As the Medieval period gave way to the Renaissance, the papermakers of southern Europe were the first to use watermarks extensively. In view of the fact that it is believed that the heretical religious sects were the first to embrace papermaking, it is possible that the images they created in their watermarks possessed religious symbolism.
Watermarks produced by the Cartiere Miliani Mill in the Italian papermaking town of Fabriano, the oldest continuously operated papermill in Italy, have been dated to the year 1282.
An image consisting of a cross with circles at the points is believed to be the earliest watermark to have been produced by the Cartiere Miliani papermill at Fabriano. The town's symbol was an image of an anvil, and it is believed that that image was also created as a watermark by the company.
A representation of the oldest known watermark
Another early symbol used as a watermark image was the fleur-de-lis, which has been found in paper dating to 1285.
At this early stage in the history of the watermark, both, the bent and shaped piece of wire, along with the phenomenon that came to be created within the depths of the paper, tended to be known by a number of names. The Dutch called it the papiermerken, from which the name papermark comes. The French used the name of filigrane which basically refers to the shaped or bent wire. The English began to use the name, watermark about the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. And the Germans seem to have used wasserzeichen, which was their version of the English word, watermark, for this phenomenon. To the present day, some papermakers still use the name, papermark, for the shaped piece of wire, while the image left by it in the paper has become known as the watermark.
The lawyer, Bartola de Sassoferrato was the first to mention watermarks, when, in his papers dating between 1340 and 1350, he noted that a papermaker could be prohibited from using the mark of a different papermaker.
Watermarks may have originally been utilized to differentiate the product of individual master papermakers within each single papermill since there was no other way to do so. This would have helped to resolve disputes in the event that one papermaker would accuse another of theft.
Throughout the history of watermarks, the most common watermarks were those devised by papermakers to denote their own product. These marks, known as Countermarks, were usually small and simple designs, in many cases simply the papermaker's initials, placed in an area of the paper opposite to the actual watermark design.
Coming into being as early as 1290, and progressing through the Sixteenth Century, the guild system thrived throughout Europe. In its simplest terms, the guild was a professional society, whose members practiced a particular trade or craft. But it was a professional society in which you had to participate if you desired to practice certain trades. The members paid a fee or tax to continue their membership in the guild; but the payment was worth it, because failure to join a guild could result in failure at your business, and possibly being ostracized. The guilds operated as monopolies, setting prices and standards. Because the guild was essentially a closed society, the knowledge of one craftsman diffused to others. Therefore, the use of watermarks spread from one papermaker to others, and was embraced by all. The papermakers of Renaissance Europe realized that they could use the watermarks as a means to identify their individual businesses. They would shape wire into initials and simple symbols and then attach the shaped wires to the mesh of the paper mold screens. It was as simple a process as for a silversmith to engrave his own identifying initials or symbol into his product.
Many countries which did not have their own papermaking guilds imported the much desired watermarked papers from countries such as Italy. There exists a wealth of Greek manuscripts dating from the Thirteenth Century which were written on watermarked paper imported from Italy.
The art and craft of Papermaking was not destined to remain only in the Orient, Middle East and southern Europe; it was inevitable that papermaking and the creation of watermarks in that paper would spread to northern Europe. The first papermill to be established in the northern European region was in Germany, built by Ulman Stomer at Nurnberg in 1390. The watermark employed by this mill consisted of the letter "S" along with the heraldic arms of the city of Nurnberg. Jean L'Espagnol imported papermaking from Spain to the Netherlands, establishing a papermill as early as 1405 at Flanders. In 1495 the first papermill in England was established in Hertfordshire by John Tate. It was in 1576 that the first papermill to be built in Russia was established at Moscow. The first papermill to be built in Scotland was established at Dalry, near Edinburgh in 1591 by Mungo Russell and his son, Gideon.
By the mid-1400s watermarks had become so popular that very little paper was produced which did not bear a watermark.