Silver was once the most common precious metal in domestic use. As a general rule, European silver can be identified by its hallmarks. 'Pure' British silver, which in fact contains a small percentage of copper and other metals is either 'Sterling' (92.5% silver; hallmark is a walking lion [lion passant]) or Britannia silver (95.8% silver, hallmark is figure of Britannia). Other marks include a date letter, a maker's mark, an assay office mark (test of metal or ore to determine ingredients and quality) or a duty mark (in use between 1784 and 1890). If Sterling or Britannia silver is used in alloys with a lower silver content, it is marked '925'.
Silvering refers to applying a thin layer of silver onto another material. There are four common types of silvering:
1. French Plate - silver leaf and a mordant (adhesive) are applied in a similar way to traditional gilding.
2. Sheffield Plate - a thin layer of silver fused to a block of copper and then shaped as one metal into dinner services, snuff-boxes and candlesticks. Sheffield plate is sometimes stamped with maker's marks giving more detail about the object. It is common to find the plating has worn away, especially on corners or edges, revealing the copper underneath.
3. Close Plate - iron or steel dipped in molten tin with a very thin silver foil fused to the surface. Nutcrackers and candle snuffers are the most commonly found objects in close plate. They sometimes have maker's marks but these are difficult to trace.
4. Electroplate - uses electricity flowing through a bath of electrolytic salts to deposit a layer of silver onto another metal. Electroplating was introduced on a commercial scale in the 1840s and has its own marks, for example EPNS (electroplated nickel silver) or EPBM (electroplated Britannia metal) and many others. Maker's marks include crowns, deliberately similar to marks used on sterling silver.