The study of jewelry marks is a fascinating subject infused with history, culture, and art. Often overlooked due to their minuscule size, the etchings hidden within jewelry are a window into the “who, what, and where” of the object— and are well worth a serious look.
From contemporary pieces to antiques, jewelry hallmarks are typically found on gold and silver jewelry. These hallmarks — commonly known as purity marks, maker’s marks, symbols, or date letters — can give you some useful insight on the materials, epoch, and producer of a piece of jewelry.
If you’re looking to expand your jewelry collection or would like to know more about the examples you already have, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide on what these tiny etchings really mean – and how to ensure you’re buying the real thing.
A Brief History of Jewelry Marks
To be considered an antique, a piece of jewelry must be 100 years or older, while a vintage piece must be 20 years or older. Retro jewelry refers to pieces made during the 1940s and 1950s and are characterized by the use of large and colorful gemstones.
In the United States, the National Gold and Silver Stamping Act of 1906 required jewelers to include an accurate purity mark, which indicates the materials used in a given work. In 1961, the American government also mandated that jewelry manufacturers include a maker’s mark, which indicates the maker.
Hallmarking in Great Britain has had a long history dating back to the 14th century and today’s standards are regulated by the Hallmarking Act of 1973. Any British jewelry made prior to 1999 were required to include a date letter stamp, a letter corresponding to the year that it was registered with the assay office. Assay offices are official governmental establishments who are tasked to assay, or test, the purity of jewelry metals and in some cases, to hallmark the jewelry.
Jewelry marks in France stretch back even earlier, with examples first seen in the 13th century. An important year to know if you’re collecting French antique jewelry is the year 1797, when it was required to have a maker’s mark framed within a lozenge, a diamond-shaped charge that is often placed on the field of a shield.
Common Jewelry Marks
Purity marks on gold jewelry will consist of a two-digit number followed by the letter “k,” or a three-digit number. The letter “k” refers to karats, where pure gold is composed of 24 karats (24k). A piece of jewelry with an etching that reads “18k” or “750” indicates that it is made up of 75 percent gold, while a “14k” or “585” mark indicates the metal is constructed with 58.5 percent gold.
Jewelry engraved with HGE (Heavy Gold Electroplate), GE (Gold Electroplate), or GF (Gold Filled) may appear to be made of gold, but is actually fashioned from other materials such as copper and contains only a very small amount of gold.
Silver purity marks also specify metal content where sterling silver is 92.5 percent pure silver. Therefore, for sterling silver, look for marks that include “925,” “STERLING,” “STG,” or “STER.” Watch out for metals that are etched with “German Silver” or “Nickel Silver”- these pieces are not made up of any silver at all, but are actually composed of copper, nickel, and zinc. If jewelry is marked with “Vermeil,” it is a piece of sterling silver topped off with gold plating.
When considering platinum jewelry, the purity mark “950” denotes a composition of 95 percent platinum with a mix of other metal alloys, while “900” is made up of 90 percent platinum, and “850” has 85 percent platinum.
Maker’s marks may include logos, trademarks, company names, and designer signatures to specify who made the jewelry. Iconic jewelry house Tiffany & Co., for example, has featured several maker’s marks throughout their 179-year history, including “Tiffany & Co.” and “T & Co.” Special edition Tiffany & Co. collections created by designers Frank Gehry, Paloma Picasso, Jean Schlumberger, and Elsa Peretti also feature the designers’ signatures on the jewelry.
With antique and vintage pieces, French brand Cartier had to adhere to several guidelines set forth by the French government. Present-day Cartier jewelry is always engraved with the Cartier logo, along with a serial number specific to that piece only.
Jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels will also include a serial number accompanying the brand trademark, and depending on the era of the piece, the maker’s mark can either read “Van Cleef & Arpels” or “VCA.”
Other Symbols & Letters
Aside from purity and maker’s marks, some jewelry will also have symbols and letters, particularly hallmarks, inscribed on it. Many of these symbols and letters found on jewelry originate from assay offices.
Jewelry from the UK contains a series of compulsory and optional jewelry marks set out by the countries’ assay offices. One of the compulsory marks is the Assay Office Mark, a symbol which indicates the regional office that hallmarked the item: an anchor signifies Birmingham, a castle for Edinburgh, a leopard’s head for London, and a rose for Sheffield.
“International, particularly European, jewelry typically has hallmarks, while American jewelry is usually stamped 14k or 18k,” says Virginia Salem, head of the Jewelry & Watches Department at Freeman’s. “Hallmarks tell the story of the piece, and usually what country the item came from, as well as the artist and date made.”
The date letter stamp, a requirement for British jewelry until 1999, is useful to know if you need to date a piece of vintage or retro jewelry. Silver pieces imprinted with a lion denotes 92.5 percent silver — thus sterling silver — while the Britannia mark means that it has 95.8 percent pure silver.
Starting in 1838, an eagle’s head on a piece of gold jewelry indicated that the jewelry was from France and that it had a minimum of 18k gold. Additionally, a boar’s head was the mark of the Paris assay office, while offices outside the capital city used a crab emblem.
Tips for Avoiding Counterfeits
Since gold, silver, and branded jewelry are highly sought-after, encountering counterfeit jewelry is always a risk that collectors need to keep in mind. If you’re purchasing jewelry online, always ask for clear pictures of the jewelry marks from the seller to help you ensure it’s a genuine piece.
Auction houses in particular are important resources for learning more about jewelry marks. Prior to bidding online or in-person, you can request additional information from specialists should you have any questions or concerns. Pro Tip: Any easy way to connect to specialists is to use the “Request Info” button for your jewelry piece of interest on Invaluable. If you’re buying instantly from an Invaluable dealer or gallery, you can select the “Ask This Seller a Question” button.
The best way to keep from buying imitation jewelry is to familiarize yourself with the most important marks and signature hallmarks of specific brands. While there are countless jewelry marks to know, additional resources, including Birmingham Assay Office, and, adds Salem, Lang Jewelry University, which is well documented and covers a wide range of estate jewelry, are excellent reference guides for further detail about specific markings.
Ready to start your search? Explore upcoming jewelry auctions on Invaluable including Henry’s Auktionshaus AG’s Diamonds, Gemstones, Antique Jewellery, and Silverware (October 27), Accademia Fine Art’s Bijoux (October 29), Chiswick Auctions’ Jewellery and Watches (November 1), Kodner Galleries’ Fine Art, Antiques, and Estate Jewelry (November 2), Alex Cooper’s Jewelry, Silver & Collectibles (November 4), Freeman’s Jewelry & Watches (November 7), and more.