I have just discovered that after all my years in the trade I don’t actually know an awful lot about hallmarking! Oh, I know the important bits like it’s illegal to sell an item as precious metal if the hallmark has not been applied; I know what the stamps in my hallmark all mean, and I know hallmarking goes back to the 1300s, but that’s really all I know. So I did a bit of digging and it’s fascinating, actually.
Hallmarking was invented in France and not in England as I had thought. It was to do with the trade in precious objects between England and France, and there used to be a mark included in the hallmark to indicate whether the tax had been paid on the item being imported. That all went by the board long ago, of course, and now 3 marks are required (maker’s mark, metal fineness and assay office mark) but lots of metal workers have more than three, including us – we have the date stamp too which we think is really important in the provenance of a piece of jewellery. Occasionally a mark is added for a special occasion – the Queen’s Jubilee year, for instance, and as these special marks only last for one year, we try really hard to get it added to some of our work. It’s a bit like looking for the penny in the Christmas pud – did my piece get the special mark or not?
The inclusion of the date letter in the hallmark started in 1478 (the same year the Assay Office was founded). It is a non-compulsory element of the hallmark, but the Assay office applies it as standard in their Full Traditional Hallmark. The date letter changes annually on January 1st. The font, case, and shield shape all change so each can only indicate one specific year. All date punches are destroyed at the end of the year, and for 2020 it is this V with the cut off corners.
British hallmarking was the job of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’ – known as the Goldsmiths’ Company – and they it was that had to devise the system and do all the marking. The Assay Office, which is where the marking is done, is actually not run by the Government but is bound by the legislation of government. However, they can run the business as they see fit – and metal workers are obliged by law to employ them…
In an effort to get everyone on board with hallmarking, the Hallmarking Convention was signed in Vienna in 1972 and put into force in 1975. The idea was to eliminate trade barriers in the cross border trade of precious metals, and thereby bring a recognised standard to the fineness of metals being used in the trade. Some countries have a much higher fineness requirement than others (and some have a lower moral standard about selling you gilded base metal as gold, of course!) but a level has been agreed, and a mark from a Convention member is recognised in England. There are 20 countries in the convention with Croatia, Italy, Serbia, Sri Lanka and Ukraine all in the process of acceding to the convention.
So next time you buy a piece of jewellery, (gold, platinum, palladium and silver) be a good magpie and have a look at the hallmark and see if you can work out its provenance – and see whether you got wot you woz sold, too!