Tradio: What you should know about silver
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Steve Duke: And if I said to you, back in the 1400s there was only seven metals known to man – seven metals – what do you think they’d be?
Ken: Lead, copper, bronze, brass, silver, and gold.
Steve: Well, you got silver and gold, and lead. What were the other ones you said?
Steve: No. Those are both alloys.
Steve: But, 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: Oh, I did not consider that. I failed science.
Steve: As a matter of fact, mercury – back in Roman days and around Greece and Pompeii – when I was out in Italy. It’s funny, but they had, they actually had aqueducts back that early and the aqueducts were made out of lead and sometimes they were coated with mercury on the outsides.
Ken: Oh, that’s good.
Steve: Well, the best part is they’re made out of lead, so all of the water going through the people would die from lead poisoning.
Steve: It’s – it was interesting, but 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. The one thing that we have a lot of people come in with sterling silver items, or some silver items. They’re not really sure – “How do I know what I’m looking for?”
And, there’s a lot of different things you look for, but just to give you a quick history lesson of the world “sterling.” You know, people come in and say, “Well, what exactly is sterling silver?” I sit there and I say to them, “You know, sterling silver theoretically is 92.5% percent pure silver. It’s alloyed with, like, 75% something else, and nobody really asks me this, but I figure for Tradio, we could 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% pure is what silver items should be in England. And how did we actually arrive at that? There’s a couple of different stories about how the word “sterling” evolved, and it’s actually – one story says that it’s actually named after the English silver penny that was used back at that point in time, which was called a “starling.”
And 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. And they took the word “starling” and evolved it into “sterling” to mean it was 92.5% pure, because this is what the purity actually was of these silver coins called “starlings.”
Now another story is how this arrived, and the two of them sort of intertwine. It’s a fact that they said that King Edward hired a band of Germanic tribal men who were craftsmen – they dealt in silver. And they took the starling coin that was 92.5% pure and they started to make objects that they could actually use – you know, bowls and silverware, flatware and different utensils.
The fact that they melted this down and the coins were 92.5% pure, they dropped the name, the “ea” off of “easterlings” and they became “sterling.”
So this is pretty much the two stories that you’ll hear, since there’s nobody around from the 1300s that can really clear this whole matter up, but anyway, we do know for the fact that the word “sterling” supposedly means that the silver item is 92.5% pure. If it came from England, you’re pretty sure that it’s going to be, for the simple reason that in the 1300s, King Edward ran into a bunch of goldsmiths the ability to assay silver items.
He formed what was known as “the goldsmith company.” Now, because they were goldsmiths, that doesn’t mean that stuff was all made out of gold. They worked in gold as well as sterling, and this whole company was housed in a large hall. And, since there were different areas and there were different offices where they would do the assays on this stuff, we get the name – it evolved to the name “hallmark,” because it had to be assayed in this particular hall of the goldsmith company.
Now, what’s a hallmark and what’s this got to do with sterling? Well, I’ll 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, it could be alloyed with nickel, and it was 92.5% 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, and this means a little piece would be clipped off of it, and melted, and checked for the fineness or the purity of the silver. Well, it had to be 92.5% pure silver, or what happened? After that silversmith 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 where again, the English silver pieces have to be 92.5% pure. Now, is that the same rules and regulations for the rest of the world? Not necessarily. You know, England is the only country that I know of that does an actual assay on any of their products before they’re sold.
You’ve got a lot of large American companies over the years, they’re from the turn of the century and even before the turn of the century, who made silver items. Now back in the 1860s, we’ll see hallmarks on a lot of silver pieces, sometimes a lot of watch cases will be marked, a lot of flatware or eating utensils will be marked. Even some tea sets and useable objects in what we call “hollow ware” will be marked.
The mark that you’ll see on the bottom of it says “coin.” Well, when you see the word “coin,” that means, basically, what they’ve done was they melted the old silver coins and the silver coins at that time were 90% pure, they weren’t 92.5% pure. So rather than writing or putting the word “sterling,” which in theory meant that it was going to be 92.5% pure, they put the word “coin,” which told everyone else: “You know what, this is 90% silver because it was made out of melted coins.”
Now, to go back to the English hallmarking – and when I say “hallmark,” what am I actually talking about? If you look at the bottom, or on a piece of English silver, somewhere on the bottom you’ll see three marks that are indented into that silver. On the first mark you’ll see what we refer to as a “lion passant,” and what does this mean? This means that if you look into there, a lot of times you can see with your eyes if it’s a larger hallmark, and they won’t be huge.
The hallmarks are not going to be really big, like marks on silver. But the first one you’ll see is what we call the “lion passant.” And this is a lion with his leg raised, facing the left. And no, it’s not a back leg, it’s a front leg, so we know that he’s sort of marching or walking, and this is the actual silver mark to show that this silver is 92.5% pure.
The lion passant is exactly what that means, when you see that lion. Now the next mark will be where that particular piece was assayed at, and 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 a floral looking type of a thing. They only had four places where silver was actually assayed all over England.
So if it was made in Birmingham, you had an anchor. If it was made in Sheffield, you had a little thing that looked 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 head. So this is the second hallmark you’ll see on a piece of silver.
The third hallmark is what we look at, and it’s what we call a “letter stamp,” or a “date stamp.” What they did, 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 written, and one year it could have little serifs on the edges of the letters, but the style of the letter would tell you exactly what year that particular piece of silver was made.
And if it was made a year later, you couldn’t go back and date that, so it had to be a hallmark that year in December. By the end of December, it had to have that letter date on it, so if you saw a letter date that was for 1860, in 1861 I guarantee there’s a new letter on there. The letter dating was a system that they still use today.
And it tells us exactly when the piece was made, the fact that its sterling, where it was assayed at, and as an optional mark sometimes you’ll find a maker mark. This is a person who actually made that particular piece of silver.
Now, what’s 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 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% 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 reassayed, because the silver handle was only 90% pure, it would not come out at 92.5%.
So, you know, these assayers, these goldsmith company, the people who worked there and governed the quality of the pieces made were real stickers, so anytime you find an English piece of silver, if it wasn’t done in one piece and it had applied handles, the handles were made and were turn around and soldered onto the piece of silver, you’ll find the hallmarks on each and every individual piece that was made into that particular large piece of silver.
So, the fact – that way it was all guaranteed to be 92.5% pure. Now, moving along from England to the States, a lot of times you’ll find companies that would mark their pieces sterling. I’m going to tell you that 99% of the pieces that are marked sterling in the U.S. are less than 92.5% pure.
Now people say, “Well, how do you know that?” Because what I do at West Chester Gold and Diamonds is we’ll buy hundreds and hundreds of silver sets in the course of a year. And some of those sets, we will buy for the pattern – you know, they’re re-saleable patterns. A lot of them, if they’re monogrammed – you know, they’ve got somebody’s initials cut into them – a lot of times those monograms are very deep and you can’t take those monograms out.
Sometimes they’re not that deep and you can. But the majority of the tea sets and flatware sets, and hollow ware and stuff 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 88-90% pure. And that’s a big difference. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a big difference.
Number one, to someone like myself 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 2.5-3%, that adds up rather quickly, especially if you’re the manufacturer.
So, a lot of the manufacturers tend to make their items not what we were really call “sterling.” It’s amazing today when I see a lot of the chains and jewelry come in, and what we’ll do is – one of our tests for sterling is we’ll use a magnet on it, and if the sterling attaches itself to the magnet, then it’s either not sterling, or it’s considerably less in the silver content.
So you’ve got to really be careful, so yeah, this is a little prospecting tip. If you’re out there and you’re doing the garage sales and things, you look at a piece of silver colored items. You’re not really sure if it’s silver or not, get out the old magnet, touch it. If it’s attached to the magnet, you probably want to pass on it. A lot of that stuff is not going to be silver, or if it is, it’s an extremely low grade of silver.
And what’s going to happen is you go to turn around and try to sell it to one of the other dealers, they’re going to put a magnet on it and they’re just going to pass on it. Because they don’t really know the fact that it could be a smaller percentage of silver, but the fact that it’s attracted to the magnet, most dealers are going to pass on it and say, “This is not silver.”
Even though that’s not true, it does have some silver content, it’s certainly not sterling. Certainly not – nowhere close to 92.5% percent pure.
So when we look at silver, what are we looking for? Number one, if it has hallmarks, that’s a good thing. A lot of the U.S. companies put different – they’re not hallmarks. Their stuff is marked “sterling,” which means theoretically it’s 92.5% pure, but you’ll see, sometimes you’ll see the company name done in three letters, which it turns around and people who are not as knowledgeable as yourselves are going to say, “Well, that’s the three letters that Steve was talking about on Tradio.”
Those aren’t the three letters. Remember, you’re looking for a lion passant, you’re looking for a leopard head, or some other kind of 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 that 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 emblem. But if you see the word “sterling” underneath that, that’s going to tell you it’s 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, and you might find the number “.925.” Again, impressed into that piece of silver item. That again is a silver mark that tells you it’s theoretically 92.5% pure.
Some of the German silver, you’ll find a mark that’s just stamped into it that says “.800,” which means that’s 80% 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, it’s an item number so it’s not going to mean that it’s 90% pure.
A purity mark is 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 silver with what they call a “Britannia standard,” is “.958.” It’s a higher grade silver.
You may see the number “.999” which is pure silver. You may find this not in too many of the English pieces, but in a lot of the Oriental pieces are marked “.999.” They’re very proud of it. They want you to know that it’s pure silver. It’s not just 92.5% pure.
But getting back to the U.S. markings, if you see the word “sterling” along with some of these awkward looking letters and things like that, it’s probably a piece of sterling silver. Usually the U.S. companies won’t bother marking a piece “sterling” unless it really is, or at least, it’s at least silver and it’s got a higher silver content.
Like I said, sterling theoretically stands for 92.5% pure, but again, it’s not usually 92.5% pure if it’s American.
Now how do you tell? Where do you look for these marks? If it’s a piece of flatware, a spoon or a fork, something on this order – if you flip it over and you look on the back side, it may say “Gorham,” it could say “Rogers Brothers,” it could say “International.” A lot of these are different companies that made silver.
Right after that company name you’ll see the word “sterling” stamped into that particular piece of silver object. Now 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, one did mostly plate.
So if you see “Rogers Brothers 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.
Now, what they’ve done recently I think, after 1999 I believe it was, rather than pressing the word “sterling” into a lot of pieces, what happens – a lot of stuff is made in China, as far as jewelry goes and it’s casted and it’s hollow. A lot of this stuff you’ll see on QVC on television. They’re 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’s hollow, it looks really big but it’s not that expensive for the simple reason – they gauge on how much silver they’re going to actually put into that piece. So even though it’s a big look, it’s hollow and it doesn’t have as much silver as you would think it would.
The problem is when they mark a piece of silver, it’s generally stamped into that silver. The old time days, it was pressed right into it – 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 back side of that particular piece of item, whatever he made, and stamp it with the hammer.
The problem was – sometimes it would distort the piece a little bit, and then the artisan had to go back and refinish it. Well, if it’s a hollow piece you can do that. It’s going to crush the whole thing, so what they’ve done now with our technology – they actually use a laser. They go in and they laser that particular piece of silver over, and they mark on there “sterling,” and they mark “.925,” and this is the way they get around it doesn’t have to be punched anymore.
Now, 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% pure. I don’t care what manufacturer you talk to, or who you talk to. It’s not coming out 92.5% pure. The only country that I’ve ever, never had a problem with when I’ve assayed out pieces was English stuff that had the hallmarks, because they were sticklers for that as far as that goes.
As matter of fact, I’ve sold pieces to English dealers who, when I would show them the piece, they would – because when they bring it back into the country as an antique, it’s inspected. And I had a teapot where the handle had been replaced at some point in time, and the teapot itself was 92.5% pure, but the handle was not stamped “.925.”
He informed me of the fact that he couldn’t bring that into the country for the simple fact that that handle might not be .925 silver. So 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.
Well, like I say they’re real sticklers on that. Now, there’s other countries out there that do silver – Scandinavian silver, a lot of the times, you’ll see the mark on that as “.935,” so again, they made sure that their silver was a little better than sterling silver.
You’ll see “.835,” which again is another Scandinavian number. Again, they weren’t trying to fleece anybody. Their standard was 83.5% rather than 92.5%, and they – by law – were regulated to make the fact that it was marked “.835,” so this was something that had to be done.
You’ll find some other letters on different pieces of hollow ware and flat ware. “EPC” is one that you’ll see, and it sounds impressive – “EPC!” It might say “EPCO.” Again, you’re going to sit there and say, “Well Steve told me to look for these marks that are impressed into the silver. This looks like something that’s impressed, so I’m going to buy it.” “EPC” means “electroplated copper.”
You’ll also find “EPNS,” which is another one. Now again, you’re going to say, “Well look, there’s the ‘EP’ and the ‘N’ and here’s an ‘S’ which much mean ‘silver.’” It does in a way. It means “electroplated 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.
So 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 – and again, that fineness is the purity of that particular silver – then it’s not going to be silver.
Don’t fall for the fact that, you know, you see these 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. And again, you’re looking for that lion passant which will tell you that.\
Now again, some of the other countries mark their pieces with different silver marks. You know, there’s books on nothing but silver marks to tell you. But again, you know, 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 played. If it says “IS,” that’s International Silver Company, that means that was not sterling.
If you see the word “International,” then you 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 is 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 concrete or there’s resin, some sort of glue of type that fills the handle up.
The handles are about half an ounce of silver. Some of them are a little less than that. But yes, the handles are silver, and a lot of times when people come in and I’m weighing up a set of silver, they go “Why not give away the handles?” Well, for the reason being that the handles are half an ounce. They’re not something I’m going to throw on a 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 of pearl knife or fork, or spoon – sometimes that little collar will be silver, sometimes it won’t be. Usually if it’s silver, again, it would be marked “sterling.”
These are some of the things that you want to look for before you bring them into Westchester Gold to sell them to us. If you’re not sure, put the stuff that you think is for sure sterling in a box, and the stuff you’re not sure of, put it in another box and bring it in. 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 markets are that we’re looking for. Some of them are going to have better makers. If the maker’s name is on it. And some of them bring huge premiums over the silver. So if you’ve got stuff, whether it’s silver jewelry or silver flatware, or silver hollow ware, and you’re not sure, please bring it by Westchester Gold and Diamonds. We’re in the Baer’s Plaza behind the ABC Liquors.
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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