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Hallmarks and Hallmarking

Hallmarks and Hallmarking.  A group of related symbols applied to silver and gold items indicating the maker, the date and the quality of its precious metal. From two to five symbols – applied by a punch, puncheon and called a mark – were stamped into existing silver and goldware. Hallmarking required some type of assaying and was first the mark of purity or fineness of the metal. The concept of hallmarking by an entity not the maker was that it guaranteed the purity of the precious metal by a third-party, the item did not have to be re-assayed at any later time. It thus aided in preventing fraud (of less pure metal being sold for higher purity).

The importance for marking metalwork was so strong that guilds of goldsmiths (and similar trade associations in modern time) have supported this practice for 700 years. It is obvious that one cannot ascertain the purity of any silver or gold item by mere inspection, it must be tested for the precious metal content (assaying).

What the Goldsmith's Company of London (later the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths) did was to create a marking system that was instantly recognizable and supported its guarantee. At first it was a warden of the Goldsmith's Company who had custody of the punches and only he was allowed to do the stamping. Goldsmiths, silversmiths – the original makers – would send their finished product, fully made lacking only the final polishing.

Unlike other marks (mintmarks, maker marks, signatures) it was not originally intended to identify who or where the item was made, but only to attest to the metal purity. These marks were introduced later as part of the hallmarking and a long heritage in the use of hallmarks became standard for British silver and gold items, their acceptance around the world with other cities and countries adopting similar hallmarking. It also led to applying symbols to other metalware, as pewter (where the marks were called touches) or Sheffield plate, and even to ceramics, furniture and tapestry.

Hallmarking numismatic items. British coins generally were not hallmarked, neither were the coins of most countries. The authority of the sovereign or the national integrity was a satisfactory guarantee enough of the precious metal content of the coins. Other nations however – Union of South Africa most notably – did hallmark their silver and gold coins. With so much precious metal produced in that country they insisted the fineness of their coins be absolute and they attested to it by hallmarking. Medallic items produced in England in gold and some in silver were indeed hallmarked. British decorations, badges, Masonic jewels, fraternal medals.

History of hallmarking. The first hallmarking was done in the year 1300, the attesting and marking was done by the Goldsmith's Company of London, and the practice has continued to the present time in the British Empire and copied in different forms in other cities and countries. The testing was done at the Goldsmith's Hall (thus, the source of the term, hallmark). A tiny bit of silver or gold was scraped off and assayed. If it met the standard the stamp was applied. If it was not the item was broken. Thus it was greatly to the advantage of the makers to maintain – or exceed – the purity of the metal.

Punch identification.  Some marks were used for a long time, others, as date mark, for only a year's time. The lion passant was the mark for silverplate and used after 1850.


              Types of Hallmark Punch Marks              


  Maker's mark.  Letters, symbol(s) or logo of the firm that manufactured the silver or gold item.            


  Lion passant or Sterling mark.  The mark of authority of the Goldsmith's Hall in use since 1544.             


  King's mark or Crowned leopard's head.  Indicating the royal grant. The Leopard’s head alone without was the crown was the mark of the Tower Mint.                                          


  Date letter, Year letter or Year mark.  A letter for each year progressing through the alphabet (omitting J) from A through U in 20 year cycles; each cycle in a different typeface and with a different background shape. One of the most useful marks, since it can identify the year of manufacture (even though the year starts March 30th). These marks were in use from 1500 to present.                                 


  Sovereign's head.  A tiny profile of the current monarch.                                              



                   Special Hallmark Marks                 


  Britannia mark.  In use only for short period, 23 years, 1697 to 1720 as lion's head erased; hence a rare mark.                                          


  Drawback mark.  Intended for export incuse mark of Britannia to indicate repayment of duty; in use for very short time first 6 months of 1785. Very rare.   


  Coronation mark.  Issued during or for coronation. Highly collectable.                                   


  World's Fair mark.  Issued during a world's fair. Highly collectable.                                   


  Millennium mark. Issued only in 1999 and 2000 with figures 2000 in arms of a cross.


  Tally mark. A personal mark of an individual maker in a large shop. It was called “tally” so he could be credited for payment.

  Duty mark.  Separate mark (current monarch’s head) indicating tax on the item has been paid (1785-1890).

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


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