Quick Guide to British HallmarksCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.
This page gives a very short and quick guide to recognising and reading a traditional British hallmark. British hallmarks appear simple at first sight – it appears that you can just pick up a reference book and there you go. But it is easy to go wrong; hallmarking has a very long history and can be surprisingly complicated.
First we need to deal with the question of what is a hallmark? If you mistake another type of mark such as a trademark for a hallmark, you could waste a lot of time searching fruitlessly for information. The two simple rules are:
- Hallmarks are applied by someone independent from the manufacturer of the item. The organisation that applies hallmarks is a legally authorised assay office or “Hall”. Items submitted by a manufacturer to the hall are tested for a legal standard of fineness and, if they pass, stamped with hallmarks to show this.
- Hallmarks are only applied to items made of solid gold, silver or other precious metal. Items that have a coating of precious metal over a base metal core such as gold filled, rolled gold, electroplated gold, silver plated etc. cannot be hallmarked.
Also note that jewellery is very rarely hallmarked. Jewellery is generally exempted from compulsory hallmarking because stamping the marks would damage or destroy the item. Jewellers can voluntarily submit exempted items for hallmarking if they wish. Exempted items can legally be marked with the fineness by the manufacturer, e.g. 925 or 14C, but these are not hallmarks because they have not been independently verified.
This page is not intended to give you the final result. It is intended to quickly show you the correct way to read a traditional British hallmark. This will help you to avoid many of the traps that people often fall into. If after reading it you still have questions about traditional British hallmarks, I suggest that you move on to the page of British hallmark examples, or the full detailed page about British Hallmarks.
If the marks that you are looking at turn out not to be traditional British hallmarks, but you are pretty sure that they are British hallmarks of some sort, then try the page about Import Hallmarks and the page about British hallmarking of imported items in general at Hallmarking Imports.
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If the marks are not British hallmarks, then the page at Case Marks should help you to identify which country's hallmarks they are. Bear in mind that hallmarks are legally defined marks applied by an independent person or company who tests precious metals for fineness. A mark stamped by a manufacturer is not a hallmark, it is a trademark. There are thousands of trademarks and I don't attempt to cover them.
I started this page in September 2019. I intend to add things to it to make it better as time goes by, while still keeping it short. If there is something you think is missing or would like to see covered, please let me know via my Contact Me page.
The Essential Marks
A British hallmark on silver or gold, whether it is on a British made or imported item, must have at least the four specific marks listed below. I cannot emphasise this point too much; if these four marks are not present in some form, then it is not a British hallmark.
Note that the standard mark for 22 and 18 carat gold has two parts, a crown and the carat fineness. Don't count these as two marks! They are two parts of the standard or fineness mark and therefore count as only one of the four essential marks.
A fifth mark of the sovereign's head was stamped on gold and silver items other than watch cases between 1784 and 1890. This mark was stamped to show that “duty”, a tax on gold and silver wares, had been paid. This duty was initially also paid on watch cases, but they were made exempt from the duty in March 1798, so no watch case hallmarked after the 1797 to 1798 hallmarking year has this fifth mark.
The hallmarks are usually separate, looking as if they were made by individual punches; only the composite foreign hallmarks introduced for watch cases in 1887 were made with a single punch. Sometimes there are additional marks to do with duty or Commemorative Marks stuck to celebrate major events, but the four marks described here are the absolutely essential ones, with links to fuller explanations.
The image here shows the hallmarks in an 18 carat gold case. I have outlined the four parts in red and numbered them to correspond with the numbered list below. The sponsor's mark is I.J.T.N in cameo within a rectangular surround. The assay office is the Chester Assay Office, shown by the town mark of an upright sword between three wheat sheaves. The standard mark is the symbol of a crown and the number 18, the standard mark of 18 carat gold.
The date letter is rather difficult to read, which highlights an important point. Rather than blindly picking up a table of assay office date letters and scanning through it trying to find a match, the possible date range should be narrowed down first. Date letters have been applied to items by assay offices since the year 1478, but there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, of which the London Assay Office used only 20, so date letters are used over and over in repeated cycles, and each assay office had different date letter cycles. In addition to identifying the correct assay office, the correct cycle of date letters needs to be used. Just picking up a table and scanning through it, this date letter looks a lot like the script capital E of 1730. However, the I.J.T.N sponsor's mark was first entered at the Chester Assay Office by Isaac Jabez Theo Newsome in 1884, so we shouldn't even consider Chester date letters before 1884. This narrows the possible range down immensely and it is then easy to see that the date letter is in fact the script capital E of 1905 to 1906.
- Sponsor's Mark: This is usually a punch mark based on the initials of a principal such as an owner or director of a business. This mark shows under whose registered name and details the item was submitted to the assay office for testing and hallmarking and who will bear a penalty if the metal is found to be below legal fineness. Every punch used to strike the sponsor's mark is individually recorded at the assay office. Note that it is not correct to refer to this as a “maker's mark”; there was never a requirement that the person who was responsible for an item submitted for hallmarking should have been involved in any way in its manufacture, and frequently they were not. If you look at the official Dealer's Notice issued by the British Hallmarking Council reproduced here, you will see that it uses the correct term “sponsor's mark”. The sponsor's mark is not there to show who made an item, or even who actually submitted it for hallmarking; it is there to show under whose name and responsibility the item was submitted. An item will not be accepted for assay without a sponsor's mark, which is why it is the first item in this list.
- Town Mark: Also known as the Assay Office Mark. This mark shows at which assay office the article was tested and hallmarked. For English made watch cases this is usually either a leopard's head (London), an upright sword between three wheat sheaves (Chester), or an anchor (Birmingham). There were other assay offices, but these are the principal ones for hallmarking British made watch cases. Note that the town mark does not tell you where an item was actually made; it tells you at which assay office it was hallmarked. Although there were some restriction in the early nineteenth century, the 1854 Hallmarking Act removed these and allowed workers to send items to any assay office that they chose. Liverpool watch case makers usually had their work hallmarked in Chester, Coventry makers often used Chester or London rather than the nearer Birmingham. I live in Cheshire but I have my gold and silver items hallmarked by the London Assay Office.
- Standard Mark: This shows the legal standard of fineness against which the item has been assayed (tested). For sterling silver this is the “lion passant” or walking lion. For gold it is either a crown and the carat fineness, e.g. a crown and 18 for 18 carat gold or, for the lower standards, the carat and decimal fineness e.g. 9 and ·375 for 9 carat gold. The mark does not show the actual assay of an item, only that it is at least as fine as the standard. Note that the standard mark for 22 and 18 carat gold has two parts, a crown and the carat fineness. NB: don't count these as two marks! They are two parts of the standard or fineness mark and therefore count as only one of the four essential marks.
- Date Letter: This shows the hallmarking year in which the item was hallmarked. The date letter punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which was usually at the end of May or June, so date letters span two calendar years. This is not noted in most tables of hallmarks, which only show the year when the punch was first used. Many so-called experts don't seem to know this. Remember that an entry of, for example, “1914” really means 1914 to 1915. See also my note about the surrounds around date letters. Those on gold may be different from those on silver, particularly if they are London Assay Office hallmarks. Most guides only show surround shapes for date letters on silver. Also, different surround shapes were often used for small items, and for watch cases. The Birmingham Assay Office in particular used completely different surround shapes around date letters in the late nineteenth century. Note that each assay offices had its own unique cycles of date letters so you must use the correct table.
Without all four of these marks you do not have a valid British hallmark. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that any and all marks are hallmarks – there are no such things as American hallmarks for instance and it is easy to waste a lot of time searching for a hallmark if the mark isn't one. A hallmark is made by someone independent of the manufacturer of an item, required by law to confirm the claimed fineness of an item of precious metal. The term hallmark came about in 1478 when goldsmiths and silversmiths were first required to take or send their items to be tested and marked at Goldsmiths' Hall in London, to be independently tested and marked.
Experts If you watch the Antiques Road Show or similar programmes, you will often hear so-called experts say something like “This is the maker's mark for so-and-so and this mark shows that it was made in London and this is the date letter for 1845”. Now either the so-called expert doesn't know that the sponsor's mark doesn't show who made an item, that the assay office mark shows where it was hallmarked not where it was made, and that before 1975 hallmark date letters spanned two calendar years, or they aren't giving the full picture. If they do know the truth, why don't they say it? If you get chance to question one of these experts I would be interested to know what they say. The facts are all well explained in De Castro; if someone is not familiar with that book they have no right to call themselves an expert on hallmarking.
The Sponsor's Mark
One of the most common errors made by beginners is to fail to appreciate the importance of the sponsor's mark. Without a sponsor's mark an item could not be hallmarked, so a hallmark without a sponsor's mark is a fake. This is a common error made by fakers of hallmarks, who often omitted anything resembling a sponsor's mark. The sponsor's mark is every bit as essential as the hallmarks; without it they wouldn't be there. The sponsor's mark also identifies who was responsible when the item was submitted for hallmarking, which can give some information about its manufacture, although sometimes this can be misleading because manufacturers would punch the sponsor's mark of someone who had nothing to do with making the items, such as a retailer.
Cameo and Intaglio marks
The sketch here shows the two types of punches used for stamping sponsor's marks and hallmarks.
- 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 surround 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 surround is also made, as shown in the picture, which is also pressed into the metal. This is called an incuse mark.
The surround shapes around cameo marks, and around incuse marks if they have them, are an important part of a sponsor's mark. This applies to all the parts of a hallmark, but the surround shape is especially important for sponsor's marks where there are lots of similar sets of initials that must all be unique punches.
Date letters are always punched in cameo, the extra complication of a cameo mark over the simpler incuse mark makes them more distinct and less easy to fake. Note that the surround shapes around date letters were often different, simpler, on small items such as watch cases, because it is more difficult to make a fancy shaped small punch. Hallmarks in watch cases were made by ‘press punches’. These had all the separate hallmarks; town mark, standard mark and date letter, combined into one punch that was applied using a fly press. This gives the layout of the hallmarks a regular appearance, which forgers often did not understand or replicate.
One area that seems confusing is that gold and silver watch cases don't usually have a duty mark as a fifth hallmark. This is a cameo mark of the reigning sovereign's head showing that duty had been paid, and many tables of hallmarks show these. The duty was introduced in 1784, but after an outcry by watchmakers, watch cases were made exempt from the duty in March 1798, so no watch case hallmarked after the 1797 to 1798 hallmarking year has this fifth mark.
In 1867 the Customs Amendment Act required that a letter “F” in an oval surround, signifying Foreign manufacture, be stamped alongside the usual hallmarks on all foreign made silver and gold items. Gold and silver watch cases imported between 1867 and 1887 should have this mark, but I have never seen one (don't get this mixed up with a date letter). It seems that the Act was passed without any powers to enforce it, and it remained unenforced until 1888 when a new Merchandise Marks Act became law. This Act introduced new requirements for hallmarks on foreign watch cases which superseded the requirements for the “F” mark. Other imported gold and silver items were still required to be stamped with the “F” mark, and a requirement was introduced that they be held under bond until this was carried out, finally ensuring that the law was complied with.
The hallmarks shown in the image here are from the silver case of a watch made by the company of William Ehrhardt Ltd. of Birmingham, England.
Reading from the top and then left to right the hallmarks are:
- The standard mark: a lion passant or walking lion with raised right forepaw, the mark for sterling silver.
- The town mark: an anchor: the town mark of the Birmingham Assay Office.
- The date letter: a "k" in a rectangular surround with curly base: the date letter of the Birmingham hallmarking year 1909 to 1910.
- The sponsor's mark: "W.E" in an oval surround, the registered mark of William Ehrhardt.
Note that the three marks applied by the assay office; town mark, standard mark and date letter, are laid out in a regular triangular relationship. Although it is not obvious from one case, this layout of the marks is the same for all the watch cases that were marked by that assay office in the same year. This is because the three separate marks were combined into one punch called a ‘press punch’ which was applied to the case using a fly press. The sponsor's mark was always applied first, before the item was sent in to the assay office, so it is not part of this regular pattern.
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 hallmark examples page.
Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks 2014
There are a number of books about British hallmarks, the most widely known is Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks which is published by the Sheffield Assay Office. It is a small paperback book that fits easily in the pocket and is great value for money. In addition to tables of date letters, there is a tremendous amount of information on British hallmarking crammed into it, providing the key to marks on English, Scottish, Irish and imported silver and gold and, beginning with the new 2014 edition, it is currently the only reference book that correctly describes the British hallmarking of imported watches.
The principal problem with Bradbury's and other reference books is that they only illustrate date letters for silver. The shapes of surrounds around date letters on gold used by the London Assay Office were different from those used on silver. Also bear in mind that, for brevity, only the first year in which a date letter punch was used is noted - you have to remember that date letter punches were used over two calendar years.
The classic reference work for silver dealers and collectors is Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks of England, Scotland and Ireland. The hardback edition is a massive tome that is largely taken up with the marks of early goldsmiths and silversmiths which are unlikely to be much use unless you are collecting early silverware. For most people this is an overkill, but the pocket version is much handier in size, and it is the only book that contains accurate representations of date letters for all standards of gold and silver.
Both books, Bradbury's and Jackson's Pocket Edition, are cheap and I recommend that you buy both. There are numerous editions of Bradbury's available; make sure that you get the new edition from 2014 with the “Chinese red” covers as shown here which was heavily updated, or the latest revised edition which has a dark blue cover of the same design as the 2104 edition. There is only one version of the pocket edition of Jackson's.
If you are seriously interested in hallmarking, the books by Grimwade and Culme cover sponsor's marks registered at the London Assay Office from 1697 to 1914 and contain some selected biographies. Ridgway and Priestley covers sponsor's marks entered at the Chester Assay Office from 1570 to 1962.
The only book that I am aware of that goes into adequate depth about the laws and practices of hallmarking is by J. Paul de Castro, a barrister as well as a silver collector, “The Law and Practice of Hall-Marking Gold and Silver Wares”, London, 1935. If someone is not familiar with this book they have no right to call themselves an expert on hallmarking.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated December 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.