English silver has been subject to the rigours of hallmarking as far back as 1300 when the leopard’s head was introduced, the King’s Mark, to show that the silver was of the required legal standard. This mark was to be followed 63 years later by the goldsmith’s mark, which, at this time, was a symbol generally of the maker’s name.
At the end of the 17th century, initials and letters were used. Thus, two marks appeared on all sterling silver, today. In 1470, a date letter mark was introduced, a 20 letter cycle was adopted omitting J and ending at U. Each new cycle of letter changed the form of the letter or its shield or both. The date letter was changed each year on May 19, St. Dunstan’s Day, the patron Saint of Goldsmiths.
Although there is no official record to account for the addition of the fourth mark in 1544, it is thought to have resulted from the debasement of the currency, which begun in 1542 by Henry VIII and the fact that the public wanted reassurance of the standard of silver used. The mark took the form of a “lion passant guardant”, a heraldic term meaning “passing and looking at”, which is exactly what it looks like!
Between 1697 and 1720, the standard of silver was raised from sterling that is 925 parts per 1000 to 958 parts per 1000. This was because of the scarcity of wrought silver as large quantities had been melted down or confiscated by the Royalists and Parliamentarians during the Civil War. Goldsmiths resorted to melting the coin of the realm in order to supply all kinds of vessels for daily use.
In 1720 with the restoration of sterling standard, a duty of six pence per ounce on wrought silver was imposed. This was resented and many dodges were invented by goldsmiths to avoid tax. For instance, a small unfinished piece would be hall-marked and returned to the goldsmiths who would cut out the marks and put them into a much larger piece. To curb this fraudulent practice, a flat rate duty for every maker and trader in precious metals was levied in 1757.
In 1784, a duty was once again imposed on individual items of wrought plate and the mark of the sovereign’s head was struck on each dutiable object. This was lifted only in 1890.
English silver is the most distinctive in this sense as hall-marks indicate the maker, year and the town in which it was made – system that no other silver manufacturing country uses.
Silver and goldsmithing have always been highly skilled professions and because of the economic importance, business acumen was as important as production of plate and jewellery but dabbled in all sorts of sideline trades.
They often acted as pawnbrokers, not surprisingly that the first bankers were goldsmiths. Their administrative, technical and artistic skills made them especially useful to the crown.
As early as 1180, London goldsmiths had a guild of their own for which they were fined as it was founded without the royal licence.
The charter of 1462 is of great importance as in it the company was granted the use of a common seal and was also entrusted with the supervision of the craft throughout England with the power to punish offenders who tried to short-change customers with inferior silver passing as sterling.