Shining a Light on Sterling Silver: History, Hallmarks, and Quality

Otto Hutt Sterling Silver Hallmarks

Sterling Silver is a versatile and captivating metal that is highly sought after and has been used in many cultures and societies around the world.  Historically Sterling silver has played an important role in everyday life, from currency to jewellery and has become an enduring symbol of elegance and quality, and the introduction of the hallmarks have played an equally important role in maintaining quality standards and providing value to the market.

Whether you're a collector, a jewellery lover, a fine writing aficionado or you're simply interested in the beauty of precious metals like silver, our blog will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the world of silver, sterling silver, its long history and how it is used in today's modern world.

Pure Silver 999

Photo by Scottsdale Mint on Unsplash 

We'll also clear up and confusion between the different terms that are used: silver, sterling silver, pure silver, 925 Silver, hallmarking. They all mean something, but what?

A (Very) Brief History of Silver

Silver has been used for thousands of years due to its abundance in nature; along with gold and copper they occur naturally in ores meaning they are readily available with a little processing.  It was probably discovered by accident as a byproduct of copper production. Copper being used from as early as 9000BC and being the only metal used for 3000years. 

We don't exactly know how far back silver use goes, but there are clues as to when it became widely used and mined.  Archeologists have discovered ancient slag heaps in Anatolia where silver was being separated by a process called cupellation, where ores are treated under very high temperature to separate the noble metals such as gold, silver, palladium and platinum from their base metals.  These have been dated at around 6000 years old. 

Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman civilizations, among others, widely used silver as currency.  It is not entirely clear why but because of its high malleability, it was easily hammered into thin sheets and it could be stretched into long wire strands making it very attractive to jewellery makers.  Its range of use was otherwise quite restricted because pure silver is very soft and malleable, making it useless in manufacturing and weaponry.

Silver Tetradrachm From Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek Tetradrachm made from Silver

Silver in the Greek and Roman civilizations was widely imported from other societies like the Phoenician and the Persian empires.  It was not heavily mined in early Greek or Roman lands until much later.  In 58BC, when Julius Caesar embarked on his campaign to conquer Gaul, he discovered ancient abandoned silver mines in what is now Spain.  These were originally mined by the Phoenicians and were extremely productive for the Romans.  (It is said that the Phoenicians had so much silver that they couldn't transport it all.  Instead they used some of that silver as anchors on their ships in place of lead.)

Caesar used slaves to mine the silver, which were claimed from his military successes. This helped to fund his vastly expensive campaign and raise his stature back in Rome.  He was increasingly seen as the hero general and even employed people to stand on street corners and announce his many victories and successes.  During this period, mining of silver was being carried out on an unprecedented scale, helping to shape and grow the Roman economy and stablise the Roman currency.

Denarius (Coin) Portraying Julius Caesar, 42 B.C.

Denarius (Coin) Portraying Julius Caesar, 42BC. The Art Institute of Chicago - Creative Commons Zero (CC0).

In ancient Greece, the story is similar.  War with the Persian Empire seems to have been the overiding factor that governed the push to extract more silver.  Following the first Persian invasion and the battle of Marathon in 490BC (a decade before the more well known battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans), the discovery of a rich silver vein at Laurium prompted Themistocles, a famous Athenian general, to persuade the Athenians to spend the revenue to build a fleet of 200 Triremes to protect themselves from further attacks by the Persians.

Laurium Silver Ore Sluicing Tank Excavation

Excavation of an ancient Silver Ore Sluicing Tank at Laurium - Heinz Schmitz, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

This proved an astute decision when, in 480BC Xerxes and the Entire Persian army invaded Greece.  However even with vastly greater numbers, they could not defeat the Greeks and their Athenian Fleet on the sea.  This reiterates the importance of silver to a civilisation. 

Silver mining and its use continued after this period through the Middle ages and the Spanish conquest of the Americas during the 1500s.  In the centuries that followed, Spanish silver production increased dramatically and over 85% of the worlds production was coming from South America, leading to the expansion of Spain's influence around the world. 

Norman Silver Penny - William the Conqueror

Credit: Wikipedia - The Silver penny above is dated from 1077 and shows a 2 star design.  The Norman word 'steorling' meaning 'like a little star' is believed to be the most plausible origin story of the word Sterling Silver.  The normans often added stars to their silver pennies.

Throughout the 1900s to modern day, silver production has continued to increase as new methods of extraction using newer and more modern technologies have become necessary as many of the high grade ores has been exhausted.  In 2021, total global silver production reached 822 million ounces, with almost a quarter coming from Mexico alone, and over half coming from South America.

The Importance of Sterling Silver

Even though silver was widely mined and used as currency, it was never very useful in its natural state.  To make it harder and more durable, it was alloyed with copper and other elements in varying degrees.  Variations in the additives meant that silver could also be used as Jewellery and decoratively as well as currency. The figure below is from Egypt circa 500BC, made from Silver and Electrum.  Electrum is a natural alloy of Silver, gold and copper.

Egyptian God Horus made from Silver and Electrum circa 500BC

ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

This more durable version of silver also allowed uses such as tableware, letter openers, cigarette cases and surgical tools.  One interesting property of sterling silver is its antibacterial properties, which is presumably why it was used for surgical tools and cutlery.  At some point, (a point which is contested as having a few origins) this mix of silver and other elements ,or an 'alloy', began to be called sterling silver. 

In order to regulate the burgeoning sterling silver market hallmarking was adopted where silver pieces are stamped with authentication marks to denote aspects such as purity, date, location and a maker's mark.  Other optional hallmarks were also regularly added.

It was during the reign of Edward I in the 13th century, that a law was passed to ensure that the quality of Sterling silver was adhered to at a purity of 925 parts per 1000.  A system of stamps were designed to show where and when each piece of silver was made and assayed.

Various countries have their own standard and assay offices.  The UK assay was originally only performed in the London, but now there are offices in Sheffield, London, Birmingham and Edinburgh, each with their own town marks.

UK Assay Office Marks
The 4 current UK assay office marks - these are called Town marks

What do Sterling Silver hallmarks mean?

The Standard Mark (or purity mark)
This mark identifies the purity of your sterling silver.  It is called the Lion Passant.  It can also be the Britannia mark which indicates a purity of at least 95.83%.  The Britannia mark was used until 1720 to try to reduce the number of coins being melted down to make silver pieces.

Town Mark (location)
Each assay office has its own Town mark so you can denote where the silver was assayed.  For example the Leapords head is for the London office.

Date Mark
The date letter tells us, not when the item was made, but rather the date that the item was assayed.  Different assay offices use different letters, so it is important to know the location before you try to read the date letter.

Maker's Mark
The maker's mark will tell us the factory that the silver piece was made. Every maker of Sterling silver must register their stamp they must register with the assay office.   Since 1739 the stamp will show the initials of the maker.  

As recently as 2018, another hallmark has been added, to cover the introduction of British Hallmarking done outside of the UK.  For example, the Birmingham office now provides an assay service for sterling silver jewellery that is stamped in India.

Together these marks will provide the user provenance and a guarantee that the silver is of the quality one would expect.

How do you determine the authenticity of sterling silver?

Several methods are used.  Obviously the first is to check for hallmarking - it's what they're there for.  However there are other methods:

1. Use a magnet: Sterling silver is not magnetic, so if a magnet sticks to the silver, it's not authentic.

2. Conduct a nitric acid test: This test involves using a drop of nitric acid on the silver. If the silver turns a creamy color, it's authentic. If it turns green, it's not.

3. Conduct a density test: Sterling silver has a density of 10.4 g/cm3, so if you measure the weight of a known volume of the silver, you can calculate the density and determine if it's authentic.

4. Check for tarnishing: Sterling silver tarnishes over time, so if the silver has tarnished, it's more likely to be authentic. However, this is not a foolproof method, as silver-plated items can also tarnish.

Additions to improve the quality of sterling silver

Although sterling silver is 92.5% pure, and usually that extra 7.5% is made up of copper, small amounts of additional elements can be added aswell to enhance certain properties.

1. Hardness and Durability: The addition of copper to the alloy improves the hardness and durability of sterling silver, making it more resistant to wear and tear.

2. Resistance to Tarnish: Other metals, such as platinum or palladium, can be added to sterling silver to increase its resistance to tarnishing, keeping it looking bright and shiny for longer periods of time.

3. Color: Copper can also be added to sterling silver to create a warmer, more yellowish tone to the silver. Zinc, on the other hand, can be added to create a brighter, whiter color.

4. Workability: Sometimes, other metals like nickel can be added to improve the workability of sterling silver, making it easier to form into shapes or designs.

5. Rhodium plating: Although not technically part of the chemical make up of sterling silver, Rhodium plating is sometimes added to the finished piece to provide protection from scratches and tarnishing.  It also actually improves the brightness of the silver. The reflective properties of rhodium can give sterling silver a brighter and more reflective appearance, so it resembles white gold or platinum.

Care and maintenance of sterling silver

Store it properly: Sterling Silver tarnishes when it is exposed to humid air, moisture, chlorine, bleach, and other chemicals.  Store your sterling silver in a dry and cool place, preferably in an anti-tarnish pouch or airtight container to prevent tarnishing.

Wear it often: Wearing your sterling silver jewelry can actually help prevent tarnishing, as the oils in your skin can help keep it clean.

Clean it regularly: Clean your sterling silver with a soft cloth preferable a silver polishing cloth to remove any dirt or tarnish. Avoid using abrasive materials or chemical cleaners, as they can damage the surface.
Note: Sterling silver will develop a natural patina over time with polishing, this is natural, unavoidable and actually gives the piece character.

Avoid exposure to chemicals: Avoid exposing your sterling silver to chemicals such as bleach, ammonia, or chlorine, as they can cause discoloration or damage.

Take it off when showering or swimming: Avoid wearing your sterling silver jewelry when showering or swimming, as exposure to water and soap can cause tarnishing.

Polish it occasionally: Use a silver polishing cream or a soft cloth to polish your sterling silver and restore its shine.  This can help subdue the patina and restore it to its smooth finish.

Sterling silver pens

This is where we come in.  A handful of our Stationery brands offer sterling silver pens.  Here is a short run down of the 2 most popular.

Otto Hutt

Otto Hutt is a German company that specializes in crafting high-end writing instruments with superior materials like sterling silver. Their pens are renowned for their elegant yet contemporary designs, and their populatirty continues to grow.

Otto Hutt was founded in 1920 in Pforzheim, Germany, by Otto Hutt's father Karl Hutt with a long history of precision manufacturing.  One of the 'hallmarks' of Otto Hutt pens is their attention to every small detail.  Each pen is meticulously crafted by skilled artisans, who take great pride in their work.  The company's dedication to quality is evident in every aspect of their pens, from the precision of their nibs to the smoothness of their ink flow.  The phrase 'Made in Germany' is plastered on their website is synonymous with high precision engineering.  It can certainly be applied to Otto Hutt Pens.

In addition to their exceptional quality, Otto Hutt pens are also renowned for their striking designs.  Somehow they have managed to combine the use of Sterling silver, quite a classical material, with modern materials and ideas to create a collection of modern looking pens that still ooze sophistication.

Each pen has a serial number for authenticity and every pen made with sterling silver is hallmarked in the country of sale.  For example in the UK, Otto Hutt pens are delivered to the assay office in either Sheffield or Birmingham to confirm their silver content is accurate.

Otto Hutt Zoom of Hallmarks

Let's look at these hallmarks for a moment and see if we can discover their meaning. Immediately we can see the Lion Passant, the standard mark, an assurance of at least 92.5% silver.  We can also see the anchor, which is the town mark of the Birmingham assay office.  Now we know it is from the Birmingham assay office, we can see the CPC mark which is the Maker's mark and is regstered with the Birmingham assay office.  Lastly we see the date mark, which is the letter X here.  When we cross check this on the assay office website, we can see it was assayed in 2022.  (note this does not necessarily mean it was manufactured then, just that it was assayed then)

There is also a last mark, which states metal.  This is not a required mark, but it is handy to let us know there are other metals in this item - most probably the clip mechanism which needs different properties to function.

Waldmann Pens

Waldmann is a German company that specializes in crafting high-end writing instruments and luxury accessories.  Strangely, Waldmann have followed a very similar history to Otto Hutt.  They were founded in 1918, just 2 years before Otto Hutt, in the very same town, Pforzheim in Germany, the traditional jewellery capital in Germany. This may explain the obsession with Sterling silver as their premier material.

Waldmann's commitment to quality is reflected in every aspect of their products, from the use of the finest materials like Sterling Silver and 18kt Gold, to the precision of their construction.  The company's skilled artisans take great pride in their work and use time-honored techniques to create exceptional stationery utensils.

Each writing instrument and accessory is meticulously crafted by hand and undergoes rigorous quality control to ensure that it meets Waldmann's exacting standards.

Quote from Waldmann's website:
"Waldmann has also made a name for itself as a specialist for unusual finishes. The old craftsmanship of engraving deserves a special mention. Only very few master engravers still master the “Viennese pattern” and only Waldmann is able to produce unique writing instruments with this uniquely and elegant engraving method individually made one by one. Tradition, quality and craftsmanship since 1918 – Waldmann has combined all of these into their writing instruments"
(credit: Waldmann Pen Company, Waldmann KG)

Waldmann's products are known for their elegant designs, superior quality, and exceptional performance.

Waldmann Silver Hallmarks Zoomed

Again, each pen is hallmarked in the country of sale, and so as with Otto Hutt, all Waldmann pens are sent directly to the assay office, usually Birmingham, to make sure they are checked and verified before gaining their hallmarks.

Waldmann Sterling Silver Hallmarks on Gold Vermeil

Although Sterling silver seems like an unusual material for pens in the modern age, they are proving to be highly popular, maybe due to that label: 'Made in Germany', it carries an aura of quality, while the Hallmarks confirm this. With companies producing sterling silver pens of this calibre, they'll always be popular.

Sterling Silver FAQs

What is sterling silver?

Sterling silver is an alloy of silver and copper, the percentage of silver is 92.5% and the copper is 7.5%. Very occasionally a few other elements are added to adjust the item properties, for example to reduce tarnishing.

What is 925 Silver?

925 is a reference to the amount of fine silver that is in the silver alloy. The minimum amount of silver required to be called sterling silver (in the UK) is 92.5%. The rest is mostly made up of copper. So 925 silver and Sterling silver are the same thing.

What are the qualities of sterling silver?

Durability - with the addition of copper, sterling silver becomes more durable and hard wearing, making it perfect for jewellery and cutlery.

Shine: Sterling silver has a bright shine that can be polished to a high sheen. Great for jewellery which is meant to be eye catching and attractive

Hypoallergenic - Silver when alloyed with copper make it very unreactive so it is unlikely to irritate the skin. Unlike silver plated which often made with nickel that can cause skin irritations.

Value - Sterling silver is a valuable metal that will hold its value and is often used as an investment.

Versatility - Sterling silver is very versatile and can be used for a range of items, its properties allowing it to be molded or shaped into various objects.

What is the difference between sterling silver and silver plate?

Sterling silver is solid silver made with at least 92.5% pure silver. Silver plate is made by coating a base metal, usually through Electroplating, with a thin layer of silver. Sterling silver can be polished to a high sheen, silver plate will eventually wear down and reveal the base layer beneath.

Are pure silver and fine silver the same?

The terms pure silver and fine silver are often used interchangeably to refer to high-purity silver.

Pure silver generally refers to silver that is 99.9% pure, with only trace amounts of other metals. This is the highest level of purity that is commercially available, and it is sometimes referred to as "three nines fine" because of its 999 fineness.

Fine silver, can refer to any silver that is at least 99% pure, with the remaining percentage made up of other metals. This means that fine silver can technically include alloys that are slightly less pure than pure silver.

Why are some pens made from sterling silver?

Sterling silver in this instance is purely for its beauty. Expensive pens are generally purchased as an item that can be kept long term, sometimes as a collectors item. Silver pens can be extremely beautiful, and to help protect the sterling silver, they are sometimes plated with rhodium. Rhodium is very durable and scratch resistant. It also polishes to a very bright shine so helps make the pen very attractive.

A sterling silver pen can be used to commemorate special occasions, as silver is sometimes used for. Weddings are a popular choice for sterling silver fountain pens to sign the registration documents.

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