Silver has been used for thousands of years. Dating pieces can prove challenging as markings were not always used. Antique silver is generally thought of to be prior to 1899, but determining if the piece should be labeled as antique is up to each individual dealer and their educated opinion. It also depends on what part of the world you are in. However, the actual antique silver markings, not the relative age, are what determines the value.
The Oldest Marks Known
The first antique silver markings were established in London, England around 1300. There was a boom in silver production and crafting technology in 1000-1500 AD. As a result of the subsequent high demand, there were several silversmiths who began cutting corners. Their sub-standard work ethic meant they were adding more and more base metals, lowering the purity of silver and still charging the same amount. This angered the reputable craftsman and they decided to do something about it.
As a result, Master Goldsmiths began to design a mark that would denote their unique and honest work. It wasn’t until later on that their initials were used. This is known as the maker’s mark and became official in 1363. Shortly after this trend became implemented as standard policy, another mark was added to maintain identification in 1478. This was the date stamp. Many pieces indicate the date from a single letter to denote the year it was made. The style of the letter was changed once the letters were cycled through. So the letter E may indicate 1880 or it may indicate 1861 (not all the letters were used).
Antique Silver Markings Around the World
As trade became more of a platform for economic growth, new marks were added known as import marks and duty marks. Import marks were implemented in England in 1867 for all foreign made silver. The British Importing Firm stamped the piece as well, a type of makers mark known as a sponsor’s mark because not all countries had implemented silver markings yet. The duty marks were only used temporarily (1784-1890) to track which pieces had been taxed. And all of that is just a glimpse into the complexity of antique silver markings for England where the markings officially began.
The years 4000BC to 1500AD are known as the “Old World Silver” era and England was only a small portion of the silver boom in the last 500 years of that time period. Spain became the main producer on the heels of Greece and Asia-Minor. The time period silver collectors refer to as “New World Silver” covers the years of 1500 to 1875 AD. Mexico, Bolivia and Peru combined unearthed 85% of the world’s silver during that time frame. Even if a collector can identify your piece, it is still a mystery as to where it was unearthed.
Today, the international standard of silver is 925/1000. This means that 92.5% of the piece must contain pure silver. Countries may have their own national standard of the types of base metals used in the remaining percentage, but there will always be a silver marking on pieces that meet or exceed the international standard and to help identify when the silver was transformed into a unique piece you hold in your hands today.