Marks on precious metals have been regulated by law since ancient times. From pharaohs, Roman emperors and continuing today, fineness, or standard marks, have been used to guarantee minimum amounts of precious metal in relation to non-precious metal.
At least that's the theory. But while most governments strictly monitor standard marks, very few regulate marks not related to the content of precious metals. It is perfectly legal, for example, to stamp silver with trademarks or brand names of companies no longer in business or whose trademark is no longer registered. A new piece marked Unger Bros.– a 19th century firm known for quality silver – and 925 is legal as long as the silver content tests at 925.
This presents obvious problems for those interested in antique and collectible silver and silver plate. This article will review some of the most common new and confusing marks appearing on 925/1000 silver and silver plate. Almost all the pieces we'll be discussing are made for the antique reproduction trade. The article will not include elaborate forgeries of museum quality silver made before 1850 or silver of other standards. We will focus on the marks found on reproductions of small decorative and novelty pieces such as match safes, sewing accessories, pill boxes, chatelaines, thimbles and similar wares.
In America, articles marked sterling must contain a minimum of 925 parts silver for every 1000 parts of material. Expressed another way, items must be 92.5 percent silver and no more than 7.5 percent base metal. This ratio is called the "sterling standard" and has been used in the US since the mid-1860s. The numeric 925 is the millesimal expression of the 925/1000 standard.
By far the vast majority of qualifying items made in the US ca. 1860 to 1970–especially items made before 1940–are marked sterling or sterling silver. Many vintage marks, but far from all, include the name of the manufacturer. Very rarely are qualifying pieces of American silver from those years marked only 925. Rarer still, are American marks which include sterling and 925 together without a company name.
This doesn't mean all pieces marked sterling or sterling silver old. But it is a general rule that virtually all pieces marked 925 or sterling 925 are modern.
The globalization of commerce has prompted nations to use the same units of weight, measure and standards to increase trade. In 1973, the European Community (EC) agreed to recognize 925/1000 as the official sterling silver standard and 925 as the official standard mark. Since then, almost all silver of that quality sold among EC member countries has the 925 standard mark. New silver marked 925 is also acceptable in the US because that is also the US standard.
In fact the vast majority of mass produced silver reproductions today, whether made in Thailand, India, England, Europe or America, now include 925 in the mark. With the 925 standard mark, a piece of silver can virtually be sold world wide with the same mark.
The use of 925, however, does not preclude the use of sterling. Since 1999, more and more reproductions are including both 925 and sterling. A piece with both marks meets the requirements of both the EC and US, two huge markets.
A typical English hallmark ca. 1890-1999, generally has four symbols and may have five. These symbols may be placed in any order. They include:
1) symbol for the town in which the silver content was certified, called an assay or town mark;
2) symbol for the year of manufacture called the date letter;
3) symbol representing the silversmith or factory which made the object, called maker's mark or sponsors mark;
4) symbol for the standard mark guaranteeing the silver content. The English silver standard is also 925/1000. It has been represented by the lion passant (looking ahead) since 1875.
5) optional profile of the current king or queen.
Typical pre-1975 British hallmark. From left to right: maker's mark =symbol of silversmith or company; assay mark=symbol of the city in which silver content was tested, leopard head shown is London; standard mark=lion passant (looking forward) certified that silver content was 925/1000. A fifth mark, not shown, is a profile of the ruling king or queen.
A typical hallmark on silver made in England for either export or sale in England. The control mark, a set of scales, was adopted in 1976. The scales mark certifies the acceptance of a 1976 treaty in which nations agreed to recognize each others hallmarks. Pieces with this mark can be exported from England to any country which has signed the same treaty. The standard mark can now be expressed numerically, or millesimally, as 925. The lion passant is no longer required but may be used in addition to the numeric mark. Pieces for sale in England, as well as for export, must also have an English assay mark.
Beginning in 1999, neither date marks nor the lion passant were required on silver made and sold in England. Date marks are now optional; the standard mark was replaced by 925. Pieces for export must include the 1976 convention hallmark, a scale.
Typical hallmarks on silver which may be freely traded among all nations agreeing to or signing the 1976 convention, or treaty, regulating hallmarks. These marks are accepted in Europe, England and the United States.
To stay competitive with the EC nations, England has recently made several important changes to its hallmarking laws. The most significant change has been dropping the mandatory use of the passant lion as a standard mark. Beginning in 1999, England agreed the millesimal expression of the standard mark, 925, would be accepted. Mandatory use of the date letter was also dropped in 1999. Date letters are now optional in British hallmarks.
England has also agreed to accept standard marks on silver imported into England from any nation that signs a 1976 treaty, or convention, guaranteeing strict testing of silver content. These so-called convention hallmarks consist of a registered maker's mark and either two or three other marks: a control mark, a standard mark and, if the piece was made in England, an assay mark.
The control symbol used in convention hallmarks since 1976 is always a scale. The millesimal, or numeric expression of the standard, 925, must appear in the middle of the scale. Although the standard is expressed in the control mark, a separate stand-alone standard mark is still required. The separate standard mark may appear as 925 only or 925 enclosed in a simple shape such as an oval, square or circle.
If a piece was made in a foreign country for import into England, it would include a maker's mark, control mark and standard mark. But if a piece was made in England for sale at home it would require a fourth mark, a British assay mark.
These changes may sound confusing at first, but are of great benefit. It gives the collector and dealer who understands them, specific permanent marks to establish firm dates of production.
Although you can catch many reproductions simply by understanding laws that regulate marks, that assumes the marks themselves are honestly applied. Forgeries attempting to copy genuinely old marks, are somewhat harder to detect. The difficulty in detecting such marks is generally related to the skill and knowledge of the forger.
The silver marks most widely forged marks are generally those which have the potential for the greatest increase in value. The Tiffany and Unger Bros. forgeries shown in this article are typical of two frequently targeted high-value names.
The best way to catch these carefully prepared forgeries is a side-by-side comparison. Compare the mark of a suspected piece to genuine marks in reference books or known originals in your own collection. As a general rule, for example, marks on Tiffany silver include an order number and a pattern number. The forged Tiffany mark in Fig. 24 has neither an order number nor a pattern number.
You can also catch many forgeries by knowing how original marks were applied. Almost all marks on almost all antique and collectible silver and silver plate, were applied with stamps. Unique, individual or custom marks–such as serial numbers, order numbers, artists marks, hallmarks, etc.–were generally made with hand-struck punches, each punch bearing a single letter, numeral or symbol.
Larger marks with several lines or large symbols, could be struck by hand or a machine press. Most marks on silver plate, regardless of the size of the mark, were mostly struck by machine presses because the base metal was heavier and stronger than solid silver. Complex marks, like the Tiffany example previously discussed, may include both standard company marks found on all pieces, as well as unique marks for individual pieces such as an order number, pattern number, date letter and others.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it was. It also involved a great deal of highly specialized equipment. Fortunately, most forgers don't have the time or the money to duplicate original vintage marks so they take shortcuts.
The most common shortcut is to cast, or mold, a mark rather than stamp marks. If you make a single mold with an old appearing mark, every piece made in the mold will carry that mark. That process saves both the time it would take to stamp a mark on each new piece as well as the expense of the stamps and other necessary equipment.
Some of the most common cast forgeries of old marks in the market today are found on figural napkin rings. Cast, or molded, marks almost always lack the detail found in stamped marks. Cast marks tend to be shallow with ragged or blurred edges and uneven in depth of impression. Original stamped marks are just the opposite: clean sharp edges with an almost perfectly uniform depth of impression. Several examples of new molded marks are shown next to the original stamped marks in Figs. 11-12 and Figs. 35-36.
At the current time, faked cast marks are more commonly found on new silver plate than silver. Pieces of silver with fake marks tend to be found on simply shaped objects easily cast as a single piece. These include thimbles, brooches, tussie-mussies, charms, needle cases and other similar pieces.
The biggest danger in detecting new molded marks is to stop your examination after you have matched a suspected mark to marks in a reference book. Molds made from originals produce copies with original appearing marks. You must examine how marks are made as well as how the mark reads. This is especially important if your original mark is a line drawing and not a photograph.
As a practical matter, it is almost impossible to remember all the names, forms and variations of silver marks. General line dealers and casual collectors can probably avoid most mass produced silver fakes in today's market by following the guidelines on page 16. These short tips highlight the basic differences in how new and old marks are created and applied.
On this and following pages are examples of marks frequently seen on new silver. Most of these marks contain obvious features such as size, lack of detail, a convention mark, or the 925 standard mark, that will help you easily identify pieces as new.
Keep in mind genuine marks on 19th and early 20th century silver and silver plate vary considerably in appearance and new marks frequently change.