Antique Silver Standards: Sterling Silver

Sterling silver is an alloy containing 92,5% pure silver and 7,5% of different metals (often nickel or copper) to give it strength and resistance.

Although the origin of the word “sterling” is still debated, it is commonly agreed that the alloy was created in northern Germany and used for commerce since the 12th Century. It seems that the Germans called easterlings the coins they used for trade and which got very soon accepted as standard English currency. A second fascinating but not corroborated hypothesis has it that “sterling” meant originally “little star”, referring to the shine of silver.

Sterling silver was so common in England by the end of the 13th Century that King Edward I around 1300 established that all the silver in the country must meet the sterling standard and required a legal mark as guarantee. A few years later, in 1327, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths was founded to enforce this standard and the first mark - a leopard’s head - became mandatory in every silver item produced or purchased within the country. The British mark for sterling silver changed a few times during history: the “lion passant”, representing a lion walking left and still used for English sterling, was introduced by Henry VIII in 1544.

Sterling standard was soon introduced for currency and silver items in the first American colonies. To assess the purity of silver American silversmiths referred to the London Goldsmith Company until 1814, when they established their own assay office and introduced their own standard marks (usually baring the word sterling or the number 925).

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Different standard marks are used in Ireland (a crowned harp) and in Scotland (lion rampant and thistle).

Sterling silver has been very popular and in demand in continental Europe over the centuries, every European country set different standards and hallmark systems throughout history, which we will have the chance to deepen in the next posts.