A hallmark is a symbol stamped on silver, gold, or pewterware to indicate their quality or purity or show conformity to the legal standard. Hallmarks are also used for bullion control and the collection of revenue. The standards for silver in England are sterling (92.5% fine) and Britannia (95.84% fine).
It is also called a plate mark. The term "hallmark" originally referred to a mark from the goldsmiths' hall. Its use dates from the 14th century in England, when all gold and silver objects were subject by law to an appraisal by the guild of goldsmiths. The objects were inspected and then stamped to indicate their value. Other symbols were later devised to show the name of the maker, the place and date of manufacture, and other details. Such hallmarks are now in general use in many European countries.
Early Byzantine silver was stamped for bullion control, but hallmarking really started in France with townmarks (Montpellier, 1220); London followed in 1300. Maker's marks were made compulsory in the 14th century, and date letters in the 15th (Paris, 1461; London 1478). By 1500 most European countries practiced hallmarking, but they used simpler systems than England or France. Since 1696 all English gold and silver must be marked unless exempted, as is, for instance, jewelry.
A hallmark for British sterling, such as that illustrated, consists of a maker's mark (today his initials), a standard mark denoting sterling (a lion passant in England, a thistle in Scotland), a town mark indicating the assay office, and a date letter. The order may vary. British assay offices in the early 1970's were in London (a leopard's head), Sheffield (a crown), Birmingham (an anchor), and Edinburgh (a castle). The Britannia standard, compulsory in England from 1697 to 1720 and still occasionally used, has a figure of Britannia for the sterling lion and a lion's head erased for the leopard's head of London. Special marks for gold appeared in 1798 and show a crown followed by the number of carats, or on small pieces, the carats alone, plus the date letter and the maker's mark.
Hallmarking is used in most European countries, though in some it is not compulsory. From Europe it spread to Latin America, but its only evidence in North America comes from Baltimore in 1814. American and Canadian silversmiths used maker's marks and indicated the metal's purity with the words coin or sterling. Hallmarks were also used on pewter to indicate the quality of the metal.
Although hallmarks are not required in the United States, most manufacturers of gold or silver objects indicate the purity of the metal by their own marks. Since 1906 the standards have been established by federal regulation. Many manufacturers of other products also stamp their products with their initials and similar marks of identification. The word "hallmark" has, therefore, come to designate any mark used to vouch for the quality or purity of a product.