Silver and Plate - Part 1

Silver is a so-called 'noble' metal, both its appearance and its uses have earned it this title. It has been employed for many centuries for coinage, jewellery and for making useful and ornamental articles. The pure metal is too soft to withstand normal wear and tear, and therefore it has to be mixed with small proportions of others to make an alloy strong enough to retain its shape and thickness. Without complicated tests it is not possible to tell just how much actual silver is contained in any given quantity of the alloy, and a clear field is left for fraud. To safeguard the purchaser a system of testing and marking, known as 'Hall-marking' because it was first carried out at Goldsmith's Hall in London, was instituted as long ago as the year 1300.

From then onwards a number of statutes directed that silverware should be marked with a lion passant to denote it was up to sterling standard, then with a further mark indicating the maker; and another, a letter of the alphabet, standing for the year in which the marking was done. Additional modifications included a figure of Britannia stamped on pieces with a higher percentage of pure silver than the normal; a mark showing the town where the assay was made: a leopard's head for London, an anchor for Birmingham, a crown for Sheffield, etc.; and the head of the sovereign from 1784 until 1890 denoting that Excise Duty on the article had been paid. The marks can be checked against published tables which are obtainable easily, and from them can be learned the exact year in which a piece was marked. It is also possible in most instances to trace the name of the maker. Although silver is valued by weight it is offered for sale usually by the piece, and the more an article is in demand the higher is the price per ounce. It should be remembered that silversmiths use Troy weight:

  • 1 pound = 12 ounces
  • 1 ounce = 20 pennyweights (dwts.)
  • 1 dwt. = 24 grains

Pieces of old silver often have the weight engraved on the underside. The same weights are used for gold, and the quality of the metal is given in carats; which refer to the proportion of pure gold present out of a total of twenty- four parts. Thus, the expression 18-carat gold means that a piece is made from metal composed of eighteen parts of pure gold with six of alloy; 9-carat has nine parts of gold and fifteen of alloy, and so forth.

There are severe penalties for forging marks and for selling unmarked or false silver, but occasional fakes are found. In the nineteenth century it was fashionable to take plain pieces of earlier period and ornament them with embossing and engraving. This work was sometimes accompanied by a 'slight' alteration to the piece; for instance, tankards were turned into jugs by the addition of a spout, and chamber-pots into loving-cups by soldering on an extra handle. Embellishments and alterations of these kinds affect both the appearance and the value of a piece, and it is as well for the beginner to be suspicious of anything offered at a bargain price. As with other antiques of value, a reputable dealer who understands his goods will guide the purchaser soundly.

Spoon Marks
Examples of marks on a spoon, 1783

Collectable Antiques: