Overview of Sterling Silver
Fine, or pure silver is often too soft to produce functional silverware items, so the metal is usually combined with another (often copper, although other metals are used) to give it strength while preserving the natural beauty of the metal.
Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by mass of silver and 7.5% by mass of other metals. You will find sterling silver can be identified as it will have the numbers 925 stamped onto it to show the 92.5% purity value.
History of Silver
It is often difficult to locate where Sterling silver began, however it is thought that around 3100BC ambassadors from Crete bought gifts such as sterling silver vases to give to the pharaohs of Egypt. So from the early days of history silver was used to make ornamental and functional pieces; including vases, cups and jewellery.
One of the popular and functional items of silverware to be produced are silver tea sets and tea services. Such tea sets date back to the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644AD. In the late 1600’s tea became more readily available to Europe, however tea sets where not introduced until 1700’s. People had then started to add milk and sugar to tea hence the use of a full tea set. The tea set then comprised of a teapot, sugar bowl and cream jug (creamer) became available when the price of tea reduced to make this a more affordable drink , and made it available to the masses.
As you may already be aware one of the most popular and more collectable types of silver is English Sterling. There other silver standards out there which silversmiths can create their wonderful silverware from, one of which is Britannia silver.
Introduced by parliament back in 1697 Britannia silver (95.84% – Britannia silver is a combined of 958 parts pure silver and 42 parts copper) was introduced to be the standard that actually replaced sterling silver (92.5%) as the mandatory standard for items of wrought plate. The decision to do this was made as many people were melting sterling silver coinage and making silverware so this new, higher standard was brought in to counter act this.
Hallmarking of Britannia Silver
The change to this higher standard also meant a change in hallmarking to represent these Britannia silver items. To denote Britannia silver the lion passant, (which denotes sterling silver) was replaced by the seated figure of a lady, known as Britannia holding an oval shield, which denotes silver of this standard. This is often accompanied by the lion erased (profile of lions head) which substituted the crowned leopard head.
1999 saw another change in hallmarking, and Britannia silver is now denoted with the superior fineness mark of 958 with the option to also use the Britannia icon.
The decline in Britannia silver
Silversmiths didn’t seem to be too happy with the introduction of this new silver and lobbied to get sterling silver re introduced. Britannia silver was more expensive, slightly softer and less robust. The silversmiths won and sterling silver was re-introduced on 1st June 1720. Britannia didn’t fade away however and has remained as an alternative to sterling silver for silvermiths.
Many silversmiths still used Britannia silver to make some impressive pieces favouring this higher purity silver material to sterling silver. It is often difficult to find good quality, old Britannia marked silver pieces, due to this they are rare and collectible, the also therefore command a slightly higher price.
When buying silver teapots there are a lot of things to consider such as, which type of silver to collect. This is why it is always important to purchase your antique silver pieces from a professional and registered silver dealer.