A brief history of the hallmarking system and how it works.
Generally speaking a hallmark is a letter, number, picture or combination of these, that allows one to be able to distinguish that what you are looking at is silver that conforms to the purity standards set in that country. Every country has a different system of hallmarking but the most developed is the English system which has been around since 1300 AD. To be able to understand the importance of hallmarks one has to look at them in an historical context of how they came about and how they have developed.
We begin in 1238 in London during the reign of Henry the Third, when numerous frauds were being perpetrated by certain Goldsmiths. To combat this, it was decreed that a guild of six upstanding goldsmiths were chosen, and part of their duties was to assay, or test every piece of silver produced, and then to mark it with a LEOPARD’S HEAD. By 1300 an economic problem had developed that threatened the entire English system. With the advance of trade, there was a major import of base metal and low grade silver coins from the continent which were exchanged at the same value in weight as English silver pennies. On their return to the Continent the English silver was exchanged for double its weight in base coins. As this practice increased it became apparent that a system was needed to differentiate between base metal and silver, and required a distinguishing mark to be stamped onto precious metal. The leopard’s head mark was adopted for the whole country and was the beginning of the hallmarking system, which set the sterling standard at ‘925’. Because silver is a very soft metal a small quantity of copper was added to harden it which means that 92.5% of sterling silver is pure silver and 7.5% is copper. As the years passed the use of the Leopards Head reverted back to identify silver made in London and as various other assay offices opened around the United Kingdom they adopted their own symbols.
The next development that occurred was in 1363 when it was ordained that every master goldsmith should have a mark of his own, so that his work was recognizable. This was the introduction of the MAKERS MARK and the earliest marks were emblems that symbolized the name of the maker. As most people did not know how to read or write, goldsmiths like other shopkeepers had signs by which their shops were known and it was likely that these signs were used as well. For the next hundred years this system controlled all silver production in the entire United Kingdom.
In 1477 in order to further control this simple marking system, the DATE LETTER was introduced. Basically this came about to be able to see in what year the piece had been assayed and by whom. This occurred after it was discovered that there were dishonest assay masters who were taking bribes to hallmark metal of inferior standards. The date letters run in cycles – generally A to Z alternating between upper and lower case and also in different styles (or fonts).
Sixty years on in 1544 we see the introduction of the LION PASSANT. This is an image of a standing lion and its reason for being introduced is not entirely clear. What we do know is that it has become the guarantee of the silver purity – in other words ‘925’ standard sterling.
The last mark that we must understand is the DUTY MARK. This was a stamp showing the reigning monarchs head in profile. Every piece of silver made since 1720 barring the years 1758 -1784 has had duty imposed upon it and this system has allowed us to denote various styles of workmanship and group them into the various eras such as Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and so on.
Having now dealt with the historical background, how does it work in practice? The entire system and 500 years of silver production in the United Kingdom has been reduced into a book of hall marks that allows one with a basic understanding, to identify where, in what year and by whom the majority of all English silver was made. The various hallmark books work as follows:
Firstly, identify the town where the piece was assayed. London is represented by the leopard’s head, Birmingham by an anchor, Sheffield by a crown, and so on.
Secondly identify the year by working out if the date letter is in upper or lower case. Here the duty mark which is the reigning monarch’s head in profile can assist in determining where to begin looking. Once this is done we know where the piece was made and when. Identifying the makers mark and whether this corresponds to the record entries at the various assay offices can further confirm this.
Not all the silver one comes across has been made in England and one should be aware that every country with a history of silver production has had some form of government control. Silver marks in various countries across Europe and Russia have been controlled since the early 1700’s, and once again copies of these marks are available in books. Unfortunately, most of these countries followed a system of marking that did not include year marks. What we do find is the date in which the maker registered his mark as well as the guarantee mark from that country. A lot of these guarantees covered a span of several years. Also these countries had their own standards of metal purity which ranged from ‘800’ in Germany, to ‘975’ in certain Russian items. Once again one has to study the pieces in conjunction with the books, in order to identify the origin and age.
In South Africa from as early as 1780, we have had practicing silversmiths, and much of the silver produced here, today known as Cape Silver, is marked and can be identified. In fact, from 1800 onwards a large majority of the silversmiths adopted what we call pseudo hallmarks, meaning that without central government control over the marking of silverware the silversmith made his own punches which sometimes copied the English marks of that time. They were not trying to defraud their clients, but rather to reassure them that they were buying the same quality as that produced in England. Copies of these marks with their makers are available in Stephan Weltz’s book on Cape Silver. Silver produced in other colonies such as India and Australia is also documented and can be identified.
The last aspect of hallmarks that I would like to examine is what to do if you come across marks that are not familiar to you. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the silver trade. The best advice is to approach specialist dealers or auctioneers such as Christies or Sotheby’s as they have access to extensive libraries.
One has to remember that hallmarks have developed over centuries to provide a guarantee that what we are buying is sterling silver. Hallmarks, which began as a form of consumer protection, have over time developed into the most accurate form of identification that we find in the Antique trade today.