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Facts and figures about Hallmarks.

 

History:

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 execution.


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 Assay Mark
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 Hallmarking:

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 yellow metal.


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%

 

Silver Hallmarking:

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 further beating.


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 being detected.


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 stamp.


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.

 


 

 

 

 

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