It is the busiest time of the year for the Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office, which typically handles half its annual volume in the fourth quarter of the year, thanks to Black Friday and the Christmas rush. However, this season, there is even more need for speed.
The rise in online sales since the start of the pandemic has increased demand for faster turnround on hallmarking, says general manager Will Evans. And, at the same time, there has been a move towards bespoke pieces and making to order, rather than holding expensive stock. Now, 60 per cent of packets the office receives are required the next day or sooner, compared with 45 per cent in 2019.
Adapting to changing buying habits while seeking to continue “the tradition of customer protection” is a challenge not just for Evans, who took over the top job in October last year, but the wider hallmarking industry.
Anything sold in the UK made of gold, silver, platinum or palladium has to be tested and hallmarked by law. But applying 1970s regulations to online, often cross-border, sales is proving tricky. Jewellers in other countries provide some of the “most challenging work”, says Evans. His sampling team has to advise on permitted platings, combinations of materials, and item descriptions. An even bigger issue is people selling jewellery without hallmarks.
The British Hallmarking Council, which supervises the UK’s four assay offices, is responding. It will present the first of its Hallmarking Awareness and Learning Online awards next month, which are for jewellery businesses that use its Digital Dealers Notice, designed to educate consumers about hallmarking, in the most creative way.
The Goldsmiths’ Company has been testing jewellery since 1300, when King Edward I passed a statute requiring gold and silver objects to be “marked with the leopard’s head” in an attempt to prevent fraud. It received its first royal charter in 1327 and established the UK’s first assay office, at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, in 1478. Makers took their wares there to be tested and marked, hence the term “hallmark”.
Evans joined at the age of 16 in 2000 after spotting an advert in London’s Evening Standard newspaper for someone with a chemistry GCSE to become a lab assistant. The company paid for him to do an information systems and management degree at the University of London in the evening. His studies coincided with technological advances at the assay office, and he moved out of the lab to help integrate these new techniques — such as X-ray fluorescence spectrometers replacing the physical testing of metal purity and lasers being used for hallmarking. From there, he began working his way up the ranks.
Today, his team is split across four sites: Goldsmiths’ Hall; Heathrow airport, where a bulk facility serves customers importing with Brink’s logistics company; Hatton Garden, which caters to London’s jewellery district; and east London jewellery manufacturer Allied Gold.
But Brexit brought about last year’s closure of the office’s facility at jeweller Graff Diamonds following the end of the obligation for mutual recognition of hallmarks between the UK and EU countries, which used to ease cross-border trade. Apart from that post-Brexit change, Evans says there has not been a noticeable drop in business, but it is “a concern for UK hallmarking”, with customers needing also to be registered at the Dutch office.
It is just the latest test for an industry that experienced a “crash in hallmarking” on the back of the 2008 financial crisis. Evans says the ensuing rise in gold prices plus “competition for discretionary spend” and “a move towards experiences rather than possessions” contributed to a drop in the UK hallmarking total from 29mn items in 2005 to 8.7mn in 2019.
There has been a post-Covid boost, with 10.9mn items hallmarked in the 12 months to August 2022, which Evans attributes to “pent-up demand” and suspects has peaked. He says his office, with hindsight, might not have made 12 redundancies in March 2021 but adds: “I don’t think any of us predicted the bounce to the level that we’ve seen.”
Along with the standard marks, pieces can be stamped with a diamond jubilee hallmark this year. Up to the beginning of September, shortly before the Queen’s death, Evans’ staff had applied the commemorative mark 54,000 times. He was “surprised” by its popularity, but it fits a wider focus on provenance. The office started applying a logo mark to pieces made from Single Mine Origin gold last year and the National Association of Jewellers’ “Created in the UK” mark in August.
Requests are up for bespoke marks — those that deviate from the standard size, formation and spacing, with large hallmarks popular on dog-tag necklaces and signet rings. “Although it doesn’t actually give you provenance, it’s a unique selling point,” says Evans. “They look quite cool. It’s another way to tell a story about your piece, to show people that these have been independently verified.”
He says “third-party assurance” counts in an era of fast fashion.
Evans is conscious of balancing the “gloomy” economic outlook with the “fairly buoyant” past 18 months to set capacity and staffing levels appropriately. But, with bookings logged only a day or two in advance, that is not easy.
“One of the bigger challenges of hallmarking is not knowing what’s coming in,” says Evans. Uncertainty is par for the course.