Everything You Need to Know About Identifying Silver
Our illustrated guide highlights the subtle ways you can discover the origins of any piece of silver.
One of the most common inquiries at antique shows often has to do with authenticity: How do you know whether or not something is made of real silver? Collectors aren't always looking for pure sterling silver, per se, but they should be able to know the value and composition of the pieces they're buying. Most of the time, you can find the information you're looking for by simply taking a closer look at the teaspoon, fish fork, ice cream saw, or cheese scoup that you're eyeing. More often than not, you can find an indented mark (or a series of marks) that can tell you a lot about the item: what it's made of, where it was made, when, and by whom.
The Five Most Popular Silver Varieties
You can find many different kinds of silver in the marketplace today. Some of the oldest American silver is "coin," which contains at least 89.2 percent of silver if it was made between 1792 to 1837, an amount set by the U.S. Mint after the American Revolution-which rose to 90 percent in the years after 1837. Sterling, on the other hand, must be at least 92.5 percent silver. This standard-92.5 parts pure silver to 7.5 parts copper alloy, which strengthens softer silver-was established by the English during the 12th century and later adopted by most of the silver-making world, including the United States in 1868. Many people think of coin as much less valuable than sterling, but it has only about two percent less silver and, in some rare cases, may even contain more. Because of its age and beauty, a piece made from coin can sometimes be worth more than American sterling.
Silver plate is a coating of pure silver on a base metal such as copper or nickel silver (an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc) and was developed later than sterling or coin, but various forms date to the 18th century. Electroplating processes were invented in England in the 1830s and 1840s; this method is still used today. "Hotel" silver is a form of electroplate that was manufactured for use in trains, on ships, in restaurants, and hotels. You can dent a sterling sugar bowl very easily-but a similar piece of hotel silver can be dropped without much harm because the underlying base metal is stronger than its silver exterior.
Certain alloys, referred to as Venetian silver and Nevada silver, consist of nickel and silver. Although they're solid metal rather than plated, they contain less silver than sterling pieces. These lower-grade compounds are less expensive than silver-plated items, but don't polish up as easily.
Common Silver Marks
England's system of hallmarks-a variety of official emblems stamped on silver to illustrate its purity-is one of the oldest and most detailed. Laws dating to the 14th century established strict requirements for marking silver; the first emblem was a crowned lion's head to certify sterling, which are all stamped in a row. If you find a lion on your piece, you'll immediately know that it's come from Britain. Symbols for where it was made include an anchor for Birmingham and a crown for Sheffield (in 1975, it changed to a rose). Another mark is the head of the reigning monarch. And a letter stamp tells you when it was made: Each year is assigned one letter of the alphabet, and a new cycle starts with a different font. Until the 1500s, the symbol for the silversmith was often a plant or an animal suggesting the family name. Today, initials are used.
American marks weren't enforced as systematically and were therefore never as elaborate. Early coin silver was often marked with the maker's name, and nothing else; sometimes it doesn't show even that. Eventually, manufacturers also started using the word "coin." But after the Civil War, silversmiths continued to stamp their own names on the back, along with the word "sterling" or the number 92.5 or 925, all of which indicate sterling quality. Some companies used symbols as a commercial logo. The Gorham company's mark was a row of three emblems: a lion (for sterling), an anchor (for its base in Rhode Island), and a "G" (its initial).
Silver plate has its own codes in the United States and abroad. The maker or company name is usually stamped on the back of the piece along with an indication that it's plated: In America, for instance, these marks are A1, AA, EP, or the full phrases "sterling inlaid", or "silver soldered." According to industry standards, AA has one-third as much silver used in plating as does A1 pieces. It's important to note that seeing the word "sterling" doesn't mean it's automatically a true sterling silver piece.
Most silver experts refer to three different tomes for guideance: Ralph and Terry Kovel's American Silver Marks ($43, amazon.com); Ian Pickford's Antique Collectors' Club ($15 e-text, amazon.com); and Tere Hagan's Silverplated Flatware (starting at $8, amazon.com). These three texts often serve as a good starting point for those who wish to learn more about the history of silver production. While a book can be a great aid, the best tool for anyone looking for silver is a compact jeweler's loupe, which is a small magnification device that you can use to inspect miniscule details.
The images below will help guide you through the most common silver marks you'll find-and how to decipher each of them.
American Solid Silver
Early U.S. silver is often simply marked "coin," which is pictured below.
"S. Brown" manufactured this sterling piece, as indicated by the stamp, but the hallmarks that follow are actually bogus, as they imitate the English system because of its cachet in the marketplace.
On a spoon handle marked with the maker Crosby, Honnewell, and Morse is the number 925-which is a code for sterling.
Nonsterling American Marks
A wide range of symbols were used by U.S. manufacturers to designate silver plating and solid lower-grade alloys in the marketplace.
A1 and AA: These discreet markings indicate the number of ounces of pure silver used in the plating. There's two ounces per gross of teaspoons for A1, and three ounces for AA.
EPNS: Electroplated nickel silver, commonly known as "EPNS", is an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc that's covered with a layer of pure silver in an electrochemical process. Nickel's resemblance to silver helps disguise any worn spots that develop over time.
Venetian Silver: This flatware is made of a blend of silver and base metals is solid, not plated, but has a much lower silver content than either sterling or coin.
Treble Plate: This stamp means that three layers of silver plating were applied to a base metal during manufacturing.
Hotel: A few big companies, such as Oneida, produced large orders of silver plate for hotels in the 19th century.
Silver Soldered: This is another way of signifying that the piece is silver-plated.
Sterling Inlaid: Advertising itself as sterling, this mark for a silver plate piece can be deceptive and misleading.
Experts at Sotheby's auction house report that markings vary by country-and submissions from potential auctioneers require considerable research just to determine whether a piece is sterling. We're sharing a few examples of confounding silver marks from across the globe below.
Early Asian sterling is marked with Asian characters. This sterling spoon from the former British colony of Hong Kong, however, is obviously geared toward English speakers.
This piece from Warsaw, Poland proclaims its origin-but says nothing about its silver content.
On the right, the slash marks on the back of this spoon identify the piece as German, and another clue is the shield with the eagle.
On the other hand, 90 is a standard marking for silver plate, and this is located on the bottom of the spoon's handle.
The number 800 (bottom) is a common notation for silver in Russia. The one pictured, however, is a German .800 silver mark, depicting a crown and crescent moon along with the maker's mark of WTB-for manufacturer Wilhelm Binder.
This sterling spoon bears the hallmarks for Scotland, which is the thistle, and for Edinburgh, marked using the castle, as well as the profile of George III.
The information in these Italian examples is hard to decipher: IAB is a signifier for pure sterling, although not all Italian sterling carries that mark.
French silver almost always has marks placed on the top of the piece because tables are set with bowls of spoons and tines of forks facing downward.
These straightforward marks on this piece of Danish silver identify that it's sterling, it was made in Copenhagen, and the silversmith, H. Nils.