Hallmarks have been used for guaranteeing precious metals for well over 700 years. Originally brought in by Henry III in 1237 as an early form of quality assurance, hallmarks have remained relatively unchanged since then.
Gold and other precious metals are generally too weak to shape by themselves, so goldsmiths combined the gold with stronger metals (alloy) to make more extravagant and hard-wearing designs. Since the value of precious metals was extremely difficult to identify from touch or sight alone, there was no way to accurately judge the actual gold content of an item without testing it, so hallmarks became an early form of quality assurance for those looking to buy or sell gold.
Hallmarks typically use four stamped symbols (three of which are legally required to sell your gold) to identify who created the gold item, what the precious metal content of the item is, what date the item was made, and at which Assay office the item was tested to ensure quality. In the UK, it is illegal to sell or describe items as gold unless they have the right hallmarks.
A sponsor’s mark is the unique “signature” of the goldsmith that created the item. Since each Sponsor’s mark needs to be registered with an Assay office to be legally sold, if a piece of gold has this mark then it’s good evidence (though not guaranteed) that the item contains precious metals. Sponsor’s marks can look very different from goldsmith to goldsmith, but are most commonly the initials of the individual or manufacturer that made the item.
While the sponsor’s mark says who made the item, the standard mark is used to show how pure the metal is (fineness) in parts per thousand. This indicates how much it is worth and can be matched against the Carat system of measurement:
The shape of the mark also determines what sort of metal it is:
Although the sponsor’s mark and the standard mark are also legally required to sell gold, the Assay Office mark is the most important proof of quality. There are four assay offices in the UK, located in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and Sheffield, each with their own distinct mark:
There have been hundreds of other marks over the years as the rules for hallmarking have changed. In addition to the three above, here are some other commonly seen marks:
Date marks use letters instead of numbers to date gold items. For example, “O” equals 2013, “P” equals 2014, “Q” equals 2015, and so on. Although many gold items will have this on, it is no longer a legal requirement to sell the item.
These marks were used on items of different metals. A lion head was used for sterling silver, an image of Britannia for silver, and a crown for items made from gold. They are not required any more but are occasionally found on older precious metals.
If the item was made for a major national event, or in the same year as one, then it may have a commemorative mark. The most recent events to integrate commemorative marks have been the Queen’s diamond and golden Jubilee, and the millennial cross.
Now that you know more about hallmarks, why not check out your unwanted jewellery and see how much it could be worth. With the current high market prices, selling your old gold might bring in a small fortune!