Why were hallmarks introduced?
Most of the silver and gold items produced in England, Ireland and Scotland are stamped with 4 or 5 marks, known as hallmarks. The main purpose of these marks is to act as a guarantee of the purity of the metals that are used in producing the item. Think of it as one of the first forms of quality control, just like the Kitemark that came along much later. Only metal that reaches the required standard will receive the appropriate hallmarks.
There are 4 separate hallmarks that we look for on all sterling silver items (see photo 1). There is a city mark, which denotes in which city the item was assayed (tested) in. The cities that have produced the most silver items over the years are Birmingham, Chester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, London, Newcastle, Norwich, Sheffield and York. Each city will have it's own mark e.g. Birmingham uses the anchor hallmark. All sterling silver will also have the hallmark of a lion to denote it's of sterling quality (925 parts of silver per 1000 or 92.5% purity). The date mark can identify the year the item was manufactured. A letter is used for each year of production. Different styles of letter, upper and lower case letters and the shape of the hallmark itself are all used to help identify the year. Finally, the makers mark is also stamped on the item. This usually takes the form of a few initials.
Photo 1 - Example of silver hallmarks found on the back of a silver cufflink
Resources for identifying hallmarks
We've never found a single resource that enables us to identify all the hallmarks we see. Instead, we use several references, both books and on-line sources. If you're interested in understanding hallmarks, we recommend using the following books and websites. Even so, you are likely to come across some marks that remain unidentifiable.