British silver and gold hallmarking have an extensive and complicated history, involving the introduction and abolition of certain hallmarks, and the extensive format changes of others. The result of the British hallmarking system is a strict and streamlined system that helps to regulate the purity and origins of precious and semi-precious metals.
Henry II is credited with the creation of the Goldsmiths Guild in London, allowing them to use the leopard’s head hallmark in 1180.
Henry III made the earliest attempt at regulating the standard and gold and silver in 1238. He passed an order that commended the mayor and the aldermen (a co-opted member of an English county or borough council, next in status to the Mayor) of the City of London to choose six London-based goldsmiths to superintend the craft. This is when the idea of assaying for purity was introduced.
However, it was not until Edward I that an actual standard for purity was introduced. In 1300, Edward I decreed that the leopard’s head mark would guarantee sterling silver (92.5% silver). Gold had to be at least 19.2 carats. This was enforced by ‘Guardians of the Craft’ who would go from shop to shop in London and assay the pieces produced there, applying the leopard’s head in the pieces met the minimum purity standard. Goldsmiths outside the capital were also expected to adhere to this standard.
The maker’s mark was introduced in 1363 under Edward III and was required alongside the leopard’s head in order to identify the maker.
In 1423 Edward VI introduced the Quality and Marks of Silver Work Act, requiring every assay office to have its own mark.
1478 was an important year for hallmarking. The gold standard was lowered to 18ct. The Goldsmith’s Company was made responsible for wares found to be below standard and for the penalties that had to be dealt. This led to an overhaul in the system used for assaying, and the establishment of the first assay office which was overseen by a Common Assayer. The need to differentiate between old and new plate following the change in standard led to the introduction of the crowned leopard’s head mark. A date letter was also introduced. This not only identified the year in which the item was assayed but also identified the Touch Warden responsible. It is thought that the term ‘hallmark’ comes from the use of the Goldsmith’s Hall as the first assay office.
In 1544 the lion passant guardant (head facing towards the viewer) was introduced. No official records explaining its introduction survive. However, it is theorised that it has something to do with Henry VIII’s interference in hallmarking as he sent two of his men into the assay office in this year. The King had been debasing the value of coinage since 1542. He had some kind of issue with the Goldsmith’s Company which was ordered to surrender its charter. However, the King passed away in 1547 before this order could be carried out. The lion passant guardant indicated sterling silver purity for all assay offices.
The gold standard was raised to 22ct in 1576.
An Act of Parliament in 1697 changed the silver purity standard from 92.5% to 95.83%. This is known as Britannia silver. Hallmarks in this period comprised the maker’s mark, the figure of Britannia, the lion’s head erased, and the date letter. Throughout this period, gold was stamped with sterling marks through an anomaly.
By 1720 the sterling standard was restored but Britannia silver remained as an alternative. A tax on silver plate was also introduced during this time, meaning that many goldsmiths went to great lengths to avoid having their pieces properly hallmarked. A duty mark was introduced in 1784 to show that the appropriate duty had been paid for the purity. This mark depicted the king or queen’s head. This was used until 1890.
In 1739 there was a crackdown on the composition of maker’s marks. At various points in history different styles had been used. Prior to 1697, the maker’s mark had consisted of initials or devices. This was changed and maker’s now had to use the first two letters of their last name. The reintroduction of the sterling silver mark led to some confusion over the correct composition of the maker’s marks. All goldsmiths had to destroy their old marks and register new ones at the hall, using their initials and a new style of lettering. It was hoped that this would help to detect counterfeit marks. In 1757, counterfeiting hallmarks became a felony, punishable by death.
By 1773, the large-scale manufacturing and the increased use of machines for silver production in Birmingham and Sheffield led to calls for assay offices in these cities. This was opposed by the Goldsmith’s Company, but the proposal went ahead thanks to a special inquiry by the House of Commons.
In 1786, the sovereign’s head mark changed from facing left to facing right.
1822 saw changes to existing hallmarks: the leopard’s head lost its crown, and the lion passant was no longer guardant, instead facing to the left.
In 1844, 22ct gold was finally recognised with marks featuring a crown and the number ‘22’.
In 1854, 9, 12, and 15ct gold was introduced, indicated by marks denoting their actual fineness, e.g. 375. In 1855, gold wedding rings were made liable for hallmarking for the first time.
1867 saw the introduction of a mark on imported gold and silver items, an ‘F’ in an oval escutcheon. Marks used to indicate foreign plate changed frequently, making them particularly difficult to recognise.
In 1890, the tax on silver and gold was withdrawn, and with it the use of the sovereign’s head mark.
12 and 15ct gold standards were cancelled in 1932, and replaced by 14ct gold.
During the Second World War the utility mark was introduced, indicating that the fineness of gold wedding rings had been reduced to 9ct and a weight of less than 2dwts. The utility mark also indicated that they had been produced with government authority.
Creating a streamlined system of legislation spanning many hundreds of years was quite a challenge, but in 1973 Royal Assent was given to a measure that repealed all existing hallmark statutes and consolidated them into a single Act: The Hallmarking Act of 1973. This act came into effect in 1975. This act also introduced hallmarks for platinum, featuring an orb and a cross.
Silver and gold hallmarking will, in all likelihood, continue to evolve over time, but the current system neatly ties together almost nine centuries of hallmarking history, safeguarding an industry that dates back many hundreds of years.