So desirable on English sterling silver and yet so tricky. Continuing our three part series* we now come to armorials. They are a specific type of applied decoration – similar to a monogram. (Note, due to the incredibly obscure nature of the subject, I am sticking strictly to the subject of English arms and badges.)
What does this have to do with your silver?
Fairly often, you see a piece of silver for sale with an engraved image of a beastie or a hand holding a sword and perhaps a word or two in Latin etched around it.
These images are generally referred to as armorials. The implicit message being, that some former owner had the right to a coat of arms (translation was a titled aristocrat, maybe even a Duke!) and adapted a portion of that coat of arms to be put on the silver.
It’s not that simple.
First, anyone can adopt a creature as a personal symbol. Dogs, kittens, dolphins, that black panther tattooed on your hip…absolutely nothing wrong with it, but it has no connection to armorials.
Second, sterling silver can be decorated in any way. Just because a piece has a fancy griffin, phoenix, unicorn, or eagle on it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, except someone had a talented engraver.
Third, the addition of some Latin is no guarantee either. Just as people adopt animals as personal symbols, they also adopt words or phrases as personal mottoes. ‘Who dares wins’ and that sort of thing.
Have I rained on your parade?
As in the previous two parts of this series, my advice is ask a lot of questions and maintain a bit of skepticism.
Also keep in mind, just because it’s not a “genuine” armorial it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you know the odds of it being a genuine armorial are very slim, but you’ve always wanted a spoon with a unicorn engraved on the handle, go for it.
I like to collect these piece because the engravings are often absolutely terrific.
Do pieces with real armorials still exist?
Absolutely! But I’d want to see a lot of official provenance before I paid a premium price for the privilege of owning it.
So how can you tell if it’s real or not?
The short answer is you can’t. The Royal College of Arms in London is the institution that has been in charge of the granting of arms since feudal times. They have the records and charge a fee to do the research to identify a crest or coat of arms. I would want to see provenance from them regarding a piece.
What is a coat of arms anyway?
A coat of arms is the name for a full heraldic achievement.
Imagine a drawing or movie in which you have seen knights. You know the cloth tunics they wear over their armor? It has on it a shield shape with various colors, divisions, and symbols. On either side of the shield would be depictions of creatures. At the top there would be a coronet or crown of some sort, topped by another creature. That entire image is a coat of arms.
Oh, so if my last name is X I get to use that coat of arms?
Sorry you don’t. Each coat of arms is granted to a specific individual. Just because someone with your last name has a coat of arms, it doesn’t automatically follow that you have the right to use it. But, you can always apply to the College of Arms to find out.
I hope you have enjoyed this little jaunt into the not-so-obvious-side of silver. Have you had any experiences with these issues?