Understanding Silver Hallmarks

Kate Miller-Wilson
wallace sterling

Hallmarks are one of the most important factors in identifying antique silver jewelry, flatware, and other items. These small stamped symbols on the back or underside of silver items can tell you the purity of the silver, the manufacturer of the piece, and sometimes even the date it was made. Understanding how to read hallmarks is an important skill for any antiques enthusiast.

How to Use Silver Hallmarks

If you have a piece of silver jewelry or a household item you'd like to identify, there's a process that can help. Follow these steps to learn about your item.

1. Locate the Mark

frank whiting
Sterling knife stamped on the handle's side

Start by finding the hallmark on your piece. These tips can help:

  • For pendants, pins, and other large, flat jewelry items, turn the piece over. You should see a tiny stamp on the back of the item.
  • For rings and cuff bracelets, look inside the item. The hallmark should be stamped somewhere on the interior surface.
  • Necklaces and other items with chains should feature a stamp someplace near the clasp. Sometimes, this will be on a small metal tag.
  • Items like bowls, trays, teapots, and other dishes should feature a hallmark on the bottom of the piece.
  • Candlesticks, vases, figurines, and other decorative pieces should have a stamp on the bottom as well.
  • Flatware will feature a hallmark on the back, just below the bowl of the spoon or the shoulders of the fork. Knives and some serving pieces may be stamped on the ferrule, or collar, that surrounds the handle.
  • Personal care items like hairbrushes, mirrors, and other dresser set components will be stamped on the underside or on the handle.

2. Examine the Mark

Make sure you can clearly see the mark. It may help to have a magnifying glass and some silver polish handy. Use a cotton swab to gently polish the area near the mark. This will create a contrast between the recessed area of the stamp, which will still be tarnished, and the surrounding metal. Use a magnifying glass if you can't make out the details.

3. Figure Out Metal Content

silverplate
Silver plated dish marked "EPNS"

To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to tell the difference between sterling silver and silver plate. Because silver is such a soft metal, manufacturers almost never used it alone. Sterling silver is 92.5 percent pure silver and 7.5 percent other metals like copper and nickel. Some items are silver plated, which means they are crafted from a base metal and then covered in a thin layer of pure silver. Telling the difference between these two materials is important, and silver marks hold the key.

  • Sterling silver items will be stamped "sterling," "925," "925/1000," or "92.5% pure."
  • If the item doesn't have a stamp indicating it is sterling silver, it is almost always silver plate.
  • Some silver plated items will be stamped "silver plate," "EPNS" (for electro-plated nickel silver), "nickel silver," or another similar phrase.

4. Match Maker's Mark to Manufacturer

unger brothers
Sterling silver fork marked "Unger Brothers"

In many, but not all cases, silver manufacturers stamped their wares with maker's marks. This is important for identifying a pattern or finding the official name or value of a specific piece. Each maker's mark is unique, but manufacturers changed their marks over time. A single silver company could have used many different variations throughout the years, which means you can also use these marks to help date the piece.

Compare your piece to marks found in the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, & Maker's Marks or Silver Hallmarks and Marks. Both sites offer photographs and extensive information about specific manufactures of silver plate and sterling silver.

It's important to note that many manufacturers made both sterling and silver plated items.

5. Look for a Patent Date

Silver spoon patented in 1883
Silver spoon patented in 1883

Many pieces also feature a patent date stamp next to the maker's mark and silver content mark. This can be indicated in several different ways, including the following:

  • "Patent" followed by a year
  • "Pat." followed by a year
  • "Patent applied for" followed by a year

The patent date does not indicate the date the piece was made. Manufacturers would often patent designs for jewelry, flatware, and other items and then continue to produce those patterns or pieces for decades. However, the patent date does give you a starting place for estimating the age of your item.

Understand the Details

Silver hallmarks are some of the most important antique identification marks you can study. They provide information about the value, age, silver content, and history of your silver pieces. Learning how to decipher the clues in these marks allows you to really understand the details of your treasure.

Understanding Silver Hallmarks