If you have silver you want to know more about, whether to sell or begin your own collecting journey, bring your piece to one of our antique experts.