Common Types of Household Silver
As a precious metal and potential family heirloom, your silver deserves special kid-glove treatment.
There is nothing like the pure, lustrous beauty of silver silver cutlery and serving dishes for a special meal, a silver tea set or ornaments on the mantelpiece. Whether you inherited family silver or buy your own, have just one piece or an impressive collection, it’s important to understand the different types of silver and how to maintain their appearance and value. For silver care products see this page.
Pure silver is too soft for use, so it is combined, or alloyed, with copper, which hardens the silver and improves its working qualities.
Common Types of Household Silver
The most expensive, this is an alloy of 92 percent silver and 7.5 per cent copper.
A technique invented in the eighteenth century and cheaper than sterling. Two thin outer sheets of silver and an inner sheet of copper are fused by being rolled together under very high temperatures.
A technique invented in the nineteenth century and cheaper still. A base metal, usually nickel alloy or a form of pewter called Britannia metal is coated with silver by electrolysis. Electrotype (electroform) is a variation, in which a mold is made from the object to be copied, then coated with copper and, finally, with silver.
English sterling usually has four small marks stamped on it. From these, you can tell the purity of the silver and the place where its quality was tested or assayed, the date and maker of the piece. You can buy a dictionary of marks, and museums and auction houses can help you to identify the origins of the silver.
Common Silver Marks
Hallmark (town mark):
This indicates the location of the Assay office. Formerly many cities including York, Glasgow and Exeter had their own assay marks. Today there are four Assay offices in the United Kingdom: a leopard’s head indicates that the silver was assayed in London; an anchor, in Birmingham; a rose, in Sheffield; and a castle, in Edinburgh. The figure of Hibernia seated is the Dublin hallmark for all Irish silver.
Annual mark (date letter):
Sequential letters of the alphabet indicate the year of assay, and change each year on January 1. Twenty-one letters of the alphabet are used, I and J, and V and U, being treated as one, with X, Y and Z omitted. When the final letter is reached, the cycle begins again, with a different letter design or shape of the surrounding shield.
Originally a sign or symbol, sometimes repeating the shop sign, this was the mark of the silversmith. It is now shown by his or her initials in a shield.
This is the guarantee of the sterling quality, which originated at the London Assay office, and is important because no-one can tell the amount of silver an object contains simply by looking at it. In England a lion passant (with right fore paw raised) indicates sterling; in Ireland, a harp crowned and in Scotland, a lion rampant.
In the history of English silver, other marks occasionally appeared: the Sovereign’s head, from 1784-1890, for example, and the head of Queen Elizabeth II to mark her accession to the throne in 1953.
Although hallmarking outside Europe is not widely practiced nineteenth century pieces from Australia and South Africa sometime have hallmarks.
Sheffield plate has no date letters, hallmarks or assay marks. It originally just had the maker’s initials. These were later combined with an emblem of the manufacturer’s name and, until 1896, an optional crown indicating quality. Today, only the emblem is used. EPNS’ stamped on silver stands of electroplated nickel silver.
Although reduced by legislation in recent years, airborne pollution, sulphur compounds released by industrial chimneys, and by open fireplaces and burning gas and candles indoors, causes silver to tarnish rapidly. As it tarnishes, silver turns dull and then slightly yellow, and finally becomes shot through with dark grey veins which turn the whole surface gunmetal grey.