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History of Hallmarking

History of Hallmarking

Hallmarking – the oldest form of consumer protection.

The concept of hallmarking itself dates to nearly 400 AD and was discovered on silver objects from the Byzantine period.

The purpose of a hallmark is to certify the metal purity of the item, so you know what quality of gold, silver, or platinum you are buying. Testing precious metals for purity is called “assaying”. Therefore, the places where hallmarking is done are called Assay Offices.

The four components of a hallmark are: the sponsor or maker's mark, the standard mark, the assay office mark, and the date letter for the year. Hallmark identification should answer four important questions - where; what; when; who. This ensures that consumers are protected from forgeries.

 

History of the British Hallmarks

In 1238 Henry 111 made the earliest attempt at regulating the standard of gold and silver wares, passing an order commanding the mayor and aldermen of the City of London to choose six of the more discreet goldsmiths of the city to supervise the craft. The standards of fineness for gold and silver were also stipulated. 

Edward 1 tried again to prevent frauds being committed by goldsmiths, passing a statute for this purpose.

The ‘Guardians of the craft’ were to go from ‘shop to shop’ to assay work and apply the leopard’s head mark. Silver had to be of sterling standard (92.5% pure silver) and gold had to be of the ‘touch of Paris’ (19.2 carats). Goldsmiths outside London were also supposed to keep to the same standards.

‘No goldsmith… shall from henceforth make or cause to be made any manner of vessel, jewel or any other thing of gold or silver except it be of the true alloy and that no manner of vessel of silver depart out of the hands of the workers, until further, that it be marked with the leopard’s head’.

Statute of Edward I in 1300

This 1300 statute allowed the wardens from the Guild of Goldsmiths and Silversmiths, to test the gold and silver that was being crafted in workshops. The original mark applied was a Leopards head and this is still used by London assay office to this day. Only silver items were hallmarked in these early years, but items made of gold followed later. To begin with, wardens from the Guild of Goldsmiths and Silversmiths would visit the silversmiths’ workshops but later it became the responsibility of the silversmith to bring their items to the Goldsmiths’ Hall and this is where the origin of the word hallmark comes from. It is literally the mark of the hall.
 
In 1363 a "makers mark" was added to the hallmark and this gave people the ability to trace the manufacturer of an item.  A list of all makers and their marks was kept at Goldsmiths’ Hall, and so if an item was later discovered to be less than the sterling standard, the offending maker could be found and prosecuted.

Then later the Touch Warden from the Goldsmiths’ Company also added a "date letter" that gave an even greater ability to trace the origin and history of an item. This system of hallmarking is one of the reasons that we know so much today about the history of our forefathers that manufactured articles made of hallmarked silver and gold. You only have to listen to any antique programme on the TV to see how this valuable information is used. If an item has an Anchor as part of the hallmark every single antique expert on the TV will say that the item was “Marked at Birmingham assay office, " or “It has a Birmingham Hallmark."  Similarly, London has the Leopards head, Sheffield a rose, Edinburgh a castle and Dublin Hibernia as their symbols.
 

This was the start of a hallmarking system that was to become recognised throughout the world and was to become the envy of many countries. Some countries had a hallmarking system of some form and used metals with varying silver and gold content, but nothing quite added up to the real deal of the British hallmarking system. A system that guaranteed quality and a system that provided the buyer with a complete history trail of their purchase.

Prior to 1773 there were five assay offices in the UK and Ireland. These were based in London, Chester, (closed 1962) Exeter, (closed 1883) Edinburgh and Dublin.

In 1757, counterfeiting hallmarks becomes a felony, punishable by death. In 1773, the growth of large scale manufacturing and the use of machines for silver production in Birmingham and Sheffield led to a call for new assay offices in these cities. The Goldsmiths’ Company was opposed to this proposal, however a Special Committee of Inquiry set up by the House of Commons found in favour of the craftsmen. An act of May 1773 established assay offices in Birmingham and Sheffield, and the Goldsmiths’ Company (whose own assay office was found to have committed some errors) was left to pay the not only its own legal fees, but those for the London trade as well!

The famous industrialist Matthew Boulton was instrumental in Birmingham being granted the right to have its own assay office after joining forces with The Sheffield Cutlers Company and jointly lobbying parliament.  Matthew Boulton who had opened his famous Soho Manufactory in Birmingham in 1766 was experiencing problems getting his work hallmarked as the nearest assay offices to Birmingham were at either Chester or London. The primitive horse drawn waggon, which was the standard mode of transport at the time meant he was experiencing extensive delays, and damage to goods while in transit, and there was also the risk of theft from highwaymen.
 

While staying in London during the lobbying process Boulton Lodged at a Tavern on The Strand called The Crown and Anchor, and this is where many of his meetings took place.  After agreement was finally reached to allow the two new offices to open it is rumoured that a toss of a coin decided that Sheffield assay office would adopt the Crown as their symbol and Birmingham assay office the Anchor. (Sheffield dropped the crown in 1975 and replaced it for a rose which was the mark they were already using on gold items.)
 
Birmingham’s first assay office opened its doors on 31st August 1773. Its’ very first customer was none other than Matthew Boulton and from the moment it opened the Birmingham assay office included a date letter in the hallmark.

The hallmark shown below is from an item made by Matthew Boulton with the date letter for 1787. The mark may be worn but all the information is still there. The extra symbol of a Kings head is a duty mark struck to prove that a tax had been paid on the item and these marks were used from 1784 to 1890.


 
In Birmingham there is a saying that if something is no good “put it under the hammer”
 
This phrase is said to come from the Assay Offices process of destroying any work that did not come up to the standard required for hallmarking. 

Unfortunately for Matthew Boulton, as well as being the first customer of the Birmingham Assay Office he was also rumoured to be the first to experience this first-hand. A batch of his work did not come up to the standard of metal fineness required and he received back the squashed remains, that had been “put under the hammer”. Today only the Dublin assay office still destroys a whole batch of work if just one item taken at random from a batch fails the assay test.

 If you had a piece of silverware hallmarked in 1773 the hallmark had four symbols that would tell us four different things and an example of the layout of an old style hallmark is shown below. The symbols were

1.      A MAKER’S MARK, so we knew who had made the item.
2.      AN ASSAY OFFICE MARK, so we knew where the item had been hallmarked?
3.      A FINENESS MARK, so we knew the fineness of metal used. (In this case the rampant lion for Sterling Silver)
4.      A DATE LETTER, so we knew which year the item had been hallmarked.

 

In 1934 a voluntary mark celebrating the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary was available to goldsmiths for two years between 1934 and 1935. Its popularity led to further commemorative marks for the Coronation of H.M.  Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and 1954; for the Silver Jubilee in 1977; for the Millennium in 1999 and 2000; for the Golden Jubilee in 2002 and the Golden Jubilee in 2012.

 

The 700 year old tradition continues to this day as the most sophisticated but simple system of consumer protection – long may it continue.

 

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