What you need to know about jewelry hallmarks

May 6, 2010
By

Buying antique or vintage jewelry means first figuring out what it is, where and when it was made, and by whom. That’s why the first thing an experienced buyer will do is hold a piece up to a loupe and examine it for hallmarks. If jewelry has hallmarks and they appear authentic, identifying its value is a whole lot easier.

But many countries – including the U.S. – do not have an official hallmarking system and the hallmarks of one country can vary dramatically from another. How does a budding collector begin to unravel this puzzle?

A trusted dealer can help but if you want to learn to identify jewelry on your own, you’ll need a good guide. There are a few books on the market, but if you want the ultimate, illustrated reference book, be prepared to shell out a couple hundred bucks for World Hallmarks: Europe 19th-21st Centuries, due out in its second printing this month. As co-author Danusia Niklewicz puts it, “This book will pay for itself with one correctly identified piece.”

I recently spoke to Niklewicz and William Whetstone, who compiled this tome with fellow appraiser Lindy Matula, about the basics of hallmark identification.

Is it common for people to confuse a maker’s mark with a hallmark?

Danusia Niklewicz: Yes, especially in the U.S. where we don’t hallmark goods. On our website people can send in questions about hallmarks and many times we receive maker’s marks instead of hallmarks. People think any maker’s mark is a hallmark and that becomes a problem. Maker’s marks aren’t nearly as well documented as hallmarks.

Many countries don’t offer lists of registered makers or their marks. Even in the U.S. and Canada, there is no requirement to register one’s mark. As a result, there is nowhere to research the identity of a signature or mark. You will only find hallmarks on jewelry made in countries that have laws that require independent testing of metal fineness and that document their makers marks with an official stamp – a government stamp or an independent lab stamp – indicating the results of such testing.

William Whetstone: In many places, especially Europe, it’s required that a maker register their mark at a hallmarking or assaying office so it can be tracked. In most European countries, a secondary system is set up where the assay office tests the pieces and puts their stamps on it to indicate that it was verified by an independent body. It’s similar to gem certification. Most people buying an expensive diamond today want a certificate issued by an independent organization like the GIA. Just like these certified diamonds that are laser-inscribed on the girdle of the diamond with the cert number, a hallmarked item is marked with the results of the testing.

 

Russian hallmark and maker's mark

So what kind of assurance am I getting with a maker’s mark?

Whetstone: A maker’s mark can be the manufacturer, the company that sponsored the piece to be made, or the individual craftsman. In any case, whoever is marked on the piece takes the responsibility for it. In countries where they don’t even mark their pieces, the importer becomes the responsible party. Really, a hallmark is about the most important means of consumer protection within the precious metals. In other words, if you’re a maker and you stamp something 18kt, you take responsibility. You’re guaranteeing that it’s 18kt.

Niklewicz: In most European countries, including France and Great Britain, an item is not legal for sale without a hallmark. Germany doesn’t have hallmarking, but it’s the exception. A few countries, like Austria and Norway, have optional hallmarking. Italy doesn’t require hallmarking but it has better registration of the maker, a specific number, so what you see as an Italian mark was placed there by the maker. It’s a little more formal than any other maker’s voluntary marking.

 

Italian maker's mark

Does that mean I’m safe buying jewelry made in Italy?

Whetstone: Not necessarily. I think it’s easy to recognize Italian marks but you don’t have the same protection or guarantee unless an item is hallmarked. There was a notoriously famous chain that marked their jewelry 18kt on one side and “Italy” on the other. “Italy” is not a guarantee. So you find the 18kt gold chain you bought is only 14kt gold. Who do you hold responsible? The merchant you bought it from can say, “It’s not my fault. It doesn’t have my trademark on it.” This goes on all the time. Under-karating is rampant in North America.

It’s caveat emptor here?

Whetstone: We were talking to assay masters at a conference in Geneva and they privately say they laugh at the consumer protection system within the U.S. because there is no policing of this.

Niklewicz: The U.S. is missing out on a huge European market because we don’t have the standards they demand. They consider our products generally inferior.

Whetstone: Tiffany & Co. sends jewelry to London to have it hallmarked so they can sell it on the European market. Most jewelry makers don’t realize how fast and inexpensive it is to have jewelry hallmarked now, given modern technology. If you’re selling something for $1,000 or more and it only costs $10 to get it hallmarked, that’s a worthwhile investment. You can also get volume discounts.

 

French maker's mark

What can I learn from hallmarks if I’m collecting estate or antique jewelry made in France or other parts of Europe?

Whetstone: In some countries, hallmarks can tell you what city and what year a piece was made. At the very least, they allow you to figure out the country of origin and that’s really important. Somebody recently sent me a picture of an Art Deco piece they thought was French. It wasn’t. It was Egyptian. It was extremely well made. There were a lot of talented craftsmen in Egypt during 1920s who came from France and England and were doing very fine work. But this person thought the piece came from France. Does it make a difference in value if a piece is French Art Deco instead of Eyptian Art Deco? Yes, a big difference.

Does understanding hallmarks mean I can buy antique jewelry on eBay – or is it best to avoid that?

Whetstone: eBay is a viable market, providing you’ve done your research to make sure what you’re looking at is correct. I buy on eBay. One problem with buying on eBay is that I consistently see stuff that is just wrong. I informed a seller recently that something advertised as “made in the 1700s” was actually made in the 1930s in Czechoslovakia. In many cases, mistakes like that are innocent and they thank me and take it down. But that is why you have to read and do your homework before buying.

Want to learn more about evaluating old jewelry? Check out Bill and Danusia’s site, Hallmark Research Institute – and come to Jewelry Camp this summer! It takes place July 27-29, 2012, in Westchester, NY. I’ll be speaking there, along with experts in all aspects of antique and vintage jewels.

Related posts:

How to buy a jewelry loupe

How to photograph jewelry: tips from the pros

How to spot fake gems in old jewelry

How to buy ancient jewelry for $3,000 or less

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63 Responses to What you need to know about jewelry hallmarks

  1. Hallmark Research Institute on April 3, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Hello k,

    There are three recognized methods currently used in the stamping of fineness on precious metals. The first and most globally used method of marking fineness on precious metals is the Millesimal System where pure metal fineness is defined as the whole number 1000. As the precious metal purity is diluted with alloys, the amount of precious metal is reduced, as is the 1000 number to reflect the remaining portion of precious metal. For example, the most common silver fineness recognized is the sterling standard of 925. This translates to 925/1000 or 925 parts of 1000 is silver. What is a common fineness for gold is 750, or 750/1000, 585 is 585/1000, etc. This method is used for all precious metals.
    An alternate method used only to define gold fineness is the karat system, where the 1000 purity is defined as 24 karat. The 750 fineness, that is actually 3/4 gold to alloy, would be in the karat system translated as 18 karat. A 585 fineness would be 14k, and so on.
    The final system that is currently in use refers to a simple standard number. In countries that have hallmarking laws, often the number used within the mark is a simple count of the number of the standard. In the hallmark which is very small without much room to put a full 3 digit fineness, a single digit standard number fits nicely. To understand the number within the hallmark, the country would first have to be identified, then the determination what are that country’s legal purity standards. The highest standard would be assigned 1, the next standard would be 2, and so on down the line. For example, if a country has three legal standards for gold like 10k, 14k, and 18k, the 18k would be identified as a 1 in the hallmark. The 14k would be 2, the 10k would be 3. This method is used for all precious metals.

    Hope that helps!

  2. Cheryl Havens on October 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    I have a ring marked 14K IK then a circle? It is a beautiful ring. How do I find out who made this ring?

  3. Hallmark Research Institute on October 16, 2013 at 1:34 am

    Hi Cheryl,
    It is not apparent but you have asked what numerous people have asked before but the comments have been so extensive that they were archived under the “older comments” above. Many people want to find the maker of their jewelry and only have a couple of letters or a symbol to go on with items that are sold in the USA. Since there are no hallmarking and limited responsibility mark (maker’s mark) requirements here, there is very little need for a maker to go through the expense of registering their mark as a trademark, thus no single registry other than the US Trademark and Patent Office.
    To help you find what we have been telling those seeking their maker’s marks, the following is an extracted section of text from one of the questions similar to yours. You can read more if you click the link that follows…

    “You can check the Art Guide Source – Bob Mitchell started a registry where contemporary designers can list their trademarks for brand recognition. You can start there.
    Heritage Auctions – Heritage Auctions began documenting the marks on items (mostly silver) that have passed through their galleries for years. They have put the vast collection on line in a search engine that is quite useful.
    AppraisersUnderOath.com has the only jewelry trademark search engine that pulled its data from the US Patent & Trademark Office. It is fee based and a bit hard to navigate through.
    WorthPoint.com boasts a mark’s database that we have not reviewed yet. It is also fee based.
    So as you can see, there are resources to search through but in simple answer to your question, no there is no single place to go to see gold maker’s marks.
    Good luck in your searching!”

    Hallmark Research Institute
    - See more at: http://thejewelryloupe.com/jewelry-hallmarks-ultimate-consumer-protection/comment-page-1/#comments

  4. camille on November 4, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    I have a bracelet with a R and half moon under the left side of the R can you tell me who this is?

  5. Lucy on January 5, 2014 at 4:44 am

    I have a very thick criss cross necklace the base is sterling but it looks like a thick gold is place over it, it is marked an O or a cero slashed vertical on the center next to a number 54, under is 925 and then 750 also a date that looks like 1838 1839.
    I have not idea where it came from, I know is an old piece.
    can somebody give me any idea Thanks

  6. Danusia on January 5, 2014 at 7:51 am

    Hi Lucy,
    It sounds like you might have a Russian hallmark but it would be necessary to see a picture of it to be sure. You can send a close up, clear, full size image of the hallmark to the email link at http://www.hallmarkresearch.com/html/questions.htm.

    Hallmark Research Institute

  7. Diana on January 10, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I’m so happy to have found this !

    My Mom died last March and trying to help my Dad sell off her vintage jewelry collection.
    Much of it is ready to go as she had them label and priced…
    Among the pieces that she didn’t get to, is a carved cameo that has a lantern (?) design on the clasp.
    I see no other markings at all. I guessing that this is a maker’s mark, but have no idea whose.
    If anyone has any information, I would really appreciate it :)
    Thank you so much for the time and effort that you have put in to this wonderful and informative page. I am enjoying looking it over !
    Here is my photo of the mark – it is on a curved claps and hard to see:
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10201758354413397&set=a.2095736505811.2114348.1017287400&type=1&relevant_count=1

    Here is the mark again in someone else’s photo on a flat part:
    http://imageevent.com/myfinestthings/jr?p=16&w=4&c=4&n=0&m=-1&s=0&y=1&z=2&l=0

  8. Ingrid on January 20, 2014 at 4:37 am

    Love that I found your site. I was searching for info on a 14k C+F OR C+B on this vintage Tiffany & Co watch. A wind up delicate rope like gold bands. Do you have any info on what C+F OR C+B means?
    Thanks for the great article!

  9. Danusia Niklewicz on January 22, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    The key here is to recognize first if the mark you are looking at is a hallmark or a trademark (maker’s mark). Since the United States does not have hallmarking laws, if your precious metal item was made in the USA, then the marks are the maker’s marks not hallmarks. To read more on the difference go to the Hallmark Research Institute’s website to learn more…

    http://www.hallmarkresearch.com/html/HvsT.htm

    To research your trademark or maker’s mark, go to the links page and begin your search with the links located under the Trademarks heading…

    http://www.hallmarkresearch.com/html/links.htm

    Happy Trademark Hunting!

  10. Ingrid on January 23, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Thanks you for the info!!

  11. Bill on June 24, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    I have a ring, looks like gold, with possible hallmarks : FB. 9 . Then 2 stars. I thought it may have a history from South Africa. Any suggestions? It also has 3 stones set in it, but not clasped, but appear glued into ring substance. Any ideas, they are clear stones, no colour. Thank you

  12. johanna on July 25, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Hi i also have a gold? ring with themakers mark F.P 9 and 2 stars it has the stones missing i dont know whether this is gold or not aaany clues of country etc .

  13. johanna on July 25, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    I also have like along gold book chain necklace with a hand tag that says POLD DESIGN any ideas

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