As a vintage collector and aficionado, I’ve been intrigued by the history and symbolism behind jewellery for even longer than I’ve been collecting it. Interpreting hallmarks is where a jewel’s exploration begins, while engravings are what really tell its story. Rings, in particular, are loaded with meaning and significance and are known to be the most intimate jewel that we wear since ancient Egyptian times. They’ve been in existence for over six thousand years, appearing in almost every culture of the world and serving various purposes, both practical and symbolic.
Apart from satisfying purely decorative needs, rings have also functioned as symbols of authority, fidelity, and social status. Throughout history and literature, rings were used as tangible evidence of wealth and power (hence “The Ring of Power” in the LOTR series). They served as symbolic expressions of faith and personal talismans for protection against evil forces. Designs with hollow bezels were even used as poison containers for purposes of suicide or homicide (yes, that’s not just a movie trick) or for holding perfume and miniature keepsakes of sentimental value.
But for the most part, rings served to seal correspondences and authenticate documents in business transactions, memorialise friendships, honour the dead, and of course, pledge one heart to another.
Being such an omnipresent item, rings from all periods have survived to this day, providing a fascinating timeline of major design themes and valuable insights into crafting techniques of the past. Understanding hallmarks and ring engravings is where one really begins to dive into the history of a period ring. But since this tricky part requires some prior knowledge, let’s take a crash course on the beloved jewel’s marks.
Have you ever picked up a ring in an antique shop and wished you could find out a bit more about it? Well, with a little knowledge in deciphering hallmarks, anyone can date and locate their jewellery piece.
A hallmark resembles a stamp found on the reverse side of the ring, and although there are many types of marks, it mainly consists of four compulsory symbols: the maker’s mark, the assay office mark, the metal (and sometimes fineness) mark, and the date letter. The latter has been optional since 1999, but if you’re looking at vintage and antique ring hallmarks, it will usually feature among the others.
The maker’s mark indicates the maker or sponsor responsible for sending the ring for hallmarking. In most cases, it was struck by the manufacturer, who must be registered with an assay office to obtain such a mark. Traditionally, the maker’s mark was used for identifying and holding that person or company accountable if any problems arose with the precious metal content of an artefact. And since no two marks are the same, this makes the jewel 100% traceable.
Although it usually serves as a trademark nowadays, the maker’s mark doesn’t necessarily mean that the item was made by the one whose mark is struck. It simply indicates the person responsible for the item’s purity, while the sponsor may also be the wholesaler, importer, retailer, or an individual. Whatever the case, important names like Cartier and Boucheron will undoubtedly add to a vintage ring’s value and are usually followed by the item’s serial number.
A typical maker’s mark consists of at least two letters (usually the maker’s initials) and a pictorial symbol within a surround or the unique company mark. Regulations sometimes required the surround to be of a specific shape, like the lozenge shape, which was made mandatory for French maker’s marks in 1797.
One of the first maker’s marks for René Lalique (1860-1945), Art Nouveau pioneer and leading jeweller of the Belle Epoque.
Image courtesy of Antique Jewelry University
Ampersands were typical for British (and former British colonies) maker’s marks, while the US made these marks mandatory only in 1961, and they usually feature a registered trademark or the maker’s/company’s full name.
For a quick search on hallmarks and maker’s marks, you can use this index by describing the mark’s features to get matching results.
Assay Office Mark
The assay office mark indicates the specific place where the antique or vintage ring was tested and marked. They are also called city or town marks, as the financial prosperity in the late middle ages pushed many nations with mandatory hallmarking to open new assay offices across the country for accommodating local precious metalsmiths.
That’s why this mark often depicts the country’s or specific city’s heraldic shield or another distinguishable pictorial symbol. Today, hallmarks are carried out by assay offices situated in many countries worldwide, but they’re most prevalent in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In some cases, they are operated by the state, and in others, they are run as private businesses while some of their marks haven’t changed in hundreds of years.
The largest assay office in the world is the one in Birmingham, UK, and the city’s distinctive anchor mark can be found on many items.
Metal (purity) and Fineness Mark
The metal or purity mark is one of the first stamps to look for when inspecting vintage jewellery hallmarks. It indicates the material and percentage of precious metal used to create the item. These marks are expressed with numerals, where each number corresponds to the fineness of the metal indicated in parts per thousand. The higher the number, the higher the quality.
It might surprise you, but gold is quite soft in its purest form and not very suitable for creating jewellery. But in bygone eras, where only the ultra-rich could afford golden jewellery, this wasn’t a concern since household chores were left to the servants. That’s why antique pieces are usually made with finer gold and are sometimes too precious or delicate to wear. As times changed, diluted metals, known as “alloys”, were added to make the jewels more durable.
The amount of precious metal used to create an alloy is called the “purity” of the alloy, and it was primarily expressed in carats until the mid-20th century. The abbreviation will also give you a good clue to the jewel’s possible origin since the carat weight is abbreviated as “k” in Germany and the USA and “ct” in Great Britain and the English Commonwealth. However, in UK hallmarks, the abbreviation was often omitted altogether, leaving just the number.
Carat weight is expressed in divisions of 24, with 24 being the purest gold. If you see a purity mark of 18ct, this means that the alloy used to create the jewel consists of 18 parts of gold and six parts of other metal. In percentage terms, the gold content of this jewel would be 75% (18/24 x 100 = 75%). As more and more countries adopted the metric system, purity was mostly expressed in parts of thousands, with 1000/1000 being pure gold and therefore the gold hallmark for 18ct being 750.
Silver, platinum, and palladium purity stamps are similar to those for gold, but the numbers and contours are slightly different. Many post-1870 USA silver pieces are also stamped with the phrase “sterling” (925/1000), while coin silver (900/1000), often marked “coin”, was the silver standard in the country before that. You wouldn’t find these marks on antique and vintage jewellery from other countries unless it was fabricated for export.
In addition, because hallmarking on all precious metals became compulsory only around the 1920s, jewellery in the Georgian and Victorian eras was often sold without proper hallmarks. As a result, the Assay Office states that with adequate proof from the seller of the manufacturing date and minimum fineness, any pre-1950 jewel without a hallmark can be sold as precious metal.
An optional addition to hallmarks and independent mark for metal purity commonly used by several countries was a pictorial fineness mark. These marks can be found on many vintage and antique jewellery pieces and indicate the metal used to create an item, but you would need an encyclopedia to recognise the many stamps used worldwide. Common UK symbols include an orb for platinum, a crown for gold, and a lion for silver.
Although such stamps are still being used in some parts of the world, they mostly gave way to their modern numerical alternatives, which came into use after the year 2000.
Date Letter in Hallmarks
Date letters were first introduced in 1478 in London and were a mandatory part of the hallmark stamp until becoming optional in 1999. Contrary to popular belief, these letters don’t indicate the time of an item’s fabrication but rather the year a piece was offered for hallmarking. “Why use letters and not dates then?” you might ask. Well, that’s because the original purpose of the letters was slightly different.
According to new English regulations at the time, all gold and silver artefacts had to be assayed by a government-controlled body at Goldsmith’s Hall in London. Fun fact: This is how the word “hallmark” was coined, as items had to be “marked at the Hall”. A prominent guild member was usually assigned the role of head assayer, and the position changed hands every year. To prevent fraud, a new assay responsibility mark was introduced and took the form of a letter from the alphabet, indicating the responsible assay master.
That meant that the same letter should be used every 25 years (some letters were skipped). Each new cycle of alphabets is stamped in a different letter font and/or surrounding shape to prevent confusion and make items easier to date.
The date letter varied by office as to which year has which mark until it became uniform for every city in 1975. Hence, checking the date mark of antique and vintage jewellery alongside the assay office mark is crucial for determining the correct year. It’s also good to remember that small and delicate jewels hardly ever feature date letters, as there was often no room for a complete set of marks.
Today, the date letter changes every year on January 1st and corresponds to a year.
RING ENGRAVINGS AND SECRET CODES
Contrary to hallmarks, which help determine the age and quality of a ring, personalised engravings tell the unique story behind them. Many original pieces from the Georgian era to the mid-20th century feature inscriptions steeped in significance and symbolism. These included initials, dedications, meaningful mottos, secret lovers’ messages, and keepsake codes that held special meaning for the giver and the recipient.
Such sentimental pieces and adornments of affection were at their height in the aptly named Romantic Period (1837-1860) of the Victorian age. Heart-felt, religious, and witty emotions were expressed through letters, mottos or sayings in rings, engraved either on the outside or inside of the band.
A prominent ring engraving was the entwined initials AEI, which translate to ‘always’ from Greek and symbolised everlasting love. The code stood for Amity, Eternity, and Infinity, making it a popular addition to both love and mourning jewellery in the mid-to-late 1800s. Similar engravings that expressed eternal dedication to someone were ‘I Cling To Thee’, ‘Dedié À Vous’ (dedicated to you), ‘Amour’ (love), and ‘Everthine’ or ‘Ever Thine’.
‘Opening rings’ also enjoyed popularity during the Georgian and Victorian eras and beyond. As the name suggests, their outer band opens to reveal hidden words, symbols or even ‘souvenirs’, such as a lock of hair. Few fine examples of vintage and antique opening rings have survived to this day, perhaps because their design is more fragile and prone to breakage. Of the rare ones to survive, many carry the engraving ‘Darling’ or ‘Mizpah’.
Mizpah is a Hebrew word from the biblical story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis, literally translating to ‘watchtower’ and loosely interpreted as “May God watch over you”. Mizpah rings often featured the engraving on the outside of the band and were usually exchanged between sweethearts in the Victorian era from the mid-to-late 1800s as a promise of continued devotion before a separation period. People believed that the word’s biblical power would keep their loved ones safe on their travels and ensure their return.
An older example of intimate ring engravings and inscriptions were poesy or posy rings, whose popularity extended from the 15th to 17th century England and France. They derived their name from the French word for poetry (poésie) and were inscribed with short verses and meaningful sayings.
Post-medieval (1724-1764) gold posy ring with the inscription “As I expect so let me find A faithful heart a constant mind”. Image courtesy of The British Museum
Fast forward to the 20th century, perhaps the most famous examples of hidden lovers’ messages were those of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whose entire romance could be told through jewels. King Edward VIII frequently gifted Wallis Simpson with jewellery engraved with intimate messages and secret codes, recalling moments and emotions that highlighted their love story. An early Cartier diamond and ruby heart charm she received opened to reveal the Blaise Pascal line “The Heart Has Its Reasons”, which later became the title of the Duchess’s memoir.
And, in a time when personalisation continues to be more popular than ever, many contemporary designs feature secret engravings and hidden gems (literally). From surprise birthstones hidden inside rings to Jessica McCormack’s wedding band designs with meaningful inscriptions, sentimentality is still valued today.
In fact, before her wedding, Jessica McCormack was inspired by a Georgian-era ring exhibited at the British Museum to have her husband’s ring engraved with the message “Two Hands One Heart, Till Death Us Part.”
Now that you’re more familiar with interpreting hallmarks on vintage jewellery and recognising popular antique ring engravings don’t forget to visit my shop and find that period piece that speaks right to your heart.
Til next time, happy vintage-hunting!
This is very detailed and I’ve learned a lot about deciphering hallmarks! Amazing job!!