Antique Silver is a fascinating and intriguing hobby, and can give a wonderful insight into Irish social life through the centuries. However, reading to hallmarks on a piece can seem daunting to the new collector! This is a short guide to understanding what the marks mean, and how to read them.
Since 1637, there has been a legal requirement to hallmark all silver sold in Ireland. This was brought in by King Charles I, and was intended then, as now, to be a form of consumer protection. The primary aim of a hallmark is a guarantee that the piece is sterling silver quality, that is 92.5% pure silver. The hallmarks also allow one to tell by whom the piece was made, and the year and city in which the piece was assayed. (Sometimes, rarely, a piece could have been made in one city and assayed in another).
The first hallmark to identify is the harp crowned, seen below.
This tells you that the piece assayed in Dublin, and has been struck on all Irish silver since 1637.
The second mark to look for is Hibernia, which is a duty mark, introduced in 1730. This mark is still in use today, and should always be present.
Generally, there will also be a date letter; this identifies the year that the piece was assayed in. Occasionally, (often in the mid-1700s), the date letter was omitted, for reasons not fully understood! This is normal, and not a cause for concern. The latter changes every 12 months, and either the font of the shape of the mark changes every time a new cycle starts.
Here are two date letter Qs, one from 1788 and 1812. You can see that the shape of the lower part of the shield has changed slightly. (With practise, such small differences will be second nature to spot). There are only 24 years between the two, as back then the letter I and V were skipped. Nowadays the full alphabet is used. A list of most of the date letters used between 1700 and today is here: List of Antique and Modern Irish Hallmarks
You can also see that there is a fourth mark beside the 1812 hallmarks, on the right hand side, a mark of the king’s head. This is a duty mark, used from 1809 until until 1895.
Sometimes, commemorative marks were also applied, for example in 1966 a mark was applied, to mark 50 years since the Easter Rising. In 1973, there was a mark introduced to celebrate Ireland’s entry into the EEC. This is seen below. It is a Celtic Torc, with the year 1973 inside it.
There are a number of small pocket-sized guides available, which give the full list of date letters for British and Irish assay offices. These are an invaluable aid, and are highly recommended!
Weldons of Dublin are leading dealers in Antique Irish Silver, and for over 100 years have traded in high quality silver. They are located at 55 Clarendon Street, in the centre of Dublin; you can view their website here: Weldons Antiques