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Most of the time, you can find the answer simply by turning over the teaspoon, fish fork, ice cream saw, or cheese scoop (antique flatware is that specialized).

On the reverse side, you usually find an indented mark or series of marks that holds a wealth of information about the item -- not only what it's made of, but sometimes also where, when, and by whom it was made.

By industry practice, AA has one-third again as much silver used in the plating as does A1.

Like faux hallmarks, the terms "sterling inlaid" and "silver soldered" attempt to improve their status by association, here, with sterling silver.

Symbols for the city of origin include an anchor for Birmingham and a crown for Sheffield (since 1975, a rose). A letter stamp provides the date of manufacture: Each year is assigned one letter of the alphabet; a new cycle starts with a different font.

Until the 1500s, the symbol for the silversmith was often a plant or an animal suggesting the family name. American marks weren't enforced as systematically and were therefore never as elaborate.

With the adoption of the sterling standard after the Civil War, silversmiths continued to stamp their own names on the back, along with the word sterling or the number 92.5 or 925, all of which indicate sterling quality. The Gorham company's mark was a row of three emblems: a lion (for sterling), an anchor (for its base in Rhode Island), and a "G" (its initial).

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England's system of hallmarks -- a variety of official emblems stamped on silver to attest to its purity -- is one of the oldest and most detailed.You can dent a sterling sugar bowl very easily, but a similar piece of hotel silver can be dropped without much harm because the underlying base metal is stronger than silver.Certain alloys, referred to as Venetian silver and Nevada silver, consist of nickel and silver.This applies to hollowware -- such as cups, bowls, teapots, and vases -- too.The first step in deciphering these marks is to learn what kinds of silver are out there.

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