When cutlery -- that is, knives, forks and spoons -- first began to be manufactured in numbers in the early 1700s, the metal used was silver in thin sheets that could be easily cut and moulded. Silver continued to be favoured for cutlery even after the introduction of convincing substitutes such as E.P.N.S. (electroplated nickel silver) from the 1840s onwards. Most silver carries some kind of hallmark, depending on its country of origin. Understanding these marks can tell you a great deal about an individual piece of cutlery.
Use a jeweller's loupe to inspect the item for a silver standard mark. The presence of this stamp means that a piece has fulfilled the criteria to be sold as a silver in a particular country. On American silver look for the words "Sterling" or "Sterling silver" or the number "925", which signifies that the piece contains 925 parts silver per thousand. On British silver, you should see the so-called "lion passant," an emblem of a walking lion in profile.
Look next for a maker's mark. On British cutlery this will usually consist of a set of initials, while on American cutlery it can also be the maker's surname -- in fact, the maker's surname is often the only piece of information you will find on early pieces of American silver. Any guidebook to hallmarks will have a list of important maker's stamps.
Look for a date letter and assay office mark on British silver. These will tell you exactly when and where a piece was assayed -- i.e., passed to be legally sold as silver. Using a guide to British hallmarks, look up the assay office mark first, and then consult its individual date letter cycles for a precise year.
The fact that the hallmarks are so comprehensively informative is one of the reasons why British silver cutlery is popular with collectors. They know exactly what they're getting, and they can if they wish focus their attentions on collecting from particular makers and assay offices. Over time hallmarks tended to travel upwards on cutlery. Spoons from the 17th century often carried hallmarks to their bowls. Cutlery from the 18th century is frequently hallmarked to the neck of the handle. By the 19th century the marks had gravitated upwards to the handle itself.
When buying a silver cutlery set, go through each piece to make sure that all of the hallmarks match. Any discrepancies would suggest that the vendor has made up an incomplete set with odds and ends.