A sterling silver
object that is to be sold commercially is, in most countries, stamped with one or more silver hallmarks
indicating the purity of the silver, the mark of the manufacturer or silversmith, and other (optional) markings to indicate date of manufacture and additional information about the piece. In some countries, the testing of silver objects and marking of purity is controlled by a national assayer's office
Hallmarks are applied with a hammer and punch, a process that leaves sharp edges and spurs of metal. Therefore, hallmarking is generally done before the piece goes for its final polishing.
The hallmark for sterling silver varies from nation to nation.
United Kingdom and Ireland
One of the most highly structured hallmarking systems in the world is that of the United Kingdom
. These two nations have, historically, provided a wealth of information about a piece through their series of applied punches:
- A stamp indicating the purity of the silver is called the assayer's mark. The mark for silver meeting the sterling standard of purity is the Lion Passant, but there have been other variations over the years, most notably the mark indicating Britannia purity. The Britannia standard was obligatory in Britain between 1697 and 1720 to try to help prevent British sterling silver coins from being melted to make silver plate. It became an optional standard thereafter, and in the United Kingdom and Ireland is now denoted by the millesimal fineness hallmark "958", with the symbol of Britannia being applied optionally.
- The date mark is a letter indicating the exact year in which the piece was made. The typeface, whether the letter is uppercase or lowercase, and even the shape inside which the letter is stamped, must all be taken together to determine the year.
- The city mark is used to indicate the city in which the piece was manufactured. For example, a crown of a certain style indicated the city of Sheffield, while an anchor indicated the city of Birmingham.
- Each silver maker has his (or in some cases, her) own, unique maker's mark. This hallmark is usually a set of initials inside an escutscheon.
The series of hallmarks described above are still in use in today.
However, there are two silver hallmarks that have been discontinued:
- Beginning on December 1, 1784, British law mandated that a duty mark be applied to silver pieces. This showed that the requisite tax had been paid to the monarchy. The duty mark was a profile of the head of the current reigning monarch. The mark was discontinued in 1890.
- An additional British hallmark that is no longer used is the tally mark, which was the unique mark of a journeyman finishing his apprenticeship. These marks were used as a record of the pieces made by each journeyman so that each could be given proper payment.
The French assay mark for sterling silver is the head of the goddess Minerva. In fact, the French standard for sterling silver is higher than that of other nations, requiring a silver content of 950 parts per thousand, or 95% silver. Silver items with a slightly lower grade of silver, 800 parts per thousand, are marked with the head of Minerva, next to which is a "2".
French silver made for export carries an assay mark in the shape of the head of Mercury, along with a number to indicate the millesimal fineness: "1" for .920, "2" for .840 and "3" for .750.
French silver also is punched with the mark of the maker.
In the United States, no national assaying system was ever adopted, although the city of Baltimore did maintain its own assay office between 1814 and 1830. Prior to the general adoption of sterling silver as the standard of purity, silver was generally obtained from the melting of coins, which could vary considerably in purity, from around .750 millesimal fineness to around .900. Silver at that time was simply marked "COIN" or "PURE COIN". After the adoption of the sterling standard, pieces were marked with "STERLING", the number "925" or the notation "925/1000".
The United States also had no date marking system. Because of this, some companies within the U.S., such as Tiffany and Gorham, adopted their own date marking systems.
While American manufacturers did not apply assay marks, city marks or date marks, they did (and still do) apply a maker's mark. For example, pieces from the Gorham company could be identified by a Lion Passant (or Lion Rampant, depending on the year), an anchor and the letter "G". The letters "T. and Co." indicated a piece manufactured by Tiffany and Company. These stamps were as unique as today's logos, and disputes often arose when one company copied another's stamp.
The difficulty with hallmarking systems other than those of the United Kingdom and Ireland are that in most cases one cannot pinpoint the manufacture to a specific year, but instead to a range of years during which the company or silversmith was in business. Many larger companies did put out yearly catalogs, however, and these, coupled with patent dates, can often be used as a reference to narrow down the date of a specific piece. In fact, there are people who make a good income doing research on the history of specific sterling pieces.