Confusing Marks on Sterling Silver and Silver Plate

Marks on precious metals have been regulated by law since ancient times. From pharaohs, Roman emperors and continuing today, fineness, or standard marks, have been used to guarantee minimum amounts of precious metal in relation to non-precious metal.

At least that’s the theory. But while most governments strictly monitor standard marks, very few regulate marks not related to the content of precious metals. It is perfectly legal, for example, to stamp silver with trademarks or brand names of companies no longer in business or whose trademark is no longer registered. A new piece marked Unger Bros.- a 19th century firm known for quality silver – and 925 is legal as long as the silver content tests at 925.

This presents obvious problems for those interested in antique and collectible silver and silver plate. This article will review some of the most common new and confusing marks appearing on 925/1000 silver and silver plate. Almost all the pieces we’ll be discussing are made for the antique reproduction trade. The article will not include elaborate forgeries of museum quality silver made before 1850 or silver of other standards. We will focus on the marks found on reproductions of small decorative and novelty pieces such as match safes, sewing accessories, pill boxes, chatelaines, thimbles and similar wares.

American Silver Marks

In America, articles marked sterling must contain a minimum of 925 parts silver for every 1000 parts of material. Expressed another way, items must be 92.5 percent silver and no more than 7.5 percent base metal. This ratio is called the “sterling standard” and has been used in the US since the mid-1860s. The numeric 925 is the millesimal expression of the 925/1000 standard.

By far the vast majority of qualifying items made in the US ca. 1860 to 1970-especially items made before 1940-are marked sterling or sterling silver. Many vintage marks, but far from all, include the name of the manufacturer. Very rarely are qualifying pieces of American silver from those years marked only 925. Rarer still, are American marks which include sterling and 925 together without a company name.

This doesn’t mean all pieces marked sterling or sterling silver old. But it is a general rule that virtually all pieces marked 925 or sterling 925 are modern.

The globalization of commerce has prompted nations to use the same units of weight, measure and standards to increase trade. In 1973, the European Community (EC) agreed to recognize 925/1000 as the official sterling silver standard and 925 as the official standard mark. Since then, almost all silver of that quality sold among EC member countries has the 925 standard mark. New silver marked 925 is also acceptable in the US because that is also the US standard.

In fact the vast majority of mass produced silver reproductions today, whether made in Thailand, India, England, Europe or America, now include 925 in the mark. With the 925 standard mark, a piece of silver can virtually be sold world wide with the same mark.

The use of 925, however, does not preclude the use of sterling. Since 1999, more and more reproductions are including both 925 and sterling. A piece with both marks meets the requirements of both the EC and US, two huge markets.

English Hallmarks

A typical English hallmark ca. 1890-1999, generally has four symbols and may have five. These symbols may be placed in any order. They include:

1) symbol for the town in which the silver content was certified, called an assay or town mark;

2) symbol for the year of manufacture called the date letter;

3) symbol representing the silversmith or factory which made the object, called maker’s mark or sponsors mark;

4) symbol for the standard mark guaranteeing the silver content. The English silver standard is also 925/1000. It has been represented by the lion passant (looking ahead) since 1875.

5) optional profile of the current king or queen.

To stay competitive with the EC nations, England has recently made several important changes to its hallmarking laws. The most significant change has been dropping the mandatory use of the passant lion as a standard mark. Beginning in 1999, England agreed the millesimal expression of the standard mark, 925, would be accepted. Mandatory use of the date letter was also dropped in 1999. Date letters are now optional in British hallmarks.

England has also agreed to accept standard marks on silver imported into England from any nation that signs a 1976 treaty, or convention, guaranteeing strict testing of silver content. These so-called convention hallmarks consist of a registered maker’s mark and either two or three other marks: a control mark, a standard mark and, if the piece was made in England, an assay mark.

The control symbol used in convention hallmarks since 1976 is always a scale. The millesimal, or numeric expression of the standard, 925, must appear in the middle of the scale. Although the standard is expressed in the control mark, a separate stand-alone standard mark is still required. The separate standard mark may appear as 925 only or 925 enclosed in a simple shape such as an oval, square or circle.

If a piece was made in a foreign country for import into England, it would include a maker’s mark, control mark and standard mark. But if a piece was made in England for sale at home it would require a fourth mark, a British assay mark.

These changes may sound confusing at first, but are of great benefit. It gives the collector and dealer who understands them, specific permanent marks to establish firm dates of production.

Fake and Forged Marks

Although you can catch many reproductions simply by understanding laws that regulate marks, that assumes the marks themselves are honestly applied. Forgeries attempting to copy genuinely old marks, are somewhat harder to detect. The difficulty in detecting such marks is generally related to the skill and knowledge of the forger.

The silver marks most widely forged marks are generally those which have the potential for the greatest increase in value. The Tiffany and Unger Bros. forgeries shown in this article are typical of two frequently targeted high-value names.

Figs. 1A – 1D Typical examples of new silver and silver plate reproductions with new, faked or confusing marks. Clockwise beginning at upper left corner: 1A – figural napkin ring, JM hallmark; 1B – forged Tiffany hallmark; 1C – figural teapot pill box, REO Sterling; 1D – new matchsafe virtually identical to 19th century original by Wallace.

Fig. 2A

Fig. 2B Reproduction figural silver match safe, 2A, with traditional English hallmark which is now optional, above. Reading marks left to right: maker’s mark, DAB; standard mark, lion passant; assay mark, London; date stamp, 1993. DAB is the mark of contemporary English silversmith David Bowles. Any piece with this maker’s mark cannot be earlier than the mid-1970s.

Fig. 3 Example of the international hallmark complying to rules established in convention of 1976. The scale mark indicates the country of origin has signed the 1976 convention. Marks reading left to right: CME, maker’s mark, identity unknown; scales, control mark; standard mark, 925; unknown mark. Any item with this mark can be sold legally in England, Europe and US. Any piece with the scale control mark cannot be earlier than the mid- to late-1970s.

Fig. 4 The new owl silver matchsafe has the mark in Fig. 3.

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Figs. 5-7 New silver whistle in Fig. 5, is marked with the two hallmarks shown in Figs. 6 & 7. The complete hallmark in Fig. 6 indicates the piece was made in England because it was assayed in London (leopard head assay mark). This qualifies the piece for sale in England. The scales control mark, in Fig. 7 also qualifies the piece for export to any of the nations that signed the 1976 convention. Pieces with the scale control mark cannot be earlier than mid- to late-1970s.

Common Warning Signs

The best way to catch these carefully prepared forgeries is a side-by-side comparison. Compare the mark of a suspected piece to genuine marks in reference books or known originals in your own collection. As a general rule, for example, marks on Tiffany silver include an order number and a pattern number. The forged Tiffany mark in Fig. 24 has neither an order number nor a pattern number.

You can also catch many forgeries by knowing how original marks were applied. Almost all marks on almost all antique and collectible silver and silver plate, were applied with stamps. Unique, individual or custom marks-such as serial numbers, order numbers, artists marks, hallmarks, etc.-were generally made with hand-struck punches, each punch bearing a single letter, numeral or symbol.

Larger marks with several lines or large symbols, could be struck by hand or a machine press. Most marks on silver plate, regardless of the size of the mark, were mostly struck by machine presses because the base metal was heavier and stronger than solid silver. Complex marks, like the Tiffany example previously discussed, may include both standard company marks found on all pieces, as well as unique marks for individual pieces such as an order number, pattern number, date letter and others.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it was. It also involved a great deal of highly specialized equipment. Fortunately, most forgers don’t have the time or the money to duplicate original vintage marks so they take shortcuts.

The most common shortcut is to cast, or mold, a mark rather than stamp marks. If you make a single mold with an old appearing mark, every piece made in the mold will carry that mark. That process saves both the time it would take to stamp a mark on each new piece as well as the expense of the stamps and other necessary equipment.

Some of the most common cast forgeries of old marks in the market today are found on figural napkin rings. Cast, or molded, marks almost always lack the detail found in stamped marks. Cast marks tend to be shallow with ragged or blurred edges and uneven in depth of impression. Original stamped marks are just the opposite: clean sharp edges with an almost perfectly uniform depth of impression. Several examples of new molded marks are shown next to the original stamped marks in Figs. 11-12 and Figs. 35-36.

At the current time, faked cast marks are more commonly found on new silver plate than silver. Pieces of silver with fake marks tend to be found on simply shaped objects easily cast as a single piece. These include thimbles, brooches, tussie-mussies, charms, needle cases and other similar pieces.

The biggest danger in detecting new molded marks is to stop your examination after you have matched a suspected mark to marks in a reference book. Molds made from originals produce copies with original appearing marks. You must examine how marks are made as well as how the mark reads. This is especially important if your original mark is a line drawing and not a photograph.

General Guidelines

As a practical matter, it is almost impossible to remember all the names, forms and variations of silver marks. General line dealers and casual collectors can probably avoid most mass produced silver fakes in today’s market by following the guidelines on page 16. These short tips highlight the basic differences in how new and old marks are created and applied.

On this and following pages are examples of marks frequently seen on new silver. Most of these marks contain obvious features such as size, lack of detail, a convention mark, or the 925 standard mark, that will help you easily identify pieces as new.

Keep in mind genuine marks on 19th and early 20th century silver and silver plate vary considerably in appearance and new marks frequently change.

Fig. 8 – Any mark that is badly blurred or badly worn is suspicious. Many of these marks appear in areas where no logical normal wear would occur. Blurred marks can be a sign of a cast, not stamped, mark.

Fig. 9 – Any standard mark that includes 925 is suspicious. All 925 marks, whether standing alone or combined with other symbols as the above example, are very nearly a guarantee of a reproduction. The 925 standard mark was very rarely used in vintage American silver. It was not widely used until the European Community (EC) adopted it in the mid-1970s.

Fig. 10 – Any mark that is exceptionally small is suspicious. The 925 standard mark above is smaller than the diameter of the lead in the wooden pencil shown for comparison. Any mark under one-sixteenth of an inch is suspect.

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Figs. 11 & 12 – Any cast or molded mark is suspicious. Virtually without exception, authentic marks on vintage silver and silver plate were stamped, not cast. Reproductions, particularly new silver plate, are generally cast in molds. Since new molds are usually made by copying originals, marks on originals are usually transferred to the new molds. Cast marks are almost always blurred with impressions of uneven depth. Stamped marks are generally much cleaner and sharper than cast marks.

Fig. 13 Any mark applied by soldering a tab, disc or other shape is suspicious. The oval tab marked 925 shown here is soldered on a new rattle. Some authentic Victorian-era silver-plated pieces do bear applied discs with the manufacturers name. However, even those discs should be examined very carefully. Many genuinely old marked discs have been removed from inexpensive common pieces and applied to more expensive pieces.

Fig. 14

Fig. 15

Figs. 14 & 15 New 1½-inch dia. silver locket, Art Nouveau lady’s face in flower. Marked PAJ 925. PAJ is the mark of an unidentified maker/importer. Pieces with this mark were widely sold throughout the US beginning in the late 1980s-early 1990s. The presence of the 925 mark is a clue to this piece’s recent manufacture.

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

Figs. 16-18 REO is a silver wholesaler located in the US. Their products are usually marked REO plus the copyright symbol, © and the word sterling (see Figs. 16, 18). About 50%-60% of the product line is based on reproductions of antique shapes such as sewing novelties, stamp boxes, pill boxes, chatelaines, and other shapes like the figural suitcase stamp box, Fig. 18. All very good quality. No vintage silver is marked REO. The modern copyright symbol, ©, is almost always a sign of modern production.

Fig. 19

Fig. 20

Fig. 21

Figs. 19-21 This GJ-925-sterling mark (Fig. 20) was first reported in the spring of 2001. No old counterpart of the GJ mark is known. The mark was first found on a group of new silver match safes with sports themes. Several of the pieces were close copies of known original shapes. The golfer match safe shown here (Fig. 21) imitates an original by Gorham. Exact source thought to be Thailand, but that is not certain. Sterling and 925 virtually never appeared as separate words standing apart in vintage marks.

Fig. 22 Fake silver plate badge, US Indian Police. Marked Tiffany Studio New York on back. No old counterparts were ever made. This is a fantasy product. Same piece also available in brass (bronze). Wholesale price $5.

Fig. 23 Close up view of the mark on Indian badge above, Tiffany Studio New York.

Fig. 24 An ambitious forgery of a Tiffany mark. A well made mark, deeply and evenly stamped. A well researched mark which includes a date stamp in the bottom line, M. Fortunately the forger overlooked the order number and pattern number. See original mark below.

Fig. 25 Original Tiffany silver mark on which the forgery in Fig. 24 was based. The original includes both a pattern and order number missing in the fake. The pattern number appears on the left of the word Makers; the order number appears to the right (see white arrows). Note that the individually stamped order and pattern numbers are not perfectly aligned, a typical sign of custom stamping.

Fig. 26

Fig. 27

Fig. 28

Figs. 26-28 New silver brooch, above, appears with forged Unger Bros. mark in Fig. 27, right. An original Unger Bros. mark shown in Fig. 28 for comparison. The new Unger mark has a large dot in the bottom of the letter U. The fake is made from two pieces of silver. First, the lady’s head was die-stamped, then a sheet of silver was soldered on the back.

Fig. 29 The Atocha was a Spanish treasure ship recovered in the 1980s. Most of the treasure was in the form of silver bars. Rather than sell the bars for little more than scrap, the silver was cast into the shapes of 17th century Spanish coins and made into jewelry. A 1994 advertisement promoting the Atocha jewelry is shown at right. All the coinlike objects shown in the advertisement were cast from silver ingots recovered from the ship. A fact only disclosed in very confusing language in extremely small print. With earring posts, hanging loops and other jewelry findings removed, Atocha pieces are sometimes offered as old Spanish coins, far right.

Fig. 30 Typical Atocha silver “coin” with confusing marks. These include 1) ATOCHA; 2) date 1622; 3) sterling quality or standard mark, 925. Atocha does not appear on any Spanish coins. The date 1622 is when the Atocha sank; Atocha pieces were made after 1990.

Fig. 31

Fig. 32

Fig. 33

Fig. 34

Figs. 31-34 Silversmith James Mackie has been making reproductions of figural silver-plated napkin rings since 1992. Many of the rings are direct copies from Victorian-era original. Mackie’s reproductions include moving wheels, silver wire reins on animals and other details normally only found on originals. Mackie marks his rings with one of two hallmarks. One is a simple JM inside a box (Figs. 32, 33). The other is somewhat more elaborate with the letters separated by a crown. Many of Mackie’s hallmarks are extremely small, some measuring about half the diameter of the lead in a wood pencil.

Fig. 35 (New)

Fig. 36 (Old)

Fig. 37 (New)

Fig. 38 (Old)

Figs. 35-38 An old Meriden napkin ring, Fig. 38, was used to make a mold to cast the reproduction in Fig. 37. Every new piece produced in the mold has the same mark as the original including model number, 199. Original marks are stamped-letters and numbers have sharp edges and details, Fig. 36. Cast marks are almost always blurred and uneven, Fig. 35.