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The vast majority of English, Scottish and Irish silver produced in the last 500 years is stamped with either 4 or 5 symbols, known as hallmarks. The prime purpose of these marks is to show that the metal of the item upon which they are stamped is of a certain level of purity. The metal is tested and marked at special offices, regulated by the government, known as assay offices. Only metal of the required standard will be marked. It is a form of consumer protection, whose origin goes back almost 1000 years.
There are so many different hallmarks found on British silver that to know all of them would be impossible. Fortunately, with the use of a single reference book, it is possible for even a complete novice to decipher the vast majority.
Although there are many books on the market which can be used to help read hallmarks, the standard book of reference, used by dealers and collectors world wide is Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks. This pocket sized reference contains all of the marks that one is likely to encounter on a regular basis. Armed with this book, the process of reading these marks can be split into the 5 simple steps shown below.
Bradbury's book of hallmarks was last updated in 2014 by the Sheffield Assay office. It can be purchased directly from there or from any major book seller.
There are 5 standard marks found on British Silver
You don’t need to memorise these marks because they are in Bradburys book of hallmarks. Simply flick through the book, looking at the top of the tables of marks to remind yourself if you forget.
If you can't see any of these 5 marks, the chances are that the item is either not British or is silverplated. If you can find one of these marks, then you know that the item is British silver and you can move onto stage 2.
There are many different town marks but the most common ones are listed below...
Note that dublin is unique in using the same mark for the town mark and the standard mark. This mark is only struck once. However, the crowned harp is often seen with another mark called the Hibernia which is similar to the Brittania Silver Mark of a seated lady. This mark is sometimes mistook for the standard mark but it was in fact a special duty mark, used only in Dublin.
Again, you don’t need to memorise these marks, just flick through Bradburys to find them.
The duty mark was only struck in certain years and when found, will take the form of either a King or Queen’s head, depending on who was on the throne at the time. It tells you if duty has been paid. To the collector, the main importance of this mark is that it helps you find the date letter.
The King's head duty mark was first struck in 1784. In that year and the following year, the head faced left and was debossed rather than embossed. This mark has become known as the Incuse Duty Mark. From 1786 to Victoria's reign, the King's head Duty Mark always faces right and is embossed like all other hallmarks. When Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the mark was replaced with the Queen's head duty mark which always faces left. The use of a duty mark was dropped in 1890.
Go to the appropriate section in Bradburys for the given town. Look for a matching date letter with or without the duty mark as needed.
Whilst looking for the date letter, you need to bear in mind that the font, it’s capitalisation and the shape of the background, known as the shield, are varied in each cycle of letters. So, although, only 20 letters are used, it is possible to know exactly which year that particular combination of font, and shield is referring to.
It is also important to note that each town has a different series of letters, starting on a different year. That means that not only is the font and shield different depending on the town, but also the letter.
As an example, the date letter for 1898 in London is a lowercase ‘c’, in Sheffield it is a lowercase 'f' and in Birmingham it is a lowercase ‘y’. The shield and font is different in each case. This is why it is important to find the town mark before you try to find the date letter.
The Maker’s mark was initially a picture, but this practice was superseded by using the first two letters of the maker’s surname and later the initials.
There are simply too many maker's marks for a pocket guide to include, and so to find the maker one needs to refer to a variety of large reference books. Most people would need to rely on the dealer or auction room from which the item was bought to identify the maker.
And that’s it! with those simple steps, you can quite easily decipher the hallmarks on any piece of British silver made in the last 500 years.
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