Underkarating is not a new phenomenon; as early as 1230, reputable English goldsmiths, or “guardians of the craft,” were tasked with maintaining fineness standards for gold and silver plate. The first hallmark, called a “King’s Mark,” was introduced in 1300 and it was used to signify that objects had passed a test of purity. At this time, all silver articles were required to meet the “sterling standard,” a threshold level of 92.5 percent pure silver.
London’s informal but long-standing association of goldsmiths was granted royal charter in 1327. This effectively established the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, a guild devoted to the craft and invested with the authority to enforce assay and stamping laws. The guild played a pivotal role in the life of the community. It sponsored religious feasts and charitable works.
The first Goldsmiths’ Hall was constructed in 1340. Contracts between apprentices and masters were deposited at the Hall, and it was illegal to operate as a goldsmith without joining the guild. To join, young men had to pay a fee and apprentice to a master for approximately seven years.
In 1363, another decree required goldsmiths to develop their own identity or “makers” marks, which were to accompany the King’s mark on precious metal objects. The idea behind this legislation was to make it easier to locate the manufacturer should a question of quality or purity arise. To make oversight and inspection easier, further legislation enacted in 1400 required all goldsmiths to live and work in a single area, known as the Cheap and the King’s Exchange.
At this same time, royally appointed representatives went from workshop to workshop assaying gold and silver objects and marking them with the appropriate fineness. Eventually, this task became burdensome and new regulations obliged the goldsmiths themselves to bring their wares to the Goldsmiths’ Hall for assay and stamping.
This is probably why we now refer to the testing and stamping of metal objects as “hallmarking.” Until assay offices were opened elsewhere in the country, all work had to be brought to London for hallmarking. A third mark, the date letter, was introduced in 1478, and the “lion passant” mark was introduced in 1544.
In the late 17th century, coin was melted by goldsmiths and used to fashion new silver objects. To protect the currency, a law was passed requiring a higher standard of silver for jewelry and decorative objects. This new standard, known as the Britannia standard, was pegged at 95.8 percent pure silver. The sterling standard was restored in 1720.
The Hallmarking Act of 1973 contains most of the modern law associated with assaying and stamping precious metals in the U.K. This Act required all four Assay Offices in London, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Edinburgh, to adopt the same date letter sequences. Platinum marking was introduced. The Hallmarking Act was amended somewhat in 1999, to ensure that British law conformed to standards and regulations being promoted by the E.U.
Today, a complete British hallmark includes five stamps made with punches or lasers:
- Sponsor’s mark, which identifies the manufacturer of the article.
- Standard mark, which certifies the precious metal content. The standard mark for gold is a crown. The standard mark for sterling silver is a lion passant, and the platinum standard mark is an orb and a cross.
- Fineness mark, which indicates the purity of the metal in parts per thousand or as karatage.
- Assay mark, which indicates what assay office certified the object.
- Date letter, which indicates the year an object was hallmarked, although this became voluntary in 1999.
Gold objects will include all five stamps. Silver and platinum will only have four stamps because the standard mark indicates the fineness.
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