Being able to read and understand silver hallmarks is important because they are the guarantee of a piece's quality. Moreover, they can tell you a great deal about an item's origins and date. Hallmarking systems differ from country to country. Rather than trying to remember all the marks, most collectors make use of reference books such as "Jackson's Hallmarks." However, the first step is to understand the types of silver marks and their significance.
Inspect the hallmark with a jeweller's loupe. Look first for a silver standard mark. This is the mark applied by an assay office to confirm that a piece has met the legal standard of fineness for silver, which is usually 925 parts per thousand. In England it is a lion walking in profile, known as the "lion passant," in Scotland it is a thistle, in France it is a classical female head (known as the "Minerva") or a boar's head, in pre-Soviet Russia it is another female head called the "kokoshnik." On American silver, look for the words "Sterling" or "Silver" or a numerical standard mark, usually .925.
Look next for a maker's or retailer's mark. This usually consists of a set of initials. On early American silver, the maker's mark is all you will find, and it is not unusual for some makers, such as Paul Revere or Samuel Kirk, to have stamped their entire surname. Any good book of hallmarks will also include a list of important silversmiths with pictures of their respective stamps.
Turn to any remaining marks. On English silver, there will be at least two more: the assay office mark and the date letter. The assay office mark tells you where the piece of silver was tested, and the date letter will give you the year of manufacture. The letters run from A to U, leaving out J, then going back at A again. The date letters are specific to the assay office, so it is these two marks together which will help you definitely to date a piece of silver.
To use a jeweller's loupe, don't move it back and forth like a magnifying glass. Instead, hold it close to your eye and move the piece of silver until the hallmarks come into focus. If you are struggling to read a set of hallmarks, breath on them. They should show up more clearly for a few moments.
Silver plate often has fake hallmarks. These were never intended to deceive buyers or collectors, but were perhaps put there to fool dinner party guests. The marks "EP" or "A1" are both giveaways.