(They are not always in the same position.)
1 – Maker’s Mark – Richard Martin & Ebenezer Hall
2 – Lion Passant – Sterling Silver Mark
3 – Assay Office Mark – London Post 1821
4 – Date Letter -‘E’ for 1880
5 – Monarch’s Head – (Victoria) showing duty paid.
The term hallmark originally designated the official mark or stamp used at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London by the Goldsmiths’ Company, in marking the standard of gold and silver* articles assayed by them.
(* And platinum since 1975)
Hence, generally, a hallmark is a mark used by Government assay offices for the same purpose.
And, figuratively, hallmark came to be applied to a distinctive mark or token of authenticity or excellence, to an outstanding or distinguishing feature.
Although the word hallmark dates from the 18th century, the first time any mark was officially mentioned as being impressed on articles of silver was in 1300.
In 1327, the Goldsmiths’ Company was incorporated by Edward III, by letters patent, in the first year of his reign, under the name of “The Wardens and Commonality of the Mystery of Goldsmiths of the City of London”.
In Hand-book of London, Past and Present (1850), Peter Cunningham explained:
The Goldsmiths’ Company possess the privilege of assaying and stamping all articles of gold and silver manufacture. [...] The assays in one day are about 150, and are conducted as follows. They scrape a portion from every piece of plate manufactured, and send it to their assay master. If found true to the standard quantities, the articles are passed; if what is called of “deceitful work”, they are destroyed. These standard scrapings are afterwards melted down and assayed by the Company, to whom they belong. This last assay is a sort of “pix”* by the Company on the practice of its assayers. The Hall mark, stamped on the several articles assayed, consists of the Sovereign’s head, the royal lion, the leopard of the old royal arms of England, and the letter in the alphabet which marks the year of the Sovereign’s reign when the assay was made.
* The pix, or pyx, is, literally, a box at the Royal Mint in which specimen gold and silver coins are deposited to be tested annually at the “trial of the pyx” by members of the Goldsmiths’ Company.
But, in 1895, in The Century dictionary, an encyclopedic lexicon of the English language, William D. Whitney wrote, about hallmark:
The official stamp consists of various marks placed close together, as follows:
- the mark indicating the standard, as, for silver of the new standard, a figure of Britannia and a lion’s head erased;
- the mark of the assay-town, as a crown for Sheffield or an anchor for Birmingham;
- a mark denoting that the duty has been paid;
- the date-mark, consisting of a letter of the alphabet for each year, in series of differing style or design;
- the maker’s mark, usually two or more initial letters;
- the workman’s mark, which is not always present.