History of Hallmarks

It’s another rainy day and we just bought some more scrap gold. Both a fairly common occurrence nowadays, but this was unusual as the lady decided to keep one of the band rings when we identified the date stamp and she realised it was probably her grandmother’s! It got me thinking about the importance of the little stamps inside the band. They are quite important to my family, not only as they play a big part in our work but also as my paternal grandfather, Laurence Bonner made dozens of the stamps over the years in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham. He was a steel letter cutter and would diligently sit in his workshop, hunched over a desk with a magnifying glass, reverse carving the punches used for hallmarks out of steel plates. 

Since the incredible increase in gold price, people are far more knowledgeable when it comes to their own gold and how to identify different carats and metals. And for the first time we are also seeing a real interest in hallmarks as more people have become aware of their use in charting the history of certain pieces. In the UK a full hallmark will not only give you the name of the manufacturer and the purity of the metal, but also the town it was made in and the date.

In light of this I thought you might be interested in a quick breakdown of the origin of the British hallmark!

1300 – Hallmarking first introduced into the UK. At this point the gold and silver standard marks were the same; depicting the Leopard’s head which is the mark of London.
1363 – Makers marks became required, initially in form of a rebus or initials.
1378 – Town marks also required. Traditionally Birmingham has the anchor, Sheffield a crown, London the leopards head and a three towered castle for Edinburgh. Later additions included Dublin’s crowned harp and Chester’s three wheatsheaves.
1477 – 18 Carat replaces 19.5 Carat as Standard Gold
1478 – Date letters also required in England. Each town has it’s own cycle of letters and styles to indicate the year of assay. 
1575 – 22 Carat Replaces 18 Carat as Standard Gold 
1798 – 18 carat reintroduced in addition to 22 Carat
1854 – 9, 12 & 15 Carat introduced 
1932 – 15 and 12 carat discontinued, replaced by 14 carat.

Platinum was originally used by European Court Jewellers in the mid 1800’s. Before this time scientists were unable to isolate the metal and produce it in it’s pure form. 
Until the late 1800’s it remained too expensive for commercial use and only the wealthy could afford platinum settings. Until the late Edwardian period, it’s colour remained largely out of favour for anything other than settings as yellow gold was so fashionable. However by the early 1900’s trends were changing and the “new look” was being embraced. It remained the metal of choice for those who could afford it through the 20’s and 30’s until the effects of the War made it far too costly to produce, and with demand for jewellery falling it all but disappeared from jewellers windows for several years.
There was no legal requirement for marking Platinum until 1975, which set a single standard for platinum of 950. Earlier Platinum pieces may be stamped PLAT by the manufacturer.
Palladium has grown in popularity over recent years and the legal requirement for marking was introduced in the UK in 2010.

So next time you’re rifling through your jewellery box debating whether to scrap that ring your aunt gave you, have a quick look for any marks inside – you might just be holding an heirloom!

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