The Historical Background to Assaying in the UK

 

The Goldsmiths' Company, which operates the London Assay Office, had been testing articles on manufacturer's premises for some time before it became compulsory in 1327. Tested articles were marked with a Leopard's Head. In 1363 the sponsors' mark became compulsory and evenually the testing and marking became too time consuming for the Wardens. Therefore, in 1478, a salaried Assay Master was appointed and the manufacturers were required to bring their articles to Goldsmiths' Hall to be marked, hence the term "hallmarked". The year date letter was introduced at the time to indicate which Assay Master was responsible for the testing. The fineness mark was not introduced until 1544 as 925 silver was the only permitted fineness.

Other Offices were opened in Newcastle, Exeter and York, (all of which closed in the 19th century), Chester (closed 1962) and Glasgow (Closed 1964).

The advent of the Industrial Revolution, especially in Birmingham and Sheffield, created large quantities of silver articles, which were inconvenient to transport to London or Chester. Representatives of manufacturers from these two cities, after meeting in London at the "Crown and Anchor" hotel made successful representations to Parliament resulting in Acts being passed in 1773 establishing the Birmingham Assay and Sheffield Assay Offices. Sheffield chose the "Crown" as its mark, later to become a rose, and Birmingham the "Anchor". Each Office had its own year date letter system, which was not unified until the 1973 Hallmarking Act.

In Scotland the Deacon's mark was first applied in 1457, and the town mark was added in 1485. Various statutes and authorisations culminated in a Charter for the Edinburgh Assay office in 1687. The year date letter marking was not adopted until 1681. This different development prior to the Act of Union in 1707 is still evident today with Edinburgh using a lion rampart for its 925 silver tradtional fineness symbol, whereas London, Birmingham and Sheffield use a lion passant.

This emphasises the independence of the Assay Offices, which have no financial links whatsoever, and illustrates why Birmingham and Sheffield have similar structures and overall duties and powers, which are different from London and Edinburgh. However, the principle of the structure is the same.

The Hallmarking Act was amended in January 1999.

The range of finenesses was increased, and each fineness is now indicated in parts per thousand. The year date letter and the tradtional fineness symbols remain on a voluntary basis only.

The Act also permits other European Economic Area Hallmarks and finesnesses which are equivalent to UK Hallmarks. Guidence notes on equivalence have been developed by the British Hallmarking Council and are available through the Assay Offices


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Last Updated 14th December 2017
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