Collecting costume and vintage jewelry is becoming widely popular. Understanding how to identify pieces of jewelry requires quite a bit of experience. However, there are some basic pieces of information which you can learn, to give you an idea of what kind of pieces you have.
Many confuse hallmarks and marks with one another. A hallmark is an indication of the pieces metal content, purity and quality. It can also give you the country of origin, date made and the type of metal the piece is. The most accurate information of a hallmark is the mark which is stamped,impressed, or struck on gold, silver, or platinum. This indicates the items fineness or karat. This is also referred to as quality or purity marks. Hallmarks can also include symbols for place of assay, date of assay, maker's mark, importation or exportation, and duty mark depending on its origin.
Hallmarks have been used in England and France since the 14th century. Most of Europe use hallmarks. The United States does not use hallmarks. The French have the most complex system of hallmarks in the world. They are the most difficult to read. The French never use numbers and instead use symbols in the form of animals, heads of animals,people, insects, and birds.
The most easily recognized French mark is the eagle's head and has been in use since 1838. It indicates 18 karat gold. The mark can be found on jewelry in different areas. Look for this on clasps, side edges, galleries, pin stems and on the back of a piece. On French silver jewelry, the most common mark was the boar's head which indicated a fineness of 800 or more for smaller pieces. This mark was used from 1838 to 1961. After 1838, a maker's mark was a diamond shape with four equal sides and was required on French gold, silver and platinum. From 1829, gold and silver items were stamped conjoined boar's and eagle's head. Platinum was not recognized by the French government as a precious metal until 1910. The eagle's head was used for platinum as it was for gold. In 1912, the eagle's head which was being used for platinum changed to a dog's head.
Many parts of Europe mark silver and gold with numerical fineness marks in the thousandths such as 800, 830, 900, 935 for silver items and 333, 500, 585, 750, 875 for gold. Austro-Hungarian pieces might have a mark a woman, animal, or bird. A number is inside a cartouche or reserve. The most common mark on silver is the dog's head with the number three inside a coffin-shaped reserve and indicates the silver 800.
A two digit number refers to zolotniks in Russia which converts to thousandth. Some examples are 56 = 583 (14k), 84 = 875 silver ( 21k), gold. Between the years 1896 to 1908, the national mark was the left profile of a woman's head wearing a kokoshnik. From the years 1908 to1917, the mark was a right-facing profile. After the revolution, the mark was changed to a right-facing worker's profile with a hammer. The fineness was in thousandths.
Swedish hallmarks after 1912 included a triple crown mark. Silver had an S in a hexagon,indicating a fineness of 830 or higher. Gold bared a karat mark in a rectangle. There is also a date letter and number,city and a maker's mark. Most jewelry has London, Birmingham marked on them. The mark for London is called a leopard's head before the year 1821. The Birmingham mark is an anchor.
After WW II there was a increased popularity of silver pieces made in Taxaco, Mexico. The Mexican government issued an assay mark indicating the fineness of the silver to be 925 or higher. This is also referred to as the “spread eagle” mark. In 1979, the mark was abandoned for a series of registry letters and numbers. These were assigned to individual people and workshops. In recent years Mexican silver has regained its popularity. Mexican hallmark's from 1950s through 60s have marks of "Mexico, Taxaco", eagle mark with the number three as well as "Villasana".