British Hallmarks: A Quick GuideCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 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. Note that only items that are made of solid precious metal; gold, silver, etc., are hallmarked. Items that have a coating of precious metal over a base metal core such as electroplated silver or gold, gold filled, rolled gold, etc. cannot be hallmarked.
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 British Import Hallmarks. Alternatively, go to Case Marks, which should help you to identify what type of marks they are.
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. 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, so check for improvements from time to time.
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 separate 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.
- Sponsor's Mark: This is the first mark to be struck on an item and shows under whose registered name and details it was submitted to the assay office for testing and hallmarking. Every 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.
- Town Mark: This 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 wheatsheaves (Chester), or an anchor (Birmingham). There were other assay offices, but these are the principal ones for watch cases. Note that this 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: This shows 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. The mark does not show the actual assay of an item, only that it is at least as fine as the standard.
- Date Letter: This shows when the item was hallmarked. Note that each assay offices had its own unique cycles of date letters so you must use the correct one. Date letters span two calendar years because the punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which was usually at the end of May or June. This is often not explained and many ‘experts’ don't seem to know. See also my note about the shields around date letters. Those on gold may different from those on silver, particularly if they are London Assay Office hallmarks. Most guides only show shield shapes for date letters on silver. Also, different shield shapes were often used for small items, and for watch cases.
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 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.
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 this mark, items would not be hallmarked, a hallmark without a sponsor's mark would be illegal. This is also 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 submitted the item for hallmarking, which gives information about its manufacture.
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 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 a sponsor's mark. This applies to all the parts of a hallmark, but the shield 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 shield 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 1798, so no watch case hallmarked after 1798 has this fifth mark.
In 1867 the Customs Amendment Act required that a letter “F” in an oval shield, 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 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.
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.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved. This page updated February 2020. W3CMVS.