Buying Sterling Silver and the new Hallmark Act
What is pure silver?
A soft white precious metal with a 999 parts per 1000, 99.9% silver and 0.1% unclassified impurity.
What is silver? By legal definition, silver maybe hallmarked when the content is equal to, or exceeds, 800 parts per 1000, 80% pure silver and 20% alloy. The alloy provides the hardness, (strength and durability).
What is sterling silver? By legal definition, sterling silver is a metal that contains a minimum of 92.5% silver, the remaining 7.5% usually being copper. Whilst copper is used now, tin and lead have also been used in the past.
Fineness and Millesimal Marks
Fineness Marks denote that the article has been tested and is of at least the fineness stated
Millesimal Marks is the fineness in millesimal form, i.e. sterling silver is 925 and Britannia is 958
UK / European Hallmarks
Prior to 1998, all silver that was registered in this country carried;
- a Sterling Guarantee Mark, i.e. Lion or Crown
- an Assay Mark, indicating the silver was tested by an English assay office and it met with the legal requirements for silver purity and quality. The Assay Mark donating the town of assay, i.e. Anchor, Crown, Castle
- a Date Letter, normally in a shield, circle or square, denoting the year of Assay
- In addition, some pieces also carried; a fineness mark, i.e. 975 and
- a Duty Mark showing that the relevant taxes had been paid.
However, in 1973 a new act and a subsequent amendment referring specifically to hallmarks in 1997, was passed. This amended the UK detailed marking requirements to better reflect the approach generally taken in Europe. From this point forward;
- it is no longer compulsory to include the date letter
- the fineness, will invariably, be marked in parts per 1000. Whilst the Lion or Crown may be stamped next to the millesimal mark, it is no longer compulsory
- there will be no mark to distinguish British goods from imported goods, marked here in the UK
- the two original standards of silver, 925 in 1000 (Sterling) and 958 parts in 1000 (Britannia) remain, whilst in addition 999 and 800 parts in 1000 have been added.
Please note that, only an item clearly hallmarked with a British Makers Mark and a Date Mark prior to 1998, can be described as being English silver, as after this date there is no distinction made between items made in the UK and those imported into the UK.
All items being sold as gold, silver or platinum in the UK must be hallmarked to confirm they meet the required legal standards, unless;
- the product weighs less than 7.78 grams for silver. 1 gram for gold.
- the product has already been tested and hallmarked in a country which is a signatory to the International Convention On Hallmarking and it bears the convention Common Control Mark
- the article bears other European national hallmarks which provide an equivalent guarantee to consumers
In the USA, the National Gold And Silver Marketing Act 1906 required that any product marked sterling or 925 must contain 925 per 1000 parts of silver. In 1961 an amendment required that the makers trade mark, registered with the US Patent Office (PTO), was to be stamped next to the silver standard mark, creating a hallmark of quality and guaranteed fineness.
The USA are one country who use an antiquing process to provide an anti-tarnish coating to their charms. Please be aware that these items should be described as antiqued. By definition, antique silver is pre 1920!
There is no hallmarking system within Thailand. Some independent Thai jewellery manufacturers have found it necessary to meet the National Gold And Silver Marketing Acts of the USA and, or, the requirements of the Assay offices within Europe, as the markets have demanded they do so. Some Thai companies are registered with either one or both offices and present their products for hallmarking before goods are provided for sale in their country of destination. If they come through the US Paten Office they will carry a makers mark and a fineness mark. If they come through the European Assay offices, the item will carry an assay mark, a makers mark and a fineness mark. However, within the UK items below 7.78 grams in weight may only carry a fineness mark as these items are exempt from requiring hallmarks.
Hill Tribe Thai Silver can be 95-99% silver.
Tibetan Silver and Bali Silver
Originally, traditional Tibetan Silver was hand made and may have a silver content as high as 99%-99.9%, but, Tibetan Silver may also have no silver content at all. Original, traditional Bali Silver, may have a silver content as high as 92.5-96%, depending on the region in Bali that it came from, but, Bali Silver may also have no silver content at all. Buyers must beware when buying Tibetan and Bali Silver.
So What Is A Hallmark?
Before 1998, it would be fair to have stated a hallmark was a mark struck upon English silver and gold articles that met established standards of purity. However, the act redefined hallmark as a mark indicating quality or excellence. A mark struck to stamp gold and silver articles that meet established standards of purity;
(d) struck in an EEA State other than the United Kingdom being marks which (i) have been struck by an independent body in accordance with the law of that state; (ii) provide information which is equivalent to the information provided by the marks mentioned in section 4(1)(a)(i)(ii) of this act and which is intelligible to consumers in the United Kingdom
Therefore, it is not incorrect to state an item is hallmarked when it has been marked outside of the UK. Likewise, it is not incorrect to state an item from the USA, that carries a Registered Makers Mark and fineness mark, as being US hallmarked. What is incorrect is if an item is declared as hallmarked when there is;
- no registered USA Mark accompanying the fineness mark or
- no assay mark
- or no Common Control mark
The 925 Mark....
925 is not an English mark to denote sterling silver. It is a simply a fineness mark, used worldwide, by reputable manufacturers who guarantee the content of the pieces they produced. Which also means it can be used by unscrupulous manufacturers too! The ONLY legal standing that a 925 stamp has in the UK and Europe is when the 925 stamp is within a full hallmark, at which time the 925 is stamped within a shape. Unless a 925 mark is part of a full UK or European hallmark, the stamp 925 has NO legal standing in the UK and Europe. (Please refer to the Assay Office web site).
There is NO law within Europe or the UK that states that an item of sterling silver, under 7.78 grams, has to be marked with a 925 Stamp.
Stamped simply with 925, as many items under 7.78 grams are, does not necessarily mean that the item is not sterling silver. It may simply mean that the item is exempt from requiring a hallmark from a UK or European Assay office. There are very high costs involved in obtaining marks from the assay office, this being one of the reasons why English hallmarked silver has a higher price in general. In the case of small items, such as earring findings and small charms, assay marks would cause these items to increase dramatically in price. A Sponsors Mark (required) costs 12p per item and the Assay Mark (required) costs approx 78p per item. This is excluding the additional registration of the Sponsors mark, the purchasing of the punch and the general registration with the Assay office! In the USA, these costs are even higher.
At the end of the day, know your seller. Read your sellers feedback and if you have a question, ask the seller. If they are genuine, they will know what they are selling and they will be able to answer your questions. If they do not answer to your satisfaction, then do not buy and remember, if the listing states it is English silver, it must be pre 1998, so ask the seller the year of manufacture or take another fact from the information above.
The Assay Office in Birmingham, the US Paton Office, along with full transcripts of the Acts quoted in this guide, are all available on-line. Before writing this guide I checked the facts contained within, in an effort to provide a very factual guide that would perhaps, stop the misunderstanding that has caused difficulties for buyers on EBay.
Please note: I am happy to answer any questions relating to Hallmarking, however, I am receiving lots of requests for information, so please allow 24 hours for a response.