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Hallmarking - A History

The law which first started consumer protection.

Hallmarking dates back to the 1300s when Edward I instituted the assaying and marking of precious metals. When the hallmark was introduced, it was the first ever law to protect the consumer. It was not only introduced to protect the public from fraud, but also to protect traders from unfair competition.

Hallmarking is as necessary today as it was then. When precious metals such as gold and silver are used in jewellery, as they are too soft in their pure form, they are alloyed with much cheaper but stronger metals like copper and bronze. The hallmark primarily identifies the purity level of the gold.

The statute of 1300 stated that the wardens of the Company of Goldsmiths in London could go to workshops in the city and assay silver and gold. Initially, silver was the only precious metal that was marked with the symbol of the leopard head; the mark still used by the London assay office today.

In 1363, the maker’s mark was also added to the hallmark, starting out as pictorial stamps. As literacy improved initials replaced the symbols. The Assay Office in Edinburgh, Scotland is owned by the Incorporation of Goldsmiths of the City of Edinburgh, and the practice of hallmarking being applied here can be traced back to 1457.

The wardens of the goldsmiths didn’t move to Goldsmiths Hall until 1748. They then started to pay a salaried assayer to test and mark items that were submitted. In 1773 silversmiths from other parts of the UK petitioned against having to send their items to London. Although there was fierce opposition from London Goldsmiths’ company, an Act of Parliament was passed allowing Sheffield and Birmingham to assay precious metals.

In the same year a date symbol was added to the hallmark and was introduced to make the individual assayers accountable for their work. Every year the date symbol changed and if you have an old piece of jewellery at home, maybe a piece that has been passed down the generations, and would like to know when the piece was first made then have a look at it under a microscope and see if you can find the hallmark. Assuming it hasn’t worn away, study the date symbol and then go to www.theassayoffice.co.uk and on their website you will be able to see all symbols used since 1773.

The Hallmarking Act of 1973 confirmed that all precious metals were to be assayed, and also introduced the marking for platinum.

Before 1998 it was compulsory that the hallmark comprised four pieces of information: the sponsor’s mark, the metal standard mark, the assay office symbol and a date stamp. Since 1998 the date stamp has been optional.

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