I have always been fascinated by the hallmarks on jewellery and silverware, often looking them up to see how old something is. When we registered our own mark, it was a lovely feeling, as we joined the Register of Makers which spans back centuries. Every time we have something hallmarked I feel really proud that our little mark will be on that piece of jewellery forever, signifying that it was made by Varoshe long after we are all gone.
But what exactly is a hallmark? This month I decided that I would delve in to the history of our trusted hallmark and explain why it is such an important part of every piece that is made in the UK.
THE HALLMARK EXPLAINED
Metals used in jewellery (silver and gold for example) are often alloyed to make them more durable and easier to work with. (An alloy is a metal made up of a mix of metals.) Although there are some colour differences between the gold alloys, and weight differences between each type of metal, it is impossible to know for sure through sight and touch. Therefore, since 1757 it has been a legal requirement for all jewellers and silversmiths to have their work tested and hallmarked by an Assay Office.
There are four (main) Assay Offices in the UK today; London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Most jewellers/silversmiths register with their nearest Assay Office, but in theory you could use any of them. Each assay office has its own mark to signify where the hallmark has been struck.
If a piece of jewellery weighs under the legal requirement for each metal then it does not need to be hallmarked. These weights are different for each metal…
Silver 7.78 grams
Gold and Palladium 1.00 gram
Platinum 0.50 gram
The UK Hallmarking Act (1973) meant that it is an offence to describe an unhallmarked item as being made from precious metal. For example, you would be required to describe a piece as precious white metal instead of sterling silver, if over the 7.78 gram weight limit and not hallmarked.
A Hallmark must legally show a minimum of three marks: A Sponsor’s Mark (identifying the maker of the piece), a Millesimal Fineness Mark (dictating the type and carat or fineness of the metal) and the Assay Office mark (identifying which Assay Office has struck the mark). These marks are either punched or more recently lasered in to the surface of the metal. You can have a look at the different types of mark by clicking on the Statutory Notice above.
In addition to these three marks, the London Assay Office also include two other marks as standard: The Date Letter Mark (indicating the year in which the item was struck) and a Traditional Fineness Mark (indicating the type of metal).
The UK hallmark is an institution full of history which dates back centuries. Here are just some of the major historical events that have happened since its inception in 1238…
HISTORY OF THE HALLMARK
1238 - Henry III passed an order, commanding the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London to choose six goldsmiths to oversee the craft. During this time the standards of gold and silver where stipulated to try and regulate the alloys used.
1300 - Edward I passed a statute to prevent frauds committed by goldsmiths when making their wares. The ‘Guardians of the Craft’ travelled from ‘shop to shop’ to stamp the leopard’s head mark in to pieces. Silver had to be of sterling standard (92.5% pure silver) and gold had to be of the ‘touch of Paris’ (19.2 carats).
1363 - Edward III decreed that a maker’s mark was to be struck next to the leopard’s head to show the which ‘smith had made the piece.
1478 - The gold standard was lowered to 18 carat and the Goldsmiths’ Company was made responsible for the ‘Keeper of the Touch’. As the Company was now liable for fines for any wrongful marking the date letter stamp was introduced, which was to be changed every year and identified the Touch Warden responsible for the mark.
It was from this point that the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London became the permanent home of the Assay Office, which some believe is the reason we use the term ‘Hallmark’.
1576 - The gold standard is raised to 22 carat and silver is confirmed as sterling.
1739 - The marker’s mark was standardised. All old marks were to be destroyed and all goldsmiths were to register new marks. These were to be of the maker’s initials and were made in a new style of lettering.
1757 - Counterfeiting hallmarks became illegal and was punishable by death!
1773 - Assay Offices in Birmingham and Sheffield were opened.
1798 - 18 carat gold was reintroduced as an additional standard alongside 22 carat.
1854 - 15, 12 and 9 carats were introduced, indicated by marks denoting their actual fineness. For example 9 carat was denoted with the number 375 which was to signify the 37.5% of gold in the alloy.
1855 - Gold wedding rings were made liable for hallmarking for the first time.
1932 - 15 and 12 carat gold standard were cancelled and were substituted for 14 carat, which is predominantly used outside of the UK today.
1973 - Royal Assent was given to pass the UK Hallmarking Act which consolidated all the existing measures for regulating the hallmark.
1975 - The platinum mark was introduced.
2006 - Satellite Assay Offices were opened in Greville Street, in Hatton Garden, Heathrow Airport (2008); and Graff Diamonds, in London (2015), which was the first office to be set up in a retail space.
If you are interested in reading more on the history or methods of marking a hallmark, why not have a look at the London Assay Office website (www.assayofficelondon.co.uk)?
As always if you have any jewellery related questions (like identifying the hallmark in your favourite piece of jewellery) please do get in touch, we are only too happy to try and help. You can find out how to contact us here.
Looking forward to seeing you in West Malling soon.