An alloy of silver containing 92.5% by mass of silver and 7.5% by mass of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925.
Fine silver (99.9% pure) is generally too soft for producing functional objects; therefore, the silver is usually alloyed with copper to give it strength while preserving the ductility and beauty of the precious metal. Other metals can replace the copper, usually with the intent to improve various properties of the basic sterling alloy such as reducing casting porosity, eliminating fire-scale, and increasing resistance to tarnish. These replacement metals include germanium, Zinc and platinum, as well as a variety of other additives, including silicon and boron. A number of alloys, such as Argentium Sterling silver’ have appeared in recent years, formulated to lessen firescale or to inhibit tarnish, and this has sparked heavy competition among the various manufacturers, who are rushing to make claims of having the best formulation. However, no one alloy has emerged to replace copper as the industry standard, and alloy development is a very active area.
Hallmarks for Sterling Silver
A silver hallmark is nothing more than an indication of metal content and its purity or quality. It may or may not include the manufacturer’s mark or location of origin. A manufacturer’s mark or “maker’s mark” alone are not necessarily considered hallmarks.
The word hallmark is derived from London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, the originator of Britain’s first hallmarks, which still maintains a record of all British hallmarks. Depending on country of origin, hallmarks can also include symbols for place of origin. Sterling silver hallmark etching and engraving have been in use in England and France since the 14th century. Most other European countries also use hallmarks. The United States has never used hallmarks.
The British system of hallmarking is somewhat complex, but relatively easy to follow once the system is deciphered. British hallmarks include a fineness or purity mark, an assay office mark, a date letter, and usually but not always, a maker’s mark.
The assay mark -- the famous lion. This silver hallmark testifies that the piece has been tested as sterling silver, i.e., an alloy that is 92.5% pure silver. Prior to 1831, this was the mark of the lion passant guardant -- (in heraldic terms, the lion walking to the left with its head turned to look at the spectator). After 1831, the head was turned from full face to profile (the lion passant).
The town mark. This is the mark of the city where the assay office was situated. The first assay office was in London, its mark of a leopard's head (wearing a crown until 1831) is still in use today. Edinburgh and Dublin, the capitals of Scotland and Ireland, were soon granted assay offices, and provincial English cities such as York, Chester, Norwich and many others soon followed. Sheffield and Birmingham, which both began assaying silver in 1773, are the only cities outside of London whose assay offices are still working. Their town marks of an anchor (Birmingham) and a crown (Sheffield) are the most frequently found after London's leopard's head. On English silver, the lion passant (walking lion) is the symbol for sterling silver (925). If your piece has the Lion Passant or the number 925 then it is, in all probability, Sterling Silver. If it has the numbers ‘900’, ‘850’,’800’ or similar, then this would be the silver content (per thousand) of the silver alloy used.
The date letter. Each year, which runs from May till April, is allocated a different letter. A cycle of 20 letters is used (omitting J, V, W, X, Y, and Z) so there are five cycles in a century. Each cycle has its own style of letter and/or its uniquely shaped shield. The original purpose of this letter was not to record the year in which the piece was assayed, but to identify the Assay Master (who was appointed annually in May) so that he could be called to account if he passed lower grade silver as sterling. To be pedantically correct, the date of silver should include two years, for example 1783-4, but in practice we usually use only the first of the years that the letter spanned, e.g., 1783.
The maker's mark. This consists of his or her two initials (except in the Britannia period from 1695 to 1720 when the marks was the first two letters of his name). Early makers often used an emblem with or without their initials.
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