Hallmarking is a word that has come to mean the essence of a brand, or signature of an individual. But hallmarks actually began as a fraud prevention tool in medieval times. Assuring royals they got quality goods from gold and silversmiths, is how a hallmark became, literally, the stamp of approval.
Explaining how monarchs chose royal symbols, as well as the legal beginnings of hallmarking in medieval England is the subject of this Insignia Insights article.
Queen bees, beasts and empires
Crafting strong and recognizable visual icons, many monarchs looked to the animal kingdom for ideas. Choosing beasts for their coat of arms was common. Using allegory on insignia communicates power and influence over royal subjects, and signals strength to rival empires.
Insects also sent strong messages.
‘My emblem is a bee, flying from plant to plant, and amassing honey to take back to the hive’, wrote Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, in her letters to Voltaire during her reign in the 1760s and 70s, according to Susan Jaques in her book, The Empress of Art.
In 1804, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte also chose the bee as part of his coat of arms. Connecting to the origins of France itself, his symbols suggest immortality and resurrection. Bees appear on the imperial mantle flowing from the crown and draped around the central eagle. They are signs of industriousness and sweet benevolence. He added the ancient Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honour) chain and cross, a chivalric symbol established in 1320, well before the French Revolution. (Read more about Napoleon’s choice of symbols of empire.)
During the First Empire, imperial bees buzzed everywhere: on flags, fashion, jewelry, porcelain, silks and wallpaper. Beasts, birds and bugs of all sorts continue to appear as symbols of royalty and prestige around the world. Another part of hallmarking history is how they came to be legal intellectual property in England.
The King’s Mark: lions, leopards and legal gold standard
Lions, the king of beasts have been used as personal symbols of rulers for centuries. Rearing up with three clawed paws outstretched, lions rampant appear on Royal Standards of the King or Queen of Scots. Walking lions, or lion passants, appearing in threes on a red field, are on the royal arms of Richard I dating from 1198.
Historians generally consider these as origins of early heraldry. Lions have since been mixed with other symbols. Looking closely, you can see history as it unfolded.
In medieval times, monarchs or members of the aristocracy would commission goldsmiths to make objects from precious gold or silver to show their wealth and status. Trouble arose because it was hard to know if they were getting the genuine article.
The King of England, Edward I (1239-1307), stepped in, establishing a gold (and silver) standard for the skilled trade organization in 1300. It was the beginning of hallmarking.
King Edward I passed a statute requiring gold and silver to be of a defined standard and requiring ‘les Gardeins du Mester’ (Guardians of the Craft) to test it and mark it with the leopard’s head. This was supposedly taken from the royal arms and later known as the King’s mark. – The Goldsmith Company.
Why not a lion, you might ask? Well that is part of the mythology around Edward I’s personal character. Being both fiercely powerful and deceitful at the same time. Going from a lion passant to a crowned leopard’s head reveals how royal hallmarks are not only powerful symbols, but also evolve to burnish and modernize reputations.
By creating the gold standard, Edward I made significant progress in establishing quality control. Building upon that, a series of royal charters followed over the next several hundred years, establishing the legal basis of hallmarking.
The Goldsmiths Guild and Hall
In 1327, Edward III granted a formal charter establishing the first craft guild for the goldsmith trade. Needed next was a way to identify individual makers.
In 1363, goldsmiths and silversmiths required to have a mark unique to them, to be struck on all their wares to identify the maker. – The Goldsmiths Company
It wasn’t until 1505 when rights to register a maker’s hallmarks was possible. Issuing letters patent, King Henry VIII granted this legal authority to The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Known commonly as the Goldsmiths’ Company, it is one of the Great Twelve Livery companies of the City of London.
The Goldsmiths’ Company set the hallmark for gold as ‘a leopard’s face ducally crowned’ along with its own motto: Justitia Virtutum Regina (Justice is Queen of Virtues) and coat of arms. (The cat’s crown was later dropped.)
It was the actual Goldsmiths’ Hall, on Foster Lane where a maker would go to have his work checked for quality by the Assay Office, marks registered and dated. This physical place became known where ‘hallmarking’ happened.
The present grand neo-classic Goldsmiths’ Hall built in 1829 on same site in use by goldsmiths since 1339. Continuing to this day as a library and event venue, gold and silversmiths register their marks and have their work tested by the assay office around the corner, or at one of the three others in England.
Unique markings for who, what, where and when
The Goldsmiths’ Company devised a clever solution using a combination of strictly controlled marks.
A maker’s mark identified the goldsmith. Assigning a unique mark for each one, it was usually the initials of Christian name and surname in a surround. No two maker’s marks are the same.
Certifying the quality or fineness of the item is done by other marks, such as the carat weight of gold, or silver quality, which used a Lion passant guardant, Britannia or a lion’s head erased.
Confirming the place it was made is the mark of the Assay office. It corresponds to the English town where it was verified. The first was in London, and now there are three others: in Sheffield, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Representing the date, a letter mark corresponds to the 20-year cycle set by Goldsmiths’ Company.
Hallmarking Authorities: foiling fakes by policing
Hallmarks are symbols of trust. Becoming more than just product verification, hallmarks increase a company or brand’s bragging rights, and the value of intellectual property. However, just like in the 14th century, fakes remain a concern. Confirming what real is getting harder than ever.
Enforcement of hallmarking law faces challenges with reducing resources and increasing concerns about unscrupulous traders, particularly online, and particularly online traders based outside the UK. – Noel Hunter, Chair, 2019 annual report, The British Hallmarking Council.
Continuing as originally intended, the 1972 Hallmarking Convention of Vienna legally set precious metal standards and symbols used in other jurisdictions. Canada’s Precious Metals Marketing Act of 1996 helps consumers make informed purchasing decisions of precious metals articles made of gold, silver, platinum or palladium. The quality mark must be accompanied by a trademark that has been applied for or registered with the Registrar of Trade Marks, Canadian Intellectual Property Office, Industry Canada.
When royalty received their jewelry, silver service or gold candelabras with hallmarks stamped into them, they had assurance they got the real thing. Maintaining the reputation of hallmarking today through enforcement, and technical consistency is the task of today’s hallmarking authorities. It is still about protecting integrity of precious metal articles. Hallmarks give the buyer, and any subsequent owner, a warranty.
Hallmarks are more than just small symbols, they verify something is authentic and worthy of the price asked.
Ask us how to create your own custom hallmarks
Trimtag makes custom insignia of all types. We can help your organization, company or brand create or accurately replicate your own registered insignia or hallmark. We can do this in a nearly endless variety of media and techniques such as bullion, embroidery, embossing and printing. Ask us how to apply custom insignia on uniforms, apparel, trims or corporate branding items .