Heraldry is an ancient and wonderful part of British heritage, but it is a difficult subject to absorb quickly. It is important however, that anyone who is really interested in collecting silver should know a little about the basic terms they will encounter. A full set of armorials consists of the coat of arms, the cartouche that surrounds it, its supporteys (for a noble house – for example the lion and the unicorn of the Royal Coat of Arms), the mantling, and any appropriate coronet where the bearer of arms is a member of the peerage. As a general rule, the more important pieces of family plate were engraved with full armorials’, and lesser pieces with the family crest. The crest is a device that has its place on the upper part of a helmet that surmounts a coat of arms.
The mantling was originally a term used for the plumes or cloth attached to the helmet, a functional addition to protect the helmet from stains and rust, and not originally a decorative device. Peers have mantling of particular colours depending on their standing, as they also have coronets that mark out their degree or rank.
Coats of arms were devised as instant visual symbols for retainers and armed forces on the battlefield, and colours played a vital part in their distinction. Since colours cannot be engraved on silver or metal, a series of cross-hatching and dots represented the basic colours of heraldry when depicted on silver or engraved in black and white. Up to the beginning of the 1700´s, British engravers were not skilful to master this extremely fine work, and the heraldic symbols on a coat of arms engraved without the detail cross-hatching and armorials of earlier periods can be easily distinguished from later, and more detailed engraving.
The style of the cartouche engraved on a piece of silver gives an instant clue to the period in which it was made. Armorials engraved at a later date on early silver, however beautifully, do not, as might be supposed, enhance the piece, but considerably reduce its value.