2nd July 2020

Hallmarking makes its mark

Willemijn Barker-Benfield discovers why a medieval consumer protection law is just as important in helping enforcement today as it was 700 years ago.


By Willemijn Barker-Benfield
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There are very few countries in the world that have the system we have. The consumer in the UK is better protected than many
The number of prosecutions has increased substantially since the Touchstone Award was introduced

Kings, leopards and castles. You’d be forgiven for thinking the origins of hallmarking were taken directly out of folklore. Following an early attempt by Henry III in 1238, hallmarking was introduced in 1300 by Edward I to protect gold and silver standards, and to prevent craftsmen from committing fraud when making jewellery – and other items made with precious metals – by requiring a stamp of a leopard’s head to denote quality. The symbol was used to signify the King’s mark of authentication.

Since 1300, more stamps became required to guarantee the consumer of quality. These include who made the product (the maker’s mark, which is also known as the sponsor’s mark); the metal and fineness mark to indicate the precious metal content; and the Assay Office mark to show where the artefact was tested for its precious metal composite. A date letter can also be added so the consumer knows what year the artefact was made. If the precious metal composite doesn’t match legal requirements (which vary depending on the metal), then the artefact cannot be hallmarked.

While the process of hallmarking has been around for over 700 years, the word ‘hallmark’ didn’t come into use until the 15th century, when craftsmen took their artefacts to Goldsmiths’ Hall in London to be assayed. Today there are four Assay Offices in operation, in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Sheffield.

Since those early days, hallmarking techniques and regulations have been fine-tuned. The current legislation that governs hallmarking has been effective since the 1973 Hallmarking Act, which is enforced by trading standards officers and is updated and advised by the British Hallmarking Council (BHC).

This legislation is well established and essential when it comes to trading standards’ enforcement of hallmarking. David Sanders, CTSI Lead Officer for Hallmarking, says: “If a jeweller makes items of silver, palladium, gold or platinum and wants to sell them, they are obliged to get them assayed, which guarantees they are good quality and then the hallmark is applied so it can be put on the market.

“There are very few countries in the world that have the system we have got. The consumer in the UK is better protected than many.”

All that glitters…

Trading standards services have many areas to cover, and often hallmarking can appear low on the agenda when compared to other high-priority areas such as product safety and public health. But without hallmarking enforcement, many consumers and legitimate businesses are exposed to fraud.

Jewellery fraud has consistently been an issue in the precious metal industry, where counterfeit items are made and sold to unsuspecting customers at a high price. For example, if buying a platinum diamond ring online without an official hallmark, you could have purchased a plated copper ring that has been set with a stone made from plastic. Shocking and humiliating for the customer, fake jewellery also affects the reputation of legitimate businesses and hurts the value of the industry as a whole. Since online retail has become more prevalent, many perpetrators are now using online marketplaces as a means of selling counterfeit products on a mass scale.

A 2019 report by the BHC and Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office confirmed that up to a third of precious metal products supplied online are unhallmarked and could therefore be fake. According to the report, 36% (6,377 out of 17,657 items) of jewellery listed through online marketplaces was not advertised as hallmarked. This could generate huge financial losses to those in the jewellery industry every year, as well as hitting consumers’ pockets.

It has become essential for trading standards enforcement to take a firm stance against the influx of online scams when it comes to buying and selling precious metals.

Chair of both the BHC and CTSI Board, Noel Hunter, notes: “We [the BHC] are looking to set up a project across the UK with a focus on internet trading to try and ensure the various organisations that sell into and through the UK via the internet are a fair deal for the consumer and legitimate traders as well.”

With a third of all ‘gold’ jewellery sold online in the UK potentially fake, it’s clear that it is increasingly difficult to tell when a piece of jewellery is legitimate or not.

For CTSI Fellow Robert Grice MBE, who is now retired from trading standards duties, “the problem is that it doesn’t matter how intelligent you [the consumer] are, you do not have the knowledge or the skills and you do not have the technical expertise to know that something is wrong. In the case of hallmarking, you have no idea.”

Grice explains that the role of hallmarking remains as crucial as ever when it comes to protecting consumers from fraud – whether online or through brick-and-mortar stores – and in helping local businesses thrive. “I noticed that hallmarking was falling off the trading standards agenda. So I wanted to put it back,” he says.

The Touchstone Award was created in 2012 in response to concerns about  precious metal fraud and consumer protection. It was “developed to ensure the trading standards community didn’t lose sight of the important role they have in relation to hallmarking enforcement,” says Hunter, adding: “There is about £50m of fraud across a year on the internet at current levels of activity.”

Valued recognition

Funded by the four UK Assay Offices and in collaboration with The National Association of Jewellers (NAJ), the UK’s leading trade association for jewellery, the Touchstone Award is presented annually by the BHC. The purpose of the award is to raise the profile of hallmarking throughout the trading standards community and to recognise the achievements of those enforcing  consumer protection within the industry.

The winner is selected by the judges who are “looking for innovative activity related to hallmarking,” as stated by the UK Government. “Successful applicants invariably have a clear plan, which could be entirely proactive or alternatively a response to a complaint or enquiry, and excellent follow up.” These activities include:

▪ enforcement;
▪ education;
▪ information;
▪ a published article.

Last year Shared Regulatory Services (Cardiff, Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan) won the Touchstone Award for its projects relating to hallmarking enforcement. Visiting 21 jewellers, officers found four premises that were selling non-hallmarked items. They also delved into a complaint about an online retailer attempting to sell non-hallmarked jewellery and counterfeit items, which when seized amounted to a retail value estimated at £25,000.

Thanks to such efforts, many hallmarking offences across the UK are being uncovered. “The number of prosecutions has increased substantially since the Touchstone Award was introduced,” says Grice.

Andrew Hinds of the NAJ noted last year that the jewellery industry makes up 1% of the UK economy and hires 60,000 people, so hallmarking enforcement has far-reaching consequences if laws are broken and infringement of the law is not investigated.

And thanks to initiatives such as the Touchstone Award, a greater emphasis is being placed on safeguarding  the industry and its contribution to the economy, as well as of safeguarding consumers when making some of the most significant purchases of their lives.