Consumer protection and rights are a key concern for most present-day manufacturers, so it is interesting to note that the hallmark is one of the earliest forms of consumer protection and dates back to 1300 when Edward I established assaying … the testing, analysis and marking of precious metals, to protect the public against fraud and traders against unfair competition.
When jewellery and silverware are manufactured, precious metals are not used in their purest form, as they are too soft. Gold, silver and platinum are alloyed with copper or other metals to create an alloy that is more suitable - strong, workable, but still attractive.
Unscrupulous manufacturers realised that there was an opportunity for extra profit if they reduced the precious metal content of an alloy at the manufacturing stage - e.g. an article made completely from base metal could be made to look like something else altogether by plating it with a thin coat of gold or silver.
Hence the statute of hallmarking, which empowered the Wardens of the Company of Goldsmiths in London to go out to workshops in the City and assay initially just silver, and later on, gold.
It wasn't until 1478 that the Wardens of the Company of Goldsmiths set themselves up in Goldsmiths Hall in London, creating the first formal base for assay work.
Goldsmiths Hall had the monopoly on the assay work and it wasn't until 1773 that Sheffield Assay Office was founded, after they, and Birmingham, lobbied parliament on the basis that the amount of (manufacturing) work they did warranted an Assay Office of their own. Subsequent to this other assay offices were established around Great Britain and Ireland.
So what is a hallmark? Nowadays, a hallmark is a mark applied to articles of the precious metals gold, silver platinum and palladium that guarantees it meets all legal standards of purity (fineness). Alongside this indication of fineness you may also find a mark to indicate what precious metal it is, which assay office undertook the testing, a mark identifying the manufacturer and a letter indicating the year it was assayed (this date letter requirement became optional in 1998).
It is a legal requirement for an Assay Office to hallmark articles containing precious metals if they are described as such and their content exceeds certain weights; silver over 7.78g, gold and palladium over 1g, and platinum over 0.5g must have a UK recognised hallmark. Under the UK Hallmarking Act (1973), it is an offence for any person, in the course of trade or business, to describe an un-hallmarked article as being wholly or partly made of precious metal(s) or to supply un-hallmarked articles to which such a description is applied.
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