Thursday, July 19, 2012

Standard British hallmarks

Great Britain operates the most rigorous system of hallmarking anywhere in the world. The first statute governing standards was passed in 1238, but the proper system came into operation with the introduction of the leopard's head mark in 1300, to be struck on both silver and gold throughout the realm. The standard set for coinage (92.5 %) was also used for silver objects. In 1363 a further statute was passed by which every gold and silversmith added his maker's mark to pieces (at this time in the form of symbols as few could read or write) to counteract the widespread practice of forging the leopard's head mark on substandard wares. in 1478, the third mark was added in the form of a letter. 

From this date all work had to be taken to Goldsmith's Hall for testing and marking by touchwardens (hence, Hall Marks). This was to stop gold and silversmith from bribing the touchwardens who had previously come to their workshop to do the testing and marking. Substandard wares had been marked, accepted by the Mint and converted directly into coinage which led to a loss of confidence in the currency. But with this third mark, originally called the Assay Master's mark, the Assay Master or touchwarden could be identified if a marked piece was found to be substandard.

As this letter mark changed each year, usually running in alphabetical order and varying a little between assay offices, it soon came to be regarded as the date letter. In 1544, the fourth symbol, the sterling lion (also known as the lion passant) came into being, to symbolize the royal control over the assay office, effectively replacing the leopard's head as the mark of the silver standard.

The leopard's head then became the town mark for London. When other assay offices began to be established in the 18th century, they used their own town mark, but sometimes retained the leopard's head as well. Provincial assay offices were established in many centres all over the British Isles. Among the earliest were Chester, Bristol, Norwich and York. Sheffield and Birmingham were established in 1773. today, all sterling silver is sent to one of four centres - London, Birmingham, Sheffield or Edinburgh. In Scotland and Ireland a thistle and a crowned harp were the respective marks used instead of, or sometimes as well as, the sterling lion to indicate the silver standard.

Britannia Standard

A radical change in british hallmarking took place between 1697 and 1720 when the Britannia Standard was introduced to protect the coinage from being melted down to make object, at a time when silver supplies were limited. With the passing of the Wrought Plate Act, the standard for silver was raised from 92.5 % to 95.84 %, so that silver coins could not be used by silversmiths. The marks were changed. The sterling lion was replaced by the figure of Britannia, the crowned leopard's head by the lyon's head in profile and the first two letters of the maker's surname replaced his initials. In 1720, the original marks were revived but some Britannia Standard silver continued to be made because certain silversmiths preferred working with the softer, purer metal. the option to use it continues today.

The Duty Mark

Silver made between 1784 and 1890 had a fifth mark added in the form of the reigning monarch's head, struck to show that the duty had been paid. After 1890, the standard set again comprised four marks: the sterling mark; the town mark; the maker's mark and the date letter. This has been the same until the present day apart from three exceptions.

A. The maker's mark F. The sterling mark G. The assay mark D. The date letter E. The duty mark

In 1934-5 pieces were stamped with a Jubilee mark showing the heads of George V and Queen Mary to commemorate their Silver Jubilee; in 1953 a Coronation mark of Elizabeth II's head facing right was used in honour of her coronation; and in 1977 an optional Silver Jubilee mark appeared on some pieces over 15 grams in weight which shoved the head of Queen Elizabeth II facing left and commemorated the Silver Jubilee of her accession.

1934 - 1936 the Sovereign's Head was struck to mark the Silver Jubilee of George V and Queen Mary, used voluntarily on silver only
1952 - 1953 to mark the Coronation of Elizabeth II (on both silver and gold)
1977 to mark the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II (also a voluntary mark).

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