When it comes to sterling silver, hallmarks count for everything. If a sterling silver piece is destined for commercial sale, it will typically be stamped with one or more hallmarks that show the manufacturer or silversmith’s mark, the purity of the silver itself, and sometimes additional information on the piece. And in certain countries, a national assayer’s office handles the testing and purity of silver objects.
The hallmarking process is usually carried out before the silver piece receives its final polishing. This is because the hallmarks are applied using a hammer and punch, leaving sharp metal edges.
Different countries use different hallmarks to classify their sterling silver, with the UK system representing one of the most sophisticated and information-rich in the world.
The assayer’s mark shows the purity of the silver, with sterling silver indicated by the ‘lion passant’ symbol. However, throughout history, different marks have been deployed, including the Britannia standard. This was a compulsory standard in Britain between 1697 and 1720 and was designed to stop British sterling silver coins being melted down for silver plate. These days, the standard is optional and is now indicated by the ‘millesimal fineness’ hallmark 958. Irish silver is denoted by the harp crowned.
Meanwhile, the city mark shows where the piece was assayed. An anchor symbol represents Birmingham, while a crown represents Sheffield. The date mark takes the form of a letter which shows the year of manufacturing, along with the typeface and the shape inside which the letter itself is stamped. Makers’ marks are unique to each individual silver maker, and typically feature a set of initials inside an escutcheon. And for Irish silver, the image of Hibernia – the classical Latin name for Ireland – still features on the country’s products today.
But not all silver hallmarks are still in use today. The duty mark, which showed that the correct silver tax had been paid to the Crown, was discontinued back in 1890. The tally mark, which indicated the piece had been made by a journeyman finishing his apprenticeship, also fell out of use.
Here at May Thomas Jewellery, we’re proud to say that all our handmade jewellery is hallmarked at the Assay Office, which has an illustrious 700-year history of testing silver and gold in London.