I found the following article in this month's edition of Fine Silver magazine and thought it was just right for the Guild.  It is reproduced here with permission.


Just a note about the author:  Jack Ogden is Chief Executive of Gem-A, which you might better recognise as The Gemmological Association of Great Britain, the world's longest established provider of gem and jewellery education.  This registered charity provides four examination based gemmological qualifications:


I thought I’d jump straight in and tell you about the prostitute’s chamber pot, but maybe a bit of background should come first. So, a question. What is the oldest piece of silver surviving in the UK that bears official stamps to show that it is up to standard? It’s a catch question. The answer is not some object with 14th century London Hallmarks, but a silver plate in the British Museum found in the celebrated Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The plate, dating to around AD 500, was an import from the Byzantine world and bears official Byzantine stamps. 

These marks on the Byzantine silver and the more recent Hallmarks are, of course, consumer protection. But hallmarking, for all its appeal, only guarantees the fineness of the metal – how much gold, silver, platinum and now palladium is in the object. Hallmarking says nothing about quality. This is something that makers and buyers shouldn’t forget. In the height of the fashion for ‘rose’ gold in the 1990s the high copper content of some of the gold alloys led to chains that crumbled like cookies after cleaning in an ultrasonic cleaner; but they contained their 37.5% gold and proudly bore 9 carat hallmarks. There are many other such horror stories.

Every jeweller will know from experience that some silver alloys are tougher than others, that some gold alloys are easier to enamel than others and so on. But am I alone in worrying that reliance on having or getting a Hallmark might distract jewellers from learning and understanding a bit more about the metals with which they work? And the public should be educated to understand that the Hallmark they see on an object is reassurance that it is silver or gold, not proof of quality of workmanship, durability or even suitability for purpose. Long gone are the days when the Assay Offices’ remit included forbidding people to mount imitation gems in gold, or when they would refuse to Hallmark a fork until the rough edges had been filed off.

There are issues that affect an object’s suitability for purpose other than just how much precious metal it contains, and that brings me back to an odd example. A silver chalice and paten obtained by a Byzantine monastery in the seventh century had its official stamps – but it was deemed unsuitable in holy surroundings. It turned out that the silver had been obtained by melting down a prostitute’s chamber pot. Even remelting wasn’t enough to ‘purify’ the silver. Such situations might not crop up often in your day-to-day metalsmithing life, but this old story (part of the legends about a saint) does remind us that meeting Hallmarking criteria is not the whole story about the metals with which you create your art.


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