Antique Irish Silver
Antique Silver is a fascinating and interesting hobby, and can give a great insight into Irish life through the years. 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 Irish Silver 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.
When it comes to quintessential Irish antiques, early Irish silver ranks with Belleek china and Waterford crystal for rarity and desirability. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s look at uniquely Irish silver from the 18th century — a standout period for its handmade and beautiful craftsmanship as well as mastery of the form.
Silversmithing was a trade practiced across Europe by the 18th century, but it was particularly prominent in London and Dublin. Its history in the Irish city goes back as far as the 13th century, when goldsmiths began setting up shop. The Dublin assay office, founded in 1637, is the oldest in Ireland and was once in charge of assaying all gold and silver made throughout the country before any of it could be sold. Some silversmiths in provincial areas seldom complied with this mandate, however, given the risks of theft during travel as well as the prohibitive costs of shipping silver to and from the assay office.
“Dublin itself produced much silver and probably was only second to London in terms of output of the 18th century,” said Richard Wine (G.G., GIA), president of Louis Wine Antiques, founded in Dublin and now based in Toronto, Canada.
The market for silver objects may not be what it once was, with few people lavishly entertaining the way previous generations did or having time for the seemingly endless polishing and upkeep that silver requires. Still, great examples of old Irish silver do command robust prices. Instead of a whole cabinet of silver plates and platters, buyer might opt instead for a beautifully engraved epergne or a delicate tea set.
Dublin silversmiths of the 18th century used the same labor-intensive techniques that were passed down by generations before. Silversmiths began their careers as apprentices to successful ones and served at least seven years before leaving to establish their own workshops. They mastered craftsmanship and aesthetics to ensure a piece not only looked beautiful but was well made and had the right firmness of silver.