Have you ever wondered what the hallmark on silver jewellery means? Why some silver jewellery is described as 'sterling silver' and some as just 'silver'? Or even why some silver jewellery doesn't have a hallmark?
To understand the hallmarking system and the use of the word of the 'sterling', you first need to understand 'the science bit', as they say in the adverts! If silver jewellery were made of pure silver, it wouldn't last long, since silver, like other precious metals, is simply too soft. It has to be alloyed, or mixed, with other metals such as copper, which make it harder and more durable, whilst still keeping its malleability and beauty.
Back in the 13thCentury, unscrupulous silversmiths were keen to pass off items made with very little silver – and a lot of copper – as high quality silver jewellery, so a Statute of Edward 1, issued in 1300, instituted the tradition of hallmarking. This ensured that pieces of silver jewellery or silverware could be tested to check the content of pure silver against the content of the other alloy metals. In many ways, the Hallmarking Act was the very first piece of legislation designed to protect the consumer in England.
The content of the metal was, and still is, measured in parts per thousand, and silver jewellery containing 925 parts silver per thousand parts total is described as 'Sterling Silver' and recognized as of the highest quality. The figure 925 is clearly shown on any piece of hallmarked sterling silver, and will always be shown surrounded by an oval shape, denoting the fineness of silver.
How can they tell, you may well ask. Again, the answer needs a little science! Tiny amounts of the item to be tested are scraped off, carefully weighed and then dissolved in nitric acid. Potassium chloride is added until all the silver has re-solidified as silver chloride. By accurately measuring the amount of potassium chloride needed, the testers can deduce exactly how much silver is present in the original sample.
But the silver content is not the only mark you'll find on modern silver jewellery. Two other marks comprise the hallmark. The first, the sponsor's (or maker's) mark, indicates the company responsible for sending the piece to be tested and hallmarked. The other shows which of the four British Assay offices issued the hallmark; London, Edinburgh, Birmingham or Sheffield.
But that's not all. Some silver jewellery may have another letter stamped onto it, to denote the year in which it was hallmarked. Since 1998 this is no longer compulsory, although it does sometimes still appear. In addition, an extra mark can be used to commemorate a special year, such as the year 2000 or the Queen's Jubilee.
Although traditionally all silver jewellery has been stamped with the hallmark, using a traditional 'punch' style stamp, increasingly, jewellery is being hallmarked by laser. This occurs when the item is particularly fine, or hollow, as there's no distortion of the item being marked. Laser marking is also ideal for imported jewellery which has already been finished, so can't be repolished after the Assay Office has stamped its verdict!
The hallmarking of silver jewellery is commonplace throughout the world, and although some major countries – such as the US – don't have a compulsory system, many European countries, including the UK, follow procedures laid out in by the Vienna Convention, with easily comparable hallmarks.
Confusingly, this regulation also indicates there are certain instances where silver jewellery doesn’t need to be hallmarked. For items where the amount of metal in the piece weighs under 7.78 grams (i.e excluding stones or non-metal materials), no hallmark is needed; and in a pair of silver earrings, for example, each earring is identified as an individual piece.
So next time you buy a piece of jewellery, pick up a magnifying glass and see if you can find your little bit of jewellery history. And if you can't, it can still be silver; you're probably just lucky enough to have a large gemstone stealing all the attention!