Ever turned over a piece of silver jewellery to look at the hallmark?
Ok you might need your glasses - they can be super tiny!
What do those wee symbols mean, and when did they get to be so important?
If you watch the Antiques Road Show, you will have seen the 'experts' pick up a piece of silver, turn it over and look for that all important set of symbols - the hallmark. With a wee pause for dramatic effect, they will then be able to tell the owner :- who made the item, how old it is. and give an indication on where it was made. A hallmark gives a piece this 'provenance' – a summary of proof, telling you the story of that piece.
As a jewellery maker, I am proud to send each of my finished pieces to Edinburgh Assay Office to be tested and hallmarked. Those wee marks are your guarantee that your piece of Indigo Berry jewellery is what is claims to be:- 925 sterling silver. They also confirm that I made it, and that is was tested in Scotland.
The Indigo Berry Hallmark
The hallmark on the back of an Indigo Berry piece of handcrafted silver jewellery comprises five symbols.
The first is the maker's mark or sponsor’s mark. My sponsor's mark is my initial MS in a rectangle (I kept it simple - why over complicate things?)
The second mark is the purity mark. This confirms that the piece has been tested and that it has a silver content of 92.5% - the purity of sterling silver.
Next you will see the traditional mark denoting the metal fineness. The lion rampant is the symbol for Sterling Silver (just in case you missed the 925 stamp!)
the fourth symbol is that of the Assay Office. The castle is the symbol of Edinburgh Assay Office, telling you that this is where it was tested
finally there is the date stamp.
Only three of these marks are compulsory - the maker's mark, the Assay Office mark, and the all important purity mark.
If someone is selling something that they claim to be silver, legally it must have been tested (assayed) by an Assay Office and stamped with a hallmark.* The UK Hallmarking Act 1973 makes the UK one of only a few countries worldwide that has compulsory hallmarking.
When I send my handcrafted silver jewellery to Edinburgh Assay Office, they also like to check the additional components (such as the silver chains, ear wires, brooch pins etc) that I will be using in the finished piece. If any of these fail the testing, I would be unable to sell my work with a description that says is sterling silver.
I am also legally required to display the statutory notice which describes the approved hallmarks. I do this on my stall at craft fairs and on my online outlets.
The term 'hallmark' is thought to refer back to the location of Goldsmith's Hall the first official UK assay office. It began to be used and recorded from around 1721 although wasn't officially adopted to denote 'quality' until after 1864.
Silver objects bearing some kind of 'hallmarks' haven been discovered and dated to around 400 AD. So the concept of 'hallmarking' goes back a lot lot further than you may think. Given that silver is a precious commodity, it is not surprising that the history of silver and how we test and 'hallmark' it, is closely connected with the history of coins.
Silver has long been used for currency. Because pure silver is very soft, it needed to be mixed with another metal to make the coins hard wearing. And in order to ensure consistency across coins of equal value, some kind of standard was required. Coins not only needed to be the same size but they also needed to contain the same amount of silver. The first legal standard for coins in Britain was decreed in 1158 by King Henry V11. This standard became known as Sterling Silver (92.5% silver to 7.5% copper). British currency became Pounds Sterling, because one pound was equal in value to one troy pound** of sterling silver coins.
By 1238, both silver coins and silver items had, by law, to be made of sterling standard silver, and in the 14th century hallmarking was initiated by Edward 11 who passed a new law making it illegal to sell any silver item unless is was assayed and hallmarked.
The first hallmark was a leopard’s head.
The Makers Mark became compulsory in 1363 and in 1478 an annual ‘assayer’s mark’ was introduced. Each assayer worked a term of 12 months, marking each item that they tested with their own stamp. This not only gave the hallmark a guarantee but it also made the person testing the silver, accountable. If an item was later found to be less than the sterling standard, that assayer could be traced and punished. An assayer mark acts as a 'date stamp' on early silver, enabling us to date antique pieces.
In 1973, the Hallmarking Act officially brought England into the Vienna Convention making it subject to the European nation’s standards of denoting the quality of precious metals with a standard set of hallmarks.
The Assay Offices
Although originally there were many small provincial assay offices operating up and down the UK, today there are just four - in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh. They are overseen by the British Hallmarking Council.
The two oldest Assay Offices are London and Edinburgh and they both work from Royal Charters. The Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office in London began hallmarking in 1327.The Edinburgh Assay Office dates from 1457. It is not only the last remaining Assay Office in Scotland, but also the busiest of the four UK Assay Offices.
How is the hallmark applied?
Hallmarks are traditionally applied by striking the silver with a punch, but nowadays they can also be applied using lasers. My pieces are laser hallmarked – I think it gives a clearer impression.
*The UK Hallmarking Act 1973 applies not just to silver. It also covers gold, platinum and palladium.
**In case you are wondering what a troy pound is:- the Troy measurement system is used to weigh precious metals, bullion, gemstones... oh and... gunpowder!