Identifying silver hallmarks is essential in determining a silver item's age, origin and value. Thankfully, this is a task made somewhat easier by the huge number of guides written to help the collector identify the source of their silver. But even with the guides in hand, it can be sometimes difficult to decipher each part of a silver hallmark.
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The silver hallmark is simply a method used to determine a precious metal's content and purity. It does not necessarily indicate the date of manufacture or maker of a piece, although that can sometimes be included in the hallmark. Depending on what is included in the hallmark, a collector can sometimes determine country of origin, silver quality and age of the piece. A maker's mark alone is not considered a hallmark.
France and England were the first countries to put hallmarks on silver in the 14th century. Since that time, Goldsmiths' Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London has kept a record of all British hallmarks. Goldsmith's Hall was the first company to use a hallmark. Now, most countries have their own hallmarks, ranging from extremely simple to complex.
The first thing to do when looking at a hallmark is to try to determine the country of origin. Because each country has their own unique hallmark, this can be a tedious process if you are a novice. A typical British mark, for example, has a series of stamped symbols, all with different meanings: a standard mark (quality), city mark (each city has their own symbol), date letter, duty mark and maker's mark. A piece may have all or only a few of these symbols.
French hallmarks are the most complex hallmarks in use--and are the most difficult to decipher. While complex, the collector can immediately determine they have a French piece versus a British piece because of the French's use of symbols instead of numbers in their hallmarks. Over the centuries, the French have used animals, insects, people and birds to indicate an item's overall purity and place of manufacture. For example, a silver piece will often have a boar's head hallmark.
Serious collectors keep their favourite silver hallmarks guide with them at all times. Even experts must consult with a guide because so many variations and hallmarks exist. One online guide--the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks--is another helpful resource collectors may use. The online guide contains thousands of pictures, categorised by country and by date, to help identify silver hallmarks. Unfortunately, finding a hallmark on a potentially valuable piece does not necessarily prove authenticity because the marks can be easily forged.
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