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[TIDBITS] The How and Why of Hallmarks

The How and Why of Hallmarks
Hallmarks on gold and silver is more ancient that most suppose.
It’s beginnings are not only fascinating, but also a bit cutsie.

It’s the fourteenth century. Many towns throughout Europe are
producing gold and silver candlesticks and cups and even toilet
sets of silver combs and brushes and mirrors and so on. Back
then, each town would have it’s own mark which would be placed
onto the item in question…thereby identifying it’s source.
Alas…the wily crook…inept in his craft…producing lower
grade merchandise…lower grade and often under-karated…would
emboss his item with the hallmark of a town whose gold and
silversmiths were held in high repute. Can you believe anyone
would do such a thing?

Ah…but for every scheme there’s an anti-scheme. In 1427 a chap
named Montpellier institutes an alphabetical dating system. Not
only did the town guilds have to stamp their identifying logos,
but they now had to date their merchandise. This was not so much
to identify the period in which a piece was made, but rather to
pinpoint which assay master was holding office at the time. So
…if a piece coming out of an area was substandard…blame
could be placed. The need to place blame is clearly universal…
it is a human condition over which we have no control. The
initials that were added after the date…was the maker’s mark,
which helped narrow down even more poor quality goods.

By the 1500’s hallmarking became law…enabling the government
to not only focus on who was doing unscrupulous what to which
piece, but to also know who to tax a bit more than they had been
taxed before. Ah yes…the wondrousness of identification.

However, the guilds which were responsible for assaying and
marking and destroying substandard wares, were finally dissolved.
And the state took over. They–the state–would have more
control. And if they had to tax a bit more again in order to run
the show… well…there it was.

Today, one of the more interesting aspects of hallmarking is
that London marks of the present are practically unchanged from
what they were in the fifteenth century. However, the items
produced back then were magnificent…and I do not believe they
can be produced today for economic reasons. And of course, today,
as a tangential benefit, hallmarks of yesteryear help identify
the legitimacy of wares of old.

Now then…would any of you like to see a piece dating back to
them thar days? Hmmm. Let’s have a show of hands folks.
Okay…you know where to look. Home page. Down to Tidbits in
table menu. Select graphics.

Ummm…last little kicker folks…and only in this E-mail
version for obvious reasons. Graphic won’t be up till late
Saturday. It’s midnight and my coach is turning orange. And the
horses are becoming mice.

And there ya have it.
That’s it for this week folks.
Catch you all next week.

Take care,
Benjamin Mark

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