Ever see a marking on your jewelry like 10k, 14k, 417, or 585? These markings are called hallmarks. Fine items such as jewelry, pottery and china often bear a mark, a designator that gives additional meaning to the source of the item and its value. In the world of precious metals, hallmarks are official markings or a series of markings struck on gold, silver and platinum pieces.
The use of jewelry hallmarks has its origin in the Byzantium period, which lasted somewhere between 306 A.D. and 1450 A.D. Silver pieces from the period were found to carry a series of five strike marks to designate quality. This early means of consumer protection assured the public the piece had been inspected and approved.
During the late Middle Ages, many governments took control of hallmarks on gold and other metals through the use of authorized assayers. Assayers would inspect and to varying degrees, test the precious metals to ascertain quality. As the period progressed, the mark became known as the “master’s mark” and often bore the initials of the assayer either alone or in conjunction with the coat of arms of the goldsmith or silversmith.
The first rules governing the hallmarking of gold occurred in France when the Goldsmith Statute of 1260 was established. It actually covered the markings to be used on silver and was later expanded to cover markings for gold in 1313. Up until this time, there were no specific standards that could be used to compare the quality of precious metal from item to another. The markings were emblems that symbolized trust in the goldsmith’s or silversmith’s workmanship and the purity off the metal. In 1300, King Edward the I of England passed an ordinance that required all items made of silver must meet the requirements of sterling silver which was 92.5% pure silver. Items which were assayed to this standard bore the mark of a leopard’s head. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths was chartered in 1327 by King Edward the III of England and headquartered in London at Goldsmith’s Hall from which the term “hallmark” was then derived. By 1478, a date letter marking system was introduced.
Many European nations formed a convention in 1973 to standardize precious metal hallmarks on the continent. Articles which are assayed and found to meet the standards are given a specific mark known as a Common Control Mark (CCM) which indicates the piece’s quality. Hallmarks on jewelry, watch casings and other objects made from gold, silver of platinum bear the date letter sequences along with the maker’s mark, the assay office mark and the fineness.
The United States has never adopted a system of hallmarks per se. The only requirement in the U.S.A. is for the piece to bear the fineness marking. This requirement has been in effect since 1906.
Hallmarks are made by placing steel punches against the item and striking it with a hammer or pressing it into the metal. The marks come in different sizes to fit a wide range of products. Today, some items are marked with lasers. This eliminates damage and the need for refinishing particularly for fine or hollowware items.
Hallmarks are also the designations used in modern times for metal fineness such as 24 carat gold or 14k gold. When combined with actual maker’s marks, these bits of information can tell a great deal about the piece on which they reside. Those in the precious metals business or jewelry business read these clues to determine the country of origin of the piece, the place where it was assayed and the approximate time frame it was created. The authenticity of a piece along with its age and overall condition can have tremendous bearing on the value of the piece.