Steve: I’m going to ask Ken a question. Perhaps he’ll know the answer because he’s like Mr. Wizard. If I said to you back in the 1400s there were only seven metals known to man, what do you think they would be?
Ken: Lead, copper, bronze, brass, silver, gold.
Steve: You got silver and gold and lead. What was the other one you said?
Ken: Bronze, brass.
Steve: Those are both alloys. That was pretty good. The actual answer would be gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead and one that most people don’t even consider a metal, mercury.
Ken: I did not consider that. I fail science class.
Steve: As a matter of fact, back in Greece at Pompei, I was out in Italy, but they actually had aqua ducts that early. The aqua ducts were made out of lead and sometimes they were coated with mercury on the outside.
Ken: Well, that’s good.
Steve: The best part is they’re made out of lead, so the water going through would cause people to die from lead poisoning. It was interesting, since we don’t really deal in copper and iron and tin and lead and mercury. We do deal in a lot of gold and silver items at Westchester Gold and Diamonds.
We have a lot of people come in with sterling silver items, or silver items. They’re not really sure. “How do I know what I’m looking for?” There’s a lot of different things you look for.
Just to give you a quick history lesson of the word sterling, people come in and say, “What exactly is sterling silver?”
I sit there and say to them, sterling silver theoretically is 92.5 percent pure silver. It’s allowed with 7.5 percent something else.
Nobody really asks me this, but I figure for Tradio we would clue the people in a little bit: in the 1300s, King Edward of England enacted what we call the sterling standard, which meant 92.5 percent pure is what silver items should be in England.
There are a couple different stories about how the word sterling evolved. One story says it’s actually named after the English silver penny that was used back at that point in time, which was called a starling. It didn’t have anything to do with the bird. It had more to do with the fact that it has this shine to it.
Silver has a natural shine. They took the word starling and evolved it into sterling to mean that it was 92.5 percent pure. That’s what the purity actually was of these silver coins called starlings.
There’s another story about how all this arrived, and the two of them sort of intertwine with the fact that they say King Edward hired a band of dramatic tribal men who were craftsmen, dealing in silver.
They took the starling coin that was 92.5 percent pure and they started to make objects they could actually use: bowls, silverware, flatware and different utensils.
The fact that they melted this down and the coins were 92.5 percent pure, they dropped the E off of Esterlings, and it became sterling. These are the two stories that you’ll hear, since there’s nobody around from the 1300s who can really clear this whole matter up.
We do know that the word sterling supposedly means that the silver item is 92.5 percent pure. If it came from England, you’re pretty sure that it’s going to be, for the simple reason that in the 1300s Kind Edward granted a bunch of goldsmiths the ability to assay silver items.
He formed what was known as the Goldsmith Company. Because they were goldsmiths doesn’t mean they were made out of gold. They worked in gold as well as sterling. This whole company was housed in a large hall. There were different areas, different offices where they would do the assays on the stuff.
The name evolved to the word hallmark because it had to me assayed in this particular hall of the Goldsmith Company. What’s a hallmark and what’s this got to do with sterling? I’ll explain it to you.
Since English silver is basically the beginning of sterling silver, what the English would do was when a piece was made out of silver, it had to be alloyed. It could be alloyed with copper; it could be alloyed with nickel.
It was 92.5 percent pure silver, and the rest of it was an alloy of some sort. Before it could be sold or marketed, it would have to be assayed. This means a little piece would be clipped off of it and melted and checked for the fineness or purity of the silver.
It had to be 92.5 percent pure silver. After this silversmith had made this entire piece of silver, if it didn’t come out to the right assay, it was destroyed; no ifs, ands or buts. You were trying to defraud the public and it was melted.
This continues, believe it or not, to today. Again, the English silver pieces have to be 92.5 percent pure. Is that the same rules and regulations for the rest of the world? Not necessarily.
England is the only country I know of that does an actual assay with any of their products before they are sold. You’ve got a lot of large American companies over the years, from the turn of the century, and even before the turn of the century who made silver items.
Back in the 1860s, we’ll see marks on a lot of silver pieces. A lot of watch cases will be marked. A lot of flatware or eating utensils will be marked. Even some tea sets and usable objects of what we call hollowware will be marked.
The marking you’ll see on the bottom of it says “Coin”. When you see the word coin, what that means is basically what they did was they melted the old silver coins.
The silver coins at that time were 90 percent pure, not 92.5 percent pure. Rather than putting the word sterling, which in theory meant that it was going to be 92.5 percent pure, they put the word coin, which told everyone else that this is 90 percent silver because it was made out of melted coins.
To go back to the English hallmarking, what am I actually talking about? If you look on the bottom or on a piece of English silver, somewhere you’ll see three marks that are indented into that silver.
The first mark you’ll see is what we refer to as a lion passant. What does this mean? If you look at it, a lot of times you can see it with your eyes if it’s a larger hallmark. They won’t be huge; the hallmarks are not going to be really big marks on the silver.
The first one you’ll see is what we call the lion passant. This is a lion with his leg raised, facing the left. No, it’s not a back leg; it’s a front leg. He is sort of marching or walking.
This is the actual silver mark to show that this silver is 92.5 percent pure. The lion passant is exactly what that means when you see the lion.
The next mark would be where that particular piece was assayed at. It could be a lot of different marks. It could be an anchor, it could be a leopard head, it could be a king’s head, it could be floral-looking kind of thing.
They only had four places where silver was actually assayed all over England. If it was made in Birmingham, you had an anchor. If it was made in Sheffield, it looked a little like a castle. If it was made in Edinburg, it had another mark. If it was made in London, it had a queen’s head or a leopard head.
This is the second hallmark you’ll see on a piece of silver. The third hallmark is what we look at and call a letter stamp, or a date stamp. What they did is they went through the alphabet and used the letters for different years.
One year could be a capital, one year could be written and one year could have little serifs on the edges of the letters. The style of the letter would tell you exactly what year that piece of silver was made. If it was made a year later, you couldn’t go back and date that.
It had to be hallmarked in that year. By the end of December, it had to have that letter date on it. If you saw a letter date that was for 1861, guarantee there’s a new letter on that. The letter date is a system they still use today.
It tells us exactly when the piece was made, the fact that it’s sterling, where it was assayed out. As an optional mark, sometimes you’ll find a maker mark. This is a person who actually made that particular piece of silver.
What’s kind of neat is the fact that the English were such sticklers for purity, and to be able to guarantee you were getting what you had.
If they made a cup and the body of the cup was assayed and it was sterling, and then they applied a handle to it, and they assayed that handle as well as the body of the cup, and the handle was only 90 percent pure, they would actually destroy that entire piece of silver.
If the whole thing was melted down into a blob and re-assayed, because the silver handle was only 90 percent pure, it would not come out 92.5 percent. These goldsmith companies, the people who worked there and governed the quality of the pieces made, were real sticklers.
Any time you find and English piece of silver, if it wasn’t done in one piece and they had applied handles that were soldered onto the piece of silver, you’ll find hallmarks on each and every individual piece that was made into that larger piece of silver.
That way, it was guaranteed to be 92.5 percent pure. Moving along from England to the states, a lot of times you’ll find companies that will mark their pieces sterling. I’m going to tell you, 99 percent of the pieces that are marked sterling in the US are less than 92.5 percent pure.
People say, “How do you know that?”
At Westchester Gold and Diamonds, we’ll buy hundreds and hundreds of silver sets in the course of a year. Some of those sets we’ll buy for their resalable patterns. A lot of them, if they’re monogrammed, they’ve got someone’s initials cut into them, a lot of times those monograms are very deep and you can’t take them out. Sometimes they’re not that deep and you can.
The majority of the tea sets and flatware sets and hollowware that we get now are melted down. When I get those results from the refinery, most of those items are going to be between 88 and 90 percent pure. That’s a big difference.
It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a big difference to someone like me who buys and sells sterling items like that by weight. It also means a lot to a manufacturer.
If you make millions and millions of dollars worth of sterling items every year, and you can save yourself 2.5 or 3 percent, that adds up rather quickly, especially if you’re the manufacturer.
A lot of the manufacturers tend to make their items not what we would really call sterling. It’s amazing today when I see a lot of the chains and jewelry come in. What we’ll do is one of our tests for sterling is we’ll use a magnet on it.
If the sterling attaches itself to the magnet, then it’s either not sterling, or it’s considerably less silver content. You’ve got to be really careful.
Here’s a little prospecting tip: if you’re out there and you’re doing garage sales and things and you look at silver-colored items, if you’re not really sure if it’s silver or not, get out the old magnet and touch it. If it’s attracted to the magnet, you probably want to pass on it.
A lot of that stuff is probably not going to be silver. If it is, it’s an extremely low grade of silver; what’s going to happen when you try to sell it to a dealer is they’re going to put a magnet on it and they’re going to pass on it. They don’t really know the fact that it could be a small percent of silver. The fact that it’s attracted to the magnet, most dealers are going to pass on it and say it’s not silver.
Even though it’s not true and it does have silver content, it’s not sterling. It’s nowhere close to 92.5 percent pure.
When we look at silver, what are we looking for? Number one, hallmarks. That’s a good thing. A lot of the US companies put different marks that are not hallmarks. Their stuff is marked sterling, which means theoretically it’s 92.5 percent pure.
Sometimes you’ll see the company name done in three letters. People who are not as knowledgeable as yourself are going to say, “Those are the three letters that Steve was talking about on Tradio.” Those aren’t the three letters.
Remember: you’re looking for lion passant, you’re looking for a leopard head or some other figure that tells you where it was assayed at, and you’re looking for a letter stamp, a date stamp.
You will find a lot of times a lion on one of the marks a lot of the American companies use. You’ll find a letter, which alludes to the fact that it might be a letter stamp or a date stamp, and usually some sort of an emblem.
If you see the word sterling underneath of that, that’s going to tell you it’s not an English piece. You won’t see the word sterling written on any English pieces. All you will see are those hallmarks, and you might find the number 925 impressed into that piece of silver. That’s a mark that tells you theoretically it’s 92.5 percent pure.
Some of the German silver, you’ll find a mark stamped into it that says 800, which means that’s 80 percent silver. You may find some of the companies that mark their stuff with a 90. That is not the purity of the silver. That’s a catalog number, an item number. That’s not going to mean that it’s 90 percent pure.
A purity mark is always going to have three numbers on it. Purity in metals is carried out to three places. You may see 800, you may see 925. Some of the better silvers of what they call Britania standard is 958. It’s a higher-grade silver.
You may see the number 999, which is pure silver. You may find this not so much in the English pieces, but a lot of the oriental pieces are marked 999. They are very proud of it and they want you to know it’s pure silver, not just 92.5 percent pure.
Getting back to the US markings, if you see the word sterling along with these awkward-looking letters and stuff like that, it’s probably a piece of sterling silver. Usually, the US companies won’t bother marking a piece sterling unless it really is, where it’s at least a higher silver content.
Sterling theoretically stands for 92.5 percent pure, but again, it’s not usually 92.5 percent pure if it’s American.
Where do you look for these marks? If it’s a piece of flatware, a spoon or a fork, something of that order, if you flip it over and look on the back side, it may say “Gorham” or “Rogers Bros.” It could say “International.”
A lot of these are different companies that make silver. Right after that company name, you’ll see the word sterling stamped into that particular piece of silver.
You might see “Rogers Bros A1 silver”. Rogers Bros. did mainly silver plating. There were two different Rogers Bros. companies. One did sterling, the other did mostly silver plate. If you see “Rogers Bros. A1 silver”, it sounds like it ought to be sterling, but it’s not marked sterling.
If it doesn’t say sterling, it’s not going to be sterling. Remember that in an American piece. What they’ve done recently after 1999, I believe it was, rather than pressing the word sterling into a lot of pieces, what happens is a lot of this stuff is made in China, as far as the jewelry goes. It’s casted and it’s hollow.
A lot of this stuff you’ll see on television. There are big hollow bracelets and rings and things like that. It gives you a big look. Why do they make them hollow? Because they can vacu-form this piece, it’s hollow and it looks really big.
But it’s not that expensive for the simple reason they gauge on how much silver they put into that piece. Even though it’s a big look, it’s hollow and doesn’t have as much silver as you would think it was.
The problem is, when they mark a piece of silver, it’s generally stamped into that piece of silver. The old-timed days, it was pressed right into it. The smaller pieces, and artist would actually take a punch made out of steel with the silver marks, take a hammer, put it on the back side of that particular piece of item, whatever was made, and stamp it with the hammer.
The problem was, sometimes it would distort the piece a little bit and the artist had to go back and refinish it. If it’s a hollow piece, you can’t do that. It’s going to crush the whole thing.
What they’ve done now with technology is they actually use a laser. They go in and laser that particular piece of silver and they mark on their sterling and they mark 925. This is the way they get around the fact that it doesn’t have to be punched anymore.
Is it all sterling? Generally, it’s silver. Even though they’ve lasered it, again, I’m going to tell you it’s not 92.5 percent pure. I don’t care what manufacturer you talk to who you talk to, it’s not coming out 92.5 percent pure.
The only country that I’ve never had a problem with when I’ve asked about pieces is English stuff that has the hallmarks. They were sticklers for that as far as that goes.
As a matter of fact, I’ve sold pieces to English dealers who, when they bring it back into the country, it’s inspected. I had a teapot where the handle had been replaced at some point in time. The teapot itself was 92.5 percent pure, but the handle was not stamped 925.
He informed me of the fact that he couldn’t bring it into the country for the simple fact that the handle might not be 925 silver. They wouldn’t allow him to sell that back in his country as an antique because theoretically you couldn’t prove that it was 925 all the way through.
Like I said, they’re real sticklers on that. There are other countries out there that do silver. Scandinavian silver a lot of times will have the mark 935. Again, they made sure that their silver was a little better than sterling silver.
You’ll see 835, which is another Scandinavian number. Again, they weren’t trying to fleece anybody. They’re standard was 835 instead of 925 and they were regulated by law to mark it 835. This is something that had to be done.
You’ll find some other letters on different pieces of hollowware and flatware. EPC is one that you’ll see. It sounds impressive, and it might even say EPCO. You might say, “Steve told me to look for these marks that are impressed into the silver. This looks like it’s impressed into it. I’m going to buy it.”
EPC means electro-plated copper. You’ll also find EPNS, which is another one. Again, you’re going to say, “There’s the EPN and an S that must mean silver.”
It means electro-plated nickel silver. Nickel silver is tin and zinc. There’s no silver content to it whatsoever.
You may see the word German silver. A lot of times you’ll see this on flatware. You’ll see it on watch cases. No silver whatsoever.
Alaska silver: no silver. None.
You’ll find that a lot of these pieces that have the word silver in them have a prefix of some sort, some country alluding to the fact that it’s silver. If it doesn’t say sterling, if it doesn’t say coin, if it doesn’t have a three-digit fineness number (that fineness is the purity of that particular silver), then it’s not going to be silver.
Don’t fall for all those letters and stamps and things on the back side of a piece of silver-colored material or object. It has to say sterling; it has to say the fineness; it’s got to have hallmarks on it. Again, you’re looking for that lion passant.
Some of the other countries mark their pieces with different silver marks. There are books on nothing but silver marks to tell you. Again, most of the things you’re going to find in our country are going to say sterling on them.
If it says A1, that’s plated. If it says IS, that’s International Silver Company. That means that was not sterling. If you see the word International and then see sterling after that, that was a different division of International Silver Company, and that was the actual silver pieces.
Some people will say to me, “What about knives and stuff? They have stainless steel blades, but are the handles sterling?”
Generally, if the handle was sterling, around the bottom of it or around where it attaches to the knife blade, it might be marked on there sterling very small. The handle is hollow, the blade is stainless steel. There’s resin, some sort of a glue of types that fills the handles up. The handles are about half an ounce of silver. Some of them are a little less than that.
The handles are silver, and a lot of times when people come in and I’m weighing up a set of silver, they go, “You didn’t weight the handles.”
The reason is the handles are half an ounce. They’re not something I’m going to throw on the scale and pay for the stainless steel blade on it.
Sometimes you’ll find mother of pearl pieces. These are nice decorative pieces. Sometimes the band that attaches the handle to the other portion of the mother or pearl knife or fork or spoon, sometimes that little collar will be silver. Sometimes it won’t be. Usually, if it’s silver, it would be marked sterling.
These are some of the things you want to look for before you bring them in to Westchester Gold to sell it to us. If you’re not sure, put the stuff that you think is for sure sterling in a box. The stuff you’re not sure of, put it in another box. Bring it in and we’ll be more than happy to look at that for you.
We’ve been doing this for 37 years. I sort of know what most of the marks are that we’re looking for. Some of them are going to have better makers if the maker’s name is on it. Some of them bring huge premiums over the silver.
If you’ve got stuff, whether it’s silver jewelry or silver flatware or silver hollowware and you’re not sure, please bring it by Westchester Gold and Diamonds. We’re in the plaza behind ABC Liquors. With that, we’re going to take a quick break and return to Tradio.
We are back with Tradio. Our number is 206-1580 if you’ve got questions for us. Give us a buzz. We’re taking those phone calls right now.
Ken: What about Italian silver?
Steve: Italian silver? What about it?
Ken: What’s the percentage on that? Is that real silver?
Steve: We get a lot of high-quality jewelry from Italy. We have a lot of Italian designers come up with pieces. As a matter of fact, for Valentine’s day we just got in a bunch of chains and earrings and things that are all diamond-cut. They’re really sparkly.
The Italian stuff, basically that is assayed before it is imported into the country. It’s checked to make sure that it’s sterling. A lot of these companies, you’ll find what they do is they rhodium plate their silver. Rhodium is a white metal similar to platinum. It’s very expensive.
It’s over $1,300 an ounce right now. What they do is they plate it. Sometimes they’ll plate silver stuff with nickel, but the higher-quality Italian pieces are platinum plated or rhodium plated to give them a whole lot of sparkle so they look really good.
The Italian pieces now that you get in do assay out pretty close to sterling silver.
Ken: Cool. Hit it.
Steve: Good morning. You’re on Tradio.
Caller: Good morning, Steve. Quick question: I inherited a flatware set from my grandmother. It’s old. I’m old. I’m 70. It’s marked on the back Steeph sterling and there’s a rose pattern.
Steve: Steeph Rose. It’s made in Maryland.
Caller: I think it’s 12 place settings, plus it has all the different dainty stuff.
Steve: Spoons and butter spreaders and all that.
Caller: It think it’s close to 80 or 90 pieces. Is that usually good silver? I know it’s old.
Steve: Steeph Rose was an earlier pattern they kept developing into the 50s and 60s. Steeph is a better company and usually that stuff will come out at sterling silver. It used to be a really good pattern that was quite saleable.
Right now with the high silver prices, the scrap value is about the same as the resale value on it, but it’s still a lot of money right there. You’re little spoons are small, but you’ve got some serving items in there.
If you figure somewhere between $20 and $25 a piece, that’s going to give you a pretty good estimate of what that’s going to be worth.
Caller: Thank you very much.
Steve: Good morning. You’re on Tradio.
Caller: Good morning. Can you tell me if you can have anything re-plated if the silver plating has worn off? It’s a favorite thing of mine.
Steve: Yeah, there’s a company in Tampa and also one I used to use in Atlanta. It’s very expensive to get done, so it’s got to be something you really love. What happens is they polish all the silver off of it first, then they have to copper plate it, then they nickel plate it and then they silver plate it.
It’s a long involved process and it’s rather expensive, but if you love it, that can be done for you.
Caller: Thank you.
Steve: You’re certainly welcome. Bye. We’re just about out of time. I would like to say thanks again for listening. It’s almost Valentine’s day. We’ve got a huge sale going on.
Stop in and see us, please. With that I’m going to say goodbye, everyone, until next week.
Have Questions about your antiques, estate jewelry, collectibles or old treasures?
If you have questions for Steve Duke to answer about your jewelry, antiques or collectibles, just send a photo of the item and your question directly to Steve Duke at WGDiamonds@HotMail.com and Steve will research it for you and you may be contacted to participate in an upcoming Tradio episode. Be sure to include your name, email and phone number along with your question and email it to: WGDiamonds@HotMail.com
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Westchester Gold and Diamonds is one of the largest buyers of gold, silver, diamonds, Rolex watches, antique and estate jewelry in southwest Florida.
As the premier jewelry store in Port Charlotte since 1974. We do custom design and we are able to duplicate many designs that you may have seen in your travels; often at a fraction of the price.
We accept your old diamonds and jewelry in trade, the same as cash.