Since ancient times, silver has been admired as one of the most captivating and beautiful materials used to make decorative objects and jewelry. Silver offers an incomparable look, and has been offered in the form of gifts since 3100 BC, when envoys from Crete offered vases to the Egyptians. Silver coins were so valued, that the Romans placed one or more under the mast or in the keel of a ship for good luck. In 1300, King Edward I of England, standardized silver by declaring sterling must be 925 parts/1000, and created a system of assaying by guildsmen.
Sterling silver has been enjoyed for personal adornment through the ages. It is easy to wear, strong, and can be made into endless designs and styles.
While nearly everyone recognizes sterling silver 925, both vintage and antique jewelry employs a variety of assays, or "responsibility marks," which gives us clues as to where and when each piece might have originated.
What is an assay?
It is a guarantee of purity, usually stated in parts per thousand. (One exception to this sytem is the Russian "zolotnik"). This means if a piece of jewelry (or a silver object) is marked 830, that there are 830 parts of silver, with 170 parts an alloy. Alloy metals are used for strengthening, or offering other desirable qualities like tarnish resistance, or less porosity when silver is cast in a mold. Common alloys are copper, germanium, zinc, and platinum. Fine silver, or 999 silver, is very soft and not as durable, though occasionally, one might see a piece marked .999.
Below is a vintage snake infinity bracelet of .999 fine silver. It is soft and supple as a result of being made of solid silver with the remaining .001 coming from impurities. .999 silver is also used to make bullion bars for international commodities trade and investments.
What is a Hallmark?
In Medieval times, hallmarks were used by guilds of craftsmen authorized by local governments, and were stamped within the “hall” of the guild. They were a guarantee that the piece, made of noble metal (silver or gold) was the purity stated.
Today, the word hallmark is used more generally to refer to the purity and / or the origin of the piece. Hallmarks are often confused with trademarks, or maker’s marks. Strictly speaking, a hallmark is made by an independent body certifying authenticity and origin.
Each country has its own hallmarking system, some quite simple (the US), and others more complex, like the UK. Marks in the UK include the city where the hallmark originated, a mark for purity, whether sterling or Britannia silver (95.83% silver), and a date mark (a stylized letter). On very early pieces, there might be a duty mark (1784-1890). Maker’s marks, or trademarks, can also be found on pieces.
A great site for learning about silver marking systems around the world is 925/1000.com.
Prized silver jewelry made in Mexico can be circa dated according to the marks found. 980 silver, for example, is somewhat brighter than 925 sterling, and was generally used from the mid 1930’s to the mid 1940’s. 970 silver is often associated with the Mexican artisan, Antonio Pineda.
Below is an example of a Mexican silver bracelet, marked for sterling as well as the City of Taxco, and the maker’s initials. The style suggests, c. 1940’s to 1960’s:
Early Mexican silver marks were usually simple, and only included the words "SILVER" or "STERLING." The city of manufacture, such as Mexico City, Taxco, or Guadalajara, was always included. In the late 1940's, a new Mexican marking system was introduced. Artisans were assigned an "eagle number," sometimes referring to a city of origin (#3 was for Taxco). The shape and style of the eagle stamp gives clues to the years of manufacture. Marks might also include a circle stamp: Taxco Mexico, along with a purity mark (925), and the maker's initials. Mexico's system was somewhat complex, and not strictly followed.
A well-researched resource is Bille Hougart's The Little Book of Mexican Silver Trade and Hallmarks.
What is coin silver? Usually defined as an alloy of 90% silver and 10% other metals, once used as the standard for US currency. Before being standardized c. 1906, coin silver could vary by quite a bit-- from .750 to .900. Early Navajo jewelry used coin silver, and so can be circa dated accordingly.
What is Alpaca, Nickel, or German silver? Despite the word “silver,” this only refers to the color, and not the metal. There is no silver in Alpaca silver, nickel silver, or German silver (usually composed of nickel, zinc, and copper).
When trying to research the history of jewelry you may own, always examine the marks, often found on the interior, back, or bottom of the piece. Some more delicate pieces, like twist wire bracelets, may have no available space where a stamp or placque can be placed. Antique rings may have been resized, and had their hallmarks removed as result. In the case of French guarantee marks, you will need a loupe or magnifier to be able to see the often very tiny marks.
In 1906, the United States put into law the National Gold and Silver Marking Act (updated since). With this standardization, it is only required that, IF a piece is marked "STERLING" it is accompanied by a maker's trademark, as an assurance of purity. The absence of 925 or sterling does not mean that it isn't sterling-- it simply means that the maker has not applied for, and been granted, a trademark (sometimes too costly for small shops). It is illegal to falsely mark a piece 925.
I hope this clarifies some of the mysteries surrounding silver hallmarks and trademarks. It is a large and wonderful subject to explore, and will help tell some of the stories behind your personal treasures.
The above vintage Mexican sterling Aztec bracelet is available on our website:
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