In the past few weeks, we have told you a lot about antique jewellery in our blogs about starting an antique jewellery collection. Last month, we already wrote a blog about the precious metals, which contained basic information about the various precious metals and their properties. Because there’s a lot more to learn about these popular jewellery materials, we decided to write another series of blog, in which we will tell you all about the hallmarks that are used on items made of these precious metals.
What are hallmarks and what are they used for?
When you’re new to the world of antique jewellery, it can be rather difficult to determine what type of precious metal you’re dealing with. Especially when you’re not a professional, it’s hard to determine the type of metal with certainty, but there are some things you can look out for. First of all, you can check the item for hallmarks. Hallmarks are marks that are stamped on the jewellery to give certain information about the piece. The name hallmark comes from an English tradition: goldsmiths had to offer their products for assay at a so-called Goldsmith’s Hall before they could sell them. This Goldsmith’s Hall is where the ‘hall’ in hallmark stands for! Hallmarks are a handy tool for people interested in antique trading, but originally, they were meant as a type of consumer protection. Once a specific mark was impressed in the metal, this meant that the fineness of the material was guaranteed. Originally, a mark could only be classed as a hallmark when an official assay office was involved in the process. These assay offices test the metal to ensure that the composition meets legal requirements. Since each country has its own regulations for hallmarking, hallmarks can differ between countries. In the USA, for example, there is no supervised hallmarking system, so pieces can go legally unmarked and if pieces are marked, they can not officially be called hallmarks. In the UK, on the contrary, hallmarking is compulsory.
Below, we have created an overview of the most commonly used hallmarks and their meanings.
When determining what type of precious metal you are dealing with, the purity mark is the first hallmark to look for on your piece of jewellery. A purity stamp indicates the percentage of precious metal that is used in the item, and with that the purity of the item. In the case of gold pieces of jewellery, the purity mark indicates the purity of the gold alloy. For antique jewellery, the purity is indicated with the karat system. In this method, the alloy is ‘divided’ into 24 pieces, and thus 24 karat gold means pure gold, and 18 karat gold consists of 75% pure gold. The purity marks that refer to this consist of a two-digit number followed by the letter ‘k’, so a 18 karat piece will be marked ‘18k’. For newer jewellery, it is not uncommon to express purity as parts of thousands, in this case, an 18k piece will be marked ‘750’. The system that is used to indicate the purity of silver, is quite similar to that of gold. Silver purity marks indicate what the percentage of pure silver in a piece is, which is also expressed as parts of thousands. A piece that is marked ‘900’, for example, contains 90% pure silver. For pieces that contain 92.5 percent pure silver, the mark ‘sterling’ is also used. Finally, platinum purity hallmarks are very similar to those of silver and gold. A three-digit number indicates what percentage of the piece is pure platinum.
The purity marks for gold, silver, and platinum can all consist of three-digit numbers, which could cause some confusion. Therefore, the material is indicated by the shape of the hallmark. A silver purity mark, for example, has an oval shape, while a gold purity mark has a more rectangular shape. In some countries, purity is indicated with pictorial marks, also called traditional standard marks. When these marks are used, the material is indicated using a pictorial mark, like a crown for gold.
As the name suggests, maker’s marks refer to the person who created the piece of jewellery. The maker’s mark can in fact be seen as the signature of the maker on the piece. Since the regulations for hallmarking differ per country, a wide variety of maker’s marks exists. A lot of maker’s marks carry the initials of the maker accompanied by a pictorial mark with a specific contour. Since the maker’s mark is most of the time stamped into the piece by the maker and not by an assay officer, it cannot be called a hallmark in the strictest sense.
Like explained above, pieces of jewellery officially had to be marked at the ‘hall’, and this was done by an assayer. To prevent fraud by the assayer, a responsibility mark was introduced, namely the date letter. These marks took the form of a letter of the alphabet, which corresponded with the year that the piece was marked by the assayer. Logically, this means that every 25 years, the same letter would be used again. In order to prevent confusion, a different letter font or contour around the letters was used every new cycle. Since the position of assayer changed every year, these date letters were perfect to indicate the assayer responsible at the time the piece was marked. While the original purpose of the date letters was to indicate the responsible assay master, nowadays it is often used to indicate when the item was assayed. When doing this though, it is important to keep in mind that the date letter indicates the year that the piece was offered for hallmarking, and that this is not necessarily the year that the piece was made.
Town marks or office marks
Town marks or office marks, indicate the assay office that hallmarked the item. These marks are usually based on the heraldic shield of the town or another distinguishable icon of he town that the office was located in. A very well-known town mark is that of the Birmingham assay office, which is nowadays the largest assay office in the world, which has the form of an anchor.
Even when taking the information above into account, identifying hallmarks is not an easy job. First of all, when searching for hallmarks, you need a good jeweler’s loupe that magnifies at least ten times and a good dose of patience. Once you have found a mark, it can be necessary to look at it from different angles to correctly identify the mark.
It is also a good idea to keep in mind that not all pieces of jewellery are hallmarked. Hallmarking only became compulsory on all precious metals around the 1920s. Also, some metalsmiths didn’t want to punch stamps on their pieces. So when this could be avoided, for instance when it was not mandatory, these smiths would choose not to mark their items. However, an antique jewellery expert should be able to identify a piece of jewellery without a hallmark. So if you’re dealing with a piece of jewellery without hallmarks, it can be a good idea to consult an expert. In next blog about hallmarks we’ll talk about the used hallmarks per country including Dutch, English and French jewellery.
Books we use most for Dutch and English Jewellery:
“Enjoy your search for your perfect pieces of jewellery and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions!” -xxx- Sophie