Distinguishing antique hallmarks
When it comes to antique hallmarks found on precious metal works made in the UK, it is important to understand the difference between antique hallmarks and maker's marks. A maker's mark might be part of the antique hallmark, but that isn't always the case. It is fairly easy to understand antique hallmarks, once you understand the British system of hallmarking. While antique hallmarks might seem quite complex, once you decipher the meanings of antique hallmarks, you can learn a lot about the origins and age of particular antique pieces, which can be helpful for collectors.
How antique hallmarks evolved
- The maker's mark was a registered mark that indicated the Master goldsmith or silversmith of a particular object and was a part of antique hallmarks, but not always.
- They originated as a way to hold makers accountable for substandard pieces, similar to a form of quality control.
- The sequence of antique hallmarks are not uniform in all cases, but they will usually include a fineness or purity mark, an assay office mark, a date letter, a possible maker's mark and, between 1784 and 1890, a royal duty mark was also part of the antique hallmarks.
The fineness and purity marks can indicate the purity levels and antique hallmarks contain this information.
Antique hallmarks on gold
On gold, a crown plus carat will be found from 1798 to 1975 in British antique hallmarks and in Scotland a thistle was used, instead of the crown. From 1798 to 1854, only 18 to 22 ct gold was hallmarked until 15, 12 and 9 ct were legalised in 1854. From 1854 to 1932, the fineness in thousandths were added to the carat marks, but in 1932, 14 ct gold, (indicated by 585) replaced 15 and 12 ct, while 9 ct gold continued to be legal, (marked as 375). After 1975, gold hallmarks were standardised to the crown and fineness in thousandths, place of assay and date letter.
Antique hallmarks on silver
When it comes to the antique hallmarks on silver, the walking lion represented sterling silver, which indicated 925 purity. Scottish silver was marked with the thistle until 1975, at which time the rampant lion became the silver mark. There was a higher silver standard from 1696 until 1720, known as Britannia silver with purity of 958.4 and the Britannia figure is in the antique hallmarks, instead of the lion.
Assay marks indicate the location of the assay office that authenticated the purity and struck the object with their mark. Today, assay offices are in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh, but there was a Chester office until 1962. The symbols were a leopard head for London, an upright anchor for silver and a sideways anchor for gold indicated Birmingham, and a shield, sword and three sheaves of wheat for Chester, which were the three main assay offices found in antique hallmarking. Date letter marks were based on an alphabetic system that started with the letter A and the letter J was omitted. With each cycle, the style, case, typeface of the letter and shape of the background would change to differentiate cycles and they were unique to each assay office.
Maker's marks were part of antique hallmarks to distinguish metal works, but antique collectors appreciate the information from the antique hallmarks that can help them date particular pieces, and if the maker's marks are included too, it can help to identify the artisan.
Take a look at our jewellery department for antique hallmarks.