If you’ve been considering selling antique jewelry, you likely have been wondering how to identify estate jewelry hallmarks. In this knowledge article, the jewelry appraisers at Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers (DEJB) will cover some of the basics involved when identifying the hallmarks on fine jewelry.
Please keep in mind that identifying estate jewelry hallmarks on antique jewelry may be difficult and require the expertise of a highly knowledgeable estate jeweler. In these instances, you can take advantage of our expertise. DEJB offers completely free verbal appraisals of estate jewelry, with no obligations whatsoever.
Let’s begin by explaining just what a fine jewelry hallmark is. Hallmarks on estate jewelry provide various kinds of information about a specific piece. Strictly speaking, a hallmark indicates only to the total amount of precious metal in an item, though other marks can help determine when and where it was made, as well as the company of manufacture.
Estate Jewelry Hallmarks: A Complicated History
Hallmarking was originally introduced in 1300 by Edward I of Great Britain, and was meant to be a kind of consumer protection. An assayer determined the percentage of precious metal in a piece, and the hallmark stamp was the guarantee of purity. But different countries developed different regulations, and the complexity of the hallmarking system was formidable. The United States didn’t require hallmarks until 1906, and even then the purity wasn’t verified by an assayer’s office.
Hallmarks are simply absent on a large percentage of antique jewelry. Fine and delicate work that might be damaged by the stamp was exempt from the practice of hallmarking, and often artisans simply didn’t have their work hallmarked. Further complications arose from the practice of ‘pseudo hallmarking’ that was done as a tax evasion in the late 1800s.
When looking for hallmarks on estate jewelry, one needs a jeweler’s loupe and patience. Only with careful study can hallmarks be verified, and even then, it’s easy to make a mistake.
Four Main Estate Jewelry Hallmarks
Pure gold is quite soft, and not very durable for jewelry. To strengthen the purest gold, other metals are added, and the result is an alloy. Purity marks indicate the percentage of the alloy that is pure gold. Purity is expressed in karats, with 24 karat being the purest gold. A purity mark of 18k would indicate 18 parts gold and 6 parts other metal, or 75% pure. The metric purity mark is expressed as parts of thousands, with 18k gold marked 750.
The maker’s mark indicates the maker or company responsible for the precious metal content of the piece. Maker’s marks are often the initials of the maker, and sometimes include a pictorial mark of specific shape.
Dateletters were first used in London in 1478. English regulations required gold and silver to be assayed at Goldsmith’s Hall—hence the name “hallmark.” An assayer was chosen yearly from the guild, and to prevent fraud, each new assayer used a new letter from the alphabet, indicating his responsibility for the purity of the metal. As some letters were skipped, every 25 years the same letter would be used. To prevent mistakes, new fonts were chosen as the letters repeated. These letters now serve as indications of the year in which the piece was offered for hallmarking.
As towns and cities grew prosperous from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance, many countries opened new assay offices. Town marks were established to indicate the location of the assay office, and were usually the city’s heraldic shield or other unique pictorial stamp. Some countries combined these town marks with purity marks. In France, one purity mark was used for Paris, and individual letters indicated items assayed in the provinces.
Many other stamps can sometimes be found on antique & estate jewelry that can help you identify and judge the piece.
Designer marks are stamped on antique jewelry to indicate the designer. Many Faberge pieces carry a designer mark, as does some Art Nouveau jewelry.
Tally marks are found on some British and United States jewelry, and indicate the journeyman who created the piece.
Retailer marks indicate what specific outlet a piece of jewelry was sold through. Tiffany’s and other large stores use retailer’s marks.
Duty marks indicate that domestic taxes have been paid, and import and export marks indicate that taxes have been paid, or that the jewelry was exempt from taxation.
Patent or inventory numbers are usually a long numbers and can help date jewelry. The French jeweler Cartier almost always stamps inventory numbers, and the US firm Boucher struck patent numbers in much of its jewelry.
Estate Jewelry Hallmarks in Great Britain
Though hallmarking has been practiced in Great Britain for over 700 years and changed over time, the general system remained the same until 1999. Gold was stamped with a crown, and as the British express gold purity in carats, the abbreviation “ct” follows the percentage of purity. Standards up until 1854 were 18ct and 22ct, and later broadened to include 15ct, 12 ct and 9ct. In 1932 the 12ct and 15ct standards were abandoned in favor of the 14ct mark.
Silver of 92.5 percent was stamped with a lion, and 95.8 percent with the Britannia mark.
Estate Jewelry Hallmarks in the United States
Hallmarks were not used in the US until the Silver Stamping Act of 1906, but even then they were not mandatory, and no assay offices existed. When makers did add a purity mark, they were either pictorial or numerical, and the maker then assumed responsibility for the purity of the metal. In 1961 maker’s marks became compulsory, and were usually in the form of a trademark or family name. Gold for jewelry was varying degrees of pure, though 10k and 14k were the most common.
One simple way to distinguish British from US marks is the abbreviation. The US uses “k,” and “ct” is used in Great Britain.
Estate Jewelry Hallmarks in France
Estate jewelry hallmarks in France usually indicate only metal purity and maker. Since 1838, silver with a minimum fineness of 800/1000 has been marked with a boar’s head to indicate the Paris assay office, or a crab, indicating the provinces. An eagle indicates gold purity of at least 18 karat. Beginning in 1910, a dog’s head was used to mark platinum.
Maker’s marks were required to be initials in a lozenge shaped field as of 1797. Before then, maker’s marks were initials in the shape of a crown.
Combinations of purity marks are struck on jewelry made from different precious metals.
Estate Jewelry Hallmarks in Germany
Prior to 1884, individual cities had their own marks, and the unit for purity was the “Lothig,” with 16 being pure gold or silver. A mark of “13” indicated 13 Lothig, or 812.5/1000. After 1884, jewelry began to carry both maker’s marks and purity marks. Gold was measured in karats, and the mark could be in thousands or karats, often combined as a single stamp.
If you would like to sell antique jewelry or contemporary fine jewelry, contact Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers to take advantage of our free verbal appraisal of your items. We can take all the guess work out of identifying estate jewelry hallmarks for you, while providing you with a generous and immediate cash offer.
Our appraisals are offered completely free of charge, with no strings attached. You are under no obligation to sell your item to us. We look forward to earning our reputation as one of the nation’s best and most trusted estate buyers with you today.
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Want to learn more about antique jewelry? Check out our History of Jewelry knowledge article.