Alongside many new challenges connected to abuse of the internet, unsafe counterfeit alcohol, dangerous appliances and other 21st Century hazards, Trading Standards are still charged with enforcing the oldest form of consumer protection, the Hallmarking of precious metals. Although this may not be an overtly priority area, the opportunities for fraud and criminal activity are high and many hallmarking investigations reveal significant consumer detriment. Upholding the long-established rigorous UK hallmarking regime is an important responsibility for Trading Standards.
To emphasise the importance of protecting this regime, the prestigious Touchstone Award, funded by the four Assay Offices through the British Hallmarking Council, rewards Trading Standards teams who have delivered effective initiatives relating to either the enforcement or awareness of hallmarking. There is robust, long-established legislation in place but without understanding and proactive inspections, it will not support the consumer and the trade adequately.
The importance of hallmarking has increased in the past decade, driven by high precious metal prices which have increased the potential for profitable fraud. It has also become more challenging due to ever growing internet sales. The UK has the most rigorous hallmarking system in the world but the ready availability of fine jewellery from online sellers worldwide makes enforcement challenging. Consumer awareness and proper understanding of hallmarks is very low and education is complicated by many long-standing misinterpretations of what a hallmark means.
Applications submitted for the Touchstone Award 2018 addressed these issues, detailing a wide range of significant activity relating to hallmarking. The assessment panel faced a difficult challenge in identifying one winner from amongst some very worthy entrants. After much discussion, the City of Wolverhampton Council were declared winner whilst both Merthyr Tydfil and Shared Regulatory Services, a regional collaboration between local government authorities in Bridgend, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, were Highly Commended. The three winning entries were very different.
Recognising the lack of understanding or even awareness of hallmarking legislation and other consumer rights legislation in their City, Wolverhampton, undertook a significant education programme. They recognised that proactive investment in both consumer and trade education is extremely worthwhile, encouraging people to check for hallmarks and challenge descriptions both online and offline. If the consumer and retail jeweller understands the legislation and knows the questions to ask and the marks to look for then they are supporting the enforcement of this vital piece of trade consumer protection, reducing the long-term burden on Trading Standards.
The City of Wolverhampton Council planned a well-structured programme. Their diverse population includes some “often overlooked communities” where English is not the first language and jewellery is an important part of the culture. The potential for vulnerable people to be cheated is significant.
Wolverhampton’s objectives were therefore not only to educate all jewellers in the area about their legal responsibilities but also to teach the public about hallmarking, counterfeit goods, their consumer rights and how Trading Standards could help them. Trading Standards engaged with every jeweller in their city, providing them with comprehensive information, particularly emphasising the benefits of hallmarking and how that reassurance could add to their reputation.
Acknowledging their diverse community and recognising some of the most vulnerable, multilingual officers took their message away from the jewellers’ shops, to places of worship, a focal point for many such communities, with a clear logical link between weddings and fine jewellery.
Leaflets and posters written in English, Guajarati, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi were distributed and the campaign included children’s activity packs to engage the whole family. This intense education programme has increased awareness through all sectors, both trade and consumer, and forms the basis for a future intelligence and enforcement project to keep hallmarking in the spotlight.
Merthyr Tydfil’s Highly Commended application tackled the important issue of fraudulent internet selling. While this issue is endemic for major brands who invest heavily in policing the internet to protect their brand, it is an even bigger problem for the fine jewellery and silverware industry. Although there are now leading brands such as Pandora and Tiffany who are inevitable victims of counterfeiting and have the wherewithal to fight this, there are hundreds more small manufacturers and designers whose names are unknown to the public. These small businesses are having to compete with international vendors purporting to be selling a similar product which may, in fact, contain significantly less precious metal and be falsely described as Sterling Silver or 18ct Gold and be sold at very low prices to unwitting consumers. The “level playing field” which hallmarking creates for the trade is being irreparably undermined.
Recognising the detriment this is causing to both consumers and the trade supply chain from manufacturer to retailer, Trading Standards Manager Paul Lewis monitored suspected illicit traders, selling on Facebook, eBay and Gumtree. The application reported a successful outcome, one case delivered 363 seized articles in breach of the Hallmarking Act, Trade Marks Act and the REACH provisions for restricted substances. The consequential £2,000 fine and destruction of 176 items of jewellery sent out a clear message to fellow fraudsters.
The application from Shared Regulatory Services of Bridgend, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan who were also Highly Commended addressed another ongoing problem, targeting Christmas Fayres as well as businesses previously found to be non-compliant. Their activity resulted in 77 items being removed from sale, and ten verbal warnings.
This year’s wide range of applications demonstrate only too clearly the importance of enforcement of hallmarking. This is further evidenced by a new collaboration between The British Hallmarking Council (BHC) and the National Association of Jewellers (NAJ) The NAJ is the industry’s key trade association with over 2,000 members and a strong education programme. The BHC are delighted to announce that the NAJ is now an official partner in supporting the Touchstone Award 2019, spreading awareness of Trading Standards activities throughout the trade. Applications for 2019 are now open and all those engaging in hallmarking education or enforcement campaigns are encouraged to apply.
Visit https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/british-hallmarking-council for more information. Applications close 26 April 2019.
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