Gold, silver and platinum are some of the most sought after precious metals in the world. Yet, in their pure forms they are too soft to create wearable jewellery. They are alloyed (mixed) with other metals to make them more durable and affordable. For consumers, it can be difficult to tell just how much of these precious metals are in a piece of jewellery. To guarantee the purity of these metals and protect consumers, hallmarks were born.
What is Hallmarking?
Hallmarks are a series of marks made on gold, silver or platinum jewellery. These stamps certify that an item was made up to the correct legal standard. Dating back to the 13th century, it is one of the earliest forms of consumer protection. In medieval England and France, state-appointed assayers examined jewellery items for public sale. An official mark was placed to verify the purity and fineness of the precious metals used. Today, it is a legal requirement in most countries. Any article described as made of gold, silver, platinum or palladium should be hallmarked before they can sold.
Types of Hallmarks
Hallmarks are typically comprised of three basic parts. Before purchasing your item, here are the symbols (marks) that you should look out for:
1. The Sponsor’s Mark
A sponsor is the maker or establishment responsible for sending an item to be assayed. The sponsor does the required paper works as well as pays the fee for the examination. The mark will appear as a unique symbol such as a company logo or brand name.
2. The Standard Mark
This is a universally accepted symbol that indicates the purity of the precious metal. It is expressed in parts per thousand or in karat. The type of metal is designated by the shape of the shield that surrounds these numbers.
3. The Assay Office Mark
Also known as the town mark, this symbol informs the consumer of the location at which the item was tested and marked. In the UK, each of the four Assay Offices (London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and Sheffield) have a unique symbol . There can also be optional marks applied next to the hallmark but it is up to the sponsor to request these.
Canadian Hallmarking System
Our hallmarking system is based on the Precious Metals Marking Act of 1996. Jewellery makers, importers and retailers are responsible for having the correct hallmarks on items. Hallmarks must be registered by the Register of Trademarks, Industry Canada in which abbreviations and inscriptions for jewellery items in either English or French are permitted.
For silver items, “sterling” is considered the standard measurement for purity under federal regulations. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% other alloys such as copper, nickel, or zinc. Authentic sterling silver items are stamped with “STERLING”, “STER”, or “925”. Hallmarks that follow the traditional British certifying system may also be placed on the item. The silver standard mark specifies the silver content in a piece of jewellery, flatware or silverware.
Hallmarks in Other Countries
Each country has developed their own system of regulating and controlling the trade of precious metals. Some countries require compulsory control and hallmarking of every article by an independent body. Some have a voluntary hallmarking system. Others only require prescribed markings made by the manufacturer.
In the UK for instance, hallmarking is a legal requirement on items of a certain weight. However, you might you not find any hallmarks on gold articles purchased in this country if they weigh less than 1 gram. The same goes for silver pieces that weigh less than 7.78 grams. These weights are considered exempt.
Italy, on the other hand, does not have a standardized hallmarking system. In France, 3 grams is the smallest weight for items to be hallmarked in order to minimize damage done by the marking process. As well, all gold products sold must be tested in one of the 24 assay offices throughout the country. In Switzerland, hallmarking on jewellery is optional (except for watches – of course!).
In an attempt to standardize the assay of precious metals, a group of European nations signed the Vienna Convention on the Control of the Fineness and the Hallmarking of Precious Metal Objects in 1972. This introduced the Common Control Mark (CCM) signified by a balance scale superimposed on two intersecting circles. Each member country agrees to allow articles marked with the CCM to be imported without further testing.
Whether you are purchasing or selling a piece of jewellery, understanding the importance of hallmarks is key to getting your money’s worth. Some antique items may not have hallmarks on them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Other items may already have hallmarks but may need to undergo additional confirmation. If you are unsure about these, your best bet is to take your item to a trustworthy jeweller and have their experts test them for you. After all, hallmarks give a sense of validation and peace of mind that your articles are indeed genuine.