QUALITY CONTROL FOR SILVER
The success of the London Silver Vaults is due to the reputation of English silverware as the finest in the world. There has been quality control of goods made of this metal since the end of the 12th century. The organisation that regulates the craft, Goldsmiths Hall, has given England and the world the term “hallmark”.
Every piece of silver made must be sent to the Assay Office for testing to ensure that it is of the required standard of sterling silver. Provided it conforms to that standard, a series of symbols are stamped on to each separate part of each article. Today, and for the last several centuries, these show its quality, the place and year of manufacture, as well as who made or sponsored the item. With the help of a pocket-sized hallmark book and a little bit of explanation from an expert you can “break the code”. It is great fun and also a way of finding a piece that was made in a year or city that might hold particular significance and provide the perfect gift or commemorative item.
It is against the law to pass off inferior silver or silver plate as sterling silver. Historically, a smith was pilloried for their first offence and progressively draconian punishments were meted out for subsequent offences. The reason for this severity was that the manufacture of silver and gold was allied to the minting of currency. Therefore, by debasing these metals one was, in effect, undermining the coin of the realm, which was a treasonable offence.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGLISH HALLMARKS
Hallmarks Introduced in 1300 to Protect Quality of Silver & Gold. The history of hallmarking dates back to 1300 when a Statute of Edward I instituted the assaying (testing) and marking of precious metals. The original aim of the system remains unchanged: the protection of the public against fraud and of the trader against unfair competition. Indeed, hallmarking is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection.
The Statute of 1300 allowed the Wardens of the Company of Goldsmiths in London to go out to workshops in the City and assay silver and gold. However, only silver that met the required standard was marked at this time, with the symbol of the Leopard’s Head which is still the mark of the London Assay Office today. Gradually gold came to be marked in the same way as silver.
Other marks of origin appeared later: Scottish silver was regulated from 1457 with the castle symbol.
Maker’s Mark and Date Letter
In 1363, the maker’s mark was added to the hallmark. To begin with, most of them were pictorial but as literacy rates rose, the system of using the maker’s initials was introduced. Quite some time after, in 1478, the Wardens of Goldsmiths set themselves up in Goldsmiths Hall and paid a salaried assayer to test and mark items submitted to them.
This led to the introduction of the date letter in order to make successive assayers accountable for their work. The letter was surrounded by a frame or shield. So in London in 1776 the date letter was an a in a shield with a point at the base. In 1777 it was a b and so on. A new letter and shield style would be introduced when A came round again.
In 1544 a new Standard Mark, depicting a Lion Rampant, was introduced to denote Sterling Silver. This had to be of a quality of 925 parts silver to alloy, ie 92.5% silver.
Currently there are four assay offices in the UK. London is the oldest, using the mark of a crowned leopard’s head from the years 1478 – 1822. Then it used an uncrowned head from 1822 to the present. Birmingham opened in 1773, with the mark of the Anchor. Sheffield used the mark of a Crown from 1773 until 1975, when it was changed to a Rose. Edinburgh originally used a Castle and now has a Thistle.
Historic assay offices also existed for some centuries at Exeter, Chester, Newcastle and York but they were all closed by the late C19th.
(Irish silver was assayed in Dublin and stamped with the harp crowned from the mid 1600s.)
A number of additional marks have been used, such as the Britannia symbol which was introduced in 1697 and was compulsory until 1720. It denotes a higher grade of 928 parts silver (92.8% silver). Occasional items continued to be made in Britannia silver.
Old Sheffield Plate
In 1742 Thomas Bolsover invented a process of fusing silver onto copper allowing silver products to be made with less silver content. Some goods were stamped with a maker’s mark, but approximate dating of these products is done by style and requires expert knowledge.
This method of electrochemical -deposition of a thin layer of silver onto base metals or compound metals was invented in the 1840s by Birmingham’s Elkington & Co. It took about 20 years to supplant Old Sheffield Plate. Electro-plated items have a maker’s mark. Marks on early electro plate require an expert eye to interpret. Later electro plate was marked EPNS.
Hallmarking of precious metals is still a legal requirement in the UK and has offered valuable protection for over 700 years. Compulsory hallmarking protects all parties: the public who receive a guarantee of quality, the manufacturer who is given quality control and protection from dishonest competitors at a very low cost and the retailer who avoids the near impossible task of checking standards on all his goods.
British hallmarks since 1973 consist of the standard mark ie the Lion Passant for sterling silver, the assay office mark and the date mark. Plus, usually, the maker’s mark.
A number of special date hallmarks have been used over past 100 years to commemorate special events. These include the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary in 1935, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and her Silver Jubilee in 1977. A Millennium mark was used 1999-2000. In 2012 there was a special Diamond Jubilee hallmark to celebrate the 60th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
From 1867 a foreign mark F was introduced. From 1904 the decimal value ie .925 had to be stamped on silver imports. A date and an import assay mark had also to be struck and this replaced the F mark. After 1999 the marks of certain countries were accepted without import marks.
Note: Most dealers in the Vaults sell the extremely useful inexpensive, pocket-sized, Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks.
London Silver Vaults 260314. Pic courtesy of Goldsmiths Hall