Have you ever wondered what the symbols on a silver hallmark mean or perhaps why they are there at all? The hallmark guarantees the amount of silver contained in an item and has been a legal requirement since 1300. The hallmark also identifies where and when the item was produced and which assay office confirmed the quality of the silver.
As far back as 1180 Henry II established the Goldsmiths Hall in London allowing them to use the Leopards head hallmark, a symbol still used today to denote a piece is assayed in London.
In 1238 Henry III introduced a silver purity assay to try and combat fraud and use of less pure silver and by 1300 the Leopards head was only used when the silver was 92.5% pure.
By 1336 the King formalised by Royal charter the Goldsmiths Guild as a Craft Guild and the maker’s mark and date letter alongside the Leopards head were introduced. The date letter was changed every May using different fonts and shields so the year of assay could easily be ascertained.
In 1423 Henry VI introduced the Quality and Marks of Silver Work Act which required each assay office to have its own mark and in 1544 the Lion Passant was used to indicate Sterling (92.5%) purity.
The purity of silver changed in 1697 to 95.83% and was known as Britannia silver and marked with a figure of Britannia, a Lion’s head and the date letter. Unfortunately Britannia silver was too soft for every day use so Sterling silver was reintroduced in 1720 so the customer could choose the clarity of silver they preferred.
From 1748-1890 a duty tax was levied and to show this had been paid the head of reigning monarch was also added to the hallmark. The main assay offices were located in London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Chester, Exeter, York and Newcastle. So let me tell you about a couple of them.
York silver is quite rare today and highly collectable today. The assay office was opened in 1423 and closed in 1858 and was considered the most important centre for silver outside London. Their mark was half a leopards head with a Fleur-de-lys and then changed to a cross containing five lions.
Sheffield first opened their assay office in 1773 and used a Crown as their mark and this changed to a Tudor Rose in 1975.
Sheffield was also responsible for developing Sheffield plate in the later part of the 18th century and used a layered combination of copper and silver.
The maker can add value to a piece of silver. As you will know Mappin and Webb and James Dixon were very well known and highly regarded Sheffield makers. The Bateman family who specialised in cutlery, Archibald Knox a designer for Liberty in London and Nathaniel Mills from Birmingham who was famous for making intricate boxes and vinaigrettes these are all names to look out for.
Sometimes silver plated items can fool you into thinking they are made of silver by having pseudo silver hallmarks. They are usually marked EPNS which means Electro Plated Nickel Silver and sometimes this is followed by A1 meaning good quality.
So have a look at your silver items and see if you can identify where and when they were assayed. But if you can’t, don’t worry we are always here to help you identify your treasures so do come down to Sheffield Auction Gallery and see one of our friendly valuers.