The Lillicoco team have been on a journey of discovery into the world of hallmarks, and it has been a fascinating adventure. We want to share our findings with you, talk about what we’ve learned, and impart some advice to any other buyers and sellers that may want to follow in our footsteps!
Hallmarks are an area of jewellery history steeped in mystery and intrigue. Most people are aware of the existence of hallmarks, and you may even have an understanding about what the different symbols and letters mean, but things quickly get complicated the further you look back in time.
When Stacey and Simon started Lillicoco together in 2016, neither of them knew as much about antique hallmarks. Although Stacey entered the industry with a pre-existing appreciation for all things antique, it has taken years of study and learning to deepen her understanding to reach a point where she is able to pass her knowledge down to the next generation of jewellers and collectors.
This ring is hallmarked with 'R.N', Crown, 18, Chester Assay, M for 1912.
The first thing you might be surprised to learn is that not all jewellery needs to have a hallmark!
As antique aficionados here at Lillicoco, the vast majority of our collection pre-dates the widespread use of hallmarks. Many of the pieces in our antique jewellery collection have partial hallmarks or none at all, and this is something that we have always been used to.
The critical detail to remember is that as long as the item was made before 1950, that it’s fine for you to buy it without any hallmarks.
But what about pieces made after 1950? You'll have to read on...
This ring is stamped with a 'S.H.S' Makers mark & crown, '750', London Assay, and the date letter 'B' for the year 1976.
Many hallmarks become worn overtime, so it takes a careful eye and a loupe to read them clearly.
What does each hallmark mean?
Prior to the 21st century, attitudes towards hallmarking were significantly more relaxed than they are today, and many pieces were made and sold without any hallmarks at all.
Hallmarks have a long and complex history, but in the England they can be first traced back to King Edward I. In 1300, The King decreed “no manner of vessel of silver depart out of the hands of the workers [...] that it be marked with the leopard’s head”, bringing the first leopard’s head assay to life. The Goldsmiths’ Company have written a fascinating timeline of UK hallmarking, which you can read here.
The Hallmarking Act of 1973 was the most recent major update to hallmarking law, making four marks compulsory in Britain for most new pieces of jewellery being made and sold.
The maker's mark on this piece says ''ACCO' indicates that it was made by the Albion Craft Co.
1. The sponsor, or maker’s mark, declares who was responsible for having the piece hallmarked, whether that’s an individual, retailer, manufacturer, wholesaler or importer. To have a sponsor’s mark of your own, you must be registered with one of the UK’s four assay offices, Birmingham, Edinburgh, London and Sheffield.
The anchor symbol means that this piece was assayed in Birmingham.
2. The assay mark shows where the hallmarks were given, with an anchor representing Birmingham, a castle for Edinburgh, a leopard’s head for London and a rose for Sheffield. The Dublin assay mark is the figure of Hibernia, a seated woman with a harp and the personification of Ireland.
This piece is made from 22ct Gold, as shown by the '22' mark.
3. The fineness mark denotes the purity of the metal. This is measured in parts per thousand in relation to the UK standard. Confused? Take 9ct Gold – the fineness mark is 375, as the purity of 9ct Gold is 37.5 percent. In other words 37.5% of the metal is pure Gold, and the rest of the is made up of other metals that are alloyed in (for example Silver or copper).
The date letter 'V' here is for the year 1945.
4. The last mark deemed essential by the 1973 Act was a date letter, but since 1998, these are no longer compulsory. Different fonts separate hundreds of years worth of history, making the age of the piece traceable to the exact year it was crafted.
Does all jewellery need to have a hallmark?
The 1973 Act stipulates that any piece of jewellery that was made before 1950 can be sold in the UK without needing to be hallmarked, allowing for pieces in their original form without needing to add modern stamps to antique and older vintage pieces.
Of course, the flip side of this is that any piece made after 1950 must have a full set of hallmarks in order for it to be legally sold in the UK.
When we first discovered this, we were a bit surprised! We wrongly believed that any piece that was purchased second-hand could be bought and resold as-is, and that the onus was on the original manufacturer to have an item hallmarked when it was first made.
This is incorrect, and when we first became aware of the implications of the 1973 Act we performed a full audit of our inventory to identify any pieces that were made after 1950. We realised that we had inadvertently purchased a number of vintage pieces that were made after 1950 but which bore no hallmarks, and that this meant that we couldn’t sell them!
On learning this we immediately removed the items that didn’t comply from our website. Some of these were returned to the places where we bought them from originally, and the rest are being kept aside to have new hallmarks stamped in them so that we can relist them for sale in future.
We have a vast collection of authentic antique jewels in our collection, but there are lots of reproductions out there!
So, as a buyer of antique, vintage or pre-owned jewellery, what do you need to look out for?
After we audited our own collection, we also had a look through the online collections of other antique jewellery companies. We discovered that almost every seller that we looked at had significant collections of post-1950’s jewellery listed without hallmarks. These are often being sold as ‘second-hand’ or ‘preowned’ with no indication of the age of the items, or at best a vague suggestion of the piece being ‘20th century’.
Even worse than this, we found many listings online showing brand new items made in vintage or antique styles, where the titles and descriptions appeared to be deliberately obscuring the age of the items or outright misidentifying them as “Art Deco” or “Georgian” despite being modern reproductions. Rings are by far the most frequently reproduced pieces, and rings posing as Art Deco are very commonplace indeed (although we also found Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian reproductions online as well).
Companies selling these reproduction pieces without hallmarks are breaking the law, whether deliberately or inadvertently.
Although we authenticate our jewellery ourselves, many Art Deco jewels are brand new reproductions.
What to look out for when buying antique and vintage jewellery...
If you are an antique or vintage jewellery buyer, how can you stay safe when even well-regarded sellers are acting outside the law?
Our advice is to stay well away from jewellery that is listed with a vague age of ‘post-1960’s’ or ‘modern secondhand’ unless they have full original hallmarks. These items are often brand new and may be being sold as ‘second hand’ to try to skirt around the hallmarking legislation or to avoid VAT.
We would also suggest that you are very careful when shopping for Art Deco rings, or Georgian jewellery of any sort. Pieces sold as Art Deco are often brand new reproductions, and pieces sold as Georgian are often later reproductions made in the 1900’s. Many Georgian pieces have also been extensively modified or repaired, which is often not disclosed.
Finally, be careful with ‘Suffragette’ jewellery. Some sellers online are listing modern reproduction pieces with this tagline that are posing as antique originals, or are taking genuine Edwardian pieces and swapping in modern gemstones to fit the Suffragette colour palette.
You’re probably shopping for vintage or antique jewellery because you appreciate beautiful handmade jewellery, you want to help the planet and you want to own a one of a kind treasure. You don’t get any of this with modern reproduction pieces, so look for the hallmarks to protect yourself!
Remember, hallmarks are a crucial form of consumer protection. They are there to give you the confidence and reassurance that you need before you buy a new piece of jewellery.
If you are an antique or vintage jewellery seller, we hope that this information can help you to do as we have done, and remove items that don’t comply with UK hallmarking legislation. We would urge other sellers to be extremely cautious when sourcing jewellery to avoid reproduction pieces (“Art Deco” rings being the worst offenders), and we would suggest that any shop with a collection of vintage jewellery run an audit to identify pieces that should be removed from sale or sent for hallmarking.
Lillicoco are committed to only selling genuine antique and vintage jewellery, and any piece that we decide to add to our collection that was made post-1950 will always bear full hallmarks, as is legally required.
Here are some useful resources on hallmarking: