WHAT IS STERLING SILVER?
Sterling Silver can be traced back to the Norman times, however the first official English “assay” of silver can be traced to around 1158. Pure silver is far too soft to work, so an alloy of silver and copper was created. Sterling Silver is an alloy of typically 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. We associate Sterling Silver with English silver, as other countries have a different mix of alloy to form silver, for example Germany has 800 silver, Scandinavia 830 silver and French 950, however these standards have varied over time.
Sterling silver, or Silver is not be confused with Silver plate, EPNS (Electro Plated Nickel Silver) or EPBM (Electro Plated Britannia Metal). These all refer to a base metal with a very fine silver coating or plating.
HOW OLD IS MY SILVER? – THE ASSAY MARKS
An Assay Office tests for the purity of silver, and the first English office was formed around the end of the 12th Century to regulate the silver industry. Once an item is tested, the piece is marked with an “assay stamp” which indicates not only the year of manufacture, the assay office mark but assures the purity of the silver item. Initial assay marks were rudimentary, but as the industry grew, more assay offices were formed, and the marks became more sophisticated.
By 1544 the assay marks consisted of the -
the mark of origin (the assay office)
a date letter, indicating the year of manufacture.
By the end of 1784, a fourth mark, the Duty Mark, was added indicated duty had been paid on the piece.
The duty mark was later dropped in April 1890.
To interpret the marks, one needs a “Guide to Marks of Origin on British and Irish Silver” or similar pocket guide, and a loupe (unless you have fabulous eye sight).
First ascertain the Mark of Origin. The most commonly found marks are -
Next you match the shield shape and the letter font used. For the example below, this item can be traced to the Birmingham office and assayed/made in 1897.
It is important that the shield shape and the font used is checked and re-checked. The Birmingham Office have seven “W” marks between 1773 and 1968, but only one combination of the font and shield shape.
Other countries have a similar system, just with different marks. Later items can be marked .925 or just 925, also indicating the alloy is 925 parts per 1000 of silver. Don’t confuse a 925 stamp as Sterling Silver. The alloy might be the same mix, but England assay officers will never mark an item as 925 without the other assay marks.
TRAP FOR BEGINNERS
As with a lot of antiques, some things aren’t always what they first appear. Over the years items could have the assay marks re-stamped, making them decades or more older, which in turn greatly affects the price especially when we look at Georgian silver, King George II (1727-1760) and III (1760 – 1820).
Recently we handled an item of silver. On the surface everything was fine, until we dated the piece. Whilst the shape was consistent with that of late Georgian, the assay mark to the base was early Georgian, which in turn led us to question the date of the item. Whilst uncommon, we need to be mindful (and watchful) as pieces can often be repaired using other irreparable parts. So whilst there might not have been anything duplicitous, a later date had to be applied to account for the style of the item and the repair.