British HallmarksCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved.
I started my pages about hallmarking to document information about imported watches, which is not readily available in the standard references such as Bradbury and Chaffers. However, I realised that many people with a watch that they have perhaps been given or inherited don't have ready access to these standard works, so on this page I show some examples of the British hallmarks that were found in any watch cases that were hallmarked before 1 June 1907, and which continued to be used in British manufactured watch cases after 1907.
I can't (for copyright reasons apart from anything else) reproduce the information in Bradbury or Chaffers, but I hope the examples here will help you read the hallmarks in your own watch. If you want some help, don't hesitate to email me, but do try to send me a clear picture or sketch of the mark you need help with.
Please bear in mind that in this context "silver" means the element silver, number 48 on the periodic table. It does not mean "silver coloured" or silver plated. In Britain it is illegal to describe something as silver unless it is mainly composed of silver. Small amounts of alloy are allowed for practical reasons, but an item described as sterling silver must be at least 92.5% pure silver. Similar considerations apply to the word "gold".
The principal use of a hallmark on silver or gold is to show the fineness of the metal; sterling or Britannia for silver, the carat fineness for gold, e.g. 18 carat. British hallmarks also indicate to within 12 months of when the item was hallmarked, and this is of great interest to collectors. The 12 month period in which the item was hallmarked is indicated by a "date letter" which were used in "cycles", A for a certain period, B for the next and so on. British assay offices all used different cycles of date letters, so to read a British hallmark date letter you must first identify at which assay office the item was hallmarked by identifying the assay office town mark. Then you must use a table of date letters appropriate for that office.
At first sight British hallmarking seems very easy to understand, but there are many traps for the unwary. For instance, London Assay Office cycles of date letters started in 1478, using 20 letter a to u excluding j which didn't exist at the time. The Birmingham Assay Office cycles of 25 or 26 date letters started when the Birmingham office was founded in 1773, nearly 300 years later. So it is no wonder that their date letter cycles are different. And then you must bear in mind that most published tables only show date letters for silver; date letters punched on gold were different.
British Hallmarks on Silver
There are lots of examples of British hallmarks on silver on my British hallmarks examples page, but let's make a start with the hallmarks in the picture here, just to get a feel for what a set of British hallmarks looks like.
The first thing to note is that there are four distinct marks. A valid and legal British hallmark on silver or gold must always have at least these four marks. Sometimes there are additional marks to do with duty or a monarch's jubilee, but the four marks described here are the essential ones.
Starting at the top the first mark is a walking lion with raised right forepaw. This is the British "lion passant" which indicates that the silver is of sterling fineness. Below this is a leopard's head, which in this case is the "town mark" of the London Assay Office. To the right is the London "date letter" e, which shows that the item was assayed and hallmarked in 1860 or 1861. At the bottom is the "sponsor's mark" R.O in rectangular shield, the mark of Richard Oliver, first registered 16 February 1859.
These marks are each explained in greater detail below, but please be aware of two important points. First, that British assay offices all used different cycles of date letters, so to read a British hallmark date letter you must first identify at which assay office the item was hallmarked and then use a table of date letters appropriate for that office. Second, that the sponsor's mark shows under whose name an item was submitted for hallmarking, its purpose is not show who made an item.
From 1975 the legal requirement for the fineness mark changed from the lion passant on sterling silver to a millesimal mark, i.e. 925, which is sterling silver expressed in millesimal form. It is still possible to ask the assay office to strike the traditional lion passant mark but this is no longer a legal requirement. The assay office charge extra for striking this additional mark so it is not always done, but I like to see the lion, the most recognised of marks for over 470 years, so I have the full set of traditional marks struck on my work. The lion passant was introduced in 1544 in the reign of Henry VIII and I like to think that if King Henry walked into my workshop today he would recognise the all hallmarks on my work apart from the 925.
British Hallmarks on Gold
London hallmarks 1883/84 on 18 carat gold. Note the shape of the date letter shield. Click image to enlarge.
Because of the enormous cost of gold, most of the hallmarks that collectors find are on silver items. Very few private individuals have gold dishes or gold candlesticks in their homes, and for this reason the standard reference books, Bradbury, Chaffers' etc. concentrate on hallmarks on silver.
Watches are unusual in this regard, because gold watches are quite often purchased or inherited, and are often the only items of gold other than jewellery that a collector will ever see and own. As jewellery, apart from wedding rings, is almost never hallmarked, the hallmarks on gold, particularly the shape of the shield around date letter, are unfamiliar territory to most collectors who know about hallmarks. The tables of date letters found in most reference books show only the date letters and their shields that were impressed on silver items, although they don't tell you this. The same date letter was used on gold items, but the enclosing shield shape was different from that used on silver.
The picture here shows a set of hallmarks in an 18 carat gold watch case. Again we have the same set of four distinct marks, the sponsor's mark AF at the top, the date letter to the left, the leopard's head of the London Assay Office to the right and the standard mark in the centre. In this case the standard mark is in two parts, a crown and the figure 18 signifying 18 carat gold.
When the 18 carat standard was introduced in 1798 it was marked with a crown and the number 18. The lion passant was the fineness mark used on 22 carat gold from 1544 until 1844. After 1844 both standards were marked with a crown and either the number 22 or 18. When the lower standards of 15, 12 and 9 carats were introduced in 1854 their fineness marks were the carat and its decimal equivalent, i.e. 15/.625, 12/.5 and 9/.375. When the 15 and 12 carat standards were replaced in 1932 by the 14 carat standard, that fineness was marked with 14/.585.
From 1975 the legal requirement for the fineness mark changed from carats, e.g. 18, to millesimal, e.g. 750, which is 18 carats expressed in millesimal form; 18 / 24 = 0.750. It is still possible to ask the assay office to strike the traditional crown mark on gold, but this is no longer a legal requirement. The assay office charge extra for striking this additional mark so it is not always done, but I like to see it so I have a full set of traditional marks struck on my work, and they will strike the crown on 9 carat gold, which surprised me.
Note that the date letter "H" for 1883 to 1884 is surrounded by a rectangular shield with cut corners. This is different to the shield around the date letter used on silver items. I have added a picture of the the same date letter "H" from the table of date letters on silver in Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks to show the difference. The shield shape for the date letter used on silver is "shield" shaped , i.e. with a pointed base, curved sides and double concave top. The date letter in the 18 carat gold watch case is rectangular, which is the correct shape for a London Assay Office date stamp on 18 and 22 carat gold for letter cycle XXI . The shields used by the London Assay Office around 15, 12 and 9 carat gold date letters during this cycle were round.
Caution about date letter shield shapes
If you have a gold watch and you look at a table of date letters in a book of hallmarks such as Bradbury's, bear in mind that the shield shapes around the date letters used on gold items were different to those used on silver items and that the tables of date letters usually show only the shield shapes for marks on silver. There is an example of this at Cautions about using tables of hallmarks. There is only one book that I am aware of, Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks, that shows the London Assay Office shield shapes used on gold as well as those used on silver, but not even this shows all the shields used on watch cases. You are welcome to email me via my contact page if you need help with a hallmark or date letter.
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Assay and Hallmarking
Let's now have a look at the four parts of a British hallmark in more detail. Watch cases made in Britain from silver or gold were by law subjected to "assay" (which simply means "to test") to determine the purity or fineness of the metal and, provided they are of the required standard, stamped with marks showing at least the following four things:
- Town mark - showing at which assay office the article was tested and hallmarked.
- Standard mark - the tested and guaranteed minimum fineness of the metal.
- Date letter - a mark which shows when the item was marked.
- Sponsor's mark - a mark showing under whose name an item was submitted for hallmarking.
If the watch case was hallmarked between 1784 and 1798 there should also be a fifth mark, a duty mark of the sovereign's head. Watches were made exempt from this duty in 1798 to enable English watch manufacturers to better compete with foreign made products, so the duty mark shown between 1784 and 1890 in tables of hallmarks in Bradbury and other standard references is not found on watch cases. The duty on all other gold and silver plate was abolished in 1890, and consequently the sovereign's head ceased to be impressed on assayed articles.
You might find a letter "F" in an oval shield like the one shown here signifying Foreign manufacture if the watch case was imported and hallmarked between 1867 and 1887. I have never seen one of these marks in a watch case so if you do find one, please let me know - don't get it mixed up with an "F" date letter which will have a different shaped shield around it, remember that this F mark will be in addition to the date letter. After 1 January 1888 imported watch cases were no longer allowed to be marked with the usual form of British hallmarks, so this mark was no longer applicable either.
Each assay office has its own unique office or town mark to show where the item was assayed. The exception to this is the London Assay Office. It is often said that the leopard's head is the town mark of the London office, but this is not strictly true, only if struck with no other town mark does the leopard's head show that the item was hallmarked in London.
Amongst the most familiar town marks are:
- London - leopard's head (but see note below)
- Birmingham - anchor.
- Chester - upright sword between three wheatsheaves (garbs).
- Sheffield - a crown for sterling silver, and from 1903 a rose for gold.
- Edinburgh - a three towered castle.
- Glasgow - a tree with a bird, a bell, and a fish with a ring in its mouth.
- Dublin - a figure of Hibernia seated.
Note: In describing the leopard's head as the town mark of the London Assay Office I am following the practice of standard works such as Bradbury and Chaffers, but in reality the leopard's head was and remained the standard mark - the London Assay Office didn't have its own unique town mark. The leopard's head was struck along with the lion passant by the old offices of Chester, Exeter, Newcastle and York from 1720 for some time after the sterling standard was reintroduced. It was only the new offices of Sheffield and Birmingham that used the lion passant alone as the standard mark. So strictly I should say that when the leopard's head is found on its own without a separate additional town mark it can be inferred that the item was hallmarked in London.
The early form of the leopard's head looks suspiciously like a lion, because the medieval heralds term for a lion shown passant guardant, i.e. looking towards the viewer, was "leopart", which was used in the Act of 1300 by Edward I, which became rendered into English as "leopard". The depiction of this creature gradually changed over the centuries so that it eventually looked like a leopard.
From 1478 until 1821 the leopard was pictured wearing a crown, since then he has been without the crown or mane. The reason the crown was omitted is not known.
It might be thought strange that Birmingham, set in the middle of the England and about as far from the sea as you can get, would use an anchor for its symbol. This is said to go back to 1773 when silversmiths from Birmingham and Sheffield petitioned Parliament for their own assay offices so that they wouldn't have to send items to London to be marked. The petitioners held meetings in The Crown and Anchor public house off The Strand in London. Each town adopted one of these signs as its mark and they tossed a coin to decide which; Sheffield got the crown and Birmingham the anchor. From 1773 the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices were authorised to assay and mark silver. Birmingham was authorised to assay and mark gold in 1824, using the anchor town mark for both gold and silver. Sheffield was authorised to assay and mark gold in 1903 and then used two town marks - the crown for silver and the rose for gold. Use of the crown on gold was reserved for the standard mark of 22 carat gold
The emblem of Glasgow can be traced back to the legend of Saint Mungo, the founder and patron saint of the city of Glasgow.
After 1 June 1907 very different town marks were used for imported watches, which you can read about on my page about Import Hallmarks.
Leopard's head caution!
The leopard's head was a standard mark, not a town mark, and it wasn't superseded by the lion passant when that came into use in 1544. The leopard's head and the lion passant were both stamped on gold and silver by the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths' Hall.
When the provincial assay offices were set up, each had a unique town mark to identify it, usually the arms of the town. This was stamped along with the leopard's head standard mark. The London Assay Office was the only office that didn't have its own unique town mark, but a leopard's head with no other town mark shows that the hallmarks were struck at the London Assay Office.
After 1720 the lion passant and leopard's head were both marked by provincial assay offices as standard marks until the leopard's head fell out of use for reasons unknown.
Chester 1822 to 1823 with lion and leopard
Image courtesy of and © Jacqueline C.
Until 1697 London was the only office that marked the leopard's head and lion passant on silver. However, when the Britannia standard was introduced the assay offices of Chester, Exeter, Newcastle upon Tyne and York were authorised to strike the marks of the lions head erased and the figure of Britannia on silverwares of the new standard. When the old standard was reintroduced in 1720, these offices were also authorised and required to strike the leopard's head and lion passant on sterling silver.
The mark of a leopard's head and lion passant without an additional town mark shows that the item must have been hallmarked in London at Goldsmiths' Hall, but the leopard's head and lion passant marks can also be found on silver marked at provincial English assay offices, when they are accompanied by a town mark.
The image here of a Chester hallmark for sterling silver. At the top is the lion passant, to the left is a leopard's head. The leopard's head was struck along with the lion passant by the Chester assay office with a crown from 1720 until 1822, and then without a crown from 1822 until 1839.
The sponsor's mark "T•A" in cameo with an elliptical shield was entered at Chester by Thomas Adamson of Liverpool. In the nineteenth century a Chester hallmark in an English watch case like this usually identifies the watch as having been made in Liverpool. Liverpool didn't have its own assay office so watch cases were sent from Liverpool to Chester, a distance of only about 20 miles, to be assayed and hallmarked.
The Exeter assay office struck the leopard's head with a crown until 1778, York struck the leopard's head with a crown until the 1850s and Newcastle struck the leopard's head with a crown until its office closed in 1884.
The reason why the provincial offices stopped striking the leopard's head standard mark alongside the lion passant is not known.
Since 1720 all English assay offices struck the lion passant on sterling silver. The Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices, authorised in 1773, never struck the leopard's head mark, their authorisation only specified the lion passant.
Although hallmarks are very interesting in their own right and can tell us a lot about the history of an item, the original reason for hallmarking and the item of principal interest to the original purchaser was the "fineness" of the metal, i.e. how much gold or silver is actually contained in the alloy. This is indicated by the "standard" mark. The standard mark does not show the actual gold or silver content, but shows that the proportion of gold or silver meets or exceeds a legally defined minimum standard.
There are two standards for silver in Britain. Sterling silver, the most widely used, contains at least 11 ounces and 2 pennyweight of pure silver in the pound troy, making it at least 92.5% pure silver. The new standard of Britannia, introduced in 1697, contains at least 11 ounces and 10 pennyweight of pure silver in the pound troy, making it at least 95.8333...% pure silver, usually rounded to 95.84%.
Gold purity is measured in carats, where 24 carat gold means pure gold and fineness is measured as a proportion of 24, e.g. 18 carats is 18/24 = 75% pure gold. It is important to note that these proportions are by weight. Because the density of gold is so much greater than other metals the proportions by volume are smaller. The first legal standard for gold in 1300 was 19⅕ carats, which was reduced to 18 carats in 1477 and then raised to 22 carats in 1575, which remains the higher standard to this day. An additional lower standard of 18 carats was introduced at the request of watchmakers in 1798, and then in 1854, again at the request of watchmakers, additional standards of 15, 12 and 9 carat were allowed. The 15 and 12 carat standards did not prove popular and by Order in Council in 1932 they were both replaced by a standard of 14 carat.
From the start of hallmarking in England in the year 1300 the standard mark struck on both silver and gold was the leopard's head. The early form of the leopard's head mark looks suspiciously like a lion, because this is in fact what it is. The Norman-French medieval heralds term for a lion shown passant guardant, i.e. walking and looking towards the viewer, was "leopart". This was stated in Norman French in the Act of Edward I in 1300 as une teste de leopart, which was translated into English as "the head of a leopard". In medieval English this mark was sometimes called the "Liberdes Hede" or "Liberd Heed", and sometimes, rather charmingly, the "Catte's Face".
The leopard's head is therefore properly the head of a lion looking towards the viewer, i.e. simply a lion's face. However, it has always been called in English the leopard's head, and the representation has gradually morphed over the centuries to match its name so that it now truly looks like a leopard. Early versions had a full mane and until 1821 the leopard was pictured wearing a crown, since then he has been without the crown or mane.
From 1544: the lion passant
In 1544 during the reign of King Henry VIII an additional standard mark was introduced, the "lion passant guardant", a lion walking with three paws on the ground and right forepaw raised, his head turned over his shoulder to face the viewer. In some later versions of this mark the lion is shown looking straight ahead with his head in profile to the viewer.
The origin of the lion passant mark is a mystery, it was not introduced by statute. It seems most likely that it was introduced when Henry VIII appointed by commission of the Lord Chancellor and Council two men, Matthew Dale and William Knight, to take charge of the London Assay Office as assay masters and touch makers. A struggle between the goldsmiths' and the King for control of the assay office ensued, and it appears likely that the lion passant was the standard mark applied under the direction of the King's assayers, but the leopard's head remained the standard mark applied by the goldsmiths' assayer, so both marks were struck on items marked at the London Assay Office.
During the period 1697 to 1720 sterling was replaced as the standard for silver wares, but not for coins, by the higher Britannia standard, indicated by the marks of a lion's head "erased", a heraldic term meaning that the head has a jagged rather than a straight edge at the neck line, and the figure of Britannia. This was to stop coins being melted down and used as raw material for silver wares. There was a shortage of silver caused by wealthy families replacing silver wares that had been lost during the civil war.
The Act of 1697 that introduced Britannia silver specified that silver of the new higher standard should be marked with ... the marks of the mystery or craft of the goldsmiths which instead of the leopards head and the lyon shall for this plate be the figure of a lyons head erased and the figure of a woman commonly called Britannia ....
Due to an administrative blunder the Act omitted to authorise any assay office other than London to mark it. This left the provincial assay offices in limbo. Although it might have been argued that they were authorised to mark the leopard's head by ancient statute, the lion passant had been introduced in 1544 and there was no legislation to require or authorise its use by any office other than London. The 1697 Act made it quite clear that sterling was no longer a legal standard for plate and so the provincial assay offices of Chester, Exeter, Newcastle upon Tyne and York were prevented from assaying any silver until a new Act was "rushed" through in 1701, although Newcastle was omitted and had to be made the subject of a separate Act. These Acts authorised and required that the provincial offices strike the marks of the lions head erased and the figure of Britannia on silverwares of the new standard.
When the sterling standard was reintroduced in 1720, all assay offices, London and provincial, were authorised to mark the leopard's head and lion passant on sterling silver as well as the lions head erased and figure of Britannia on silver of the higher fineness. The leopard's head was struck by the assay office of Chester with a crown until 1809 without until 1839, Exeter with a crown until 1778, York with a crown until the 1850s and Newcastle with a crown until its office closed in 1884. The reason why the provincial offices stopped striking the leopard's head alongside the lion passant is not known. The Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices, authorised in 1773, never struck the leopard's head mark.
The lion passant became the most widely recognised hallmark symbol because it was used by all of the English assay offices. Although the town mark, the date letter and the sponsor's mark all varied from place to place depending on which assay office was used, the same lion passant was always present on "good English silver", and also for many years on gold.
From 1544 to 1549 the lion struck by the London Assay Office was shown "passant guardant" and crowned. From 1550 to 1820 the London lion remained passant guardant, but without the crown. From 1822 the London lion passant was no longer shown guardant but instead with his head in profile, looking forward in the direction he is walking. Other English assay offices varied their depiction of the lion. At Birmingham he was passant guardant until 1875 and passant thereafter. At Chester he was passant guardant until 1822, passant from 1823 until 1883, and then passant guardant from 1884 again until the Chester Assay Office closed in 1962.
The lion passant was the legal fineness mark used on all sterling silver in England until 1999, and was also used on 22 carat gold until 1844, but not for the additional lower 18 carat standard introduced in 1798 which was marked with a crown and the number 18. The use of the lion as the standard mark on both silver and gold meant that silver gilt items could possibly be mistaken for gold, so from 1816 an additional sun mark was struck on 22 carat gold. This was discontinued in 1844 when the the lion passant was replaced by the symbol of a crown and the number 22 as the standard mark for 22 carat gold. Since the year 2000 the legal standard mark for sterling silver is the .925 symbol, but the lion passant can still be struck as an additional mark - for an extra charge of course - and I make sure that this traditional mark is struck on my hand made sterling silver buckles.
The standard mark for sterling silver used by the Edinburgh Assay Office was a Scottish thistle, Glasgow a lion rampant, and Dublin a harp crowned.
Date Letter - the Assayer's Mark
The year denoted by the date letter can be confusing because until 1975, when the 1973 Act came into force, the hallmarking year did not run from 1 January. This mark was introduced in 1478 and was at first called the "assayer's mark", because it was intended to be a record of who was responsible for the assay of an item if questions later arose. For this reason it was changed each year when the new wardens were elected and thereby indicates the date when the item was assayed and hallmarked, although this was not its original purpose.
Prior to the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, the London hallmarking year commenced on 19 May, the Feast Day of Saint Dunstan, Dunstan was born at Glastonbury in about the year 925 and is the first recorded working goldsmith in England. He built a cell near the Abbey of Glastonbury containing a forge where he made censers and crosses, chalices and patens, as well as articles for domestic use. He successively became Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury. After his death on 19 May 988 he was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, canonised in 1029, and became the patron saint of all good goldsmiths. The London Goldsmiths' Company especially honoured St. Dunstan, subscribing towards the light of St. Dunstan in the Church of St. John Zachary, keeping his day as a holiday, and designating him in their records as "Seynt Dunstan our blessed Patron, Protector and Founder". patron saint of English gold and silversmiths. From the restoration of Charles II to the Monarchy in May 1660 until 1973, the London hallmarking year officially commenced on Oak-apple Day (the King's birthday), 29th May, but the actual date when the new letter was first struck was sometimes later by days, and even weeks, depending on when the new punches were accepted by the Wardens, the letter "s" causing trouble on several occasions because the there is no distinct lower case version of the letter s.
The letter j was invented in the 16th century as a variant of the letter i to allow finer nuance in the written word. This bit of obscure information can be useful if you come across a word like "fjord" (a partially submerged Norwegian coastal valley). At first sight most English speakers would stumble on this word, but just imagine the j as an i and you are close to the correct pronunciation of "fee-yord" - it's not exactly the same because the j sound is slightly different to the i sound, but it gets you close. And you can do vice-versa with i for j if you need to.
The point of all this is that the date letter change is nearly half way through the calendar year! So an item marked by the London Assay Office with an "a" which the table in Bradbury indicates is the date letter for 1916 could have been marked at any time from 29 May 1916 to 28 May 1917, or possibly even some time in June.
The date letters used by the London Assay Office to indicate the hallmarking year ran in sequences of 20, starting at the letter "a" and running up to "u", omitting the letter "j". Other offices used the full cycle from "a" to "z".
Why was "j" left out? Well, the letter "j" was only invented in the 16th century, and didn't make its way into common English usage until the 17th century. The Goldsmith's Guild weren't going to change their ways for a new fangled thing like that. Even the hallmarking act of 1973, which did away with the London cycle ending in "u" and allowed the date letters to run up to " z", didn't introduce the letter "j" into London hallmarks - still a bit too modern I guess.
To send an item to the Assay Office to be assayed, a person must register his details with the particular Assay Office. The reason for this is pretty obvious - the Office needs to know who to charge for their services and who to return the items to, and who to prosecute if a criminal offence has been committed. To facilitate this, the Assay Office requires that each registered person have a registered punch mark, called the "Sponsor's mark", which is unique to them. This usually consists of the persons initials set in a "shield", a surrounding shape. If a person has the same initials as someone already registered, the shield of their mark will be made different so that the two marks can be distinguished. Every punch that can be used to impress the mark must be registered.
This mark is sometimes called the "maker's mark" by people who don't really understand its purpose and use. The sponsor's mark is the registered mark of the person who submits an item for hallmarking, who is not necessarily the person who actually made the item. This was first officially recognised in law in the 1738 "Plate Offences Act" but had obviously been practice for some time before then.
Even today and knowing the truth full well, the term "maker's mark" is often casually used by people at the assay offices, but the acid test is to ask them if they will guarantee that the registered person actually made the item, and then they will explain that that is not the purpose of the mark.
As an example consider the work of Paul de Lamerie, the most famous English silversmith of the eighteenth century. It is known that de Lamerie, in common with many other goldsmiths and silversmiths, often subcontracted work to a range of other workshops. He had the finished items marked with his registered mark before submitting them for assay and hallmarking. Although de Lamerie also had his own workshop in which some items were made, the presence of Paul de Lamerie's mark on an item of gold or silver does not show who made it, which might have been a subcontractor or workmen in de Lamerie's own workshop, and therefore it is clearly misleading to describe it as a "maker's mark".
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Cautions about using Tables of Hallmarks
When you first pick up a book of hallmarks such as Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks, you might think that it is easy to use the tables to discover all that you need to know about a hallmark. Although these books are good summaries, hallmarking has a very long history and can be surprisingly complicated. Here are a few things you need to be cautious about.
Date Letter Cycles
Each assay office used its own cycles of date letters, which depended on when the office was set up and the date on which the wardens were elected, which is also when the date punches were changed. Because of this, date letter tables are unique to each assay office. You cannot use a date letter from one assay office to read a hallmark struck by a different office.
Date Letters Span Two Calendar Years
Most date letter tables give only the year in which the punch was first used. Punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which was usually in May or June, so same punch was used over a period spanning two calendar years. For instance the "a" used first used by the London Assay Office in 1916 shows only that the item was marked in 1916 or 1917.
- From the restoration of Charles II in 1660 until 1973 the London Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 29 May to 28 May the following year. I doubt that you will be looking at gold or silver from before the restoration, but then it was 19 May, the Feast Day of Saint Dunstan.
- The Chester Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June, neatly bisecting the the year. The Chester Assay Office closed in August 1962.
- The Glasgow hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June. The Glasgow Assay Office closed in 1964.
- The Birmingham Assay Office office also changed its date letter with the annual election of the wardens on 1st July.
Date Letter Shield Shapes
London date letter "H" for 1883/84 from Bradbury, and same date on 18 carat gold
The picture here has superimposed at the top the entry from Bradbury of the London date letter "H" for 1883 to 1884. It also shows an "H" date letter mark on an 18 carat gold watch case for the same hallmarking year 1883 to 1884. But the shape surrounding the letter is different, so how can it be the same year? The reason is that different shield shapes were used on silver and gold, but most reference books show only the marks used on silver.
The date letter in this 18 carat gold watch case is rectangular, which is the shape used by the London Assay Office on the "higher standards" of 18 and 22 carat gold for date letter cycle XXI. The shields around date letters marked by the London Assay Office on the "lower standards" of 15, 12 and 9 carat gold during this cycle were round.
Why do most books only show the marks on silver? Most collectors of hallmarked plate collect silver, for the simple reason that items made from gold such as plates, spoons and cream jugs are virtually non-existent and extremely expensive. I expect that the only person who has a collection of gold plate is Her Majesty the Queen, and I doubt that she needs to consult a book to know about it. Watches and wedding rings are the only gold items most people will ever own or handle, and tables do not usually reproduce the date letters found on them.
There is only one book that I am aware of, Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks, that shows the London Assay Office date shield shapes for the higher and lower standards of gold in addition to those for silver for each cycle of date letters. Why did Jackson choose to list the different shield shape marks for date letters on all the standards of gold and silver? Well, he was very thorough, and his book is regarded as the bible of silver collecting as a result. There is a reasonably priced pocket version available that shows the different shapes of most date gold and silver letter shields. But note: only for London hallmarks.
Other Date Letter Cautions
Even Jackson's doesn't show all of the variations in the punch marks. Punches were made in various sizes, and those for watch cases were at the smallest end of the range. The marks were combined in a single "press punch" so that they were all struck in one go using a fly press. The shields around the marks on the press punches used on watch cases were often different to those used on larger pieces of plate of the same metal. For instance, on silver instead of the base of the shield around the date letter having a small point it was rounded. This was likely because of the difficulty of making the point on a small punch, but might have been done to get even striking.
Some Birmingham town mark and date letter shields for silver are also not the same shape as shown in the published tables but instead are triangular with a point at the base, and sometimes cut top corners. The Birmingham Assay Office told me that the outline around hallmarks for watch cases are not shown in Bradbury and that the marks shown are those used for silver wares and that watch cases often have different shield shapes. However, I have at least one example of Birmingham hallmarks with the "k" of 1909/1910 that does have the same shield shapes as shown in Bradbury, so I think this was principally a nineteenth century practice.
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Punches, Shields and Escutcheons
Marks such as a sponsor's mark or the walking ‘lion passant’ are usually rendered in "cameo" or "relief". To make the mark the metal around the letter or shape is pressed down by a punch and the letter or shape itself remains at the original surface level, standing out in relief against the metal that has been pressed down. The shape formed by the nose of the punch as an outline around the mark is called the "shield", or sometimes the "escutcheon".
An alternative form of punching is called "intaglio" or "incuse". The shape of a letter or mark is simply pressed or cut into the surface of the metal. This type of mark often has no shield, although sometimes the punch also presses or cuts a shield around the letters or mark.
Cameo and Intaglio marks
The sketch here shows the two types of punches for stamping two different styles of sponsor's marks.
- The cameo punch is cut away so that the initials are created in relief (cameo) by pressing down the metal around them. The outside shape of the nose of the punch forms the shield around the initials. This is called a cameo mark.
- The intaglio or incuse punch presses the shape of the initials into the metal. Sometimes a shield is also made, as shown in the picture, which is also pressed into the metal. This is called an incuse mark.
The shield shapes around cameo marks, and around incuse marks if they have them, are an important part of the mark. This applies to all the marks, but is especially important for date letters and sponsor's marks where there are lots of basically similar marks that must all be unique. For instance, when I registered my sponsor's mark at the London Assay Office I found that someone with the same initials, DBB, had already registered their mark with a rectangular shield, so I chose to have a shield with angular ends as shown in the picture, which makes this mark unique to me.
Blurred or ‘Rubbed’ Marks
Faint marks that are difficult to read are described as blurred or "rubbed". This is often thought to be the result of years of polishing, but the most substantial rubbing took place as the case was being finished after hallmarking.
The punching of hallmarks at the assay office often caused considerable distortion to the case and so, after hallmarking, watch cases needed "rectification" to straighten out distortions caused by the punch and polish out any scratches. If the polisher was not paying attention or left the work on the rotating buff for a little too long, a punch mark in gold or silver, which are relatively soft, is easily rubbed or blurred. Anyone who works with silver or gold knows this from experience.
Sometimes the marks were none too clear when they were stamped. The punches used to stamp the marks wore down a little bit each time they were used, and eventually the mark they made was nothing like as crisp as when the punch was new. Because punches were expensive they continued to be used until they had worn down to the point at which the mark was no longer clear.
The shields around date letters are maintained for one cycle of date letters, i.e. A to U for the London Assay Office or A to Z for most of the other offices. For the next cycle the case and the font face of the letter is changed, for example from upper case sans-serif letters to lower case serif letters. The shield shape is also changed for each cycle to make it even more unique.
Different shield shapes were also used for the date letters on gold and silver. This often causes confusion because often only the shield shapes for date letters used on silver are shown in most reference books. These is more about this below.
The shape of the shield of a sponsor's mark is very important because it is part of what makes each sponsor's mark unique. A sponsor's mark is a compulsory component of the hallmark and comprises the initials of the sponsor's personal or company name surrounded by a shield to form a unique mark. All sponsors' marks are unique and once allocated will never be re-issued to anyone else. When I wanted to register my sponsors mark I found that there was already a mark registered with my DBB initials. By choosing a shield shape with angled ends as shown in the picture, I was able to create a sponsor's mark that was unique to me. Bear this in mind when you are looking at a sponsor's mark, the shield shape is just as important as the letters.
London hallmarks, date letter 1839, earlier leopard
The photograph of the London hallmarks shown here has a date letter which is a "Black Letter" capital "D". This is the date letter for the year 1839/40. But the shape of the leopards's head mark is from an earlier cycle of date letters that ended in 1836; the tables in Bradbury's and Jackson's show a much more "leopard like" head for the date letter cycle that began in 1836. Looking at the leopard's head stamped here you could easily be misled into thinking that the date must be 1836 or earlier.
The explanation for this is that all punches that incorporated a date letter were defaced at the end of a date letter cycle. However, individual punches, such as the leopard's head or the lion passant that were not "date sensitive" could continue to be used until they were worn out or considered unusable. So the leopard's head mark shown in the picture here continued to be used after 1836, despite what the tables in the reference books show.
The sponsor's mark LP in a rectangular shield was entered by Lewis Phillips, a London watch case maker first registered at the London Assay Office 27 November 1838, this mark registered 13 May 1839.
Examples of British hallmarks
There is nothing like looking at a few examples to give you an idea of what to look out for when you are trying to read a set of hallmarks. There are lots of examples on my British hallmarks examples page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved. This page updated January 2019. W3CMVS.