It is bizarre how the thought of Hallmarking can transfer you to a moment in life you would otherwise have forgotten. My mind travels to Recklinghausen, West Germany, my prosaic, humdrum birth town known mainly for stiff handshakes and Knackwurst (a thick, extra-seasoned sausage). As a teen I often found myself trying to earn extra pocket money while helping out in my mum’s Greek delicacy shop. An older man approached me with a bag of silver and gold jewellery, which to a 13-year-old may only be mildly suspicious, suggesting any of these for 20 Deutsche Mark would make for a splendid Christmas present for my mum. I agreed. I rifled through the bag, pulled out something extra shiny and brought it close to my face. I was of course looking for the marks and a 925 number. He was watching me. “Gute Qualität,” he said. Let me be the judge of that, Mr, I think. “Where are the marks?” I ask. The jig is up. He snatches the bag off me and he is gone before I can raise the alarm.
Fast-forward 25 years and in another country, marks applied to pieces of precious metal to show that they have been independently tested and verified and therefore conform to all legal standards of purity or fineness, remain as significant as ever. The Hallmarking Act of 1973, as amended, is today enforced by the British Hallmarking Council and trading standards, working closely with the country’s four registered Assay Offices.
There are three compulsory elements of a UK hallmark: a sponsor mark, which indicates the manufacturer or person who submitted an article for hallmarking; a symbol to indicate the standard and purity of the metal, whether gold, silver, platinum or palladium; and the mark of the Assay Office where the item was tested – London uses a leopard’s head, Birmingham an anchor, Sheffield a rose and Edinburgh a castle.
The testing of precious metals has come a long way since Henry III’s edict in 1238, when the monarch commanded the mayor and aldermen of the City of London to select six goldsmiths in the capital to superintend the craft and assure the fineness of articles made from gold and silver. Whereas in the past, small fragments of a precious metal item were physically scraped off and exposed to chemical compounds to assess their purity, modern Assay Offices use X-ray fluorescence, a non-destructive form of analysis that takes only about 10-30 seconds to complete.
But there is more to hallmarking than just interesting historical tidbits, esoteric symbols and X-rays. It can be virtually impossible to assess the purity and quality of a precious metal by sight and touch alone, and the high prices attached to articles made from precious metals can make them an attractive target for unscrupulous manufacturers and dealers. This is particularly so with the increasing popularity of online shopping, which makes it common for a consumer to spend a huge sum on an item based solely on a photograph and written description. But as any Shakespeare buff will point out, all that glisters is not gold.
The difference in value between two items which might appear identical can be astronomical; and since for most people the purchase of a such an item – a wedding ring, for example – is loaded with personal and emotional significance, in addition to huge financial expenditure, it is essential to ensure they know exactly what they are getting and can purchase with confidence.
This is why, for Trading Standards, hallmarking is such an important matter, and cuts right to the heart of why the profession exists in the first place. Without hallmarking, consumers would be vulnerable to exploitation from dodgy sellers looking to make an easy profit, as well as dishonest buyers on the hunt for a bargain at someone else’s expense. It is also why the penalties for supplying or offering to supply a fraudulently hallmarked item are so severe; the maximum penalty is a fine and two years’ imprisonment, and it is also illegal to possess items that are incorrectly or fraudulently hallmarked.