For centuries, English silver has been accepted as the finest globally due to its unique system created by the Guild of English Goldsmiths, Hallmarking. To be labelled ‘sterling’ within England, all silver must be tested at the “hall” to ensure that it is 92.5 % pure silver, with the remaining 7.5 % being copper, which gives the silver a fine blue “patina.” Not a single silver item has been sold as sterling in over six centuries without going through this critical test.
How to identify Silverware that has passed Hall
At the Hall, each silver item that passes the purity test is stamped with several identifying marks such as:
- The Lion standing sideways with its front paw raised to show it is of the required quality.
- The insignia of the town or city in which the test was conducted. For example, London is known by the mark of the Leopard’s head, Birmingham by an Anchor, and Sheffield by the Crown.
- A letter of the alphabet illustrates a given year, thus representing the date. Since the alphabet can be written in different ways, many years can be covered.
On top of these marks, the silversmith may place his identifying mark upon the silver, usually his initials.
What is determined from the hallmarks?
- Purity of content.
- Town of manufacture.
- Date of manufacture.
- Identification of the craftsman.
Silversmiths were required the Guild laws to apprentice for no less than seven years, after which the apprentice became a full member of the Guild as a Master Silversmith. This protected the quality of metal and craftsmanship in the industry.
Towards the end of the 17th century, when Protestants were being persecuted in France, most of the top French silversmiths (Huguenots) fled to England seeking religious freedom. Since many of them were equal to England’s finest, they were accepted, and their influence in design can be seen today.
The New Era
The birth of the industrial revolution and the introduction of tea as a national drink in the 18th century provided wealth for the common person; they could buy silver and use it as a show of one’s worldly valuable possessions. During that time, the crafting of silver was a major art form; the world was on a silver-not-gold standard.
Antique Sheffield Plate
Around 1745, Thomas Boulsover, a Sheffield silversmith, invented Old Sheffield Plate while repairing a silver-handled knife. Boulsover accidentally overheated the knife, which then fused to a piece of copper. Inspired by his mistake, he fused a block of silver and a block of copper and rolled the two together into a sheet, resulting in the first-ever sheet of what became known as “Old Sheffield Plate”. This became a popular method of creating “imitation silver”, with the quality being judged by the ratio of silver to copper, initially controlled by the silversmith at the ingot stage’. Its popularity lasted until 1840, which is why this era is known as the “Sheffield Century”.
In 1784, a tax on Sterling Silver was introduced, which resulted in the number of Sheffield Platemakers rapidly increasing.
What were the steps involved in the manufacture of Old Sheffield Plate?
- The surfaces of an ingot of copper and a strip of fine silver were flattened by hammering.
- The silver was bound to the copper by heavy steel wires. A furnace at a high temperature then fused the two metals.
- The fused metals were rolled into sheets. At this point, processes varied, depending upon the article to be manufactured.
For single rolled plates (i.e. silver on one side, copper on the other), the copper side was coated in tin, resulting in a black appearance on the underside/inside of many old pieces. This was given the term “Poverty Back”.
There were also double rolled plates (i.e. silver strips placed on both sides of the copper ingot to display silver on both sides).
Most of these Old Sheffield Plate pieces were shaped by hand-hammering the flat sheets. The final process included hand-burnishing all silver surfaces to harden the silver and give it a bright finish.
Initially, engraving was not possible as it would expose the copper underneath, but, at the end of the century, an engraving method was devised by cutting a small circle from the item and carefully replacing it with a piece of sterling silver exact same shape and size. Even though care was taken to ensure that the surface of the sterling silver work was clean and flat, often, there would still be a barely visible seam around the engraving, which became more visible with wear.
Not all pieces of Old Sheffield Plate were marked, as marking was not required by law. For the most part, marked pieces were done by silversmiths who took pride in the merchandise they created. Such men included Thomas Law, Matthew Boulton, and the Creswicks, to name only a few. Where marks were used, it was still impossible to determine the exact date of manufacture because often only symbols were employed. However, experts can determine the approximate date of most items with reasonable accuracy by examining shape and decoration.
What ended the Sheffield Process?
Dr Smee’s discovery of electroplating in 1843 spelt death for plating by fusion; it was faster and less expensive to use. With slight alteration, the same method has been handed down from father to son in a long line of craftsmen.
The electroplating method is where a “vat” is filled with a weak solution of acid with certain salts, into which is placed an “anode” of pure silver. The item is then suspended into the vat, and a weak electric current is passed through the acid, which attracts particles of silver from the anode and throws it onto the piece. In most cases, the suspension time determines the quality and thickness of the silver coating. After the desired period, the piece is removed from the vat and washed with water and acid. The finishing is done with a fast-spinning buffing machine.
Victorian Plated Ware
This term refers to plated articles made during the last years of the Victorian period; these articles are of high-grade manufacture and based on various hard metals; Electroplate on Nickel Silver (E.P.N.S.), or white metal.
It must be noted that most English Silversmiths concentrated on good quality and design instead of price. The high quality is why English silver has lasted so long and will continue to be enjoyed by many future generations all over the world.