2nd July 2024

Setting the gold standard

A recent behind-the-scenes tour of the Royal Mint provided a valuable opportunity to explore the links between Hallmarking’s history and modern-day consumer protection

By David Sanders & Robert Grice
It was a great pleasure for us to be able to spend time in the museum – and a great privilege

The Royal Mint was, for centuries, in London. It started life inside the Tower of London, and subsequently moved to Tower Hill as more space was needed. By the 1950s the growing population and more coinage in circulation made the need for further expansion a priority. The deciding factor was decimalisation. This would only be achieved by the Mint producing the old coinage system as well as sufficient metric coins for transition on a single day. A new site would be needed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day (and also Master of the Mint), James Callaghan, was MP for Cardiff South and may have influenced the decision to choose Llantrisant as the site of the new facility.

The Royal Mint now occupies 30 acres at Llantrisant, enabling it to control directly more of its operation through an on-site smelter. In spite of centuries-old tradition, the Royal Mint is very forward-looking. It produces gold on site by recycling vast quantities of old computer boards, and recovers silver from used X-ray photographic plates. These raw materials are then used to produce jewellery.

The Mint also has room for its own wind farm for on-site electricity. The masts for the turbines are unique in being painted pale green — and the turbines look like huge daffodils.

Today the King’s Assay Master, Dan Thomas, holds an historic role. One of his responsibilities is to ensure the rigorous quality standards imposed upon the Royal Mint and the four Assay Offices — which are central to the enforcement of Hallmarking — are met.

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Arriving at 10am on a very wet day in March, we were warmly greeted by Royal Mint Staff. Once wearing protective clothing we commenced our tour of the production facilities. We saw rolls of coin metal weighing around two and a half tonnes being cleaned, before being fed into stamping machines that punch out the coin blanks, and the rolls then being returned to the smelter for re-use.

The Mint, being the largest facility of its type in western Europe, not only produces UK coins but currency for more than 60 countries around the world. It also produces commemorative coins and medals such as those for the 2012 Olympics.

We then observed the process of turning the blanks into coins. This often involves more than one pressing. The images are produced using stamps prepared on site by extremely skilled engravers, in an ultra-clean environment to exacting standards. The embossing stamps may last less than one day but, in that time, they press out half a million coins.

After coin production we visited the jewellery department which produces small items of jewellery under the ‘886’ brand, named after the date coins were first produced at the Tower of London. Whilst the British Hallmarking Council is responsible for the management of the Hallmarking system, the King’s Assay Master is responsible for quality assurance at the four UK Assay offices, and he is keen to set an example for quality. All the jewellery is subsequently assayed at the Birmingham Assay Office and marked accordingly as either 9ct or 18ct gold or Sterling Silver, in strict compliance with the Hallmarking Act.

The Royal Mint Museum Director, Kevin Clancy, then offered a unique and special opportunity, not available to the public, to tour the museum. The museum contains more than 2,000 years of coins from around the world. Old balances and various weights are on display, together with many other fascinating exhibits. It was a great pleasure for us to be able to spend time in the museum — and a great privilege.

We expressed our gratitude for the invitation by presenting a copy of the book Touchstone, Trade and Transgression to both Kevin and Dan on behalf of CTSI. Additionally, Robert presented two photographs that he held of work at the Royal Mint taken around 1900. These showed the weighing of gold bars.

We also had a brief discussion about how the Hallmarking system can be kept relevant in the 21st century and offered some suggestions. Dan was interested to explore these and further discussions will take place.

Although the museum is private, the Royal Mint Experience is very much open to the public. It is a wonderful exhibition set out in a very interesting and engaging way (each exhibit and explanation is given in both English and Welsh). It is certainly worth a visit, explaining as it does the process of coining and assaying throughout the centuries.

There is of course a shop where coins, medals and other memorabilia are available (apparently Harry Potter merchandise is particularly popular), and Kevin Clancy’s book The Royal Mint, An Illustrated History is recommended.

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