Every silver object made in Great Britain must be assayed to ensure it contains the correct amount of silver. As part of a long-standing tradition, all silver articles, whether made by hand or machine, are sent to one of the four Assay Offices in London, Birmingham, Sheffield or Edinburgh.
There, a small sample is scraped from each article and tested. An article that passes the assay test of purity is hallmarked with a series of stamps to identify the maker, the Assay Office, the standard of purity, and the year of the assay.
In the U.S. on the other hand, silver jewelry and decorative objects are typically marked with their fineness and the trademark of the manufacturer. Items made of sterling silver are usually marked “925,” “Sterling,” or “SS” or sometimes even “925/1000.”
As the United States never adopted a date stamp, some companies adopted their own date marking systems, notable among them Tiffany and Gorham. The stamping of the trademark of the manufacturer along with the fineness is required in the event that questions regarding quality arise.
The term “sterling silver” probably comes from a reference to the fine silver pieces originally made in Eastern Germany. During the 12th century, the towns of this region used coins of their own manufacture for commercial transactions. British merchants developed a preference for the coins made by these “Easterlings” because they were considered to be of good quality.
With time, the original designation “Easterling” silver was later abbreviated to “sterling.” In 1238, English law mandated that wrought silver should be “sterling standard,” that is 92.5 percent pure silver, as originally made by the Easterlings. The remaining 7.5 percent can be comprised of any other metal alloy, the most common of which is copper.
If silver is not combined with another metal, it is far too pliable and would suffer innumerable dents, scratches, and possibly re-shaping. It was determined that 92.5 percent is the highest possible amount of pure silver to use before this issue would arise. This was especially important as sterling silver was used so prominently in fine dining.
Britannia silver is used on occasion today, but it was an obligatory standard in England between 1697 and 1720 when the British Crown wanted to discourage silversmiths from converting sterling silver coins into plate. Items marked “958” are Britannia silver. It is important to note that Britannia silver is not the same thing as Britannia metal . There is no percentage of silver included in Britannia metal, as it is actually a pewter alloy with merely a silvery appearance.
Coin silver is generally lower in purity than sterling silver and was originally made from melted coins. It is usually about 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper.
It took many years, but eventually the demands of the American market for British quality silver along with the opening of the Comstock Lode in 1859, the first substantial silver mine in the country, took American silversmiths off of the usage of coin silver.
Mexican silver was used in fine silver pieces created by Mexican silversmiths from the 1930s to the mid 1940s. Like Britannia silver, Mexican silver also had higher standard for silver content than sterling silver. It was 95 to 98 percent pure silver. Today however, most items manufactured in Mexico are made of sterling silver.
Now that we have learned about the standards and regulations for precious metals, next we will explore Precious Metals Testing | The Key to Determining Precious Metal Quality to see how we reach these determinations.