Being in the antique silver business, we regularly come across fine silver pieces engraved with crests and elaborate coats of arms. And, although we always try our upmost to identify the origins of the individual crest I feel it’s time to get to know a little bit about the background of heraldry itself.

So, here goes, first things first… Crests vs. Coats?

The heraldry profession that encompasses both crests and coats of arms originated in the middle ages when those that participated in combat were required to wear certain images or symbols to distinguish themselves whilst their faces were hidden by helmets.

coat of arms

Over the years the two terms have begun to be used interchangeably to mean the same thing, however, the two concepts though related are quite different. The coat of arms refers to the entire heraldic achievement whereas the crest refers to just a single component. A coat of arms generally includes a shield as a battle reference and several accessory elements including a crest, a motto, a coronet, a helm and supporters.

Unlike a crest which can be transferred throughout different generations and branches of the same family the coat of arms belongs to the individual and is considered legal property to be passed from father to son. Don’t worry, wives and daughters sometimes get a look in, but generally their coats of arms only portray their relation to the original bearer. As women were not involved in battle their coat of arms would not bear a shield and alternatively would be shown on a lozenge, an oval or a cartouche.

A coat of arms can include a short phrase, known as an armorial motto intended to inspire or describe the motivation of the person or corporation. Motto’s usually feature on a scroll underneath the shield and can be in any language, though usually Latin or the bearers native tongue.

The crest is a key accessory to the full heraldic achievement, positioned above the helm when included in the full coat of arms. It is typical for pieces of antique silver to only feature the crest as the full coat of arms was reserved for larger, elaborate ceremonial items. In this instance, when the crest is not accompanied by a coat of arms it is likely to be shown with a twisted band (shown to the right), a coronet or a cap. Family crests usually include animals or human figures shown bearing weapons, as symbols of braver and strength.

So where does that leave us today? In modern society heraldic symbols are still a display of both national and personal heritages. However, unlike its origins heraldry is no longer used as an expression of aristocracy, rather as a tool to create and reinforce an identity for nations, their subdivisions and institutions such as churches, universities and schools.

crest and motto

Phew. Admittedly it’s a lot to take in! But if all this has inspired you to research your own family crest allow me to recommend My Family Silver, which has a comprehensive selection of crests and allows you to search for pieces from the AC Silver inventory bearing the crest associated with your family.

Written by

Rachel O'Keefe-Coulson

Rachel O’Keefe-Coulson is also known as AC Silver’s ‘Silver Lady’. Rachel spends her days handling antique silverware and processing these items for display on the AC Silver website. Rachel will enlighten our readers with posts of a silver theme.