Steve Duke presents Tradio Gems (Excerpts from Tradio)
Let’s Talk about Silver
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If I said to you, back in the 1400s there were only seven metals known to man, seven metals! What do you think they would be?
Lead, copper, bronze, brass, silver, and gold.
Well, you got silver, gold, and lead. What was the other one you said?
Nope. Those are both alloys.
But that was pretty good! The actual answer would be gold, silver, copper…
Lead. Then one that most people don’t even consider as a metal, mercury.
Oh yeah, I did not even consider that. Metal sciences.
I saw this when I was out in Italy but as a matter of fact, mercury, back in Roman days around Greece in Pompeii, they actually had aqueducts back that early and the aqueducts were made out of lead and sometimes they were coated in mercury on the outsides.
Well, that is good.
The best part is they are made out of lead, so all the water that is going through the people would die from lead poisoning.
It was interesting. Since we do not really deal in copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury, but we do deal in a lot of gold and silver items at Westchester Gold and Diamonds. The one thing that we have a lot of people come in with is sterling silver items or some silver items and they are not really sure. How do I know what I am looking for? There are a lot of different things you look for but just to give you a quick history lesson of the word sterling, you know, if people come in and say, “What exactly is sterling silver?” I can sit there and say to them, “Sterling silver, theoretically, is 92 ½ % pure silver. It is alloyed with 75% of something else.”
Nobody really asks me this but I figured 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 that 92 ½ % pure is what silver items should be in England. How did we actually arrive there? There are a couple different stories how the word sterling evolved.
One story says that it is actually named after the 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 but it had something to do with the fact that it had this shine to it, silver has a natural shine. They took the word “Starling” and it evolved into “Sterling” to mean that it was 92 ½ % pure because this is what the purity actually was of this silver coins called Starlings.
Now another story of how this arrived, the two of them sort of intertwine with that fact that they said that King Edward hired a band of Germanic tribal men who where craftsman and they dealt in silver. They took the Starling coin that was 92 ½ % pure and they started to make objects that they could actually use, like bowls and silverware, flatware, and different utensils. The fact that they melted this down and the coins where 92 ½ % pure, they dropped the “e” off of esterlings and the word became “sterling”.
Those are pretty much the two stories that you will hear since there is nobody around from the 1300s who can really clear this whole matter up. But anyway, we do know the fact that the word “sterling” supposedly means that the silver item is 92 ½ % pure. If it came from England, you are pretty sure that it is going to be for the simple reason that in the 1300s King Edward granted a bunch of goldsmiths the ability to assay silver items. They formed, what was known as, The Goldsmith Company. Now, because they were goldsmiths doesn’t mean that the stuff was made out of gold, they worked in gold as well as sterling. This whole company was housed in a large hall. Since there were different areas and different offices where they would do the assays on this stuff, we get the name evolved to the name “Hallmark” because it was head of the assayed in this particular hall of The Goldsmith Company.
Now, what is a “Hallmark” and what does this have to do with sterling? Well, I will explain it to you. Since English silver is basically the beginning of sterling silver, what the English would do is when a piece was made out of silver it had to be alloyed. It could be alloyed with copper or it could be alloyed with nickel. It was 92 ½ % pure silver and again, the rest of it was an alloy of some sort.
Well, before it could be sold or marketed it would have to be assayed. This means that a little piece would be clipped off of it and melted and checked for the fineness or the purity of the silver. It had to 92 ½ % pure silver or what happened, after that silver smith made this entire piece of silver, if it didn’t come out to the right assay it was destroyed. No if, ands or buts. You were trying to defraud the public and it was melted.
This continues, believe it or not, until today where, again, the English silver pieces have to 92 ½ % pure. Is that the same rules and regulations for the rest of the world? Not necessarily. England is the only country that I know of that actually does an actual assay on any of their products before they are sold. You have got a lot of large American companies over the years that, from the turn of the century and even before the turn of the century, have made silver items.
Now, in the 1860s we will see a marks on a lot of silver pieces, sometimes a lot of watch cases will be marked, a lot of flatware or eating utensils would be marked. Even some tea sets and usable objects in what we call hollowware will be marked. The marking that you see on the bottom of it says, “Coin”. When you see the word coin that means, basically, what they have done was they melted the old silver coins. The silver coins at that time where 90% pure, and were not 92 ½ % pure. Rather than putting the word “sterling” which, in theory, meant that it was going to be 92 ½ % pure, they put the word “coin” which told everyone else that this is 90% silver because it was made out of melted coins.
To go back to the English hallmarking, when I say “hallmark” what am I actually talking about? If you look on the bottom or on a piece of English silver, somewhere on the bottom you will see three marks that are indented into that silver. The first mark you will see is what we refer to as the lion passant. What does this mean? A lot of times you can see with your eyes if it is a larger hallmark but they will not be huge, the hallmarks are not going to be very big marks on the silver. But the first one you will see when you look in there is what we call the lion passant and this is a lion with his leg raised facing the left. No, it is not a back leg, it is a front leg. We know that he is sort of marching or walking and this is the actual silver mark to show that this silver is 92 ½ % pure. The lion passant is exactly what that means, when you see that 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, and it could be a floral looking type of thing. There were only 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, you had what looked a little bit like a castle. If it was made in Edinburgh, it had another mark. If it was made in London, it had a queen’s head or a leopard’s head. This is the second hallmark you will see on a piece of silver.
The third hallmark that we look at is what we call a letter’s stamp or a date stamp. What they did was they went through the alphabet and they turned around and made the letters different. One year they could be a capital, one year it could be a written, and in one year it could have little serifs on the edges of the letters. The style of the letter would tell you exactly what year that particular 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 that year in December, by the end of December it had to have that letter date on it. If you saw a letter date that was for 1860 from 1861, I guarantee you there is a new letter on there.
The letter dating was a system that they still use today. It tells us exactly when the piece was made, the fact that is sterling, where it was assayed at and as optional mark, sometimes you will find a maker mark. This is the person who actually made that particular piece of silver. Now, what is kind of neat is the fact that the English were such sticklers for purity and to be able to guarantee that you were getting what you had, if they made a cup in which the body of the cup was assayed and it was sterling, then they applied a handle to it and they assayed that handle as well. The body of the cup was sterling but the handle was only 90% pure. They would actually destroy that entire piece of silver for the simple reason that if the whole thing was melted down into a blob, and re-assayed, because the silver handle was only 90% pure, it would not come out 92 ½ %.
These assayers, these goldsmith companies and the people who work there and govern the quality of the pieces made where real sticklers. Anytime you find an English piece of silver, if it was not done in one piece and handles were made and then turned around and soldering onto the piece of silver, you will find the hallmarks on each and every individual piece that was made into that particular larger piece of silver. That way it was all guaranteed to be 92 ½ % pure.
Moving along from England to the States, a lot of times you will find companies that will mark their pieces “sterling”. I am going to tell you , 99% of the pieces that are marked sterling in the US are less than 92 ½ % pure. People say, “Well, how do you know that?” Because what I do at Westchester Gold and Diamond is we will buy hundreds and hundreds of silver sets in the course of a year. Some of those sets we will buy for the pattern, they are resalable patterns. If they are monogrammed and they have someone’s initials cut into them, a lot of times those monograms are very deep and you can’t take those out, sometimes they are not that deep and you can, but the majority of the tea sets, flatware sets, and hollowware sets that we get now are melted down.
When I get those results from the refinery, most of those things are going to come somewhere between 88% and 90% pure. That is a big difference! It doesn’t sound like a lot but it is a big difference. Number one, to someone like me who buys and sells sterling items like that by weight, but 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 two and a half to three percent that adds up rather quickly, especially if you are the manufacturer. A lot of the manufacturers tend to make their items not what we would really call sterling.
It is amazing today, when I see a lot of the chains and jewelry come in, we will do what is one of our tests for sterling and that is to use a magnet on it. If the sterling attaches itself to the magnet then it is either not sterling or it is considerably less than silver content. You have got to really be careful. This is a little prospecting tip, if you are out there doing the garage sales and things, you look at a piece of silver colored items and you are not really sure if it is silver or not, get out the old magnet and touch it. If it is attracted to the magnet, you will probably want to pass on it.
A lot of that stuff is not going to be silver and if it is, it is an extremely low grade of silver. What is going to happen is you turn around to try to sell it to one of the other dealers, they are going to put a magnet on it and they are just going to pass on it. They don’t really know the fact that it could be a smaller percentage of silver but the fact that it is attracted to the magnet, most dealers are going to pass on it and say, “This is not silver.” Even though it is not true because it does have silver content, it is certainly not sterling. It is certainly not anywhere close to 92 ½ % pure.
When we look at silver, what are we looking for? Number one, if it has hallmarks, that is a good thing. A lot of the US companies put different things, but they are not hallmarks. Their stuff is marked “sterling” which mean, theoretically, it is 92 ½ % pure. But sometimes you will see the company name done in three letters which turns around and people who are not as knowledgeable as yourselves are going to say, “Well that is the three letters that Steve was talking about on Tradio.” Those are not the three letters. Remember, you are looking for a lion passant, you are looking for a leopard head or a some other kind of figure that tells you where it was assayed at, and you are looking for a letter stamp, a date stamp.
You will find, a lot of times, a lion on one of the marks that a lot of the American companies use. You will find a letter which alludes to the fact that it might be a letter stamp or a date stamp and usually some sort of emblem. But if you see the word “sterling” underneath of that, which is going to tell you that it is not an English piece. You won’t see the word “sterling” written on any kind of English pieces, all you will see are those hallmarks.
You might find the number 925, again, impressed into that piece of silver item. That is a silver mark that tells you it is, theoretically, 92 ½ % pure. Some of the German silver will have a mark that is just stamped into it and says “800” which means that is 80% silver. You may find some of the companies that mark their stuff with a 90, which is not the purity of the silver but is a catalog number. It is an item number so it is not going to mean that it is 90% pure.
A purity mark is always going to have three numbers on it since purity in metals is carried out to three places. You may see 800, you may see 925. Some of the betters silvers with what they call Brittania standard is 958; it is a higher grade silver. You may see the number 999 which is pure silver. You may find this, not too many of the English pieces have it, but a lot of the oriental pieces are marked 999. They are very proud of it and they want you to know that it is pure silver and not just 92 ½ % pure.
Getting back to the US markings, if you see the word “sterling” along with some of these awkward looking letters and things like that it is probably a piece of sterling silver. Usually the US companies won’t bother marking a piece “sterling” unless it really is or it is at least silver with a higher silver content. Like I said, sterling, theoretically, stands for 92 ½ % pure but it is not usually 92 ½ % pure if it is American.
Now, where do you look for these marks? If it is a piece of flatware, a spoon or a fork or something on this order, if you flip it over and look on the backside it may say “Gorham”, it could say “Rogers Brothers”, or it could say “International”. A lot of these are different companies that made silver. Right after that company name you will see the word “sterling” stamped into that particular piece of silver object.
You might see “Rogers Brothers A1 Silver”; Rogers Brothers did mainly silver plating. There was another company, there were two different Rogers Brothers companies, one did sterling and one did mostly plate. So if you see Rogers Brother A1 silver, geez, it sounds like it out to be sterling but it is not marked “sterling” and if it does not say “sterling” it is not going to be sterling. Remember that in an American piece.
What they have done recently, after I think 1999, I believe it was, they didn’t press the word “sterling” into a lot of pieces. A lot of this stuff is made in China as far as the jewelry goes, and it is casted and hollow. A lot of this stuff you will see on QVC on television, are big hollow bracelets and rings and things like this, it gives you a big look. Why do they make them hollow? Because, they can vacuum form this piece, it is hollow, it looks really big, but it is not that expensive for the simple reason that they gauge on how much silver they are going to actually put into that piece. Even though it is a big look, it is hollow and it doesn’t have as much silver as you would think it does.
The problem is, with a market piece of silver, it is generally stamped into that silver. The old time days, it was pressed right into it. In the smaller pieces, an artisan would actually take a punch made out of steel with your silver marks and take a hammer, put it on the backside of that particular piece of item or whatever you made and stamp it with the hammer. The problem was that sometimes it would distort the piece a little bit and then the artisan had to go back and refinish it. Well, if it is a hollow piece, you can’t do that because it is going to crush the whole thing.
What they have done now with our technology is they actually use a laser. They go in and they laser that particular piece of silver and they mark on their sterling, they mark 925. This is way they get around the fact that it does not have to be punched anymore. Is it all sterling? Generally, it is silver. Even though they have lasered it, again I am going to tell you, it is not 92 ½ % pure. I don’t care what manufacturer you talk to or who you talk to, it is not coming out 92 ½ % pure.
The only country that I have never had a problem with when I assayed out pieces was English stuff that had the hallmarks because they were sticklers as far as that goes. As a matter of fact I sold pieces to English dealers who, when I would show them a piece and they would bring it back into the country as an antique, it has to be inspected. I had a teapot where the handle had been replaced at some point in time and the teapot itself was 92 ½ % pure but the handle was not stamped 925. He informed me of the fact that he could not bring that into the country for the simple fact that that handle might not be 925 silver. They would not allow him to sell that back in his country as an antique because, theoretically, you could not prove that it was 925 all the way through. Like I say, they are real sticklers on that.
There are other countries out there that do silver. In Scandinavian silver, a lot of times you will see the mark on that 935. Again, they made sure that their silver was a little better than the sterling silver. You will see 835 which, again, is another Scandinavian number. They were not trying to fleece anybody, their standard is 835 rather than 925 and they, by law, were regulated to make the fact that it was marked 835. This is something that had to be done.
You will find someone other letters on different pieces of hollowware and flatware, EPC is one that you will see. It sounds impressive, EPC, and it might say EPCO. Again, you are going to sit there say, “Well Steve told me to look for these marks that are impressed into the silver. This looks like something that is impressed, I am going to buy it.” EPC means electroplated copper. You will also find EPNS which is another one. Again, you are going to say, “Well look, there is the EP and the N and there is an S that must mean silver.” It does, in a way. It means electroplated nickel silver. Nickel silver is tin and zinc; there is no silver content to it whatsoever.
You may see the word “German Silver”, a lot of times you will see this on flatware or you will see it on watch cases. It has no silver whatsoever. Alaska silver, eh, no silver. None. You will 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 is silver, but if it does not say “sterling” or if it does not say “coin” and it does not have a three digit fineness number, which is, again, the fineness is the purity of that particular silver, then it is not going to be silver.
Do not fall for the fact that you see all these letters and stamps and things on the backside of a piece of silver colored material or object, it has to say “sterling”, it has to say the fineness, and it has got to have hallmarks on it. Again, you are looking for that lion passant which will tell you that.
Some of the other countries mark their pieces with different silver marks. There are books on nothing but silver marks to tell you. Most of the things that you are going to find in our country are going to say “sterling” on them. If it says “A1”, that is plated. If it says “IS” that is international silver company, which means that that was not sterling. If you see the word “International” then you see the word “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 was hollow, the blade is stainless steel, and there is concrete or there is resin, some sort of a glue of types that fills the handle up. The handles are about a half an ounce of silver, some of them are a little less than that. Yes, the handles are silver.
A lot of times when people come in and I am weighing up a set of silver they ask, “Why are you not going to weigh the handles?” Well, the reason being that the handles are a half an ounce. They are not something that I am going to throw on a scale and pay for the stainless steel blade on it.
Sometimes you will find Mother of Pearl pieces, these are nice decorative pieces. Sometimes the band that attaches the handle to the other portion of the Mother of Pearl knife or fork or spoon, sometimes that little collar will be silver and sometimes it won’t be. Usually if it is silver, again, it will be marked “sterling”.
These are some of the things that you want to look for before you bring them into the Westchester Gold to sell them to use. If you are not sure, put the stuff that you think is for sure sterling in a box, the stuff that you are not sure of, put it in another box. Bring it in and we will be more than happy to look at that for you. We have been doing this for 37 years so I sort of know what most of the marks are that we are 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 have got stuff, whether it is silver jewelry or silver flatware or silver hollowware and you are not sure, please bring it by Westchester Gold and Diamonds. We are in Baer’s Plaza behind ABC liquors.
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