Purchasing antique gold jewelry can be a challenge. It's hard to know how old the piece is, what style it is, or what kind of gold went into making the piece? Hallmarks are the signposts on your journey of discovery, but there are lots of side roads you will travel in learning about the marks and their meanings.
Hallmarks are used to identify the purity of metals, particularly gold and silver. The marks are stamped into the metal and can tell you both about the metal's purity and the history of the piece: where it was made, what year, and the manufacturer. Hallmarks were used to assure the buyer the piece had a certain quality of metal, and to identify who made the jewelry and where.
A Tradition Thousands of Years Old
The marks have been used for thousands of years. According to a legend, King Hiero II was concerned that a gold wreath crown he had purchased was not made of the highest quality gold. In fact, he believed it had been mixed with silver.
The King requested the mathematician Archimedes develop a way to determine whether the wreath was pure gold or not.
Archimedes was in his bath when he realized that displacement of water (hydrostatic weighing) was the answer to this riddle. The revelation resulted in Archimedes running through the streets shouting, "Eureka," which means, "I have found it."
Whether the story is true or a myth, the result was the same: precious metals could be measured for their purity.
Timeline of Markings
By 1300 AD, Europeans were required to mark their silver with "hallmarks," named after the Goldsmith's Hall in London. That is where the guild members would have their gold work inspected and marked for purity by The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. By late century, the guild was rightfully called The Warden and Commonality of the Mystery of Goldsmiths of the City of London.
- Among the earlier stamps was a leopard's head.
- Next, came the maker's mark (1363), which distinguished one artisan from the next; according to The Birmingham Assay Office, letters were introduced once literacy increased.
- In the 1470s, dates were included, and by the 18th century, both silver and gold were regularly marked.
- Interestingly, the Birmingham assay sign is an anchor, an odd choice since the city is not a seaport: however, the mark was designated during a meeting at London's the Crown & Anchor tavern, and thus the seafaring symbol remains a common hallmark.
According to the online guide from Assay Offices of Great Britain, England currently requires three "compulsory marks" on precious metals, whether they are used jewelry or other objects:
- Sponsor's or Maker's mark, which identifies the creator of the piece
- Metal and Fineness or Purity mark, which indicates the article's precious metal content
- Assay Office mark indicating London, Birmingham, Sheffield or Edinburgh, cities where assay offices are located
- The date mark was once required, but is now voluntary, and indicated the year that the hall marking was done.
Metal content in gold marks is perhaps of highest concern to buyers.
- Both the US and England rate gold according to carat (karat in the US). Pure gold (24K) is extremely soft, and jewelry made from it is dented easily; thus, it was often mixed with another metal or alloy, to give the gold more strength.
- Markings such as 14K, 18K and 9K are common, although you can also find 22K and early marks such as 19.5. The English hallmark stamps did not indicate the carat amount, but the "fineness," the percentage of gold parts per thousand (ppt), from 9K, 375 to 24K, 990 and up to 999.9 purity.
- As noted by Argenti Ingelsi, other gold hallmarks may be found as well, including commemorative marks (stamped for events such as a coronation or the millennium). For years, the marks assured buyers that they were getting what they paid for, but by the 19th century, things changed again.
By the 19th century, forgeries had begun to enter the world of precious metals. After all, it did not take much to stamp a fake mark on a piece of gold. This created instant "antiques," which were not taxed as highly as new gold pieces. Counterfeiting was taken very seriously by governments in the 18th and 19th centuries, and if discovered, the perpetrator could face death, transportation to Australia or jail time. Still, the process continued, and older pseudo marks turn up on gold pieces, making identification of the object's history difficult.
Guides to Identifying Gold Hallmarks
Different eras, countries, and governments set "standards" for marking precious metals, resulting in thousands of variations and thousands more headaches for collectors, dealers and historians. (The United States did not require hallmarks until the 20th century, and modern hallmarks generally consist of the karat and possibly, manufacturers' initials.) The good news is that many listings can be found to help you identify a hallmark. The bad news is that not every hallmark is listed. However, to start your research, the following online links are very useful:
- The Assay Offices of Great Britain offer an online guide (linked above) to hallmarks and their history, including silver, gold and other marks.
- The Birmingham Assay Office has excellent information on early English gold marks.
- Antique Jewelry University is a treasure house of information on jewelry and its history, including hallmarks.
- The Hallmark Research site has handy links to hallmark lists from countries other than England.
- Argenti Inglesi (linked above) presents a visual history of the hallmarks of England.
Deciphering Hallmarks Takes Patience
Hallmarks were meant to help keep consumers safe from fraud, and the marks succeeded beyond the Worshipful Goldsmiths' wildest dreams. Today, it takes research, practice and patience to decipher hallmarks, sorting the fake from the real, the precious from the dross. Experts spend many years learning the art of hallmarks and history, but the pleasure of the journey is in the process, and there is no better time to begin than now.