The UK hallmark is a simple but crucial device. A series of symbols, sometimes almost imperceptible and sometimes a key design feature, the hallmark is effectively a code. Interpretation of the mark tells us something of the item’s journey to market and, most importantly its precious metal content.
Frequently referred to as ‘the oldest form of consumer protection’, a hallmark is, more specifically, one of the earliest fair trading regulations. The system remains relevant, rigorous and vital. A hallmark guarantees that the precious metal alloy from which jewellery is crafted meets a specific standard and is therefore described correctly. The system has evolved significantly since its establishment in the 14th century, offering crucial protection to the jewellery trade and to consumers. As it nears its 700th anniversary our statutory independent third-party hallmarking regime is more important than ever.
Until around 2000 it was relatively straightforward for Trading Standards to enforce hallmarking. In an era with significantly more officers on the ground, TSOs regularly visited jewellers to check for the mandatory signage, descriptions and physical hallmarks on goods.
Whilst this is still important, the advent of jewellery sales on the internet since 2000 has made hallmarking enforcement more difficult and resource-hungry. The combination of reduced Trading Standards funding, constantly rising precious metal prices and increased online access to the global market has significantly widened the opportunity for non-compliant and deliberately fraudulent traders to cheat consumers.
The jewellery market has experienced major changes since the financial crisis of 2008. As gold prices rose, gold jewellery became unaffordable to the mass market. Fine jewellers added more silver and costume jewellery to their ranges. New jewellery brands offered a mix of fine and fashion pieces. The status of the brand or the designer became more important than precious metal profile, and in a confusing market consumer understanding of the importance of the hallmark declined.
Meanwhile, diminishing Trading Standards resources were challenged by an ever-increasing raft of Consumer Product Safety regulations, fraudulent online traders in every product category and counterfeit goods with potential to cause physical injury. Enforcement focus had to be prioritised and essential hallmarking investigations reluctantly pushed down the list.
Acknowledging the situation, the British Hallmarking Council (BHC) launched the Touchstone Award in 2012, to ensure that hallmarking enforcement remained on the agenda. It proved a timely intervention in a year when the gold price exceeded £1,000 per ounce for the first time. Gold bullion had hovered around £250 an ounce from 1980 to 2005. The consumer expectation of what they would pay for an item of ‘real’ gold jewellery was still based on this. The four-fold increase in price in just seven years caused mass-market jewellery providers to respond by offering gold-plated items with a silver or base metal interior. When described correctly and priced accordingly this was perfectly acceptable but the opportunity for the uninformed customer to be misled was suddenly greater than ever.
The Touchstone Award celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2022. Credit must go to Robert Grice MBE, who has championed this initiative to maintain the profile of hallmarking among enforcement officers. Examination of many worthy applications confirms that hallmarking enforcement must not be neglected.
Cases range from individual goldsmiths taking in repairs that were never returned to the customer, to deliberately fraudulent sales of items which are not what they purport to be. Traders declare their innocence but their claims rarely bear scrutiny and there have been successful trials following prosecution under the Hallmarking Act. Amounts as high as £130,000 have been claimed back under the Proceeds of Crime Act. Associated offences under Weights and Measures, Trademark, Fraud and Unfair Trading regulations have also been uncovered.
A major case relating to the deliberate mass manufacture of 22ct gold bangles with a base metal core included Modern Slavery and Witness Intimidation within the offences. The personal emotional distress of the consumers cheated when buying a special gift such as an engagement ring is immeasurable and must not be overlooked alongside the financial outcomes.
Commending Trading Standards for these successful prosecutions, the BHC recognises there is much more to be done. The UK Hallmarking system is one of the most rigorous in the world and it is easy for businesses and consumers to take it for granted. The lack of control over major online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon Marketplace is perceived as a threat to compliant jewellers, a view borne out by several Touchstone Application case studies. Significant consumer detriment due to online sales was recorded within many applications.
Finding misleading online sales, identifying the owner of the suspect website and pursuing them to prosecution is a lengthy and costly business. In extreme cases it is well worthwhile but it is acknowledged that only a tiny sample of the thousands of sites offering jewellery online can be scrutinised. Online sales rocketed during COVID lockdown, exacerbating the situation further.
The situation inspired a new approach from the BHC. Research commissioned from investigative specialists WRi Group demonstrated that reference to hallmarks was frequently omitted from items described as gold. Many items purporting to be 9ct were significantly under-priced if the descriptions were valid.
Research by the National Association of Jewellers identified that only 63% of jewellery-buying consumers know what a hallmark is and the number is even lower amongst the under-55s. Consumer education with regard to hallmarks was clearly needed.
The response from the BHC has been emphatic. A digital version of the statutory Dealers Notice was created and circulated throughout the trade along with a short video. An initiative to encourage jewellers to link to hallmarking information throughout their websites was created and the Hallmarking Awareness and Learning Online (HALO) Award was launched in Summer 2021. Promotion of the Award via press releases, direct approaches from the Assay Offices and presence at trade conferences proved effective and an encouraging number of entries was received. These were considered by a judging panel including Kings Assay Master Graeme Smith, Sheffield Assay Master Ashley Carson and Chair of the BHC’s Education and Enforcement Committee Ken Daly of SCOTSS.
BHC Chair, Noel Hunter, said: “The Touchstone Award has been an asset to the enforcement of hallmarking for the past ten years and will continue to be so. Twinned with the HALO award, which the jewellery industry has responded to very positively, these two initiatives will serve to protect the online jewellery consumer more effectively. Hallmarking education and enforcement has never been more important and the BHC will continue to drive it throughout the next decade.”