he Hallmarking system is quite ancient, the first recording of governing standards was as early as 1238, and it was almost certain that there were controls placed on the workers of precious metals before this date. At this early stage in the 13th century there weren’t really any official marks, however some goldsmiths would simply engrave their name and perhaps engrave in latin where it was made. At the end of the 13th century came the introduction of a marking system, this was to help customs officers stop the exporting of silver from England.
The mark in 1300 was a leopards head, this mark had to be put on silver as a standard of coins or better. It is quite interesting to note that this mark was used for gold and silver and was to be in use throughout the country, not just in London. All examples of the leopards head were in circular form up to 1478. In 1363, to stop less than honest goldsmiths from forging leopards head marks, a law was passed. This law meant that every goldsmith was to put his own mark onto the piece so it could be recognised. The very early marks all took the form of a symbol, it was only when education spread that initials started to appear, this was in the late 15th & 16th centuries.
This system seemed to work quite well for the next 100 years or so until 1478 when a date letter was added. There was quite a lot of fraudulent marking going on in these early days and often the Touch Warden, who was responsible for testing and marking silver and gold in the second half of the 15th century, could be bribed to ignore sub-standard pieces. This dubious activity was reasonably easy to get away with as the testing and marking was done in the goldsmiths own premises. This not only defrauded the customer but more seriously proved to be most detrimental in the long term as many items whose marks were accepted as genuine were used by the Mint to convert into coinage. This had the effect of seriously undermining the confidence in the currency and many problems followed. To put a stop to this, very important changes were put in place; in 1478 all the Touch Wardens had to work in the Goldsmiths Hall. All the goldsmiths then had to take all items to be marked to the Hall, this is how the term Hall Marks came into being, the next change to the hallmarking system was a crown was added to the leopards head and lastly the date letter was added.
Hallmarks showing from left to right the maker’s mark, the lion passant, Assay Office mark the leopards head,
date letter and the monarchs head (Victoria) showing duty paid (head no longer stamped after May 1890)
This date letter was not originally used to indicate the year the piece was made, but to identify the assay masters mark so that if a sub-standard piece was found to be below standard it could be identified to the Assay Master who passed it. The Assay Master was sworn in on an annual basis in May time, then the letter was moved on to the next one regardless of whether the same man was elected again. It could still be traced back to him. The three marks (crowned leopards head, makers mark and date letter) were the only marks used in London from 1478 until 1544, when a fourth appeared; the Lion Passant. This fourth mark is the most famous of all the English marks and is referred to as the Sterling Lion mark, it was added, not to guard against fraud, but to indicate Royal control over the Assay Office. This mark was kept and is still in use today.
The marking of Sterling Silver as we know it today was in operation from 1544 onwards. There were no further changes to this system until the end of the 17th century. 1697 saw the introduction of the Britannia Standard silver. This standard raised the minimum content from 92.5% to 95.84%. Coins of the realm remained at 92.5% which stopped the melting of coins into other objects as the purity would not have been high enough to meet the new standard.
In this period the Lion Passant was substituted for the Britannia mark and the leopards head gained a crown. After this a new set of date letters were introduced a little over a year earlier than normal. Also new makers marks were introduced, these were the first two letters of the goldsmiths surname. Strangely gold was not affected and continued to use the crowned Leopards head and the Lion Passant.
Hallmarks showing Britannia Mark
In 1720 the Sterling Silver standard was bought back as an alternative to the Britannia Standard and both marks have been used since, however very little early Britannia marked silver is found between 1735 and the end of the 19th century. 1784 saw the introduction of a temporary mark, this was called the duty mark and was put on silver until 1890, this duty mark which consisted of the Monarchs head at the time was a tax to help fund the American War of Independence, so from 1784 until 1890 there were five marks found on sterling silver objects, this came back to four marks from 1890 until the present day. No more changes were introduced from 1890 onwards apart from the voluntary marks that could be added for special occasions, they were Jubilee marks 1934-5 and in 1977 and a coronation mark in 1952-3.