How to remember 2020? You might think that’s a strange question - after all we are hardly likely to forget that year, are we? Or this one. These unprecedented times feel unforgettable now but when you work with precious metal luxury items that will be passed down the generations for hundreds - possibly thousands - of years, remembering one in particular is challenging. Of course it’s not about remembering specific events as dating specific items. In the world of precious metals its a sad fact of life there are sometimes forgeries, fakes and thefts. This isn’t a new problem, in fact, it’s a really old one.
Hallmarking is a practice that began by Royal decree in 1238 to regulate the quality of gold and silver by Henry III. In those days, gold and silver could be mixed with all kinds of base metals, to a point where they were unfit for use and considerably less valuable than they appeared. Henry asked the Mayor of London and his Aldermen to choose a number of goldsmiths to oversee the quality of gold and silver, and mark it accordingly. It was the gold mark made in London - or the De auro fabricando in Vivitate Londoniarum. And so the hallmark and it’s official body the Assay Office were born. They show the maker, the date, the assay office that issued the mark and the purity of the metal. It’s a passport for value that protects the maker and the owner from fraud.
By the mid-1600s, the practice of hallmarking by Assay Offices (the official body set up to measure weight and purity) was considered so essential to trade and wealth that counterfeiting hallmarks was made punishable by death. Over the years before and since, there have been many different marks assigned to different metals, and different levels of purity (9, 18, 22 & 24 carat gold, sterling silver, 850, 900 and 950 platinum etc.) And since the mid-1500s, one of the key elements of the hallmark has been a date letter.
This is where things get interesting. Because there are only 26 letters, you can imagine there’s a bit of duplication, so they vary in terms of uppercase and lowercase, and also the typeface of the letter changes as per the assay office that marked it. These used to vary but have since synchronised around the same London office standards. The assay office issues special stamps (punches) to mark the letter on the metal, which are destroyed each year to be replaced by a new set - registered to each maker. This ensures they don’t fall into the hands of counterfeiters.
For 2020 the letter is a a V, for 1920, 1820 and 1720 it is a lowercase e, and for 1620 it is an uppercase C. At least, in London. The variations are quite wild for pre-21st century date letters (Birmingham assay stamped a V for 1920, but Edinburgh was an uppercase P) and also there up to 10 assay offices once, now there are only 4. When it comes to dating pre-21st century silver, gold and other precious metals, you need a decent reference table of hallmarks, maker’s marks and date letters because there are many variations. However, when it comes to your grandchildren dating that precious heirloom you bought for them over Lockdown, it’s a V for 2020 everywhere. And a W for 2021, which makes life simpler - if only everything in hallmarking was as reliable as a modern VW.