Français article # 145
by Robert Massart 
(click on photos to enlarge image)



Before 1275 French silversmiths used the personal mark (maker's mark) to identify their works from the articles made by other masters. This mark was the only guarantee the purchaser could find in the items he bought.
A law enacted in 1275 compelled the silversmith to add the mark of his town while in 1416 a date letter was introduced (this letter was the same for the entire country).
In 1579, during the reign of Henri III, a general tax ("Droit de Remède") was imposed on any gold and silver work.
The year 1674 saw a vast movement of tax rationalization promoted by the minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (note 1) culminating in the institution of the "Ferme Générale" (Tax Farmer).
In 1784 the system of date letters was superseded by another one giving to each town a distinctive letter and allowing each town to use its own system of date letters.
Until the 1789 French Revolution a multitude of hallmarks was created to distinguish town of origin, guild (who verified the silver fineness and punched the "Jurande" or warranty mark) and the charge and discharge marks proving the payment of taxes on silver artifacts.
The primary objective of hallmarking is to specify and guarantee the silver fineness of an object. In France (as in other countries) for centuries a strict control was exercised on silversmiths' activity. From 1672 until the French Revolution any legitimate Ancien Régime piece had four different marks:
- Maker's mark, punched by the smith on the roughly fashioned piece. Examples:
mark of Alexis Dany (1758-1792) mark of Claude-Nicolas Delanoy, (1766) . .
Alexis Dany
Claude-Nicolas Delanoy (1766)
- Date letter / Jurande / Maison Commune applied by the Guild Warden on the unfinished piece (Jurande means a corporation or confraternity in 18th century France). This mark served as a guarantee of the silver fineness. Examples:
mark 1735, Paris mark 1775-1776, Paris mark 1711, Bordeaux mark 1773, Lyon
1735, Paris
1775-1776, Paris
1711, Bordeaux
1773, Lyon
- Charge mark applied by the local Tax Farmer, who weighed the unfinished article and charged the silversmith with the appropriate tax. Examples:
1722-1727, Paris 1756-1762, Paris 1783-1789, Paris .
1722-1727, Paris
1756-1762, Paris
1783-1789, Paris
- Discharge mark applied by the local Tax Farmer on the finished piece. The discharge mark certified the payment of taxes and allowed the identification of the origin of the piece. Only after this mark was punched was the article ready to be sold and turned over to the market. Examples of Paris discharge marks and name of the involved Tax Farmers (Fermier Général):
1717-1722 - large articles, Paris
1717-1722 - large articles
Etienne de Bourges, Charles Yvon, Armand Pilavoine, Charles Cordier
1717-1722 - large articles, Paris
1722-1727 - large articles
Charles Cordier, Jacques Cottin
1727 - 1732 - discharge mark medium articles
1727-1732 - medium articles
Jacques Cottin, Louis Gervais, Hubert Louvet
1732-1738 - large and medium articles
1732-1738 - large and medium articles
Hubert Louvet
1738 - 1744 - discharge mark small articles
1738-1744 - small articles
Louis Robin, Antoine Leschaudel
1744-1750 - small articles, Paris
1744-1750 - small articles
Antoine Leschaudel
1750-1756 - Boar's head - large articles
1750-1756 - Boar's head - large articles
Julien Berthe
1750-1756 - Hen's head - small articles
1750-1756 - Hen's head - small articles
Julien Berthe
1756-1762 - small articles
1756-1762 - small articles
Eloy Brichard
1756-1762 - large articles
1756-1762 - large articles
Eloy Brichard
1762-1768 - Dog's head - small articles
1762-1768 - Dog's head - small articles
Jean-Jacques Prévost
1762-1768 - large articles
1762-1768 - large articles
Jean-Jacques Prévost
1768-1774 - medium articles
1768-1774 - medium articles
Julien Alaterre
1768-1774 - large articles
1768-1774 - large articles
Julien Alaterre
1774-1780 - Cow's head   - large articles
1774-1780 - Cow's head - large articles (note 2)
Jean-Baptiste Fouache, Dominique Compant
1775-1781 - Monkey's head - small articles
1775-1781 - Monkey's head - small articles
Jean-Baptiste Fouache, Dominique Compant
1781-1789 - large articles
1781-1789 - large articles
Henri Clavel
1781-1789 - medium articles
1781-1789 - medium articles
Henri Clavel
1789 - Parrot's head- medium articles
1783-1789 - Parrot’s head - medium articles
Jean-François Calendrin
1785 Paris discharge mark
1787 Paris discharge mark
1788 Paris discharge mark
1789 Paris discharge mark 1789 Paris discharge mark
The Tax Farmers (note 3) acted in the king's name in the collection of duties. They operated under a six-year contract and often accumulated immense fortunes which in some cases enabled them to play a significant political and social role. The Ferme Générale was one of the institutions of the Ancien Régime which was highly criticized during the French Revolution until its suppression in 1790 (note 4).
The impact of the Revolution in the way of life of French people had obvious repercussions also in the organization of trade and its Guilds (including Goldsmiths). The result was that from 1789 to 1797 no attention was paid to the stamping of plate.
During this eight years any goldsmith or silversmith had the opportunity to use whatever fineness he wished in his gold and silver artifacts. In Paris the Association of Gold & Silversmiths tried to remedy this situation by the introduction of two new punches with a Greek woman's head. These marks, being a private initiative, had no value as a legal guarantee.
Greek woman head, 1793 Greek woman head, 1793 Greek woman head, 1794-1797 Greek woman head, 1794-1797
1794 -1797
1794 -1797
Note the letter P at the left side of the head for 1793 and the figure 1 at the right hand side of the head for the period 1794-1797.

The groundwork of the future legislation on the standard and assay of precious metals was laid by the Act of the 19 Brumaire, An VI (1797). The act provided an entirely new set of marks:
a rooster for the standard mark with the figure 1 for a fineness of .950 and a figure 2 for a fineness of .800.
For Paris the figures 1 and 2 appear at the right side of the rooster and for the Provinces at the left side.
The maker's mark was a lozenge with the initials of the silversmith's name and a symbol.
Paris .950 Paris .800 Départements .950 Départements .800
Paris .950
Paris .800
Provinces .950
Provinces .800

In order to prevent and detect fraud of hallmarked silver articles, French authorities instituted, by Ordinance of 1st July 1818, a system of countermarks on the opposite side of the guarantee mark. These countermarks are known as "bigornes".

The term bigorne literally means two-horned anvil or two-beaked anvil and refers to the shape of the projecting ends of the anvil. Each anvil has two striking areas, one flat and one of rounded shape. The rounded horn served to mark hollowware and the flat horn was used to mark flatware.
The projecting ends of the small anvil were intricately engraved with varied and finely drawn representations of insects. The silver article was placed on the beak/horn of the steel anvil and when the guarantee mark was struck, the force of the strike created a counter-impression of insects on the underside of the article against the anvil.


There are three sizes of bigorne marks, having randomly arranged insects on a plain background, except for the small bigorne which had both a rounded and a flat end.

1. The large bigorne with a horn on which the six different insects are engraved inside various frames (triangle, pentagon, indented parallelogram, lozenge, etc).

2. The medium-sized bigorne with a horn bearing engraved insects, but not so many as on the large bigorne. Both bigornes are the same for Paris as for the Provinces.
Notoxus Conops Saperde Grasshopper Pantatome Bibion Saperde & Bibion







Saperde & Bibion
Notoxus Conops Saperde Grasshopper Pantatome Bibion .
3. The small bigorne with two horns, one flat and the other rounded, bearing engraved triangles and lozenges with linear designs and letters.
Paris Provinces Common for Paris and Provinces
Common for Paris and Provinces

This system is even more sophisticated than the preceding one, because the insects are engraved aligned in relief and separated by parallel zigzag moulded borders. This series was further distinguished by having one set for Paris and another set for the Provinces.
The surface of the anvil is covered with varied and finely drawn engravings of various insects which mark the underside of the silver article when it is struck on the upper side with the guarantee mark. The assayer placed the item on the horn of the anvil, then placed the Minerva (or other) punch on the item, and struck the Minerva punch with a mallet. Through the force of the strike both marks were created simultaneously. For this reason a bigorne mark will be found opposite the guarantee mark. The bigorne dies are so complex that two similar strikes could not be obtained.
There are three types of bigorne used according the object size: large (16 bands), medium (13 bands) and small (21 bands). The rounded horn and the flat horn are used depending on the shape of the article to be marked.
For Paris the insects are shown in profile:
For the Provinces (Départements) the insects are presented in bird's eye view
The borders separating the bands of insects are hollow except on the medium sized bigorne and on the rounded horn of the small bigorne. In these cases the tiny grooves are covered with dots; these serve as a support in the marking of very thin articles and also prevent the marks to appear only on the surfaces resting on the insects.

The Article 185 of Appendix III of the French General Tax Code (which introduced the insect-engraved bigornes in use from 1838) was officially abrogated on 16 July 1984 by the Article 9 of Decree No. 84-623.

International Hallmarks on Silver collected by Tardy, 2005 reprint
Les fermiers généraux au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose by Yves Durand
note 1 Minister of Finance to the King Louis XIV
note 2 Plate with the hallmarks used by the local government control of the tax farmer (Fermier Général) J.B. Fouache
note 3 Tax farmers were obliged to pay to the Royal Treasury the sum stipulated in their lease, and received a share of the income and a share of any unexpected surplus
note 4 28 former Fermiers Généraux were guillotined on 8 May 1794

Robert Massart
- 2011 -