The first UK Assay Office was Goldsmiths' Hall, founded around 1300, and where the term "hallmarking" originates. Since then, there have been ten Assay Offices in the UK.
There are four Assay Offices operating in the UK today.
Current Irish Assay Office
Assay Office Birmingham was established by Act of Parliament and was opened in 1773. Its Mark is an Anchor, which can be combined with a Sponsor’s Mark, a Fineness Mark, a Traditional Mark (e.g. Lion Passant), a Date Letter, and a Duty Mark.
During the 20th Century, the Anchor was placed on its side for gold and for platinum from 1975, and upright for silver. Earlier practice could vary. From 1999 it is on its side for all metals.
Antique silver made in Birmingham included all forms of domestic plate and “toys” i.e. vinaigrettes, snuff boxes, buckles, gun furniture and card cases.
The Anchor is the symbol of The Birmingham Assay Office. When you see the Anchor on any item made from a precious metal, you know it has been tested at the world’s largest assay office.
Today Birmingham is one of the busiest Assay Offices in the world and, as a not-for-profit organisation has been a centre of expert opinion and independent assessment of jewellery and precious metals for nearly 250 years. The organisation takes pride in its high level of service and the use of the latest technology by all its commercial divisions, from Hallmarking, Diamond and Gemstone Certification, Jewellery, Watch and Silverware Valuations through to precious and non precious metal testing, product safety and quality assurance testing as well as educational training and consultancy.
The Assay Office London is a key part of the Goldsmiths’ Company, one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the City of London. It was founded to regulate the trade of the goldsmith, and was responsible since 1327 for testing the quality of gold, silver, and latterly platinum and palladium articles. The word 'hallmark' originates from the fifteenth century when London craftsmen were first required to bring their artefacts to Goldsmiths' Hall for assaying and marking.
Originally, articles received the King’s mark of authentication which was the mark of a leopard’s head. In 1544 the Goldsmith’s Company adopted the King’s mark as their town mark and the leopard’s head is now recognised as the mark of the Assay Office London.
The Assay Office London continues today to offer a comprehensive range of hallmarking services to assist the trade using its expertise that has been developed over hundreds of years.
Sheffield has been the centre of the steel industry in Britain since the 18th Century, and the establishment of the cutlery industry was a natural progression. Existing alongside was a small but flourishing silversmithing trade and it was here in the mid-18th Century that Thomas Bolsover discovered the technique of fuse plating, later known as Sheffield Plate. The vast majority of Sheffield marked flatware dates from the late 19th century onwards, and is a result of mass production in conjunction with the cutlery trade.
The Sheffield Assay Office was established by Act of Parliament and was opened in 1773. Originally, only silver produced within twenty miles of Sheffield could be marked at the office. From 1784, Sheffield was empowered to keep a register of all makers marks within one hundred miles.
Until 1974, the mark of origin on silver was the Crown. The date letters began in 1773 with the letter E, and were varied irregularly each year until 1824, after which date they were arranged in alphabetical order.
In 1974, Sheffield's mark was changed to the Yorkshire Rose, and it became the last office to standardise its date letters.
Edinburgh Assay Office has been testing precious metals and hallmarking them since 1457 when The Incorporation of Goldsmiths of the City of Edinburgh was established.
The town mark of Edinburgh is a three towered castle. This mark was seen with a maker’s mark and the deacon’s mark up until 1681 when an assay master was appointed and a date letter system was also introduced.
Since 1759 until 1974 Scottish silver, like gold bears a thistle mark. On 1 January 1975 the thistle was replaced by a rampant lion.
Between 1819 and 1964 a second assay office also operated in Glasgow,
Today the Assay Office Scotland - as Edinburgh is known has been totally refurbished and although proud of its long and distinguished history and heritage, remains committed to a process of continuous improvement.
Dublin - The Dublin Assay Office was established in 1637 to supervise the assaying of all gold and silver throughout the whole of Ireland. Originally, hallmarks consisted of the goldsmiths' proper mark which was the maker's mark originally used to identify the silversmith or goldsmith responsible for making the article. The fineness mark, the harp crown was applied to 22 carat gold and sterling silver along with the date letter. In 1773 the figure of Hibernia was added.
Items have been manufactured, assayed and sold in Chester since the 15th Century and the mark for Chester is a shield bearing the town’s arms, a sword and three sheaves of wheat. Chester was granted an official Assay Office by an Act of Parliament in 1700. Its marks were similar to those of London hallmarked silver and the sequence of date letters followed in alphabetical order. The Chester assay office closed down in 1962.
Assay marks for Exeter date back to the middle of the 16th Century, with the mark of origin in the form of a letter X in a round shield surmounted by a Crown. The assay office officially opened in 1701 when a date letter system was initiated. The town mark (a castle with three turrets) looks very similar to that of Edinburgh, but can be differentiated by the existence of the Britannia Mark and the Lion’s Head erased. After 1721 this changed to the Leopard’s Head and the Lion Passant in square shields. The Exeter Assay office closed down in 1883.
The Glasgow Assay Office was established in 1819. A date letter was used on wrought silver from 1681 to 1710 then discontinued until 1819. During this time the letters "S" (sometimes reversed), "E","F" and "O" were used. The date letter, which followed a 26 year cycle, was changed annually in July. Items were produced in Glasgow since the 17th Century and marked in a similar manner to those in other Scottish Provincial towns. The town mark is a tree, a fish and a bell. The Assay Office closed in 1964.
Newcastle had a long established silver-smithing tradition, with items attributed from the 17th Century. It was granted an official Assay Office by an Act of Parliament in 1700 when its official date lettering system commenced. The Newcastle town mark was three castles, two on top and one below. From 1720 an additional mark, the leopard’s head crowned, was added. The assay office closed down in 1884.
Assay Marks for Norwich go back to the middle of the 16th Century. The mark of origin was a Castle surmounting a Lion Passant used with a date letter and a maker’s mark. In the first quarter of the 17th Century a Seeded Rose Crowned was added as a further Town mark. During the last half of the Century this was changed to a Rose with a stem. The Norwich assay office closed in 1702.
Assaying was inexistence in York from the middle of the 16th Century when the town mark was half fleur-de-lys and half leopard head. This was used with a sequence of date letters and makers marks. Towards the end of the 17th Century the half Leopard’s Head was replaced with a Half Seeded Rose.
The first assay office was closed down in 1700, only to be re-opened by Act of Parliament in 1701. The assay office had a new symbol, of a St. George’s cross charged with five lions passant, however the office closed down again in 1714.
The York Assay Office re-opened for a final time in 1778. The St. George’s cross charged with five lions passant mark was revived, this mark together with the lion passant, leopard’s head, date letter, markers’ mark and from 1784 the duty mark leads to a very crowded item with a possible six marks. The York assay office closed down completely in 1858.
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