At a dinner party we threw over the weekend, I had a wonderful conversation with a guest who was fascinated by the silver hallmarks on the cutlery and how to decipher them. As I was explaining and pointing out the details, I was struck anew at how beautiful silver hallmarks are in and of themselves. Usually the focus is on the piece of silver itself and the tiny silver hallmarks are a means to the end of identifying the piece.
Silver Hallmarks: London
And by tiny, I really mean tiny. Some silver hallmarks — like this one of the London leopard — are only just a bit over 1/16th of an inch or 0.15875 cm for you metric measurers!
This Leopard belongs on the back of a nice English late Georgian sterling silver gravy ladle. Silver began to be marked with the leopard in 1378 and over time, the London leopard has changed looks. Earlier pieces have a more elaborate leopard and between 1478-1821 the leopard wore a crown. This photo shows the first version of the uncrowned leopard…it has changed 8 times since 1826 when this piece was made.
Notice as well, how the method used to make the mark has raised the leopard up in relief. Metal stamps incised with the requisite marks are placed against the surface of the silver piece and tapped sharply with a mallet to strike the mark. Every so often, one runs across a poorly struck piece, where the image is not crisp. I imagine it took a lot of practice (and confidence) to strike the marks perfectly. Imagine how annoyed the silversmith must have been with the assay master when they made a poor strike!
Here is another relief style mark; this one is from Vilnius, Lithuania dating from 1861. Unlike the English marks which are very familiar to me, this mark led to quite the journey of discovery! The beautiful tablespoon this mark is on was obviously of Russian influence. Eventually I identified it as Lithuanian. Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire at this point in time.
Continental European silver hallmarks are often very beautiful. Frequently, each city had its own identifying mark and fantastical variations of dragons, double-headed eagles, griffins, wolves, and almost every other shape you can imagine abound. It can be quite the job to figure of what came from where…especially when the shapes change a bit over time.
Just as the London leopard has had it design refreshers over the centuries, so have ALL these other marks.
Jumping across the Atlantic, here is a mark from the George W. Schiebler Company which was in business from 1876-1910. This particular variation of the Schiebler mark is from the later end of that time span.
Unlike the raised European marks, this one has been incised/engraved into the silver; so the lines of the pattern are valleys rather than peaks. This relatively simple mark has a strong, bold feel. I’m always reminded of super heroes emblems when I see the Schiebler mark. 🙂
Schiebler were well noted for their extraordinary hollowware…take a look at the amazing tea set this mark is on.
Another American incised mark, but clearly hearkening back to the European tradition of fantastical creatures is this mark by Poole Silver of Taunton. MA.
On the bottom of a simple milk jug — turning it over to find this exuberant beast underneath struck me as an amusing contrast. I love how the creature’s tongue is sticking out. Is it a lion or other big cat? Or is it a dragon? I can’t quite make up my mind.
I do know it has served it’s purpose, and that is to firmly associate this particular creature with Poole silver.
One last thought…I mentioned above that some of these marks are really, really tiny…like just over 1/16th of an inch. Here is a graphic of the marks on a tape measure…1/16th is teeny! Often times the size of these marks makes taking clear photos a technical challenge.