To novice collectors, the world of antique sterling silver may seem to have a language of its own. If a piece is genuine sterling, it will be marked with a series of letters, numbers and symbols — all of which have their origins in a marking system created in the 14th century. By turning the piece over and looking for these numbers and symbols, you can identify whether or not a piece is sterling silver, who made it, and when and where it was made. While these symbols may seem confusing, anyone with an interest in old silver can learn to decipher them.
Identifying sterling silver hallmarks
Look for the standard of purity mark, known as the "assayer's mark." In sterling silver, the ratio of pure silver to other binding metals is 925 parts to 1,000, so sterling from America and Great Britain is usually marked “925." Before 1831, British sterling was also marked with the "lion passant guardant" — a lion walking towards the left but turned full face. Since 1831, this stamp has shown the lion’s face in profile.
Look for an alphabetical letter which will identify the date of manufacture. In sterling from Great Britain, different fonts, letter sizes and backgrounds will correspond to the date an item was made.
Look for a maker's mark and a city mark. The maker's mark may consist of an initial, or an entire name spelled out. Pieces from Great Britain are also marked with a symbol indicating the city of manufacture; for instance, an anchor represents Birmingham, and a castle represents Edinburgh.
Determine if the piece was made in America. American silversmiths did not use the British system, but many of the more prominent silver manufacturers developed their own system of marks. Today's collectors sometimes need to employ other methods, such as studying old catalogs, in order to date vintage pieces by American companies such as Tiffany and Gorham.
Look for books and Internet resources with photos identifying hallmarks. Seeing drawings and photographs of various hallmark stamps is a sure way to train your eye to recognize these marks when you see them. Books such as "The Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers" by Dorothy Rainwater are invaluable in identifying hallmarks and makers.
Be aware that Mexican sterling sometimes does not have the 925 mark, but is stamped "Mexico" and "Sterling" or "Silver." Some Mexican pieces are marked "970" or "980," indicating a higher silver content.
If the piece is tarnished and needs cleaning, be aware that some types of polishes can ruin the patina, which is the original surface highly prized by collectors. If cleaning is necessary to read the hallmark, it’s safest to use a jeweler’s cloth and rub gently only along the very small section of the underside where the marks are. Leave any heavier cleaning or repairs to the experts, especially if the piece is particularly old.