Precious metals such as Gold and Silver have played a part in our lives since the dawn of civilization. Often associated with the gods and immortality, these unique materials have been symbols of wealth and status as well as having more modern industrial uses. Their importance and rarity afforded these metals intrinsic value, yet even today assessing this value proves elusive.
All metals can be alloyed, mixed into a solid solution; examples include bronze (copper and tin), electrum (gold and silver) and many others. Alloying metals changes their properties – for example alloying gold with copper or base metals can change its colour and hardness, making it more suitable for use in jewellery. Alloying also affects its value as it changes the amount of precious metal in the end product.
Even the most experienced scientist or jeweller cannot definitively test a piece of jewellery to confirm its precious metal content without separating it into its constituent parts, thereby destroying the item; a process called cupellation. This made verifying the value of a piece of jewellery, coin, tableware or piece of art impossible for consumers, be they kings of old or modern-day shoppers.
At the end of the middle ages, King Philip II of France and King Edward I of England instituted the world’s first forms of consumer protection and required precious metals be marked by a third party to record their quality. Today this process remains the only way to gain confidence about the purity of precious metals used. Assay offices randomly test batches of goods from manufacturers and if these samples are as described, mark them with a special hallmark. Hallmarks include symbols identifying the assay office, purity of metal (in parts per thousand) and often marks representing the date and manufacturer. Hallmarks not only provide consumer confidence, but indicate origin and can even be use to help date antique jewellery pieces.
Today, Western and middle-eastern countries have compulsory or voluntary hallmarking systems for precious metals. Singapore has a long tradition of merchandising an extensive range of fine quality precious metal jewellery. Singapore and Japan are the only two Asian countries to have established a voluntary hallmarking system and an official national standard for precious metal fineness.
Tanja M. Sadow G.J.G.
Dean and founder of the Jewellery Design and Management International School