Silver hallmarks are a key part of determining the purity of an item purporting to be made from silver. Hallmarks are legal stamps, applied to items manufactured from a number of precious metals. These include gold, silver, platinum and palladium. They identify the main metal, and how much of it can be found, in a number of items. Silver hallmarks are particularly likely to be found on silver jewellery and antique silver items (such as cutlery).
Why do we use hallmarks?
Silver – like gold – is soft when in its pure form, and would be unsuitable for many items. Jewellery especially would become easily scratched and misshapen if made from pure silver. Pure silver will also tarnish over time, reacting to sulphur in the air. Because of this, silver is usually mixed with other metals to form a more useful alloy; one that is more durable, and less likely to tarnish.
Antique silver items with hallmark stamps. Image courtesy of Wikimedia & Creative Commons license.
The amount of silver that was used in manufacturing will be the driving force behind the value of the item for most buyers of scrap metal. The age and design are less consequential than the metal content. In an ideal world, consumers could trust each manufacturer’s word regarding what amount of what metal was contained in an item. In reality however, unscrupulous jewellers and metalsmiths have attempted to create fakes, or fraudulently claim higher metal content than actually used in order to make more money.
Silver hallmarks are applied by independent officials, known as assayers, who guarantee the metal content of an item on behalf of a country’s government. They are legal stamps, that prove the metal has been tested and is of the quality stated.
Silver Hallmarks UK
Silver hallmarks have been used in the UK for centuries. The term hallmark originated from ‘The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’, who originally tested and stamped gold items. Meeting in Goldsmiths Hall, London, the marks they applied soon became known as hallmarks.
Silver hallmarks were a later addition to the Goldsmiths duties, and at the time English silver was required to be 92.5% pure, with 7.5% made up of other metals. This was known as ‘Sterling Silver’, and would be a recognised standard the world over for years to come. As silver was used for low denomination money, it was deemed essential for all silver items to maintain the same standard.
A statute from King Edward I even said "It is ordained that no Goldsmith of England, nor none otherwhere within the King's Dominions, shall from henceforth... work worse silver than money".
Older silver hallmarks may be more difficult to identify. Time may have worn the stamp down, and without standardisation the symbols used can vary. In particular the stamp for fineness (arguably the most important of any silver hallmark) was often a random figure of an animal. Fortunately, these have been meticulously catalogued by dedicated collectors, and can still be identified if needed.
One of the easiest silver hallmarks to identify is the actual assay office. These stamps are far fewer in number, and easier to make out, even when worn down. The main stamps include:
- London - Leopard head front-facing. If the head is crowned, then this was done before 1820, and would be uncrowned thereafter
- Birmingham - Anchor
- Sheffield - Crown
- Exeter - Castle with three towers
- Newcastle - Three castles
- Castle. Similar to the Exeter stamp, but Edinburgh has the towers closer together
The year mark wasn't introduced until 1697, as a result of legislation under King William III. This makes identifying the exact year much easier, but the system chosen - a letter for each year - meant that repetition was common. The cycle of letters was also different for each assay office. Different styles of fonts and capitals were used by different groups. Fortunately these have also been documented by dealers/collectors over the years.
The maker's mark originally used varying symbols, but by the 15th century, changed to the maker's initials. Different sizes, fonts, and containing shapes were used to differentiate each maker, but these can still be difficult to determine sometimes when taken on their own. As a small subsection of the maker's mark, there was also a "journeyman's mark". This referred to a specific worker, who could move from various silversmiths, but still wanted their work to be recognised. This was rare however, and most workers didn't register official journeymen marks with Assay offices.
The last important mark to mention is the "Duty" stamp. This took the form of the reigning monarch's portrait, and showed that the relevant duty/tax had been paid.
The UK introduced the 1973 Hallmarking Act to help standardise the industry, and integrate with international hallmarking practices. Since that time any items claiming to be made of silver, that weigh 7.78 grams or more, legally require a hallmark.
Modern silver hallmarks are far easier to identify. The image above shows the various marks you should find on legitimate silver items. The top row in particular shows the compulsory hallmarks; the three marks that are legally required. These are the maker/sponsor, the fineness, and the assay office.
The sponsor is the manufacturer; this is typically a mint or refiner, but could be the jeweller or manufacturer on some items. The fineness represents the purity of the item in parts per thousand; in the image above for example, a 925 hallmark would mean 92.5% pure, or Sterling Silver. The Assay Office hallmark denotes which office tested the item. In the UK there are four offices who could have applied a silver hallmark: Birmingham (anchor stamp), Edinburgh (castle stamp), Sheffield (Yorkshire rose stamp), and London (leopard stamp).
The date is a common additional hallmark that might be applied, and will usually be a letter that corresponds to a specific year. Sometimes the older-style traditional fineness stamp may also still be applied.
Silver Hallmark Identification
As mentioned above, identifying silver hallmarks can be tricky, but with a bit of practice, and access to the internet it is possible. Using one of the images above as an example, we can work out the following:
- Two or more letters will almost certainly be the maker's mark. In this case "GA" in two conjoined circles. This would refer to possibly two makers: George William Adams, or George Aldwinckle.
- This stamp is the classic Lion passant facing left, and confirms the item is made of Sterling quality silver.
- The leopard head, without a crown, denotes the item was assayed at the London Assay Office after 1820.
- The date letter. In the example this appears to be a "G". By identifying the London Assay Office this also reduces the possibilities significantly. The very artistic style points to 1842 being the year of Assay.
- This is the duty mark, showing the tax has been paid, and is an image of Queen Victoria.
From all of this we can work out the item was made by George William Adams (Aldwinckle was later in the Victorian period), in the early 1840s, from Sterling silver purity, and was sent to the London Assay Office.
Silver plate hallmarks
Silver plate hallmarks have no recognised official system, but are often stamped with abbreviations. EPNS denotes Electro-Plated Nickel Silver, and EPBM is Electro-Plated Britannia Metal. A silver plated item should not have a legal hallmark, as it will not be pure enough to be considered as silver. To be eligible for hallmarking a silver alloy should be at least 800 fineness – a silver plated item will likely be far below this number.
Bullion & hallmarks
For many of our customers it is important to note that silver bullion, such as the coins and bars we sell on GOLD.co.uk, do not require hallmarks. This is because they are classed as a raw material. Refiners and mints do however usually stamp their coins and bars with details on the fineness of the metal, as well as displaying their own branding.
At GOLD.co.uk we buy back scrap silver at competitive rates. If you have unwanted or broken jewellery with silver hallmarks, call our team for a quote on 0121 369 3000.