A hallmark is an official stamp on gold, silver and other precious metal articles, impressed by an assay office to attest their standard.
English gold and silver articles have been marked by some form of hallmark since the 13th Century. This duty was originally carried out at Goldsmiths hall in London. Today there are four assay offices in the UK, although there have been several others over the intervening years. Please click here for more information on Assay Offices.
Components of a Hallmark
Today a hallmark consists of three compulsory marks ("925" standard mark, assay office mark and sponsors' mark), with two optional voluntary marks (lion passant and date letter). However until 2000 the system had been more or less the same for 450 years.
The four standard marks of a hallmark were the standard/purity mark, the assay office symbol, the date letter and the maker's mark. A fifth duty mark was used between 1784 and 1890.
The Standard Mark
In the case of silver there are two standards, Sterling (92.5%) and Britannia (95.8%). Sterling silver in England is represented within a hallmark by a lion passant and Britannia standard by a seated figure of Britannia holding a spear and shield. A lion rampant or thistle represents the Sterling standard in Scotland and a harp crowned in Ireland.
The Date letter
Each assay office had its own cycle of letters, with each cycle using a different style of lettering. It is therefore possible to provide an exact date of manufacture for every piece of English, Scottish and Irish hallmarked silver. London used a 20 year cycle using the letters A to U, Birmingham used a 25 year cycle, others had varying lengths. Sheffield assay office used a very complicated system, with no apparent order in its early years. From 1975 the four assay offices used the same date letter system.
The date letter, up until 1975, changed in May (on St. Dunstan's Day - the patron saint of silversmiths) of each year. Hence, an item described as "made in 1750", theoretically could have been made the following year and should really be described as being 1750/51. From 1975 the date letter was changed every year on January 1st.
The date letter on early spoons (especially trefids) is the most vulnerable to being over-polished due to its position high up the stem towards the terminal. Inability to read the date letter will reduce the value of the spoon.
There are plenty of books available, with tables showing all the date letter cycles for each assay office. Dating silver from hallmarks, can with practice prove very straight forward.
The Assay Office Mark
For more information please see separate section on assay offices.
The Makers' Mark
A Statute of 1363 ordained that every master goldsmith (or silversmith) should have his own mark. This mark would betray any spoon maker producing articles made from sub-standard metal. Initially, due to poor levels of literacy, each smith was identified by a symbol, e.g. flower petals, bellows and crowns.
The initials of the silversmith began to replace symbols in the 17th century, although the practice of including a symbol amongst the letters continued well into the next century. The statute of 1697 which raised the standard of plate silver to Britannia quality also changed makers' marks to the first two letters of his surname. The restoration of Sterling standard in 1719 re-introduced the silversmiths initials as a form of marking.
The maker’s mark was formerly struck by the maker, prior to sending to assay, which is why this mark often appear upside down or set apart from the other marks. Nowadays, the assay office usually strikes this mark as well.
It will be noted that the mark most often in good condition on bottom-struck spoons is the maker's mark. Over-polishing can rub the hallmarks, but because the standard position, on bottom-struck spoons, of the makers mark is nearest the bowl, it is protected during the sweep of a polishing stroke by the bowl. The opposite is true for top-marked spoons. The maker's mark is most often rubbed. There are a number of reasons for this; worn out punches, the mark was not stamped deeply enough, or its position (usually nearest the terminal) making it the most vulnerable to over-polishing.
Lengthy research in recent years has given us the opportunity of putting names to these symbols and initials. Several books are available from us on the subject.
For more information please see separate section on spoon-makers.
The Duty Mark
The burden of the American War of Independence on the UK governments' purse, lead Goldsmiths Hall to add a fifth hallmark in 1784 to confirm that a tax had been paid on each piece of silver made. This was called the duty mark and a representation of the monarch's head was chosen as its symbol. The duty marked was discontinued in 1890 when the tax on silver was abolished.
The duty marks used during the reigns of King George III, George IV and William IV show a profile of the monarchs head facing right and that of Queen Victoria facing left.
London 1802 (inc. Geo III duty mark)
This particular website is one I have found very useful in searching the history of Vintage Cutlery: