figures about Hallmarks.
Hallmarks are one of the oldest
forms of guarantee there is. Since 1300 any silver that met
the required standard laid down by law has been marked. The
system developed so that in the event of a fraud, the person
responsible for making or testing the silver could be traced
and punished. Seven hundred years ago the punishment was
The first mark to be put on silver in England was the
Leopard's Head Mark. This mark originally indicated that the
piece was made of Sterling Standard (sterling is silver of
92.5% purity) and would be struck onto the piece after testing
or assaying wherever in the country it had been made.
Although this one mark helped considerably, it did not
eliminate dishonest practice amongst silversmiths. So to
protect the honest smith and the client, a second mark was
introduced - the makers or Sponsor's Mark. The system was
further improved soon after with the introduction in 1378 of
Town or Assay Marks.
At the end of the 15th Century, corruption began in a
different quarter. The 'touch wardens', who tested and marked
silver, were marking substandard wares. To curb this, the
wardens were all moved into the Goldsmiths' Hall in London,
under the watchful eye of an 'assay master' (from the old
French assai, meaning examination). It was at this time, as a
result of the silver being stamped in the Goldsmiths' Hall,
that the marks started to be called Hallmarks.
Each assay master was given a unique mark for each of his
years in office. This identified him and discouraged any
dishonesty on his behalf. The marks used for the assay masters
were letters of the alphabet, now called Date Letters. As a
result it is possible, from 1478 onwards, to accurately date
any fully marked London piece.
From 1st January 1999, the silver hallmarking system in
Britain changed, as a result of EEC regulations, the famous
Lion Passant mark and the date letter became optional extras.
Only three marks are now required:
The Mark of Origin or Town or
A Standard Mark - a numeric mark in an oval punch
A Sponsor's or Maker's Mark.
The system of hallmarking silver could be described as our
oldest form of consumer protection. Enforcement through the
ages has been rigorous and, although execution is no longer a
sentence, up to ten years' imprisonment awaits those found
guilty of breaches of the hallmarking laws.
Gold, like silver, is alloyed to
harden it. The main alloys are copper and silver - the alloy
will influence the final colour of the gold, nickel would
produce a whiter tone than, say, copper, which will produce a
Until 1798 the standard marks for sterling silver and gold
were the same. The first legal standard of gold was introduced
by Edward I in 1300, as equal to the "Touch of Paris" - 19 1/2
carats of pure gold to 24. A carat is the 24th part weight of
the whole, so 19 1/2 carat gold must contain a minimum of 19
1/2 parts of pure gold per 24 parts total.
Again, as with silver hallmarking, the standard was indicated
by a leopards heard mark. A marker's mark was necessary from
about 1363 and a date letter system was added in 1578. In 1477
the standard was lowered to 18 carats until 1575 when 22
carats was introduced (still applies today). From 1544 the
standard mark was changed to a Lion Passant, a Crown was
introduced in 1798 for 18 carat gold and from 1844 the crown
was used for both 22 and 18 carat standards.
1854 saw the addition of three more standard, 15, 12 and 9
carat, of which in 1932, 15 and 12 carat were drop and
replaced with 14 carat.
Gold Standard Marks:
22 carat 91.6%
18 carat 75%
14 carat 58.5%
9 carat 37.5%
In its pure form silver is too
soft for normal or "domestic" use. For this reason it is
necessary to mix the pure silver with a hardening agent,
usually copper. Once alloyed (mixed), the silver metal is
beaten out using a hammer - a process called annealing. It is
important for the silversmith to avoid hitting the same spot
twice before the piece has been heated to realign the
structure of the atoms, which are then able to withstand
Copper is an ideal hardening agent because it does not
discolour the silver - a caveat of this is that it is
impossible to assess the purity of silver using the naked eye
and thus an unscrupulous silversmith could increase the
percentage of copper in silver wares without much fear of
As a guarantee of the purity and "fitness", silver had to be
tested or assayed. To perform the test, a scraping of silver
was taken, weighed, then heated in bone ash - any copper
component would be absorbed into the ash leaving just the pure
silver. This was weighed and the difference between the two
weights gave the percentage of copper.
To indicate that the silver had been tested and "passed at
assay" (met with the standard for purity), items were marked.
From 1300 only silver containing at least 925 parts of silver
per thousand (that is 92.5%) to 75 of copper (7.5%) could be
considered and termed "sterling" and marked with the official
On March the 30th, 1327, Edward III introduced a charter
giving the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths the right to
conduct and enforce the assay laws. Assaying (testing) was
carried out at Goldsmiths Hall, which was the headquarters of
the guild, leading to the mark of guarantee being referred to
as a "hallmark".
All silver had to be taken to Goldsmiths Hall, London, to be
tested and given the Kings mark. However, silversmiths were
reluctant to bring their wares over long distances - transport
was slow, dangerous and uncomfortable - deciding instead to
sell wares unmarked and ignore the law. In 1363, to combat
this, powers of touch were granted to mayors of all cities and
boroughs, and representatives were elected annually to carry
out the work of the London office.
Before 1544, in England, the Sterling silver standard, of
92.5%, was indicated by the presents of Leopard's Head mark of
the London Assay Office.
The "Britannia" mark for silver of the new higher standard of
95.8% - the highest possible purity before the silver became
too soft to be workable - which was introduced to discourage
clipping, a practice which involved scraping off minute pieces
of silver from the edge of coinage. This could then be used to
produce homemade coins or sold to a silversmith. The
government also introduced coins with a milled edge.
In Scotland the Lion Rampant was used in place of a Lion
Passant - at the Glasgow office between 1819 and 1964 (which
was when the office closed) and the Edinburgh office has used
the mark from 1975.