Silver Fineness Marks
Silver Fineness Hallmarks / Marks Identification
Before getting into Silver Fineness Hallmarks specifics, it’s good to have a grasp on some of the fundamentals of silver and our section on World Silver Hallmark. Silver, like gold, is an elemental metal. This means that pure silver (99.9% or 999 or fine silver) is made up of nothing but silver atoms (represented on the periodic table by the symbol Ag). Other examples of elemental metals include copper, aluminum, platinum, iron and lead.In its pure elemental form (99.99%), silver has a white metallic appearance. It also has a high luster (shiny) but is very very soft (scratches easily).
“Pure” metals, like elemental silver or elemental copper, are distinguished from metal alloys – which are metals made up of two “pure metals”. For example, brass is an alloy that is made up of copper and zinc. To make brass, copper and zinc are melted together. Likewise, one can make various silver alloys by combing silver with other elemental metals.
Silver antiques are never made from near pure silver (99.99% silver known as “fine silver”). The reason is been discussed above: pure Silver is too soft. Silver antiques are always made with one of any number of alloys. The most common silver alloy used in flatware today is “Sterling” silver, which consists of 92.5% silver and 7.5% some other metal (often copper, but sometimes zinc). The majority of Silver antiques in the United States, and most developed nations, is made from “Sterling” (92.5%) or finer silver. But on the other hand, Chinese Export Silver is normally 85% or 90% Silver.
Because different alloys of silver contain different percentages of pure silver, it is important to know what percentage alloy was used to make a piece of Silver object. For several hundred years now, most major silver manufacturing countries use what are known as “fineness marks”, “hallmarks” or a combination of both.
A fineness mark is a mark put on a piece to indicate the percentage of pure silver it contains. There are two common types of fineness marks for silver – word marks and numerical marks. The numerical marks usually represent the number of parts of pure silver out of 1000 contained in a piece of silver. For example, Sterling silver is 92.5% silver or 925 out of 1000 parts silver. This simply means that by weight, the piece is 925 parts silver and 75 parts some other metal. Therefore the “shorthand” mark “925” is used to indicate that something is sterling silver. Other common numerical marks include:
- .950 – Japan, France
- .925 – US, UK, Australia, Mexico
- .900 – all early American silver is .900 or “coin silver”. Even Paul Revere’s work is not “sterling”
- .875 – Soviet Union and the Baltic States
- .830 – Scandinavian countries
- .800 – Germany and France
As mentioned above, fineness can also be indicated by a word. The two most common words encountered for Silver fineness hallmarkings are “Sterling” and “Coin”. Sterling is, as discussed above, 92.5% silver while “Coin” means that the item is 90% silver. The term “coin” is a reference to early coins which were made out of 90% silver. It is very unusual to see the mark “Coin” on pieces made after 1900. Please see our section on Trade Silver Coin for more information on 90% or .900 coin Silver.
|Name||Finesses in ppt||Standard Mark||Conventional Mark|
British Fineness Hallmarks
Lion passant: standard mark for sterling silver from 1544 to 1999 (after 1999 is an optional mark)
The lion rampant was used in Scotland to denote the sterling standard instead of the lion passant: in Glasgow between 1819 and 1964 (year when the Office closed down), and in Edinburgh between 1975 and 1999 when the mark for sterling silver was unified thoroughly the UK. Before 1975 (and since 1759) the sterling mark for silver assayed in Edinburgh was the thistle.
Thistle in use in Scotland instead of the lion passant. Edinburgh from 1759 to 1975
Crowned harp in use in Ireland as standard mark for sterling silver since 1637
Britannia, standard mark for silver fitness of 958,4 ppt (compulsory between 1686 and 172). The Britannia standard was used in London and in some provincial town but never in Ireland, Scotland. Some confusion can arise for silver marked in Ireland where a mark similar to the Britannia (the Hibernia) was in use between 1730 and 1807 as duty mark. After the Union Act of Ireland with England and Scotland and the adoption of the English system for hallmarking, the Hibernia became the symbol of the Dublin Assay Office.
Chinese Export Silver Fineness Mark
As previously mentioned, the marks found on items of Chinese Export Silver are not “hallmarks” or Fineness marks. The small chopped or marks found on items of Chinese Export Silver are not hallmarks. There is actually no assay system in Chinese China hence no official fineness mark. We can only describe these small marking as marker's mark. It represent the firm producing the Silver. Some are in Chinese character while others are in alphabets, while some have both.
Some markers also have a small "chop" or "stamp" with numbers, this is the guarantee that the Silver percentage in each Chinese Export Silver object by individual makers. Not all Chinese Export Silver has this fineness guarantee mark. This is a unique Silver system, where fineness of the Silver is built on trust and reputation of the individual Chinese Export Silver maker. It is also worthwhile to mention that Chinese Export Silver normally has a high Silver purity of around 85% - 90%.
The photo below shows a Chinese Export Silver maker "HM" operating in Shanghai around 1880 to 1910. The 90 is a fineness guarantee mark by the merchant that the object is 90% Silver.
When Silver is not Silver!! Silver Plate and Silver Filled
In addition to real solid silver antiques, there are two common substitutes that use small amounts of silver to mimic the real thing: Silver Plated and Silver Filled antiques.
Silver Plated is NOT real silver. It is brass, copper or other metal pieces that has a very thin layer of silver applied on the surface. There is no calculable value to the amount of silver in silver plated antiques so it should be judged on its aesthetic, artistic and collectible qualities rather than its inherent metal value.
Most silver plated antiques in the marketplace today are electro-plated. Electroplating is a chemical process where a base metal item (e.g. a copper bowl) is placed in an electrolytic solution and connected to the “cathode” end of an electrical circuit (e.g. a large battery). A piece of silver is connected to the “anode” end of the circuit and then placed in the solution apart from the copper piece. Electrical current carries tiny silver “cations” from the silver bar to the surface of the copper piece. With sufficient time, a thin layer of silver forms over the copper piece. Once the process is complete, the copper piece appears to be made from silver.
Silver Plated antiques often does not have any mark on it anywhere that would indicate it was silver plated. Occasionally you will, however, see the following marks:
“SP” – meaning Silver Plate
“Plate” – more common on flatware and table pieces
“EP” – meaning electroplated
“Quadruple Plate” – allegedly meaning the piece went through electrolysis four times
“EPNS” – meaning electroplated nickel silver
An example appears below. Another confusing mark on silver plated pieces is the name of a manufacturer that includes the word “silver” such as “International Silver Co.” or “American Silver Co.”. These names do not mean that the item is silver. Rather if there is no mark indicating purity on the piece (e.g. 925 of “Sterling” or a hallmark), then the piece is almost certainly silver plated.
A Silver Plated Vietnam / Chinese Match Box
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