A friend recently asked me to look at a silver tea service he had acquired in a distant relative’s will. Apparently he always played with it as a small child. Not remembering the tea service and hardly remembering the relative, he was however interested in it’s history and I think more importantly it’s value. Sadly I was a disappointment to him as what looked to him like hallmarks were not and the service was silver plated not silver. The value therefore was greatly reduced. In an attempt to appear interested after his let down he asked the question, “Well what exactly is silver and how can you tell?”

Pure silver is too soft to be practical and is therefore combined with small amounts of copper. Ideal proportions of 925 parts silver to 75 parts copper have been used in Britain since the 13th century and this is Sterling silver. The use of Sterling silver is enforced by The WorshipfulI Company of Goldsmiths and Silversmiths and the proof of the purity of the metal is punched into items, making hallmarks.

In Britain, a hallmark generally consists of the Sterling mark (the lion passant) together with symbols to denote place of assay, date and maker. Full hallmarks are present on the main body of an item and detachable parts such as lids, but part hallmarks are used for other areas such as handles, which could be separated by removing a screw or pin.

By 1300 the hallmark was made compulsory and in 1363 every Silversmith had to have their own mark. Originally the first two letters of a Silversmiths surname were used and then from around 1720, the initials of the first name and surname became more common and are still used today.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

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