The Importance of a Hallmark - Quality Guaranteed
I love hallmarks. They're magical little capsules of information. But, more importantly, they are a guarantee of quality. A hallmark is comprised of three stamps: a Makers Mark, the Assay Office Mark, and the Metal Fineness Mark.
From a metalsmith's point of view, getting a Makers Mark is a very special thing. It's not something that can be bought from a shop or Amazon. It is assigned to the maker by an Assay Office in the maker's country of origin. The mark is comprised of the maker's initials, which sit inside a shape and is completely unique to the maker. It is a signature of sorts, which identifies that a design - be it a piece of fine jewellery or a piece of silverware - was imagined and crafted by a particular person.
For a jewellery enthusiast, the Makers Mark is neat way of identifying who made their piece. But, the hallmark is what is really important, because it guarantees that the piece that is sold as a precious metal is genuine Sterling Silver, Gold, or Platinum.
You would be surprised how much jewellery is sold as precious metal, but in reality is not. For instance, a cheap piece of silver jewellery that is presented as sterling silver could actually be an alloy comprised of copper, cadmium, zinc, and nickel. Whilst copper and zinc aren't harmful, nickle is a known allergen and cadmium is carcinogenic - which is why it is a controlled substance.
In order for a piece to be hallmarked, the maker has to send it to the Assay Office where a sample of the metal is extracted from the design before being put through either chemical analysis or non-destructive X-ray fluorescence analysis. (That's a mouthful, isn't it?) Every metal component of the piece, including the solder, must be of assay quality. Only when the sample has passed the assay test can it be hallmarked. Ireland is one of only a few countries that has compulsory statutory hallmarking. It is an expensive process that makers have to undertake in order to legally present and sell a piece as being made of precious metal. You might ask, "what happens if a piece of jewellery doesn't pass the test?" Simply put: the Assay Office keeps it and destroys it so that it cannot be sold.
So, I suppose the lesson to be learned here is that if you are looking at a piece of gold or silver jewellery and the price is too good to be true, there is a reason for it. Without a hallmark, it is "Buyer Beware."