Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Researching… Sterling Silver And Silver Plate

My wife and I visit in excess of 4000 garage sales, estate sales, auctions, and homesteads every year. Multiply that by the 31 dealers currently at A Classy Flea and you can imagine that we come across a myriad of interesting finds. Fortunately, one of the biggest joys I receive from working at A Classy Flea is that I love to research the more interesting things that I come across. I am lucky that I have the ability to remember much of what I have researched and am able to apply that knowledge when I come across similar items later. The other dealers in our shop know they can use me as a resource for identifying and assisting in valuing their finds. Lately, they have been bugging me to share my secrets so they can research their items without taking my time, so that is what is prompting this weekly blog.

I, like many other people throughout the world, enjoy collecting silver over gold not only because of the considerable difference in cost, but it can be found in so many different forms. I have seen sterling silver in coins, flatware, jewelry, tea sets, platters, trophies, lamps, candelabras, statues, drinking cups, baby rattles, knife rests, and on and on and on! You can buy new  sterling silver items at almost any department store and you can find old sterling silver in most antique stores and even many flea markets and thrift stores.

The question I get most often when other dealers bring me silver pieces to look at is “what do all of these marks mean?” If you are a fan of the TV programs “Antiques Roadshow” or BBC’s “Cash in the Attic”, you often hear the appraisers comment that the silver pieces have the “correct silver marks”. So, what are the marks and what do they mean?

To better understand silver marks, lets start at the beginning. As I explained in last week’s blog, sterling silver is not  pure silver, but an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% of another metal, usually copper. It was discovered that this combination gave silver the best of all properties of luster, workability, and strength. What may be surprising to you is this is not a recent discovery. Though silver was mined as far back as 4000 BC, the sterling alloy likely originated in continental Europe and was used for commerce as early as the 12th century in what is now northern Germany! Nobody is certain where the term ‘sterling’ comes from, but it may have derived from a new 13th century Norman silver coin “librae sterilensium” or “librae sterilensis monetae”. More likely, the term comes from the Old English “steorling” which means ‘coin with a star’, which the old Norman coins had. Most of the world’s silver was mined in Asia Minor and the Greek Isles until major concentrations of silver were found after the discovery and exploration of the ‘New World’ in the 15th and 16th centuries. Since the 1500’s, most of the silver production came from Bolivia and Mexico and even more recently from The United States.

I know what you’re saying; “But what about the marks!?!” Most people didn’t read or write prior to the 18th and 19th centuries and even back then, the government felt a need to control and tax everything being produced. The British Isles probably led the way with a series of marks that can be traced back to the 1300’s! Each of the major cities had a Goldsmith’s Hall where the local tradesmen would take their gold and silver wares to be inspected. There, the pieces would be inspected for quality and stamped with a city stamp to show that they had passed inspection. Later, as precious metals started being taxed, duty stamps were added to show that the taxes had been paid. As unscrupulous metal smiths started faking the city and duty stamps, all makers were required to include a maker’s stamp to identify who made the pieces. Lastly, date stamps were added to further document the history of the piece. So, what does a proper mark look like?
englishset ‘Reading’ left to right we find:
Lion in a Shield:  Silver Standard Mark for Sterling .925
Crowned Leopard Head: London City Mark (1478 – 1822)
Letter O in a shield: Date Mark – This one is 1789
King George III: Duty Mark (1786 – 1821)
T and W: Maker’s Mark – Thomas Wallis

To verify the mark is correct, the Date Mark must have been used by the associated City, and must fall within the reign of the Monarch depicted by the Duty Mark. Additionally, the Maker must have been active during this same time.

Fortunately, most of the sterling silver we come in contact with at A Classy Flea was made within the last 200 years and the vast majority of it was made in the US. All sterling made in the US must be marked with the word ‘Sterling’ or the purity mark ‘925’ which stands for 92.5% pure silver. I walked around the shop and took some pictures of a few sterling items we have for sale.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         La Pierre Manufacturing Company Compote: Founded in 1888 in New York, became a division of International Silver in 1929, still in business.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Georg Jensen Ice Tongs, Acorn Pattern: Founded in 1904 in Copenhagen, Denmark, pattern introduced in 1915, this particular mark was first used in 1945. This pattern is still produced today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         This mark is from the bottom of a very ornate dish. Lucky for me, there was another mark on the other end of the bottom of this dish, Gorham. Founded in Providence, Rhode Island in 1831. This mark is a date mark from 1887. The 656 is the pattern number. Gorham is still in business today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Here is an interesting mark on the bottom of a candlestick. The mark consists of J.W. within parentheses, an eagle, and 925/1000 within parentheses. This was sold by the John Wanamaker Department Store who commissioned pieces to be made and then marked them with their own mark. They first started marking sterling in 1870 in Philadelphia and are still in business today.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention sterling jewelry made in Mexico. Jewelry designers really started making their “mark” during the 1930’s and continued through the 1970’s. There are many well known and collected Mexican silversmiths including William Spratling and Los Castillo. There is a Mexican village, Taxco, that became such a hub for jewelry makers that designers and silversmiths registered for their own Taxco makers mark.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The Mexico mark is self explanatory. TM-92 is a Taxco (T) mark and was the 92nd one designated for someone whose last name started with an M. The MEE mark is probably the maker’s initials and the 925 is the sterling mark. My books show TM-92 to belong to a different designer so this could have been done by an apprentice of I may be misreading the mark.

Then, there’s this mark:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I found this on the bottom of a tea pot. Three different marks within shields and an eagle’s head. This looks like a British sterling mark, but looks can be deceiving! If we look further, we find:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         its actually silver plate on copper. This tea pot was made by Forbes Silver Company, founded in Meriden, Connecticut in 1894.

So, what is silver plate?

The first silver plate was probably a lucky accident. Someone probably had a sheet of silver laying on a sheet of copper and after is was heated up, they found they couldn’t separate them. Silversmiths in Sheffield, England exploited this property. They started fusing silver blocks to copper blocks and when they rolled them out it could be worked just like a sheet of sterling silver but at a much lower cost. The generic term for this silver plate is Old Sheffield Plate and is characterized by the piece being silver on the outside and copper on the inside, such as a pot. In 1840, Elkington and Company patented a process to electrically transfer silver atoms from a donor sheet or solution to a base metal, often copper. This is what we know as electroplated silver. You will find many different types of marks for electroplate: EP, Silver Plate, Quadruple Plate, and EPNS. EP and Silver Plate are typically done over copper. Quadruple Plate was common during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and was a testament to the amount of silver used. Typically at the time, 2 troy ounces of silver was used to plate 144 teaspoons, but the quadruple plate process used 4 troy ounces of silver to plate the same 144 teaspoons. EPNS loosely stands for Electro Plate Nickel Silver. There are two common forms of EPNS. The cheapest is to use a base metal of an alloy that is part copper and part nickel. The base is more silver in color so when it is plated with silver, it tends to have a more bluish tint than plated copper. The other way is to start with a polished brass base, plate it with nickel, then plate it again with the silver. This has the truest color to sterling.

So, there’s a lot to know to determine who made your items, where they were made and when they were made. How do I start my research? The absolute best place to start is
www.925-1000.com This site refers to itself as the”Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers’ Marks” and it truly is. I have spent days just browsing the site and I am still reading articles for the first time. Here is a sampling of the information you can find here:

Clicking on the American Marks at the top of the page presents you with these options. The Main Menu ~ American allows you to find a maker’s information either by matching the picture of the mark or browsing the initials on the mark. Manufacturer specific date marks can also be browsed to assist you in dating your pieces. You will also notice that Canadian makers are listed here, though Mexican makers are listed  under World Marks. Speaking of World Marks:

World marks is the menu you will use to find information on all makers other than American, Canadian and British. It is a good idea to just browse this section to familiarize yourself with what proper city and duty marks look like. You will also notice at the very bottom that the entire Silver Plate information, regardless of the country of origin, is accessed from this menu.

The Mexican Marks section has a very good primer on the more popular Mexican manufacturers but more thorough info can be found on other websites.


Continuing across the main menu, we find the British Marks:
925brit This menu is more pictorial in nature with links to more detailed info, as seen in the picture above.
925pat The Patterns pull-down shows a sampling of flatware patterns of some of the more popular sterling silver manufactures. A much broader listing of patterns with pictures can be found at www.replacements.com but this is a great place to start!

The last two drop down choices, Library and Resources, have the information that first brought me to this site. I’ll let you explore these to find the treasures waiting there including the Forum where I have had many questions answered!

Here is my calendar of future “Researching…” blogs:
February 8: English Pottery
February 15: US Pottery
February 22: German Pottery
March 1: Chinese Pottery
March 8: General Web Research
March 15: Resource Books?
Please let me know if there are other types of collectables you would like information about researching!