Silver hallmarks are important factors in identifying antique silver jewelry, flatware, and other items. These small stamped symbols on the back or underside of silver items can tell you the purity of the silver, the manufacturer of the piece, and sometimes even the date it was made.
Understanding how to read silver hallmarks is an important skill for any antiques enthusiast. Fortunately, you don't have to be a super sleuth to decode these markings. Silver hallmark identification comes down to a few simple tricks anyone can learn.
How to Find and Identify Silver Hallmarks on Different Pieces
With almost any silver or silverplate item, you'll notice tiny stamped marks somewhere on the piece. These can take the form of pictures, words, names, letters, or numbers. Silver hallmarks appear in various places, depending on what type of silver item you have. It may help to have a magnifying glass and some silver polish handy.
Can't see the mark? Use a cotton swab to gently polish the area near the mark. This will create a contrast between the recessed area of the stamp (which will still be tarnished) and the surrounding metal. Use a magnifying glass if you can't make out the details.
Find Silver Hallmarks on Jewelry
The placement of silver marks depends on the piece of jewelry you're dealing with. In general, you can find silver hallmarks in unobtrusive spots on your jewelry.
- For pendants, pins, and other large, flat jewelry items, turn the piece over. You should see a tiny stamp on the back of the item.
- For rings and cuff bracelets, look inside the item. The hallmark should be stamped somewhere on the interior surface.
- For necklaces and other items with silver chains, check for a stamp some place near the clasp. Sometimes, this will be on a small metal tag.
If you're dealing with a tiny piece of jewelry and can't find the mark, give the whole thing a quick polish. Don't dip it, though. You need the contrast between the silver hallmark and the surrounding metal to make it easier to see.
Find Silver Hallmarks on Flatware
Silverplate and sterling silver flatware is always marked, but the location of the mark depends on the item.
- Spoons will feature a hallmark on the back of the handle, usually just below the bowl.
- Forks will have a silver hallmark near the shoulders or wider portion.
- Knives and some serving pieces may be stamped on the ferrule, or collar, that surrounds the handle.
Find Silver Hallmarks on Dishes and Other Large Pieces
Large pieces, like bowls, dresser sets, and trays, also feature hallmarks. These tips can help you find them.
- Items like bowls, trays, silver teapots, and other dishes should feature a hallmark on the bottom of the piece.
- Candlesticks, vases, figurines, and other decorative pieces should have a stamp on the bottom as well.
- Personal care items like hairbrushes, mirrors, and other dresser set components will be stamped on the underside or on the handle.
A quick hack for finding a hallmark on a silver item is to look in all the spots that aren't easily visible when the piece is in use. Think behind, underneath, or even inside a piece.
Understand Silver Hallmarks to Identify Sterling and Silverplate
There's a lot you can learn when you identify silver hallmarks, but one of the most important details they offer is the metal content of an item.
To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to tell the difference between sterling silver and silverplate just by looking (it's even hard for people who are experts if they can't see the marks). Telling the difference between these two materials is important when determining the value of antique silver, and silver marks hold the key.
Silver Hallmark Identification Chart
This handy chart will help you identify silver markings and their meanings. You can print a copy to keep in your bag when antique shopping or simply save it for reference on your phone.
Common Sterling Silver Hallmarks
Because silver is such a soft metal, manufacturers almost never used it alone. Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals like copper and nickel. For centuries, silversmiths have had a legal responsibility to stamp their wares to identify it as sterling silver. The stamps or hallmarks they used have varied with the location, time, and manufacturer. These are some of the most common.
- "Sterling silver"
- "92.5% pure"
- Lion passant, or a lion with one paw raised, for sterling made in England
- Thistle mark, for sterling made in Scotland
- Crowned harp, for sterling made in Ireland
Common Silverplate Hallmarks
Some items are silver-plated, which means they are crafted from a base metal and then covered in a thin layer of pure silver. Silver-plated items aren't always marked. In fact, if a piece isn't marked to indicate the metal content, it is probably silverplate. However, there are a few common silverplate marks you might encounter.
- "EPNS" (for electro-plated nickel silver)
- "EPBM" (for electro-plated Britannia metal)
- "EP" (for electro-plated)
- "BP" (for Britannia plate)
Other Silver Hallmarks for Metal Content
There are a few other hallmarks you may encounter that indicate the metal content of a piece.
- "Nickel silver" and "German silver" indicate items that aren't made of silver at all, but are silver in color.
- The Britannia mark, or a figure with staff and shield, indicates 958/1000 parts silver. This is slightly purer than sterling silver.
- "Coin" or "coin silver" indicates an item that is 90% silver or 900/1000 parts silver.
Match Silver Maker's Marks to Manufacturers
In many, but not all cases, silver manufacturers stamped their wares with maker's marks. These antique silverware markings are important for identifying a pattern or finding the official name or value of a specific piece. Each maker's mark is unique, and manufacturers changed their marks over time.
There are thousands of different maker's marks on silver, but don't get overwhelmed. These tips can help you understand the markings on your piece.
- Start by identifying the markings on the silver as much as possible. Make a note of the letters, shapes, symbols, or names you see in the hallmark.
- Compare your piece to marks found in the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, & Maker's Marks or Silver Hallmarks and Marks. Both sites offer photographs and extensive information about specific manufacturers of silverplate and sterling silver.
- It's important to note that many manufacturers made both sterling and silver-plated items.
- A single silver company could have used many different variations throughout the years, which means you can also use these marks to help date the piece.
Date Antique Silver Using Marks
Silver hallmark identification can actually help you figure out when a piece was made. One way to do this is to look at the company's history of hallmarks and determine when they used a specific mark.
A simple clue, though, involves the patent date. Many pieces also feature a patent date stamp next to the maker's mark and silver content mark. The patent date does not indicate the date the piece was made. Manufacturers would often patent designs for jewelry, flatware, and other items, and then continue to produce those patterns or pieces for decades. However, the patent date does give you a starting place for estimating the age of your item.
You will see patent dates indicated in several different ways, including the following.
- "Patent" followed by a year
- "Pat." followed by a year
- "Patent applied for" followed by a year
Get Important Clues From Silver Markings and Their Meanings
Silver hallmarks are some of the most important antique identification marks you can study. They provide information about the value, age, silver content, and history of your silver pieces. Once you get the basics down, it's fun to decode what they tell you about your antiques. Learning how to decipher the clues in these marks allows you to really understand the details of your treasure.