They are calling for the government and British Hallmarking Council to protect the industry from what they say is a major threat to the 700-year-old system for stamping silver, gold and other objects made of precious metals.
The campaigners claim that the drive by UK assay offices to set up ‘offshore’ operations and stamp items with the same traditional British symbols will damage the market and undermine the status given to items holding these stamps. They argue that the rigorous practices and legislation that applies to British hallmarking cannot be guaranteed where operations are conducted outside of UK jurisdiction.
A petition to Parliament calling for these overseas hallmarks to be different to those in the UK has already gathered over 1000 signatures and 57 silversmiths and jewellers have signed letter of complaint to British Hallmarking Council, the organisation that advises the government and oversees hallmarking in the UK.
The issue has come to the fore after Birmingham Assay Office’s sub-division in Mumbai, India recently authorised the stamping of items with identical UK marks – including the anchor symbol which has been used to identify items assayed in Birmingham in the UK since 1773. Other offices in Italy and New York are also set to follow suit in using British hallmarks.
With an office in Mumbai now striking identical marks as Birmingham, the protesters point out that, when purchasing an item with a Birmingham assay mark, both consumers and retailers will be unable to tell if the item was assayed in the UK or Mumbai, unless it is carefully examined by an expert.
John Langford of London silversmith and jewellers Braybrook & Britten who launched the petition told ATG that allowing items to be stamped ‘offshore’ in this way would “downgrade” the whole market. He pointed out that UK hallmarks effectively give a gold or silver object a “passport” that is recognised throughout the EU and the world’s major markets.
“The hallmarking system has guaranteed the integrity of UK silver over the centuries,” he said. “What Birmingham Assay Office are doing is tantamount to flogging off 700 years of history.
“It’s nonsensical and it’s difficult to find anyone who can give you a proper reason why this is happening.”
The UK now has four assay offices – London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh – whose marks endorse the precious-metal content of items. At the heart of the issue is whether the same level of testing applied in the UK can be guaranteed when operations are conducted outside of UK jurisdiction.
“To apply an identical UK hallmark, in another country well beyond UK legal jurisdiction and without the added oversight of such bodies as Trading Standards and the National Measurement & Regulation Office, is to mislead the consumer,” said Langford. “It is no longer a UK hallmark.”
However, the British Hallmarking Council has made it clear that they do not consider overseas sub-offices to represent any reputational risk that would reduce demand for bespoke British-made silver and gold. In a reply to the companies that signed letters outlining their concerns, the BHC stated its position that the use of the marks overseas will not mislead customers or be applied to poor quality products.
Langford has now written to the minister for business and industry Baroness Neville-Rolfe pointing out that allowing ‘offshore’ hallmarks to be indistinguishable from those struck in the UK is contrary to previous assurances given by the Government.
Back in 2013, UK assay offices were granted the opportunity to compete for trade across the world and allow manufacturers in places like India and China access to an assay mark. But, at the time, it was agreed that these assay marks applied overseas should be clearly differentiated from those applied by a UK office. Indeed, all four UK assay offices designed specific marks to be used in offshore operations but it would seem that these have now been discarded.
Viscount Younger of Leckie stated in the House of Lords in January 2013 that having two sets of marks would “help introduce clarity to consumers, retailers and the enforcement community alike”.
The petition now posted on the UK Parliament website states: “In 2013 the four UK Assay Offices were allowed to open up sub-offices in other countries. The intention was that 'offshore' assayed items would carry a different hallmark. Birmingham Assay Office in Mumbai, India are using Birmingham hallmarks identical to the UK marks. This misleads the consumer.”
The petition aims to raise 10,000 signatures, forcing the government to respond to this issues raised.