Silver in History
What does the term “Silver” encompass? Manufactured silver objects can be divided into two broad categories, plus one “non-silver” category:
First, solid silver alloys of copper and silver (sterling silver, coin silver and continental or “800 silver). Second, Silverplate, a term denoting a layer of silver over a less desirable base metal (Old Sheffield, New Sheffield, and Electroplate). And third, Nickel silver (Also known as “German Silver” or “Alpacca”.)
Most of the majority of silver objects found will be of American origin. Since the design, Hallmarking, and nomenclature of American silver derives from the country’s English heritage, and understanding of the history of English silver is essential to the understanding of American silver.
About 1200, King John of England (1199-1216), brought Germanic silversmiths, termed “Easterlings” because they came from the “East”, to England to refine silver for coinage.
The reliably minted coin which they produced was an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5%copper, the copper adding strength to the otherwise soft silver. These coins subsequently became known as “easterlings”. By 1343, the term “easterling” was corrupted to “sterling” with the loss of the first two letters of the original term.
The English sterling standard was formally established in 1238 by Henry III, King of England (1216-1272), as this alloy (from the French “a la loi” –- according to law) of 92.5% silver and &.5% copper. Six members of the London Guild of Goldsmiths (persons who worked in both silver and gold) were selected to enforce this standard. This enforcement involved the assaying of each piece of manufactured silver goods with a leopard’s head. As these marks were applied by guild members, they were termed “guildhall marks,” later shortened to “hallmarks,” a term which we still use today.
The interest of the crown in the purity of silver objects derives from the relationship of these objects to English sterling silver coins. Because of the general scarcity of silver, the most readily available source for silversmiths was sterling coins.
Those individuals who accumulated wealth enjoyed displaying such wealth in the form of hand wrought domestic and ecclesiastical sterling silver objects.
The conversion of coin also offered some security from theft, as uniquely designed objects would be less easily exchanged and more readily traced than coins. In times of financial need, particularly warfare, these silver objects could be sold for much needed coin; thus, there was a steady flow of sterling silver between the work of silversmiths and official coinage. Since the strength of the economy of medieval England depended upon the reliability of its coinage, the government was extremely vigilant with regard to the purity of circulated sterling silver.
Over the several centuries additional hallmarks were added to the legally required hallmarking system. In 1363, a maker’s mark was added, while in 1478 a date mark was added.
By 1544, the “lion passant” replaced the leopard’s head as the symbol of the sterling standard, and the leopard’s head became the hallmark for London. By 1773, one could use the hallmarks on a piece of English silver to identify it as sterling, along with the city of origin, the maker and the year of its production.
American Coin Silver and Sterling
When America was settled, the colonists continued the tradition of taking coins to the silversmith for the production of household and church-related objects. These items were often made from damaged or out-of-style silver
objects as well as coin; however, the term “coin silver” is still applied even though these products were not made solely from coins. The proportion of silver to copper in this colonial alloy (coin silver) was not strictly regulated; thus, the percentage of silver to copper varied from approximately 85% to 90%.
In 1854, Tiffany and Co. introduced the English sterling to the American market. By 1869, when the United States government had begun to regulate the content of silver, the marketing impact of Tiffany and Co. had effectively eliminated the use of the coin silver alloy.
Because the highly regulated system of English hallmarking was not required of colonial silversmiths, American silversmiths freely adopted a non-standardized assortment of marks; however, many were similar to English hallmarks. Today these marks are generally referred to “pseudo-hallmarks” because they do not conform to the rigid English system of hallmarks.
Even after the United States Government adopted the English sterling standard, the unregulated system of American hallmarks was not altered and continues to be used to this day. Since 1869, regulations have required that all American sterling products be marked with the word “Sterling” or “925/1000”.
800 Silver or Continental Silver
The solid silver alloy used in European countries other than England varies in its percentage of silver to copper from 80% to 90%, or 800 to 900 parts per thousand.
Conventionally, this alloy is referred to as “800 silver”. The categorization of “800 silver” hallmarks is not as strictly regulated as the English system: thus, European hallmarking is much like the American system in that it contains a vast array of marks.
Generally, the term “Sheffield Silver” refers to products made of layer of silver over copper. This term owes its origin to the city of Sheffield, England, where Thomas Bolsover accidentally fused a sheet of copper to a sheet of silver in 1742 and in that process produced the first silverplate. Subsequently, this process was commercially developed, allowing a fused layer of silver-copper-silver to be used in the making of both household and religious objects. These products competed very effectively with sterling objects because less silver was required to make a Sheffield item and because these items were taxed at a lower rate.
This industry flourished for approximately 100 years until the development of the process of electroplating silver onto base metal, a process much less expensive than the Sheffield method. Items made by the original process are termed “Old Sheffield,” while newer items which are electroplated over copper are termed “New Sheffield”. Objects that are electroplated over base metals other that copper are referred to simply as “silverplate” or “electroplate”.
Nickel silver (also known as “German silver” or “Alpacca”) is an alloy of zinc, copper, and nickel, and contain no silver at all. It is called “silver” only because of its color. It is frequently used as a base metal for electroplating because its color requires less silver for coverage as compared to the amount required for covering copper.
American Silver Industry
By the second half of the 19th century, the American silver industry had become the largest and best in the world. The most skilled European silversmiths were recruited by American companies, along with equally talented American silversmiths, to produce the most beautiful silver in the world. These objects repeatedly won international recognition and set the standard for Victorian silver production and design.
The reasons for this flowering of American silver were the development of efficient methods of production by machine, the increased availability of inexpensive silver following the discovery of vast silver deposits in the American West, and the tremendous growth of wealth in this county during the Victorian period, with subsequent demand for luxury items, particularly those made of silver.