There are few things that will win more favour with your wife, girlfriend or mistress than buying her jewellery. But for most chaps out there buying jewellery can be a bit of a minefield. It is important, therefore, that you understand what you are looking at when out shopping for jewellery and what better starting point than understanding hallmarks.
The British Hallmark system is very easy to understand once you know the format and is a cast iron guarantee… perhaps that is not the best phrase to use, cast iron is not hallmarked – lets say solid gold guarantee that you are buying a certain purity of metal (be it silver, gold or platinum) and will also tell you other details about the item such as it’s age.
Hallmarks were introduced to Britain towards the end of the 13th Century and over the centuries the marks evolved and additional marks were added for different purposes and to give additional information.
So, how do we read hallmarks? Well, we first need to understand that all british silver, gold & platinum is required to be hallmarked. Plated items are not hallmarked although you often find things that look like hallmarks on them which often fool the uninformed, but if you understand hallmarks you can soon spot what is what.
We shall look at each hallmark stamp in turn. Your item is most likely to have 3 to 5 hallmark stamps on it (unless it is a really early piece). There are four most important ones as shown on this silver spoon below.
The Metal & Fineness (purity) Marks
These are arguably the most important marks initially as it is these marks that denote metal type and purity.
Gold and silver is nearly always mixed with other metals to produce a metal alloy. This is done to produce metals that have better properties than just 100% silver or gold.
Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals (usually copper). This gives a metal that retains the silver colour of silver but is stronger making it better for use in jewelry and other silverware. The downside to this is that the silver alloy has a higher tendency to tarnish than fine (99.9%) silver.
Likewise, gold is also mixed with other metals to create gold alloys with different properties. Pure gold is given the name 24 karat (24K or 24 kt). You then get alloys with lower percentages of gold in the alloy. 22 karat is 91.66% gold. 18 karat gold is 75% gold. 12 karat is 50% gold and 9 karat is 37.5% gold. Obviously because of this the higher the karat of the gold the more expensive it becomes as it has a higher percentage of gold.
There are advantages of the different alloys. As you move to the lower percentage golds the alloy gets harder and stronger and this can be advantageous for certain uses.
The other reason for alloying gold is that it can change the colour. Gold is gold coloured, the clue is in the name, but if you go to any jeweller you will see white gold and rose gold for sale. So how do they make the gold change colour? They do it by alloying different metals in with the gold. Rose gold is alloyed with Copper while white gold is alloyed with palladium or platinum (which is why white gold is more expensive than rose gold of equivalent karat).
Because the majority of the gold or silver that you buy has been mixed with other metals it is really important that the real content is verified so that you know what you are buying is what you are being told it is. This is the whole reason for the fineness mark in the hallmark. It is a guarantee of the gold or silver content and a safeguard against unscrupulous jewelry claiming that their wares have a higher purity than it actually is.
The standard marks contain a number showing the precious metal content in parts per thousand. 9 karat gold will be denoted by “375” where 12 karat will be “500” and 18 karat will be “750”. Sterling silver will show “925” as it is 92.5% silver in the alloy.
The shape of the standard mark will also indicate the metal that is being verified. Silver has the content number in an oval, gold in an elongated hexagon and platinum in an irregular pentagon (all those primary school maths lessons paid off as I can now name shapes)
In addition to these marks you will more often than not find the older standard marks that indicate the metal. These marks are voluntary but generally used. The sterling silver mark is the “Lion Passant”, the gold mark a crown and Platinum an orb. Older pieces of silver may only have the Lion Passant and not the 925 stamp.
There are a number of Assay Offices in Britain and they are the only places that can stamp hallmarks. Each has it’s own city mark.
The main ones to note are:
- London Leopards Head
- Birmingham Anchor
- Sheffield Rose (post 1975) or Crown (pre 1975)
- Edinburgh Three Towered Castle
There are variations to each mark throughout the years but they are all pretty easy to identify. There are other city marks and also provincial town marks from the early years of hallmarks and they can all be found in your hallmark book.
You shall not be surprised to learn that the date letter indicates the date that the item was assayed. The date letter will be in a certain shape background and will have a certain font type. The combination of the two will give the exact date. The easiest way to determine which year exactly is to look it up in your trusty hallmark book where you will find date stamp tables.
Each jeweller will have his, or her own makers stamp so that their work can be traced back to them. The mark is usually some initials in a shape of some sort (oval, square etc). Again, these can be looked up in your hallmark book.
Now that you are armed with this knowledge you should also arm yourself with a jewellers loupe (the eye glass used for magnifying the hallmarks) and a hallmark book and get off to some antique jewellery emporiums to buy some presents for the lady in your life (or a nice pair of cufflinks or a silver cocktail shaker for yourself!). Whatever you buy you now know how to understand British hallmarks.