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Explaining Terms and Definitions
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Throughout history, precious metals were expensive and fraud was not uncommon for an unethical and illegal way to quick riches. Sell a cheap and similar looking metal while charging prices for the real thing. Possibly the most famous story originates from Ancient Greek when famous philosopher and scientist Archimedes was approached by king Hiero II. of Syracuse. The king commissioned a crown but was suspicious as to whether the goldsmith used all the gold he received for the crown or kept some for himself. Although this story is most likely a myth – at least in the form in which Archimedes uncovered the fraud by measuring the displacement of water – it illustrates the importance of trust in the authenticity of an item made from precious metal.
Later in history, countries began to introduce standards and define when an item can be called to be made of Silver or Gold. Since most of the time articles of precious metals are alloyed to increase their durability and change their characteristics, it became important to set minimum standards for the content of the precious metal used. For example, Sterling Silver must have a minimum of 92.5% of silver in the alloy and 18ct gold must contain a minimum of 75% of gold. Failing these standards an article can not be classified as "Sterling Silver" or "18ct gold". In such a case, the piece in question may be downgraded to the next available standard: A sample that fails the minimum gold content necessary for being marked as 18ct gold can be called 14ct gold instead, if it passes this lower standard. When the item in question fails even the lowest recognised standard, it can no longer be classified as silver, gold, platinum, etc.
In order to protect consumers and investors, many countries require that all articles made of precious metals must be hallmarked above a minimum threshold. Hallmarking standards, requirements and the minimum weight differ from one country to the next. For the UK, the following table gives the minimum weight for which articles must be hallmarked – any item weighing less are exempt and do not need to carry a hallmark. E.g. a pair of gold earrings that weigh 3 grams must be hallmarked to be legally sold; a tiny gold pendant with a weight of 0.8g is exempt and can be sold without carrying an official hallmark.
How to read a hallmark?
A hallmark consists of three compulsory marks and may contain other optional marks. The compulsory marks are:
- Sponsor's Mark
- Fineness Mark
- Assay Office Mark
Optional marks consist of:
- Traditional Fineness Symbols
- Date Letter
- International Convention Marks
The sponsor's mark tells you which company manufactures or sponsors the mark of the article. The mark consists of a symbol and either two or three letters. It is unique to each Assay Office.
The fineness mark tells you what metal the item is made of together with its purity, i.e. the minimum metal content. Each metal type has its own shape in which a number is written. This number states the parts of precious metal per one thousand, e.g.: 925 Silver stands for 925 parts of silver content and 75 parts of other metals. In other words 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals.
The Assay Office Mark tells you which Assay Office tested and hallmarked the item. Currently, there are four Assay Offices in the UK.
Traditionally, the metal type and fineness was marked by a special symbol but these marks have been superseded by the above fineness marks and are now only optional.
You may find a letter in a chamfered square which tells you the year the item was hallmarked. 'q' is the letter assigned for the year 2015, 'r' for 2016 and so on, until the letters will run out in the year 2024.
Finally, there may also be an International Convention Mark present. Items that carry the convention mark can be legally sold in the member countries (see below for further information). The fineness marks look different from the UK marks and the metal is again identified by the shape of the mark with the number representing the parts per thousand.
It is illegal in the UK to sell or describe any item as Silver, Gold, Platinum or Palladium unless it is hallmarked! (or below the exemption weight).
If you are in doubt regarding hallmarking, please contact your local Trading Standards Authority.
You can find a summary of the above inclusive the different discussed marks in the Dealer's Notice.
Europe had differing hallmarking laws amongst its countries and this caused trade barriers. To solve the issue, seven European countries decided to establish a common base and simplify trade in precious metals in 1972. Austria, Finland, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom signed the treaty in 1975 and became members of the Convention on the Control and Marking of Articles of Precious Metals, often just referred to as the Hallmarking Convention or the Vienna Convention. It lead to the use of a Common Control Mark and adherence to strict minimum standards. For example, Sterling Silver must have a minimum of 92.5% of silver content to be called as such.
The project is a success and at present the Hallmarking Convention has 21 members, with Israel being the first non-European country to join. Other countries are following the development of the Hallmarking Convention.
Current members as of 2016 are: Austria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Countries that are not members of the Hallmark Convention may still accept UK hallmarks from certain Assay Offices. UK national marks are accepted in the following non-convention countries: France and Italy. Marks of the Edinburgh Assay Office are also accepted in Spain.
There are also countries like Germany and Belgium which have no mandatory requirement for a hallmark.