What are hallmarks and why we want to read them? English, Scottish and Irish silver is stamped with 4 or 5 symbols, that are known as hallmarks. The purpose of hallmarks is to prove the metal quality and certain level of purity. According to the Royal Ordinances and Acts of the Parliament, the silversmith’s craft has been regulated since the end of 12th century, protecting customers and allowing them to trace silver origin.
Although there are hundreds of different hallmarks, the British hallmarking system is highly structured and clear. With a jeweler’s loupe and simple 5-steps instruction, even a novice can decipher them.
Step 1 – Find Silver Standard Mark
There are five standard marks used on British Silver. If you cannot find them, the item you are looking at probably comes from another country or it is silverplate. Compare the mark you see with pictures below.
- Lion passant (guardant or facing left) mark London and other English Assay Offices
- Thistle mark Edinburgh
- Lion rampant mark Glasgow
- Crowned harp mark Dublin
- Britannia mark (1696 – 1719) for Britannia Standard Silver 95.8%
Step 2 – Find the City Mark
City mark will allow us to identify the Assay Office that certified and verified the silver. There are many town marks, let us consider only the main ones.
|1. London – leopard’s head (crowned until 1820)||2. London – uncrowned leopard head (1821 till present)|
|3. Birmingham – an anchor (1793 – present)||4. Chester – a sword erected between three wheat-sheaves (1784-1962)|
|5. Edinburgh – a castle (1483-present)||6. Exeter – a castle with three towers (1701-1856)|
|7. Glasgow – tree, fish and bell (1681-1963)||8. Newcastle upon Tyne – three castles (c.1658-1883)|
|9. Sheffield – a crown (1773-1975)||10. York – five lions passant on a cross (c. 1710-1856)|
|11. Dublin – crowned harp mark (until 1806)||12. Dublin – Hibernia (1807-present)|
Step 3 – Find the Duty Mark
Duty marks were introduced in 1784 to certify the payment of the duty to the Crown. Until the 1890 items were marked with the “sovereign head”. Identifying the duty mark helps to narrow the date range.
Step 4 – Find the Date Letter
Series of alphabetical letters were chosen to indicate the year of assaying using “cycles of letters” of different font and size inside punches (called shield) of various shapes. Although only 20 letters were used, thanks to particular combination of font, capitalization and shield shape, it is possible to identify exact year. Each city has a different series of letters, starting on different year. Any Assay Office adopted its own cycle of date letters so that only from the 1975 the four surviving Assay Offices use a uniform system of dating.
Fortunately, if you have town mark, we can find matching date letter. Let us look at an example of different date letters from the same year.
Step 5 – Find the Maker’s Mark
Before 15th century, silversmiths would mark their products with symbol, later on replaced by maker’s initials. To differentiate marks of silversmiths with the same initials, variety of fonts, sizes and outlines was adopted. To identify the maker, we need special reference book or a well-informed art dealer.
Step 6 – That’s it! Now you can start your adventure with identifying British hallmarks.