Silver has always been fashioned into highly decorative objects of great beauty.
Silver hallmarks started in England in the 14th century as a result of unscrupulous silversmiths using drossie rubbage or refuse metal and alloying it with silver to make the metal tougher and more malleable. This decreased the amount of pure silver in a piece and made it cheaper.
In 1363 it was decided that a method of identifying the makers of sub-standard work and of maintaining a level of quality control, was to make the Master Goldsmiths register a unique mark of their work in the form of initials, symbols or shield. These would be struck onto the silver. It provided one of the first forms of consumer protection and an accurate form of dating and reference for collectors.
In 1478 a date letter was introduced using the alphabet to maintain this standard further. Starting with the letter A, but omitting the letters J and from V to Z, merely changing the letter style or shield with each cycle. This went on without a break until 1696, when, a new cycle was started called the Britannia standard.
The abuse of clipping or melting silver coins was so extensive that silversmiths were forbidden to use the sterling standard for their wares. Instead a newer, higher standard of 95.8% pure was introduced.
New Hall-Marks were ordered, using the initials of the maker, a figure of a woman known as Britannia and a lion's head, replacing the lion Passant ( a full size lion looking ahead) which was first used in 1544.
Changing to the higher standard of 95.8% caused some controversy, so it was agreed that the old standard would be restored, running alongside the higher standard in 1720. A charge of 6 pennies an ounce was made as a duty for restoring back to the old standard.
This created a practice known as duty-dodging, whereby silversmiths avoided paying duty by incorporating pieces of plate bearing old hallmarks into the new piece of silverware. To get over this problem the assay office introduced a duty paid hallmark in the form of the sovereignís head, in 1784 which lasted until 1890 and covered the reigns of George III, and IV, William IV and Victoria.
Although these hallmarks are a great help to the collector there are still fakes that can fool you. It is always best to check the marks and pieces carefully. Marriages of two pieces of silver-ware or alterations have been produced over the years. What may have started out as an early tankard, could end up as a coffee pot.
The Hall-Marking act of 1973 resulted in simplified marks and made it easier to recognise and understand them.Top of the Page - Silver Antiques Background