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An Introduction to Antique Silver

Like gold, silver's intrinsic qualities have made it highly desirable throughout history. For centuries, silver has been utilized as a display of personal wealth by peoples from across the globe. It has been used to create flatwares, hollow wares, jewelry, watches, and objects d' virtu. However, pure silver is a very soft and malleable metal which must be made into an alloy so it can be used to create functional objects. Below is an introduction into the most common types of pure and plated silver. 

Sterling Silver: Also known as 'plate' or 'plata' is the most common and well-known silver alloy. Sterling silver is composed of 92.5% silver and 6.5% copper.

Britannia Silver:  Exclusively produced in England between 1697 and 1720, Britannia silver is 95.83% silver and 4.17% copper. Since 1720, Britannia silver has been produced in conjunction with sterling silver. 

Coin Silver: Prior to 1870, American silver was referred to as 'coin silver' and is approximately 90% silver and 10% copper. Between 1870 and 1907, coin silver and sterling silver were simultaneously produced, before coin silver was ultimately discontinued. This alloy was widely used as silver tableware in the United States between 1820 and 1868, and as common currency until 1964.

Mexican silver: Mexican silver consists of at least 95% pure silver and 5% copper. This alloy is not currently in wide circulation in Mexico; most of the silver jewelry and accents sold in Mexican marketplaces is forged from 92.5% sterling.

German Silver: This term is usually used to refer to 800-standard silver, which consists of 80% silver and is commonly used for silverware, silver tableware, and decorative silver accents. 900-standard silver is another higher-grade version of German silver and has a 90% silver content.

Sheffield plate: A type of silverplate, Sheffield silver consists of thinly rolled silver applied to both sides of a base-metal plate which is then formed into the desired object. 

Electroplate: A type of silverplate, Electroplate is a process by which silver atoms are attracted to a base-metal by means of electro-current. This process was first patented in 1837 by G.R. & H. Elkington of Birmingham, England.  Electroplated silver is typically marked as EP, EPNS, EPC, or EPWM.

*Silver objects are often times worth far more than their intrinsic or melt value. Please do not sell your silver to a 'cash-for-silver' vendor without consulting an unbiased third-party professional as you may be cheating yourself out of hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars!


ALLOY: A mixture combining two or more compatible metals, such as copper and silver.  

BRITANNIA METAL: An alloy of tin, zinc, and copper which does not contain any silver. It was an inexpensive replacement for silver. It does not take silverplate very effectively. 

BRITANNIA SILVER: Silver having greater fineness than sterling silver (.925); it is .958 silver and less than 4.5% alloy. 

CASTING: The process of making and shaping silver objects by pouring molten metal into a hollow mold which is shaped in the desired form. 

CLOSE PLATING: A process of plating an object of steel or iron (knives) with silver leaf. 

COIN SILVER: Silver with a standard of .900 (or 90%) used for coins which then melted down to make many earlier pieces of American silver (pre-1860). 

DAMASCENED: An object inlaid with narrow strips of silver or gold in an incised metal surface to produce an ornamental design. 

DIE STAMPING: A process of stamping silver in a press to form the design on the sheet. 

DORÉ: The application of gilt to another metal. 

DUTY MARK: A mark punched on certain articles of silver submitted to an assayer’s office in the 18th and 19th centuries to prove the excise tax had been paid. 

EDGING: A technique used by makers of Sheffield Plate to conceal the copper line at the edge of a piece. 

ELECTROPLATING: The process of depositing a thin layer of silver on metal by an electric current. 

E.P.B.M.: Electroplated Britannia Metal 

E.P.C.: Electroplated Copper 

E.P.N.S.: Electroplated Nickel Silver 

E.P.N.S.W.M.M.: Electroplated Nickel Silver White Metal Mounts 

E.P.W.M.: Electroplated White Metal

FAKE: An object that is genuinely old but has been altered or added to (e.g., hallmarks in the body or decoration) for the purpose of deceptively enhancing its value. . 

FORGERY: Close copy of valuable old silverware, made with the intent to deceive. 

FRENCH PLATING: Process of fusing silver on copper after the object was formed; done to repair imperfectly plated copper pieces or finish exposed copper on worn pieces. 

FROSTED SILVER: Chemical process which leaves a very thin matte surface film of pure silver. 

GAUGE: Term used by silver manufacturers to describe the diameter of wire or thickness of a metal sheet to be used in the manufacture of an article. 

GERMAN SILVER: An alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc with no silver content referred to as a white silver or nickel silver. 

GILDING: The process of covering an object with a thin layer of gilt or gold alloy. 

GILT: A thin layer of gold used as decoration.

HALLMARK: An English punched mark to identify the hall or town where an item was as-sayed; however, the word commonly is used to denote any mark on silver. 

HAMMERING: The shaping of silver articles (often hollowware) by hand using different sizes of hammers. 

INTRINSIC VALUE: Melt value of silver. 

LION PASSANT: An English purity hallmark for sterling silver that depicts a lion walking to-ward the viewer’s left with its forepaw raised. 

MALLEABLE: Capable of being extended or beaten into a desired shape by hammering or molding. 

MATTING: Decoration of dull, lusterless, matte surface produced by punching with a special tool on the front side of the object. 

NIELLO: Any of several black metallic alloys of copper, silver, and lead, used to fill in an incised design on the surface of another metal, such as silver. When baked, it hardens and appears as an inlay.  

PARCEL GILDING: Style of decoration on silverware where only a part of the item is covered with gilt (gold). 

PATINA Finish of a surface obtained by age; can be done artificially with various chemicals. 

PENNYWEIGHT: Measure used in silver; one-twentieth of a troy ounce, abbreviated dwt., or 24 grains. 

PLATE: The English term for sterling silver. 

PSEUDO-HALLMARK: An artificial mark resembling, or meant to resemble, an English hall-mark by a silversmith, not an assay office; done by Colonial Americans to resemble their English counterparts. 

SHEFFIELD PLATE: Plated metal made by fusing a thin sheet of silver to copper or base metal, then rolling the mass into sheets to be formed into an object. 

SILVER GILT: Silver with a thin covering of gold, applied by gilding. 

SILVERPLATE: Objects made of a base metal that are plated with silver by electroplating. 

SMALLWARE: Items that are not flatware, hollowware, cutlery, or tableware (e.g., writing ac-cessories, smoking items, snuff boxes, watch cases, etc.). 

SOLID SILVER: Term commonly used to refer silver alloys where the silver content is at least .800 (or 80%), although the Federal Trade Commission requires that any item described as “sol-id silver” have a content of at least .925 (or 92.5%); not silverplate. 

STERLING: An alloy of silver with .925 (or 92.5%) silver content and .075 (or 7.5%) copper con-tent. 

TOUCH: A mark stamped on silver to attest to its quality. 

TROY WEIGHT: A measurement of precious metal. 

VERMEIL: Gilded silver.