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B A S I C  
 
 
 
I D E N T I F I C A T I O N
©

by Christie Romero

Portions excerpted from Warman's Jewelry, 2nd edition
 by Christie Romero, Krause Publications, 1998

Identifying and authenticating antique and period jewelry is based on experience and knowledge. It is often a process of comparing known with unknown and making an educated guess. But those of us who search for clues to a piece's age and origin are always delighted to find a hallmark on a jewel, because it eliminates a great deal of guesswork. Learning how to identify hallmarks is an essential part of becoming an expert in the field.

There is a common misunderstanding about what a hallmark really is. Many people confuse hallmarks with makers' marks. A hallmark is nothing more than an indication of metal content, a guarantee of purity or quality, which may include a maker’s mark and other marks. Makers' marks alone are not considered hallmarks. Hallmarks are most often found on precious metal objects. Jewelry is exempted from hallmarking under certain circumstances. However, when a piece of jewelry is hallmarked, the marks can yield clues to country of origin and, sometimes, date of manufacture, as well as indicate the metal content of the piece.

        

                          800 silver mark                  813H silver mark                         925S silver mark                                                           
The word hallmark is derived from London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, the originator of Britain’s first hallmarks, which still maintains a record of all British hallmarks. The most accurate definition of a hallmark is the mark or marks stamped, impressed, or struck on gold, silver, or platinum which indicate fineness or karat (also called quality or purity marks). Depending on country of origin, hallmarks can also include symbols for place of assay, date of assay (in the form of a letter or a letter and a number), maker’s mark, importation or exportation mark if applicable, and tax or duty mark.

                      935 silver mark                         980 silver mark                         Sterling mark
                                                                                           
Hallmarks have been in use in England and France since the 14th century. Most other European countries also use hallmarks. The United States has never used hallmarks per se. Indications of fineness or karat have been required since 1906, but fineness marks were sometimes stamped on silver jewelry in the 19th century (“coin” or “standard” for 900 silver, “sterling” for 925). 
Every country has a different system of hallmarking, ranging from simple to complex. The most commonly found marks will be discussed here. Others can be found in Tardy’s International Hallmarks on Silver and Poinçons d’Or et de Platine (hallmarks on gold and platinum, French text). 
 

FRENCH HALLMARKS

The French have what is undoubtedly the most complex system of hallmarks in the world, and the most difficult to read. If you can learn to recognize the French marks for gold, silver and platinum, you will have done well. The difficulty lies in the fact that the French never use numbers. Symbols in the form of animals and heads of animals and people, insects, and birds have been used to indicate fineness, place of manufacture, imports and exports. These have changed over the centuries. Tardy’s Hallmarks on Silver, in English, can help decipher most of these marks, and help with understanding the book on gold and platinum marks, which has not been translated from the French.  

 
The most easily recognized and commonly seen French mark is the eagle’s head, in use since 1838, indicating 18 karat gold. Assayed French gold is never lower than 18k. The mark can be found on jewelry in any number of places. Look for it on clasps, side edges, galleries, and pin stems as well as on the back surface of a piece.  

On French silver jewelry, the most often-seen mark is the boar’s head, the mark of the Paris Assay Office, indicating a fineness of 800 or higher on small articles (such as jewelry). This mark was in use from 1838 to 1961. Outside of Paris, the crab mark was used from 1838 to 1961, and since 1962, has also been used by the Paris Assay Office.



French boar's head mark for (at least) 800 silver, taken with a 60x photo microscope

After 1838, a maker’s mark in a lozenge (diamond shape with four equal sides) was also required on French gold, silver and platinum. According to Tardy, the lozenge shape itself was introduced in 1797, but it is not clear if there were any regulations about its use at that time.
From 1829, items made of both gold and silver were stamped with a conjoined boar’s and eagle’s head.



 Christian LaCroix maker's marks in a lozenge-shaped reserve, designer mark "LaCroix", additional obscured mark to the left of "LaCroix" and 18k 'eagle's head' French hallmark (double stamped)

Christian LaCroix 18k bracelet

Platinum was not officially recognized by the French government as a precious metal until 1910, at which time the eagle’s head for gold was also used for platinum. In 1912, a special mark for platinum was introduced, a dog’s head. Before 1910, French platinum jewelry may have a maker's mark, but it was not hallmarked.

 

Polish marks for 800 silver
(used after 1963)

 

OTHER EUROPEAN HALLMARKS

Many European countries mark silver and gold with numerical fineness marks in thousandths, e.g., 800, 830, 900, 935, etc. for silver, 333, 500, 585, 750, 875, etc. for gold. Other symbols may be used in combination with these numbers.  



Hungarian 'dog's head' mark for 800 silver taken with a 60x photo microscope

Austro-Hungarian items may bear the head of a woman, animal, or bird with a number inside a cartouche or reserve. The most commonly-seen mark on silver and silver-gilt jewelry is the dog’s head with the number 3 inside a coffin-shaped reserve, indicating 800 silver, in use 1866-1937.

 

Russian gold mark, 21k, taken with a 60x photo microscope

In Russia, two-digit numbers refer to zolotniks, which convert to thousandths, e.g., 56 = 583 (14k), 84 = 875 silver (or 21k gold), . Between 1896 and 1908, the national mark was the left profile of a woman’s head wearing a diadem (“kokoshnik”). From 1908 to 1917, a right-facing profile was used. After the Russian Revolution, the mark was a right-facing worker’s profile with a hammer, and the fineness in thousandths.

Russian hammer & sickle in star mark and 875 silver mark (used after 1958) 

Russian abstract 875 silver brooch

Swedish hallmarks after 1912 include a triple crown mark, in a trefoil for local manufacture, and in an oval for imports, along with an S in a hexagon for silver indicating 830 or higher. Gold will bear a karat mark in a rectangle. There will also be a date letter and number, a city mark and a maker’s mark.  

Swedish hallmarks:  (left to right) "G D & Co." (for Gustav Dahlgren & Co.), "M" (city mark for Malmo), Swedish triple crown stamp, "S" (in hexagon indicating 830 silver or higher), "U8" (for 1946)

1953 Swedish brooch
Swedish hallmarks: ( left to right) Stockholm city mark, "C9" (for 1953), Swedish triple crown stamp, "S" (in hexagon indicating 830 silver or higher) 

Pop-art design with marks as decorative motif, including the maker's mark "OJN", designer script signature for Owe Johansson, city mark for Stockholm, national control hallmarks for 925 silver, "Handmade in Sweden", and date mark for 1972.  (All in a box with explanation of the significance of the various marks).

 

Finnish hallmarks are similar to Swedish. A crown inside a heart indicates local manufacture, a crown in an oval for imports. Place of assay, maker’s mark and date letter/number may be added.

Finnish hallmarks: ( left to right) back to back "K's" for Kalevala Koru (mfr.), Finnish crown stamp, "918H", boat stamp for Helsinki, "M7" 
 (for 1965)

Finnish silver brooch with hallmarks: (left to right) "I. SAHA" (maker's mark), Finnish crown stamp, "813H", city mark (Vaasa?), "X4"  (for 1903)

 BRITISH HALLMARKS

The British system of hallmarking is somewhat complex, but relatively easy to follow once the system is deciphered. British hallmarks include a fineness or purity mark, an assay office mark, a date letter, and usually but not always, a maker’s mark. A royal duty mark was added from 1784 to 1890 (not always found on jewelry of this period). The sequence of marks on a piece is arbitrary.  

 

Fineness or purity marks:

On gold, a crown plus the karat (spelled with a “c” in Britain, abbreviated “c” or “ct”) was used from 1798 until 1975 (22 ct was marked the same as sterling silver until 1844). In Scotland, a thistle was used instead of the crown. From 1798 to 1854, only gold assayed at 18 and 22 ct was permissible and hallmarked. In 1854, 15, 12, and 9 ct were legalized. The fineness in thousandths was added to these karat marks from 1854 to 1932.

 
In 1932, 15 and 12 ct were abandoned in favor of 14 ct, which was also marked 585. 9 ct continued to be legal, also marked 375. In 1975, all gold marks were standardized, and the crown mark and the fineness in thousandths became the only marks to be used in addition to place of assay and date letter.  
On English silver, the lion passant (walking lion) is the symbol for sterling silver (925). Scottish silver before 1975, like gold, bears a thistle mark. A higher silver standard, Britannia silver (958.4) was required to be used for a short period at the end of the 17th century, bearing the figure of Britannia instead of the lion. Britannia silver is still legal, but has been seldom used since the reinstatement of the sterling standard in 1720. The lion passant was retained in the Hallmarking Act of 1975, but the Scottish thistle was changed to a rampant lion.

 

British sterling hallmarks:  (left to right)
anchor ( city mark for Birmingham), lion passant (for 925 sterling), "a" (indicating the year 1900)

Place of assay marks:

Assay offices have been located in a number of British cities. The ones still in operation today are in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Most jewelry will bear a London, Birmingham, or Chester place of assay mark (the Chester assay office closed in 1962). The mark for London is referred to as a leopard’s head (crowned before 1821). The mark for Birmingham is an anchor. Most hallmarks books indicate an upright anchor for silver and a sideways anchor for gold, but this was not strictly adhered to. The mark for Chester is a shield bearing the town’s arms, a sword and three sheaves of wheat.  

Scottish hallmarks for Norman Grant: 'NG" (maker's mark), thistle hallmark for Scotland sterling silver, city mark for Edinburgh, and date mark for 1973-74

Globular organic modern ring by Ian and Wilma Massie with maker's mark, thistle hallmark for Scotland sterling silver; city mark for Edinburgh, and date mark for 1970.

Date letters:

Each place of assay has its own cycles of hallmarks which include a letter of the alphabet for each year, beginning with the letter A, and continuing through to Z (sometimes the letter j is omitted, and some cycles end with a letter before Z). The style of the letter and the shape of the reserve or shield background changes with each cycle. A letter can be upper or lower case and of differing type faces, in order to distinguish it from the same letter in an earlier or later cycle.  

It is not necessary to memorize these letters. Pocket-sized editions of British hallmarks books make it possible to look up the date letter found on a piece “in the field.” All that is necessary is to determine the place of assay from its mark and look up the date letter in the tables given for that city. It is important to remember to match the style of letter and shape of its surrounding shield or reserve. Occasionally there will be a discrepancy between what is in the books and the mark on the piece, in which case the style of the letter takes precedence over the shape of the shield. With practice, and book in hand, you can learn to read British hallmarks quickly and easily.

Because of the association of British sterling with quality, some American manufacturers emulated the British, making sterling objects and jewelry long before the United States government nationalized the sterling standard in 1906. Not only were British styles and metal quality imitated; some American maker’s marks bear a striking resemblance to British hallmarks. The most well-known of these is the mark of Gorham Manufacturing Co., featuring a walking lion, an anchor and an Old English style capital G, looking very much like a Birmingham hallmark for 1830. Most American maker’s marks can be found in Dorothy Rainwater’s American Jewelry Manufacturers.  

Gorham hallmarks including "J.E. CALDWELL & CO.' (retailer); walking lion, anchor mark, Old English "G", 'STERLING" and production number

Gorham sterling choker

Early Mexican Eagle stamp

After World War II, with the rising popularity of silver jewelry and objects made in Taxco, Mexico, the Mexican government issued an assay mark guaranteeing the fineness to be 925 or higher. This mark is referred to as the “spread eagle” mark. The original mark did look like an eagle, but with modifications over the years, the mark was simplified. The number inside the mark is a workshop or city designation. In 1979, this mark was abandoned in favor of a series of registry letters and numbers assigned to individuals and workshops. Today, Mexican silver has regained its popularity, with a commensurate rise in value of period pieces by the most sought-after makers and designers.

 

 Mexican hallmarks from a piece by Villasana (c. 1950s-60s) including "MEXICO, TAXCO", Eagle mark with "3", "VILLASANA, 925"

In a world increasingly filled with fakes and reproductions, a little knowledge of hallmarks can go a long way in helping dealers and collectors feel more confident about what they are buying.  

Christie Romero is the director of the Center for Jewelry Studies, www.center4jewelrystudies.org and the author of Warman's Jewelry

Visit London's Goldsmiths' Hall  web site at  http://www.thegoldsmiths.co.uk

MARKS REFERENCES

Bly, John, Miller’s Silver & Sheffiield Plate Marks (English, Continental European, and American), Reed International Books, Ltd, 1993

Divis, Jan, Guide to Gold Marks of the World and Guide to Silver Marks of the World, English translation reprints, Promotional Reprint Co. Ltd, 1994>

Pickford, Ian, ed. Jackson’s Hallmarks, pocket edition (English, Scottish, Irish silver and gold marks), Antique Collectors’ Club, 1991

Pickford, Ian, ed. Jackson’s Silver and Gold Marks of England, Scotland and Ireland, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1989

Rainwater, Dorothy, American Jewelry Manufacturers, Schiffer Publishing, 1988

Tardy, International Hallmarks on Silver, Tardy, Paris, 1993

Tardy, Poinçons d’Or et de Platine (French text), Tardy, Paris, 1988

Wyler, Seymour B., The Book of Old Silver (English, European, American), Crown Publishers, 1937 (still in print)

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Article by Christie Romero
http://www.center4jewelrystudies.org
Photographs courtesy of  Christie Romero, Patrick Kapty, and Marbeth Schon
 Web design by Marbeth Schon 
www.mschon.com

 Copyright © 2001 Modern Silver Magazine

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