Hallmarks are used to identify silver, gold and platinum items. Hallmarks, as such, are not only found on jewellery items, but silverware of every kind from flatware to tea sets and trinket boxes.
The practice of hallmarking began in ancient times with the marking of silver to use as coins. As silver is such a naturally soft metal it could be easily fashioned into coins, however coins had to endure a lot more rough treatment than fine silverwares and jewellery, so the silver was alloyed with other metals to fortify and harden it.
It was important every coin was not just equal in size, but also in purity, so a ratio of purity that permitted both the most durable and most pure form was established. In 1158, King Henry II decreed the that an alloy of 92.5% silver, with the rest made up of other metals, was to be the legal standard in British coinage. This alloy was named "sterling silver".
Proving that an alloy was indeed what it claimed to be proved difficult, so in 1300, King Edward II created the first recognisable hallmark; The Leopard's Head Crown. The Leopard's Head Crown was only ever stamped upon silver which had been assayed to prove it met the standard of sterling silver. This mark is still used by the London Assay Office, but the subsequent centuries saw many more hallmarks being applied to other precious metals. These hallmarks became more than just a guarantee of quality - they often held information on when and where an item was created.
The Five Standard Marks
Hallmarks were not initially standardised, and many competing systems were tried before legislation was passed to bring the majority under a single system. Antiques before the 1700s bore an assortment of marks, or sometimes none at all, as their use was not enshrined in law until much later.
There are a great number of hallmarks present on pieces of antique jewellery, and they vary tremendously, however some of the most easily identifiable are:
The Walking Lion
Used on items made in England, the walking lion or "lion passant" is widely used in English iconography. The metal hallmark is usually pictured with three paws on the ground and one raised.
The Standing Lion
Used on items made in Edinburgh, the standing lion or "lion rampant" is depicted with both forepaws raised as though rearing up to strike. Both lion hallmarks are alternately described as leopards, as the terms did not become distinct until a later time.
Used on items made in Glasgow, this hallmark displays the national Scottish flower which can be found in many Scottish designs throughout history.
The Crowned Harp
Used on items made in Dublin, the crowned harp is an ancient symbol dating back to the ancient history of Ireland.
Items made in Great Britain may bear the likeness of the mythic figure Britannia. This mark briefly replaced the Lion Passant as a signifier of purity, and may indicate that the piece contains slightly more silver than the accepted standard for sterling.
Town and City Marks
Town and City Marks are numerable and useful in more accurately tracing an item to the place in which it was made. Unsurprisingly, the most common and well recognised town and city marks include the following:
The Crowned London Lion
The Lion used to denote silver items made within the confines of London lost its crown in 1820. The mark used today in London still features a lions head, but it is larger and no longer wears a crown.
The Birmingham Anchor
The Birmingham mark is easily recognisable as an anchor, the pre-existent symbol of the Birmingham Assay Office. Birmingham has long been established as a hub for the jewellery trade, and boasts the largest assaying office in Britain.
The Sheffield Crown and the Yorkshire Rose
The Sheffield Crown mark was in use until 1974, when it was changed to the Yorkshire Rose.
The Chester Sword Arms
The Chester mark depicts a sword, centrally, surrounded by three sheaves of wheat.
The Edinburgh Castle
The Edinburgh mark features a tri-towered castle in homage to the city's iconic castle.
The Glasgow Tree
The Glasgow tree mark design was inspired by the Glasgow Coat of Arms, and features a tree, a fish and a bell.
Duty Marks and Date Letters
There are only two duty marks, that of the Kings head and that of the Queens head. Whether the Queens head or Kings were used depended on whether a king or Queen occupied the throne at the time. Duty marks, as the name implies, were used to show that duty had been paid on the item, but are no longer used. Today they are useful in helping to assess the age of an item.
Date Letters are a far more reliable and easy way to date items, hence, their introduction. Most simply, an item is stamped with a letter which refers to the specific year in which the item was made. Date letters are used not unlike car registration numbers and licence plates, recycling the letter within the Roman alphabet to show the year in which an item was created. In 1998, date letters ceased to be one of the four previously compulsory hallmarks any genuine silver, gold or platinum item had to bear.
Makers Marks are quite simply a form of signature, much as an artist marks a painting with. As such, many items do not feature a makers mark, but a makers mark can add value to an item, if the maker was well known or popular.
First introduced in 1798 and only standardised in 1932, purity marks denote the purity of a precious metal. These markings were made compulsory in 1973, and have largely replaced the symbolic hallmarks that came before.
The shape of the purity mark shows the metal it is stamped into, and the number within shows the relative purity.
Silver marks are oval, with 925 denoting sterling silver.
Gold marks are hexagonal. 375 indicates 9 carat, 585 indicates 14 carat, 750 indicates 18 carat, 916 indicates 22 carat and 999 indicates 24 carat.
Platinum marks are pentagons (the shape of a house) with marks of 850, 900, 950 or 999 indicating rising purity.
Even seasoned jewellers struggle to hold all historical hallmarks in mind when looking at pieces, and most will consult an external reference book. At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we recommend the pocket edition of "Jackson's Hallmarks".
If you are interested in antique jewellery why not take a look at our extensive collection.
If you have any questions about the pieces which we sell feel free to get in touch on England: 0333 700 4500 or send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org. Our team is always happy to help!