English and other Hallmarks

In response to quite a few requests for some information about English Hallmarks, this is the result. Some history and reference pages about marks, their meanings, and dates. This is really relevant for us pocket watch collectors when identifying gold and silver Pocket Watch cases, but the information is relevant for anyone.

The word "Hallmark" was derived from Goldsmith's Hall in London. It originally referred to the process of stamping a mark on precious metals like Gold, Silver or Platinum that represented the purity of the metal only. As the system developed over the centuries additional marks were added, such as the makers stamp, and where and when it was assayed. The process at the Assay Office involves scraping a small section of metal off each individual part of an item, weighing the alloy then melting it down to obtain pure gold and then re-weighing to give a fraction of the original weight.

It is rare to come across many items that are made of pure gold, mainly because it is too soft. Having said that, it can be found more often in Arab states such as Dubai than almost anywhere else. In order to produce a metal that is hard enough to be of practical use, other metals are mixed with gold to make an alloy. Even though the result is a metal that is no longer gold, we still call it gold and give it a "standard of fineness".

Purity of the alloy is measured in two scales, either parts per thousand or carats. Parts per thousand is measured as a percentage, so for example 1000 parts is pure gold (24 carat), 750 is 75% which equals 18 carat gold etc. All pure gold bars are hallmarked "999" because 100% pure gold is considered too difficult to make, however in 1990 a gold alloy was produced that was 990 purity (99% pure gold) and yet still durable enough for practical use. The other 1% of metal was titanium.

It is worth noting that any precious metal that is tested by the Assay Office at being, for instance 13.9ct, i.e, only slightly less than 14ct, will be hallmarked as being 9ct, etc.

Parts per Thousand Carat
999 24 Carat
916 22 Carat
750 18 Carat
585 14 Carat
375 9 Carat
Although any purity can be made, only five are used in the UK; 9ct, 14ct, 15ct, 18ct, and 22ct

Silver hallmarks use only the parts per thousand scale, there is no equivalent carat measure. Only two purities are used in the UK, 925 (Sterling Silver), and 958 (Britannia Silver). In other countries 800, 835 and 900 parts per thousand are used. Britannia silver was introduced in 1696 after the civil war earlier that century resulted in thousands of silver items being destroyed, which led to silversmiths melting down large quantities of silver coin in order to manufacture other silver items. This resulted in a severe shortage of silver coin. The Government response was to lift the standard of silver used for making items from 925 to 958 parts per thousand. This prevented silversmiths from melting silver coins. The Sterling grade was reintroduced in 1720 when the shortage eased, although the grade was not abolished and still exists today.

It was in 1327 when King Edward I decreed that every item made from silver should carry a mark identifying it as being a genuine metal that had passed a test complying for purity at 92.5% silver. This test or "assay" ensured that the metal contained a certain percentage of pure silver. The gold standard was introduced during the reign of King Edward III when he granted a Royal charter to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

It was a strictly imposed condition of sale of any precious metal that carried a death penalty if forged, and it was not until 1773 that the penalty was reduced to 14 years transportation to a penal colony and today the penalty stands at 10 years jail.

Each piece of jewelry was tested and stamped with a hallmark that identified it had passed this test. Early marks were simple and consisted of a Leopard's head (actually a Lion; when old Acts of Parliament were written in old French, the word "Leopart" was mis-translated to "Leopard"). The system was improved over time with a mark being added around 1360 that identified the maker of the item. The first examples of this were in the form of a symbol but later these were changed for two or more letters.

Further enhancements of the assay system were incorporated around 1480, when a third hallmark was added that indicated when the item was assayed (not when it was made, but this is usually the same after this time). This took the form of a series of letters from A to U (excluding the letter J). These letters were redesigned at the end of every 20 years from their introduction and was current up until 1973 when the system was radically reorganised because it was deemed to be too complicated.

In 1544 a new hallmark was introduced that superseded the Leopard's head as the mark of purity. The Leopard's head became the standard mark for the London assay office, and other marks were introduced that represented other assay offices around the country. A mark indicating the purity of silver was also introduced, the Lion Passant, which showed a Lion facing left. This mark indicated a silver content of at least 92.5% and became known as the Sterling Standard.

During the years 1784 and 1890 a tax was imposed on silver items by the reigning monarch, who's portrait may (or may not) appear as a mark on items assayed during this time period. The mark was often omitted from small items such as pocket watch cases.

1973 saw a change to a more simplistic form of assaying. At this time different Assay offices used different date letters which were changed in the middle of each year and jewelers were also using old stamps to mark 9ct & 18ct gold items. The new system required that only the Assay Office could use its own stamps and that no gold item could be described as gold unless it had been hallmarked. In January 1975 the letter "a" was used by all Assay Offices so that the letter "a" would recur again in the year 2000. This does cause some problems when old, unstamped antique items are sent to the Assay Office for hallmarking. The item is hallmarked with the new stamp, and hence is wrongly dated as a new item.

Continue to How to Read English Hallmarks.

 


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Other Pages of Interest:

The Ball Pocket Watch Co

The Elgin Pocket Watch Co

The Hamilton Pocket Watch Co

The Hampden Pocket Watch Co

The Illinois Pocket Watch Co

The Ingersoll Watch Company

The Howard Pocket Watch Company

Waltham Pocket Watch