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With silver marks, it's a tiny world, so it's best to come prepared. Electroplated nickel silver, or EPNS, is an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc that's covered with a layer of pure silver in an electrochemical process.Nickel's resemblance to silver helps disguise any worn spots in the plating. (top), located in Birmingham, was Britain's biggest plate manufacturer and the world's first producer of electroplate.Laws dating to the 14th century established strict requirements for marking silver; the first emblem was a crowned lion's head to certify sterling.Hallmarks are stamped in a row on all sterling: The lion symbolizes British sterling -- and because its appearance has changed through the years, this hallmark alone can help date a piece.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.

Some American silversmiths mimicked British hallmarks to lend their wares prestige -- rather than to convey specific information.Some of the oldest American silver is coin, which contains an amount of the precious metal that was set by the U. Mint for coinage after the American Revolution: Coin made from 1792 to 1837 is composed of at least 89.2 percent silver and, thereafter, 90 percent.Sterling, in contrast, must be at least 92.5 percent silver.Beyond that, you will have to do your homework; even the experts rely on books.Three volumes cover the most ground for a beginner: Kovels' "American Silver Marks," by Ralph and Terry Kovel (Crown; 1989); "Silver Flatware," by Ian Pickford (Antique Collectors' Club; 1983); and Silverplated Flatware, by Tere Hagan (Schroeder; 1990).

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