Many people are confused about what exactly constitutes a hallmark and what the purpose of it is. This article sets out to clarify and explain what hallmarking is all about and the legal requirements for hallmarking. Silver Hallmarking Part 2 (my next blog) looks at how foreign hallmarks can sometimes be misleading and when 925 silver is not necessarily so.
What is a hallmark?
I think we need to go back in time a bit to understand how hallmarking came about and what it means today, but before we do, let’s clarify, what is a hallmark?
A dictionary definition of a hallmark is that it is a mark or series of marks stamped into precious metals. In a broader sense it can mean any distinguishing characteristic or trait. Most people are familiar with the term and believe that if an item has a hallmark, it must be genuine. In other words, if an item is stamped 925 then it must be sterling silver, right?
A brief history of hallmarking
Although the practice of having some kind of quality mark for precious metals goes back as far as the Byzantine era, as far as England is concerned it really dates back to 1300 when Edward 1 recognised the need for some kind of consumer protection from rogue dealers, so he decreed that the sterling silver standard would be set at 92.5% meaning 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% alloy. Furthermore, once assayed, it should be stamped with a leopard’s head to denote that it had been tested and had met the standard.
Later, in 1327, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths came into being through the granting of a royal charter by Edward III. Their headquarters are known as Goldsmiths’ Hall from whence the term “hallmark” is derived. Slightly later still, (1355 in France and 1363 in England) individual maker marks were introduced. England added date letters to the marks in 1478.
Today, the compulsory part of the UK hallmark consists of the maker’s mark (now called a sponsor’s mark), the assay office symbol, and the figures denoting the standard of fineness e.g. 925 for sterling silver. Other marks are optional such as the date letter and, for example, the symbol of the lion passant is also often seen as an additional mark of sterling silver.
Other countries have their own individual systems and marks. In an effort to standardise the legislation regarding precious metals, the 1973 Vienna Convention set down common control marks for gold, silver and platinum featuring a pair of scales and a number indicating the fineness of the metal in the centre.
In the UK, we generally think of a “hallmark” as the mark of one of the Assay Offices. They are London (leopard’s head) Birmingham (anchor), Sheffield (Yorkshire rose) and Edinburgh (castle), the sponsor’s mark, and the fineness mark (e.g. 925).
Is a 925 mark on its own considered to be a hallmark?
It depends on who you ask. When I asked Goldsmiths Hall and also Trading Standards this question, the response from both was an emphatic “NO”. Having said that, many silver retailers in the UK refer to the single stamp of 925 as a hallmark because much of the silver jewellery sold in the UK is imported and they may genuinely believe it to be the foreign equivalent of a hallmark. Truthfully speaking, it is not so much a hallmark as just a stamp or marking. The foreign manufacturer or wholesaler will undoubtedly refer to it as a hallmark and it may or may not mean that the item is genuine sterling silver. A great deal of silver plate coming from abroad, especially China these days is stamped 925. Anyone can purchase a 925 punch (although some skill is required in using it!) It is not so easy or desirable to fake a complete British hallmark.
Legally, a hallmark is not required at all unless the item being sold contains more than 7.78 grams of silver. Those who import silver items for resale should ensure their goods are properly hallmarked at a UK assay office if their items exceed this threshold. Reputable jewellers automatically do this, but as more and more silver jewellery is being sold over the internet, the buyer needs to be aware of the risks.
To put it another way, a 925 stamp on its own – or nothing at all – is perfectly legal if the item contains less than 7.78 grams of silver. Of course, it follows then that low silver content items would be small items – a pair of earrings, or a pendant maybe. If you are planning on spending more than £100 on a silver necklace or bracelet though, then you definitely should insist on a British hallmark even if the item was imported or handmade in this country.
In my next blog on silver hallmarking, I shall be talking about my own personal experiences with buying silver from China, and through Ebay, and why you shouldn’t always believe what the vendor says!
Sources and Further information:
Goldsmith’s Hall –http://thegoldsmiths.co.uk/assay-office
Birmingham Assay Office – http://www.theassayoffice.co.uk/hallmarking_history.html