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All gold and silver sold made in UK today should have a hallmark stamp when sold. These markings are to show the purity of karat of Gold or Silver and the assay office where the hallmark was registered. You may find a letter to indicate the year it was manufactured or made and a makers mark from the craftsman who designed and made the ring. Not all jewellery sold in the UK is made in the UK. You may find some gold and silver made in countries that do not follow our hallmark registry laws. You will find jewellery from places like Turkey that will just have 9ct stamped on the item. This is fine but as a buyer the extra hallmarks give you piece of mind that you know the item you have purchased has been sent to the assay office for testing and the item is what it says it is.
There are four main assay offices in the UK.
Birmingham assay office
This was established by Act of Parliament and was opened in 1773. Its mark is an Anchor, which can be combined with a sponsor’s mark, a fineness mark, a traditional mark (e.g. Lion Passant), a date letter, and a duty mark.
During the 20th Century, the Anchor was placed on its side for gold and for platinum from 1975, and upright for silver. Earlier practice could vary. From 1999 it is on its side for all metals.
The Anchor is the symbol of The Birmingham Assay Office. When you see the Anchor on any item made from a precious metal, you know it has been tested at the world’s largest assay office.
Birmingham assay office is a non-profit company and has been testing all precious metal, diamonds and non-precious metal for over 250 years. Birmingham is one of, if not the busiest assay office in the world.
London assay office
The London assay office is a key part of the Goldsmiths’ Company, one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the City of London. It was founded to regulate the trade of the goldsmith, and has been responsible for testing the quality of gold, silver, and other precious metals since 1327. The word hallmark originates from the fifteenth century when London craftsmen were first required to bring their items to Goldsmiths' Hall for assaying and marking. King Edward 1 was the reigning King when this came into place. He wanted all crafted gold and silver to be tested and stamped to proof its purity. Items received the King’s mark of authentication which was the mark of a leopard’s head. In 1544 the Goldsmith’s Company adopted the King’s mark as their town mark and the leopard’s head is now recognised as the mark of the Assay Office London.
The Sheffield assay office was opened by an act of parliament in 1773. From the start only silver produced within 20 miles of Sheffield could be marked at the Sheffield assay office. It wasn’t until 11 years after in 1784 that the Sheffield assay office was registered to allow any item within 100 miles to be tested and registered with them.
Up until 1974 the Sheffield mark was a crown. The letters to indicate the date started in 1773 and changed the letter each year until 1824, strangely the letters where not changed in alphabetical order until 1824.
In 1974 Sheffield’s mark was changed to the Yorkshire rose.
Sheffield is well known for its steel industry, they have been making cutlery since the 18th century. Thomas Bolsover a local silver smith discovered a technique of fuse plating; this would to become known as Sheffield Plate. Most Silver wear and cutlery that are plated would have been made in Sheffield. The plated item are harder wearing and cheaper that solid silver items.
Edinburgh Assay Office has been testing precious metals and hallmarking them since 1457 when The Incorporation of Goldsmiths of the City of Edinburgh was established.
The town mark of Edinburgh is a three towered castle. This mark was seen with a maker’s mark and the deacon’s mark up until 1681 when an assay master was appointed and a date letter system introduced. Between 1819 and 1964 a second assay office also operated in Glasgow.
The Dublin Assay Office was established in 1637 to assay of all gold and silver throughout the whole of Ireland. The Harp symbol was applied to 22 carat gold and sterling silver along with the date letter. In 1773 the figure of Hibernia was added.
There were other assay offices over the 700 years gold and silver has been hallmarked which have now been closed. York, Norwich, Glasgow, Exeter, Newcastle and finally Chester.
Chester assay office
Items have been manufactured, assayed and sold in Chester since the 15th Century and the mark for Chester is a shield bearing the town’s arms, a sword and three sheaves of wheat. Chester was granted an official Assay Office by an Act of Parliament in 1700. Its marks were similar to those of London hallmarked silver and the sequence of date letters followed in alphabetical order. The Chester assay office closed down in 1962.
Chester is famous for the Chester Rows which is has two tier shop front with the first floor shops allowing a walk way in front of the stores. The rows date back to 1293 and were developed to keep people dry and warm from the weather. These rows today have plenty of jewellers selling Chester Silver and Gold. Chester is more known for its silver as the Chester assay office stopped testing gold and concentrated on silver towards to end of their time assaying jewellery.
The most prolific silversmiths in Chester would have to be The Richardson Family. Richard Richardson starting making silver items in 1674 and the family continued to make silver item past 1729 when Richard retired. Some local silver shops still have some of his crafted silver for sale in Chester. The Chester museum has a large collection of his work.
It must be said Chester is well known for its silver, Chester has a lot of history with gold. Chester was ruled by the romans from 70AD and was originally called Deva. It is believed that the Romans brought gold coins to the British Isles. The development of the city from the Romans made way for the design and use of gold. Goldsmiths were needed to craft using gold and silver. Chester has unearthed lots of examples of early roman gold. Recently on the banks of the River Dee, Mr Price of Chester found a gold ring on the banks of the river Dee using his metal detector. The ring was dated back to the 12th century.
Author M Moran