For hundreds of years, hallmarks have been used throughout Great Britain to identify, date and grade silver, plate, gold and platinum. You might say it's one of the world's oldest forms of consumer protection.
For collectors of English sterling, knowledge of the different types of British hallmarks is essential. It's one of the few fields of collecting that allows you to accurately identify maker, origin and date simply by deciphering the hallmark.
The production of silver has been highly regulated by various governing authorities throughout Great Britain since the 12th century. As a result, it was required that all silver be stamped so that its origin could be traced. The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed most of London, including the majority of its silver and the records of registered silversmiths, making pieces dating prior to this tragic event very rare.
For example, on such an early piece, the marks may tell us it was made in 1611 by "I.C." But, without the registration records, we would be unable to identify who I.C. actually was. Generally, the hallmarks you are most likely to encounter will be from around the turn of the 17th century.
In 1327, Edward III introduced a law that granted the Worshipful Company of Goldsmith's the right to conduct and enforce the assay laws. The assaying, or testing, of silver determined its purity, ensuring that all sterling equaled 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, which was alloyed with the silver as a hardening agent. The Goldsmith's guild headquarters was known as Goldsmith's Hall in London, therefore their stamp of guarantee became known as the "hallmark."
There are five types of marks found on English sterling silver items: the maker's mark, assay office/town mark, date mark, assay or sterling mark and the duty mark (used on works from 1784-1890).
The maker's mark is basically self-explanatory. Typically, this mark bears the initials of the silversmith or silver manufacturing company. For example, Georgian silversmith Hester Bateman marked her pieces with a scripted "HB," and the renowned silversmith Paul de Lamerie used the initials "PL."
The assay office or town mark indicates where the silver was tested for compliance with the stringent British silver standards.
During the 14th century, there was only one assay office in the United Kingdom and it was located in London, denoted by a lion's head, sometimes with a crown on top. It wasn't until 1363 when representatives, or assay masters, were elected throughout Great Britain to carry out the work of the London assay office. Offices were established in Birmingham, marked with an upright anchor, and Sheffield, denoted by a crown. Other assay offices are located in Chester, York, Dublin, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Norwich and Newcastle-on-Tyne.
In 1478, the date mark was introduced to signify the year the piece was assayed as sterling. A letter of the alphabet was assigned to each year, predominantly in alphabetical order. The dates at the Sheffield office were randomly listed until 1824, when they finally got with the program. The date letters rolled over in May at the London office and in July at Birmingham and Sheffield. Therefore, you could have an eight-piece tea service that took three months to make with two date marks. Half of the pieces would have a letter from one year, while the second half would have the next consecutive letter, yet still remain an original, complete set.
The addition of the date mark and the town mark was significant. These stamps meant that particular individuals would now be held responsible, should their testing prove to be inaccurate. Prior to this, officials had no way of determining when or where a piece of sterling was actually tested. These two marks added a new level of accountability.
The assay or sterling mark denotes that the piece is sterling, or 92.5% pure silver. Prior to 1544, the assay mark was a leopard's head. After 1544, the emblem changed from a leopard to a lion and became known as the Lion Passant, or the Lion Rampant as it is known in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is the full body of a lion and, depending on the date letter series or assay office, the head of the lion faces straight ahead or to the left. The Lion Passant has roots dating back to the Middle Ages but was not "officially" adopted by Britain's assay office until 1719.
The duty mark is a stamp of the reigning sovereign's head. It first appeared in December 1784 when King George III imposed a special duty on all silver to help pay for the American War of Independence. This stamp indicated that taxes had been paid on the piece and it wasn't until 1890, during the reign of Queen Victoria, that the duty on silver was lifted and the stamp was no longer required.
Collecting silver is an ongoing learning experience-the more you know, the more enjoyable and rewarding it becomes! This article merely scratches the surface of the plethora of information available on hallmarks and antique English silver. There are several books on maker's marks and hallmarks, and a good pocket reference is Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks. Happy collecting!