Vintage view:

Kya deLongchamps says hallmarks struck into silver are no surer fingerprint on an antique.

Vintage view:

There’s no surer fingerprint on an antique than an authentic set of Hallmarks struck into silver. Dealers and collectors relish that face-pinching wink through a loupe followed by a ruffle into the pages of a Hallmark guide to pin down the history of a spoon or tankard to the very year and workshop in which the piece was made. It’s charming to note that the marking year doesn’t start on January 1, but on May 19, the Christian feast day of Saint Dunstan, patron saint of gold- and silversmiths.

Marks were introduced in the 14th century by King Edward I of England, in an effort to regularise the exchange of a valuable commodity. Silver is a very soft metal and must be combined with copper to make it strong enough for the slings and arrows of everyday use. What had to be standardised was the amount of copper included in the silver, and this was agree upon as 7.5% copper to 92.5% silver. The ‘Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’, now known as the Goldsmiths Company, was granted the charter to the work and its headquarters at Goldsmiths Hall earned the marks the title of Hallmarks.

A leopard’s head termed the Silver Standard Mark (London) was punched into the body of a tested piece, and when joined by a Maker’s Mark (from 1363) and a date stamp (from 1478), it allowed the silver to be very closely traced to its place and time of production. The date mark is a letter enclosed by a shield, and is unique to each Assay office. In 1544 a King’s Mark of a lion ‘passant’ was added as the crown controlled the assay office and was later replaced during the Restoration as the Britannia mark in 1697.

Any silver that had been melted down during the English Civil War had to be assayed again to ensure its fineness and purity, and that is still the true today. If a piece of silver is altered or found to be unmarked, it must be sent to the Assay Office to be examined and marked with the current hallmarks. By the 17th century, the London Assay office had been joined by Exeter, Newcastle, Birmingham and Sheffield — all with distinct Assay Marks. From 1720-1890, a Duty Mark was introduced, to show that the holder of the silver had paid duty on the silver at time of assay (needed to fight the American War of Independence). You can find this mark on all English silver until 1890 when the duty mark was abolished. Scotland had its own hallmarks from as early as 1485, so what about Irish silver?

Well as we were under British rule, we adopted the crowned harp for our mark from Dublin Assay Office of the Goldsmiths Company from 1636, with the figure of Hibernia added in 1731. Provincial makers in Cork and Limerick were understandable unenthusiastic at the prospect of carting their treasures through villain riddled forests to Dublin for assay. Until as late as 1784, when the law tightened, many gold and silversmiths would simply add marks their customers were happy with. Irish silver is highly sought after and you can find all the Dublin date letters, maker’s marks and provincial Irish maker’s marks at the link I’ve give at the end of this feature. Marks were placed discreetly on silver unless they were so heavily decorated and so monumental that their tiny presence would go unnoticed. They can and very often are missed on pieces ratting around in the family for years. The marks can be rubbed from cleaning and use, so seek specialist advice if you’re unable to confidently read the marks off. The position of the mark on a particular piece is important too, and will be detailed in a good guide on period silver, helping to ensure the item is authentic to the date and not mucked about by forgery.

If a mark seems incomplete, or the item has a mark you cannot find, it’s most probably a piece of silver-plate or assayed in a foreign country.

To read a set of silver marks

* Look for the Silver Standard Mark

* Look for the City Mark

* Note the Date Letter for that City Mark

* See if there’s a Duty Mark (1720-1890)

* Note the Maker’s Mark (when you follow the City Mark you will find more information on the Maker in a book or online guide)

You can find a free online encyclopaedia of Hallmarks including Ireland at www.925-1000.com/british_marks.html.

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