British Hallmarks: A Quick GuideCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 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 fist sight and it appearsd that you can just pick up a reference book and there you go. But it is easy to go wrong. This page isn't intended to get you to the final result, but to show you how to read a traditional British hallmark and avoid many of the traps. If after reading it you still have questions about traditional British hallmarks I suggest that you move on to the full 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, try the page about British Import Hallmarks. Alternatively, go to Case Marks, which should help you to identify what type of marks they are.
I have only just started this page and I intend to add things to it to make it better as time goes by, while still keeping it short. I also intend to make a one-page pdf guide that can be printed. If there is something you think is missing, please let me know via my Contact Me page. And remember, this page will change over the next few weeks, so keep checking for improvements.
The Essential Marks
A British hallmark on silver or gold must always have the four specific separate and unique marks listed below. I really cannot emphasise this point too much; if all four of these marks are not present it is not a British hallmark.
Sometimes there are additional marks to do with excise duty, a monarch's jubilee, etc., but the four marks listed here are the essential ones, with links to fuller explanations.
- Town Mark - showing 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 wheatsheaves (Chester), or an anchor (Birmingham). Note that this mark does not tell you where an item was actually made; it tells you where it was hallmarked. Liverpool watch case makers usually had their work hallmarked in Chester, Coventry makers often used Chester or London. I live in Cheshire but have my gold and silver items hallmarked by the London Assay Office.
- Standard Mark - showing the legal standard of fineness. 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.
- Date Letter - which shows when the item was hallmarked. Note that each assay offices had its own cycles of date letters, which spanned two calendar years because they were changed when new wardens were elected, which was usually at the end of May or June. This is not shown in many guides to date letter. Also note that the shields around date letters on gold may be different from those on silver; again, most guides do not show this.
- Sponsor's Mark - showing under whose registered name and details an item was submitted for hallmarking. Each punch used to strike the sponsor's mark was 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 submitted an item for hallmarking should have been involved in any way in its manufacture.
Without all four of these marks you do not have a valid British hallmark. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that all marks are hallmarks — there are no such things as American hallmarks for instance. A hallmark is a mark required by law that is made by someone other than the manufacturer of an item. The term ‘hallmark’ came about because gold and silver smiths were required to take or send their items to be tested and marked at Goldsmiths' Hall in London to be independently tested and marked.
One of the most common errors made by beginners is to fail to appreciate the importance of the sponsor's mark. Without this mark, items would not, in fact could not by law, be accepted at the assay office for hallmarking. This is also a common error made by fakers of hallmarks. The sponsor's mark is every bit as essential as the other marks; without it they wouldn't be there. It also tells us who submitted the item for hallmarking, which gives information about its manufacture.
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 shield with curly base: the date letter of the Birmingham hallmarking year 1909 to 1910.
- The sponsor's mark: "W.E" in an oval shield, the registered mark of William Ehrhardt.
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 September 2019. W3CMVS.