Silver hallmarks are small markings stamped onto silverware to certify that a piece is sterling silver, or 92.5 percent silver. The marks also indicate where the object was made and in what year. British silver hallmarks are made up of five parts, each one making it easier to determine its authenticity and value.
Silver Standard Marks
Silver standard marks indicate the purity of the silver. There are four for sterling silver: a standing lion, a rearing lion, a thistle and a harp. Another mark was used for "Britannia' silver," which is 95.8 percent silver. This marking became optional after 1720, but may still be used. The other four marks are required for silver produced in the British Isles if it is to be sold as sterling silver.
City marks indicate the location of the factory that a silver piece came from. Some common ones include a crowned or uncrowned leopard for London, a castle of Exeter, an anchor for Birmingham, a triad of turrets for Newcastle, a harp for Dublin, a tree for Glasgow, a crown for Sheffield and a shield bearing five small lions within a cross for York.
The duty mark was introduced in 1784 to indicate that tax had been paid to the crown on the piece. There were two different marks for King George III, and one each for George IV, William IV and Victoria I, each the profile of the monarch's head, similar to that on the back of a modern coin. This mark ceased to be used in 1890, so silver pieces created after that date won't have one.
The date letter is used to determine the year in which a piece was produced. It's an old mark, introduced as early as 1478 in London. Date letters are rotated in cycles of 20, the font and surrounding shield shape changing with each cycle so no two date letters are ever the same. As they vary by city, it is important to identify the city mark before trying to date a piece.
The maker's mark was first introduced to silver production in 1363 to prevent forgery. Before the 17th century, this mark tended to look like a pictogram, a logo-like picture mark. After 1600, initials began to be used. Maker's marks will be on all but the very oldest sterling silver.
Cecilia Ryan has been writing professionally since 2008. Her work has been printed in "The Frankston Leader Standard" in the arts column regularly, and she hopes to bring the same expertise to eHow. She has a Bachelor of Arts in literature and philosophy from Deakin University.