A hallmark on a piece of sterling silver indicates the quality and purity of the silver and may or may not contain a maker's mark. The hallmarked can help identify the country of origin, the age of the piece and the metal content.
The word "hallmark" comes from England, where the marks have been in use since the 14th century. France has hallmarks dating back that far, as do most other European countries. Sterling silver items made in the United States do not have hallmarks. Fineness marks that indicate metal content have been required since 1906.
Each country has its own hallmark, which may change slightly over time. In England, sterling silver is marked with the walking lion, while items made in Scotland prior to 1975 carried a thistle. Sometimes an assay mark is included, indicating the city where the piece was made. For example, pieces made in London carry a leopard's head, while those created in Birmingham have an anchor. The assay mark is placed to the left of the hallmark.
Taxco, Mexico, is known for its silver work. After World War II, the town developed its own hallmark, called the spread eagle. Inside the mark is a symbol of the workshop or city where it was created. In 1979, Mexico changed the hallmark and started listing registry numbers and letters on the pieces to indicate origin.