When looking through old English gold or silver, whether a locket, a pendant (a piece of Tamara Jewelry!), even a candlestick or a piece of flatware, you might notice tiny markings stamped into the metal. These are hallmarks, and they can tell you a lot about the piece’s history.
The hallmarking system began in the United Kingdom during the 12th century when an edict was laid down that no piece of silver “was to depart out of the hands of workers” until it was tested and marked as genuine.
The English system has 3 identifying marks.
The Assay Office mark. This mark tells the region where the piece was made and each region has its own mark. The Leopard stands for London, the Anchor, Birmingham, England.
The Standard mark. This indicates the metal content of the item. In English hallmarks, the Lion Passant is the symbol for Sterling — 925 parts-per-thousand silver.
In 1696 a new series began with the inception of the Britannia standard (the standard mark being the form of a female figure, called “Britannia”), an alloy containing 95.84% silver, with the balance usually being copper. The Britannia Standard was used from 1697 to 1720, but there was conflict between makers who used the Britannia vs. Sterling Standards. Britannia Standard silver was softer and more expensive, but carried cache’.
Silversmiths lobbied the government, and the “sterling standard” on silverware production was restored on 1 June 1720, and continues today. The “Britannia standard,” however, was not abolished and remained in use also after 1720 as a voluntary alternative to the “sterling standard.”
The Date Letter mark. At the end of the 15th century, in an effort to ensure accountability by the Assay Master – also known as the “Keeper of the Touch,” – the date-letter system was devised. With the inception of the date letter, inspectors could trace an offending or unscrupulous assay-master from the date letter. This quality control measure became a chance benefit for collectors, for now they could determine the age of a piece.
The date letters began appearing on silver around 1478, and continued in 20 year cycles for more than 200 years without a break. (The letters J and from V through Z were omitted, so that there would be five cycles in a century.) Each cycle has its own style of letter and/or its uniquely shaped shield.
So, with these hallmarks, and a little research, you can find out What, Where and When pieces were created, giving you a little peek into their history. Enjoy!