Whether you wish to collect vintage silver flatware or estimate the worth of pieces you already own, learning to recognize manufacturers' hallmarks will help you grade flatware by its silver content. The most valuable and desirable flatware is usually sterling silver, which comprises 925 parts silver per thousand -- in other words, it’s 92.5 percent pure. English or Britannia silver contains a minimum of 958 parts per thousand, while European continental silver contains only 800 parts per thousand. Hallmarks that indicate silver content normally appear on the back of flatware, and may be difficult to interpret without a magnifying glass.
Things You'll Need
- Magnifying glass
Look for the word “sterling" and its variants. Sterling silver flatware made in America after 1860 is stamped “sterling.” However, the U.S. government didn’t forbid the use of "sterling" on other metals until 1905, so this hallmark isn’t definitive unless you can identify the source. Canadian and Australian manufacturers also tend to use the word “sterling” or abbreviations like “Stg Sil” or “SS.”
Look for a number that indicates silver content. Sterling silver may be marked with 925, 925/1000 or a similar number. Flatware stamped with 800 (or a similar number) is European continental. Low digits such as 0, 1 and 2 may indicate silver purity; the lowest number will usually be sterling. Two-digit numbers like 10 and 20 may indicate the thickness of silver plating.
Look for a stamped image. On British silver flatware, a walking lion indicates sterling. Scottish sterling shows a rearing lion or a thistle. Irish sterling shows a harp. Britannia silver is stamped with a female figure representing Britannia. Switzerland also uses animal hallmarks; a duck indicates sterling silver, while a grouse indicates European continental silver.
Look for any other identifying marks. Write them down and look them up in an online database, along with any unidentified images noted in Step 3.
Tips & Warnings
- Silver flatware that lacks any of the markings described here is probably silver plate. This means that it consists of a relatively inexpensive metal alloy coated with a thin layer of silver. It may still be valuable depending on its age, design and source. When in doubt, take unidentified vintage flatware to a professional appraiser.
- The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything; Amy D. Bernstein and Peter W. Bernstein
- Oxford Dictionaries: Britannia Silver
- Silver Gallery: History of Sterling Silver
- Specialty Appraisals: Elementary Tips About Antique Silver and International Hallmarks
- Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers' Marks: World Hallmarks
- Arch Metal Refining: Is There an Easy Way to Tell What Grade a Silver Item Is?
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images