In an age where consumer protection and rights are a key concern it is fascinating to note that the hallmark is, in fact, one of the oldest forms of consumer protection that exists.
Hallmarking began in 1300, when a statute of Edward I established the assaying (test and analysis) and marking of precious metals. The original aim of hallmarking was to protect the public against fraud and the trader against unfair competition.
Precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum are too soft to be used in their pure form to make jewellery and silverware and so are always alloyed with copper or other metals to create a stronger alloy. It can be impossible for even an expert to determine the quality and fineness of precious metal items by sight or touch alone, leaving consumers vulnerable to unscrupulous manufacturers lowering the precious metal content of an alloy for increased profit. An item made from base metal could, for example, be made to look precious by plating it with a thin coat of gold or silver.
In the early days of hallmarking, the Wardens of the Company of Goldsmiths in London would go out to workshops in the City and assay silver and gold. For almost 300 years Goldsmiths’ Hall held the monopoly until silversmiths of Sheffield and Birmingham, feeling strongly that the vigour and volume of their trade warranted Assay Offices of their own, lobbied Parliament until an Act of Parliament for a new assay office in Sheffield was granted.
In the spring of 1773, in The Crown & Anchor, an inn situated just off The Strand in London, a coin was flipped and the winners, Sheffield, took the Crown as the emblem for their freshly-founded Assay Office. This left the new Birmingham Assay Office with the Anchor – not a symbol entirely fitting for either land-locked city but as Birmingham’s ‘town mark’ it has long out-lived the inn that inspired it and still thrives today.
The Sheffield hallmark is still recognised and trusted across the world as a mark of quality.
The Act appointed thirty local men as ‘Guardians’ of the Standard of Wrought Plate within the Town of Sheffield’ to supervise the work of the Office. By restricting the number of practicing silversmiths among the Guardians to a minority, Parliament made sure that the office was run for the benefit of the consumer rather than the manufacturer. The day-to-day running of the Office was entrusted to an Assay Master who had to take an oath before the Master of the Royal Mint.
At first, the Sheffield Assay Office had the exclusive right to mark all silver goods produced within a 20 – mile radius of Sheffield. After the second Sheffield Act of 1784, the Office also had the right to keep a Register of all makers’ marks on plated silverware made within a 100-mile radius. By the 1930s, well over a million ounces of silver were passing through the Office each year.
The Hallmarking Act of 1973 made it illegal for items described as gold or silver to be offered for sale in the UK unless hallmarked by a UK Assay Office and goods from all over the country and abroad were sent to Sheffield to be assayed. Sheffield Assay Office has always been keen to move with the times and over the last 40
years it has undergone significant development.
As well as gold and silver, platinum and palladium are now assayed there and items submitted for assay can be made of more than one metal and marked accordingly, providing customers with a more accurate description of the item’s composition. Many items continue to be marked using traditional methods, but in the late 1990s Sheffield was the first UK Assay Office to adopt laser marking – a technique ideal for marking hollow or more delicate items.
The petitioners who won the coin toss in The Crown & Anchor 245 years ago would notice a great deal of change in how the trade functions in Sheffield today. The dominance of the large firms has been replaced with specialist, independent craftspeople and enterprising designer-makers.
The Sheffield Assay Office put aside the Crown in 1975 and changed its emblem to the Tudor Rose. Those who strove to establish Sheffield’s Assay Office would be proud to find, however, that the Sheffield hallmark is still recognised and trusted across the world as a mark of quality.