HALLMARKING - IT'S YOUR WRITTEN GUARANTEE!
The History of hallmarking dates back to 1300 when a statute of Edward 1 instituted the assaying (testing) and marking of precious metals. The original aim of the system remains unchanged, namely the protection of the public against fraud and of the trader against unfair competition. Indeed, hallmarking is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection.
The name Assay comes from the French word assayer, which, when translated literally, means to try and in this case to try the fineness or purity of the articles submitted.
Hallmarking is as necessary today as it was in 1300 because when the jewellery and silverware are manufactured, precious metals are not used in their pure form, as they are too soft. Gold, silver, and platinum are always alloyed with copper or other metals to create an alloy that is more suitable to the requirements of the jeweller. Such an alloy needs to be strong, workable yet attractive.
Owing to the high value of Gold, Platinum and Silver, there are significant profits to be gained by reducing the precious metal content of an alloy at the manufacturing stage. Base metal articles plated with a thin coat of gold or silver look like the same articles made wholly of precious metal; at least until the plating wears off, even an expert cannot determine the quality or standard of precious metal items by eye or touch.
The statute of 1300 allowed the wardens of the Company of Goldsmiths in London to go out to workshops in the City and assay silver and gold. However, only silver that met the required standard was marked at this time with the symbol of the Leopard’s head, which is still the mark of the London Assay Office today. Gradually gold came to be marked in the same way as silver.
In 1363 the Maker’s mark was added to the hallmark. To begin with, most of them were pictorial but as literacy rates rose, the system of using the maker’s initials was introduced.
Quite some time after, in 1478, the wardens of Goldsmiths set themselves up in goldsmiths Hall and paid salaried assayers to test and mark items submitted to them. This led to the introduction of the date letter in order to make successive assayers accountable for their work.
Birmingham Assay Office was founded by an act of parliament in 1773. It had become clear to Matthew Boulton, one of 18th Century’s leading industrialists, that their trade would never truly prosper without an office of their own. The silversmiths lobbied Parliament vigorously and were final awarded by the Hallmarking Act of 1773, which founded the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices. London artisans produced more gold articles whilst Birmingham was better known for silver pieces, more substantially so in the 18th century. When gold needed to be assayed it had to be submitted to Goldsmiths Hall in London and from this was consequently known as the “Hallmark”.
Sterling Silver Hallmarks
The numbers 925 or the word silver seen alone on modern articles for sale proves nothing. Authentic British Sterling Silver hallmarked items usually carry 5 different stamped symbols.
The first is the maker’s mark, also known as the sponsor’s mark, which is held on file, in various scaled sizes, at the Assay Office. It is retrieved and used exclusively when that maker’s items are sent for testing.
Hallmarking of precious metals is still a legal requirement in the UK and in 2006 Birmingham Assay Office became the largest Assay Office in the world handling over 12 million articles per year.
The second mark is the symbol of the Assay Office, the anchor is the designated symbol of The Birmingham Assay Office.
The third mark is 925, which proves that during testing the precious metal was 75 parts copper and 925 parts pure silver per thousand. Britannia silver has a content ratio of 42/958 but is by nature too soft a material to make everyday items from.
The fourth mark is a date letter. For the year 2006, the stylised letter ‘g’ appears on all items tested and hallmarked between January 1st and December 31st. The date mark is retired on the closing of the Assay Office on December 31st and there is no possible way of getting items backdated.
The fifth mark is the lion passant, which proudly states that the article is British Sterling Silver.
Platinum never used to be hallmarked, usually seen stamped PLAT but in 1973 was brought under regulation using the symbol of an orb within a pentagon and fineness generally seen as 950.
White metals have soared in popularity in the last five years but with the recent rise in the price of precious metals others are now becoming desirable. The latest is Palladium which has the same whiteness as platinum. It is the lightest and least dense of all the platinum group metals and has the lowest melting point. It is malleable and ductile in its pure form but when alloyed to the recognised international standard of 950 the additional elements make it harder and more durable in the cast condition. Its hardness significantly increases as it is cold worked making it ideal for jewellery.
Another white metal used in jewellery making is Nickel but sensitisation to Nickel can cause an unpleasant, allergic reaction and the surge in popularity in body piercing over the last 20 years has been a major driver of both the problem and the legislation to resolve it. There is now a legal restriction on the amount of Nickel that can be released from an item sold in the EU which is intended to come into prolonged and direct contact with the skin. Be rest assured that you should not have a problem with items bought nowadays.
There were 10 main Assay offices. 7 in England, 2 in Scotland and 1 in Ireland.
Birmingham Opened 1773 Anchor.
Chester Opened 1701 – Closed 1962 3 wheat-sheafs and upturned sword.
Exeter Opened 1701 – Closed 1883 Castle.
London Opened 1462 Leopards Head
Newcastle Opened 1721 – Closed 1883 3 castles.
Sheffield Opened 1773 Crown.
York Opened 1559 – Closed 1886 Cross and 5 lions rampant.
In Scotland there were two main Assay Offices. There were also many provincial towns where silver was made.
Glasgow Opened 1819 – Closed 1964 Fish, tree and bell.
Edinburgh Opened 1681 Triple towered castle and thistle.
Dublin Opened 1720 Harp and Hibernia
Anyone interested in further study of British Hallmarks and old Sheffield Plate Marks will find lots of information in a book by Bradbury’s simply called “The Book of Hallmarks”
Managing Director of Alistair Black Ltd