Your Antique Silver Experts

American Coin Silver

Before the discovery and commercial mining of silver in America, old coinage was the main source, hence the term. As the coins, brought in by migrants from around the world, varied in purity so did coin silver.

Silver in the early American colonies largely followed the English standard of sterling, even though there were no established means of enforcing it. Tests made on 17th- and 18th-century American silver returned a standard up to and sometimes over the sterling standard. The case in New York was different as it was colonized by the Dutch (who had between 2-3 standards of purity depending on the period) but generally varied between 80% to 95%. This created a great divergence in the purity of silver brought there, as there was no system of hallmarking such as was imposed in England or Holland. American silversmiths would stamp their wares with their initials or their whole name in a cartouche, occasionally accompanied by a device such as an eagle, flower, kings head, etc. There was, nevertheless, no indication or guarantee of purity.

After the Revolutionary War, however, the US Mint fixed the standard for coins in 1792 at 89.2% fine, and in 1837 it was raised to 90% fine. The difference between the two standards led to the stamping of silver made in America with various symbols of purity: "Coin," "Pure Coin," "Dollar," "Dollars," "Standard," "Premium" and even "Sterling." These marks would usually be accompanied with a stamp of the maker's name or initials. There were also pseudo marks, marks closely resembling English hallmarks (not to delude, I am sure), occasionally with the letters D, B, G, C, etc. What these letters stood for no one is sure, if anything. Perhaps they were the silversmith's surname initials, though some have ventured "Dollar," "Best", "Genuine", and "Coin", consecutively. Research as to the identity of these silversmiths is still underway.

Maker or Retailer
As the 19th century progressed, the demand for silver led to an explosion of silversmiths shops in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston. Often, these shops were just retailers who would also stamp their names (and addresses). In this case, the manufacturer would add just his initials in a small cartouche alongside the retailer's name. Most of these manufacturers are identifiable, such as AC in a diamond for Albert Coles, W&H for Wood and Hughes, GW&H for Gale, Wood, and Hughes, and so on.

Reference Books:
Kovel's American Silver Marks, by Ralph & Terry Kovel
American Silversmiths and Their Marks, by Stephen Guernsey Cook Ensko
Marks of American Silversmiths, by Robert Alan Green

English Silver (Including Scotland and Ireland)

All silver wrought in England, Scotland and Ireland had to bear the following marks:

The Town Mark — This was the city in which the article was assayed, and was usually the arms of that particular city. For example, in London it was the Leopards Head, sometimes crowned. Before the establishment of the regional assay offices, it was also the assay mark, which is why it was struck alongside the city mark, together with the Lion Passant (the accepted assay mark) in some of the early regional offices such as Chester, Newcastle and York as an additional guarantee mark. In 1696-1720, the Sterling Standard was raised to the Britannia Standard of 98.5%, to counter the melting of sterling coinage. To indicate this higher standard, the Leopards Head was replaced by the Lions Head erased.

The Assay Mark — This is the lion passant, also crowned at times, guaranteeing the silver to be of Sterling Standard, 92.5% pure. When the Britannia Standard was used — in 1696-1720 — the assay mark was the figure of Britannia showing the higher standard of 98.5%. In Scotland, the Assay Mark was the initials of the Deacon or Assay Master, which was replaced by the Thistle in 1759. In Dublin, it was the Crowned Harp which signified the Sterling Standard.

The Date Letter — A letter of the alphabet was assigned to each successive year over a 20-25 year period, omitting some of the misleading letters, such as J, U and Y as they could be confused with I and V. At the end of one period, a new cycle of letters began with either a different script or cartouche shape.

The Maker's Mark — Originally they were symbols, but initials gradually replaced them in the 17th century. In 1696-1720, during the Britannia period, the first two letters of the surname were used. Occasionally, the maker's marks were adorned with symbols, such as a bird or mullet. A crown above the initials, though not compulsory, denotes a Royal silversmith.

The Duty Mark — Although duty was imposed on manufactured silver since 1720, it was not till 1784 that a mark was introduced to show it. That mark was a profile of the reigning sovereign, commonly known as the Sovereign's Head. Use of this mark was discontinued in 1890, with the abolition of duty. For further research, city marks, provincial marks, and maker's marks, please check the bibliography.

Reference Books:
Jackson's Silver & Gold Marks of England, Scotland & Ireland, by Ian Pickford
Guide to Marks of Origin on British & Irish Plate, by F. Bradbury*
The Price Guide to Antique Silver, by Peter Waldron**

*The Plate referred to here is the early term for Sterling. It is a handy pocket guide.
**Peter Waldron is the head of the Silver Dept. of Sotheby's, London. It is an excellent book.

Continental Silver

The continent comprises dozens of nations with widely varying assaying and hallmarking laws and standards. It is too large a topic to cover accurately and comprehensively in a short essay. Essentially, most continental countries have two or three standards of purity ranging from 0.950 (95%) down to 0.750 (75%). The different standards are generally indicated by the figure 1 or the letter A on the assay mark for the High or 1st Standard, 2 or B for the next, etc. Alternately, the standard could be stamped in decimal form, such as 916H or 830S. Russia has a unique system of grading where the number 84 denotes a fineness of 0.875, 88 is 0.916, and so on.

Most books are specialized, pertaining to the country of publication, and usually written in that country's language. The book I recommend is a useful guide and pretty comprehensive introduction to a complicated and, often, confusing subject.

Reference Books:
International Hallmarks on Silver, collected by Tardy

American Sterling Silver

American silver is essentially divided into two camps as far as collectors are concerned. This is why I have formed the two categories 'American Sterling' and 'Coin Silver.' The Sterling Standard was established by federal law in 1868 under pressure from a group of leading silversmiths, such as Tiffany, who had been using Sterling since their entrance to the silver market in 1851.

A Magnificent Sterling Vegetable Tureens Side View A Magnificent Sterling Vegetable Tureens Engrave A Magnificent Sterling Vegetable Tureens Handle

Sterling is a metal alloy containing about 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper or other base metals. Lowering the quantity of silver, say to 90% or lower, with the commensurate increase in the base metals as in Coin Silver or even down to 80%, as in some continental countries, renders the final product harder and more resilient to the wear and tear of everyday use. Increasing the quantity of silver to 95% or higher has the effect of making the final product softer and more malleable. It is easier to work with and hence more amenable to more demanding manufacturing processes as chasing, engraving, and moulding.

Cast Sterling Silver Candlestick Holder Cast Sterling Silver Candlestick Holder Detail Cast Sterling Silver Candlestick Holder Stand

The 95% Standard was used by the French and some American silversmiths, such as Gorham, for their Martele line. A higher standard, 95.84%, was also adopted by Gorham for their Martele line. In England, this standard is termed the Britannia standard and was first adopted in London in 1696 to counter the melting down of coinage. After 1720, that standard was no longer compulsory; though silversmiths would occasionally use that standard for special lines.

Sterling Silver Candelabra Pomegranate Detail Sterling Silver Candelabra Pomegranate Sterling Silver Candelabra Pomegranate Engrave

American Sterling is variously marked, apart from the maker's mark:

(a) English Sterling 925-1000
(b) Sterling Silver 925-1000
(c) Sterling
(d) 925-1000
(e) 11 oz
(f) 11-12

Mark (a) was used by Tiffany before the sterling standard was adopted, to assure the prospective buyer that he was being offered real Sterling and not the lower standard being utilized by the majority of other American silversmiths of that period.

Marks (b), (c), and (d) are used by most silversmiths right up to the present day.

Mark (e) and (d) were used by the Baltimore silversmiths at the end of the 19th century. It was the only city in America that had an assay office; established in 1814, it set the standard for silver at 11oz pure silver per 12 oz Troy alloy. This computes to 91.7% pure silver, which was above the national requirement at that time. Kirk used the 11oz mark up to 1880, even though his silver, certainly after 1868, was of sterling standard. Using this numeric system, sterling silver would have 11oz 2 pennyweights of pure silver, hence the 11-2 mark, used by Warner after 1868.

Reference Books
Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers, by Dorothy t Rainwater
Tiffany Silver, by Charles & Mary Carpenter
Martele: Gorham's Art Nouveau Silver, by Larry J Pristo

Oriental & Middle Eastern Silver

I am confining this topic to just my area of expertise, India, China, and Japan, and within this subset, I am forming two further categories — Colonial and Post-Colonial. Although Japan remained unscathed, both China and India experienced a period of colonization by England which had a dramatic effect on their domestic silver production, creating the cultural periods named as Indian Colonial and Chinese Export.

Reference Books
Indian Colonial: Indian Colonial Silver, by Wynyard Wilkinson
Post Colonial Indian Silver, by Wynyard Wilkinson
Chinese Export Silver, by Forbes, Kernan & Wilkins
The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver, by J.D. Kernan

Old Sheffield Plate & Silver Plate

Old Sheffield Plate is the term used to describe articles of flat and hollowware that are made of copper coated with silver by fusion, not by the electroplating process. In Old Sheffield Plate, a sheet of silver is laid upon a sheet of copper and then fused together by the pressure of rollers. The resulting fused metal was then formed, chased and engraved to a range of styles or purposes. The production of Old Sheffield Plate began in about 1743 and had a successful run of just under 100 years.

Following soon after the discovery of electricity, the electroplating process was perfected with Elkington & Co. being one of the first to use this process commercially, as they take out a patent in 1840. The discovery of electroplating so cheapened and facilitated the production of plated wares that the production of Old Sheffield Plate soon petered out. Some diehards struggled on against overwhelming odds until 1852, when the city of Sheffield listed just one Old Sheffield manufacturer in the business directories.

Unfortunately, as Old Sheffield Plate continued to be popular, even today, many Electroplate manufacturers would stamp their articles with such titles as Silver on Copper, Sheffield Plate (omitting the Old), Real Sheffield Plate, Sheffield, etc.

Reference Books:
History of Old Sheffield Plate, by Frederick Bradbury

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