If you’ve ever seen the Antiques Roadshow or similar programmes, you’ll have seen a variety of experts scrutinizing some silver candlesticks or gold jewellery to find out when and where it was made. The little symbols which carry this information are called hallmarks, and they are on nearly every item made of precious metals.
Things haven’t changed that much in the world of hallmarking since the Middle Ages, when the system was introduced. Silver and gold was bought as an investment, and to use as currency and it was therefore important that everyone knew that the gold coins or silver bracelet they were being offered was genuine and not a poor quality imitation. Makers of gold and silver items would put their stamp on the item, then it would be examined for quality and another examiner’s mark put on too. This system has continued to the present day, and if you examine a piece of 18 carat gold or .925 silver jewellery, the marks will be there.
Although many people think of gold as the most precious metal, in medieval England silver was equally important. As far back as 1300 there were attempts to regulate the silver industry and the term “sterling silver” was coined by King Edward I. Sterling silver means that the it is pure, so any item of 925 silver jewellery has to be at least 92.5% silver.
Gold is also hallmarked with stamps stating its purity as well as where and when it was made. Each Assay Office has its own set of hallmarks, so if there is a piece of jewellery or watch which you wish to investigate, the hallmarks can be looked up online. For example, a gold item marked 375 will be 9 carat gold and 916 denotes 22 carat gold.
Platinum and Palladium
Platinum hallmarking only started in the UK in 1973, as the metal’s use grew in popularity. Platinum items dating from before 1973 will not be marked and as such it can be difficult to establish their history and quality. Palladium came on the scene even later than platinum, and items made of palladium only started being hallmarked in 2010.
How is all this relevant to me?
Although the vast majority of jewellery retailers are reputable, it is important to understand what a hallmark is and what it means when buying gifts or items for investment. If an item isn’t hallmarked, then ask the jeweller to explain why. Hallmarks can also confirm the quality of the item that is being sold as by law, anything being sold as “sterling silver” has to confirm to the 925 silver jewellery standard of 92.5% purity. Antique jewellery can also be accurately dated using hallmarks as until recently there was a date mark which changed every year, allowing experts to tell within a few months when something was made and examined. Knowing where and when something was examined can also help an interested owner to work out who designed the piece, and research the history further.