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Hallmarking of jewellery articles: U.S.A. and Canada

14 november 2007

U.S.A.
U.S. jewelers know it well that in their former metropolis, the United Kingdom, every jewelry item, without exception, is tested, assayed and hallmarked under the government control already in the course of seven centuries. However, it seems tedious and excessive for the Americans: they are proud of their traditional system of self-regulation and public control over commodities and consumers’ rights. The U.S.A. history has approved itself in terms of this problem per se.

The necessity to establish an original hallmark for precious metal items in the U.S.A. came up only when their mass production and sales began. Although the first silversmiths came from England, the English hallmarking system was not applied in the original commercial and industrial business of the New World and did not even serve as a prototype.
For a long time, almost all silver items and money were of European make and had standard continental hallmarks. Thus, it was not necessary to introduce any American equivalent. Nearly up to the beginning of the 18th century, the economic and political situation in the country did not permit to set up a clear-cut system of government control over production of precious metal articles, as was the case in Europe or Russia. One may come across initial silver hallmarks in the U.S.A. only in the early 18th century and only in cities located on the Eastern Coast, that is in New England.

In the 18th century, after the country created its own state monetary system and developed private silversmithing it faced the necessity to take care of a reliable silver standard.
Early American hallmarks as a rule depicted the emblem of the state where articles were made and tested. Thus, in Connecticut the hallmark bore three vine grapes and the state emblem, which was initially engraved in 1702 by John Kenny for the first Connecticut colonial coin. However, from the first half of the 19th century more and more U.S. silver items were stamped with personal hallmarks of artisans or vendors, who were legally responsible for metal quality.

New York and Boston used the British model to set up their first jeweler corporations, which developed and approved their own charter. In Baltimore, they organized a special bureau for precious metals where silver and gold item were tested by selected assay masters responsible for quality of their work. The full set of hallmarks included an obligatory hallmark bearing the master’s name and a hallmark with the state emblem and the assay number.
One specific feature of the American hallmark of this period, distinguishing it from its European counterpart, which at that time used only the artisan’s or the workshop owner’s initials, was that it included both two initials and a full jeweler’s name arranged in a circle or an oval as an ornamental fringe, which nowadays makes it simple to attribute it. However, already in the 19th century there appeared more and more manufacturer hallmarks guaranteeing metal quality.

Jewelers of America is one of such organizations.  By putting the “J” letter above the entrance to their stores its members guarantee quality of their wares and take up obligations to observe the Code of Ethics.
In 1966, the Federal Trade Commission issued the Guidelines for the Jewelry Industry, whose 2001 revision is currently in force (see http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/guides/jewel-gd.htm). Only permitted words and abbreviations happen to be the field of government regulation.

Thus, it is permitted to use the word “gold” for jewelry gold alloys ranging from 10 K. to 24 K., as for example “14 K. Gold” or “14 K.”; for gold plated items the wording will be “2 microns 12 K. gold plate”.
There are two types of silver to be used: 1) 925 silver for which the synonyms Silver, Solid Silver, Sterling Silver, Sterling, Sterl. may be used; 2) 900 silver is permitted to be called coin or coin silver. There are no prescriptions for silver plated products.
Platinum alloys have three assay numbers - 950, 900 and 850 – and two types of metal denomination – Pt and Plat., for instance “900Pt.”
The U.S.A. has a special hallmarking law, the National Stamping Act, but it refers to bank ingots.
As an experiment, in 2002 in New York there was established the American Assay & Gemological Office (AAG) being the branch of the Birmingham Assay Office. As is known, the Birmingham Assay Office is accredited under ISO 17025 and certified under ISO 9002 (Certificates ISO/IEC 62 and 65). Evidently, this status is covering now the American organization as well. The prices for services are in agreement with British taxes.

Table 1. Prices for services rendered by the American Assay & Gemological Office
Type of service                 Price, $
Fire assay cupellation of gold 25
Fire assay cupellation of gold and silver 35
Mark-up in price for platinum and palladium 20
Silver solution 20
Assaying gold 65
Assaying gold and silver 85
Mark-up in price for platinum and palladium 20
Defining thickness of plating  65
Semi-quantitative X-ray fluorescence analysis of alloys 20
Assaying gold solution 30
Acid testing 15
Arbitration appraisal 250 and more
Source: www.theassayoffice.com ; 15 West 47th Street, Suite 1303, NY, NY 10036 Tel: 212.221.6565 Fax: 212.221.9206

As is seen from the table, the Office does not even offer hallmarking of single articles. Michael Olchin, an assay master from Birmingham, was sincere to state that hallmarking was an “impractical” offer for American consumers. The Assay Office was the last thing they cared for.
In general, according to Cecily Gardner, CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC), no one expects changes in the U.S. legislation on hallmarking, so retail sellers should take care of their goods quality individually. Buyers in their turn should be vigilant and scrupulous. As they say, God helps those who help themselves.
It is common practice for jewelry sellers to assay some samples from a batch of jewelry products. Incidentally, the members of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee are given an opportunity to perform five X-ray analyses free of charge.

Due to absence of a proper assaying system, the U.S.A. is suffering from widely spread underkarating, i.e. sellers offer to buyers alloys where gold content is lower than declared. For example, if price tags mention 18 K. gold it may turn out to be 17 K. gold. However, this may happen mainly at dime stores, during sales, at jewelry stalls and jewelry exchange outlets. Since buyers in this case are quite aware of the situation, they usually raise no objections, so the cheap stuff is selling well.

On the whole, the best guarantee in the U.S.A. is the trademark of a manufacturer, who is fully responsible before the law. Americans are well known for their common barratry: they are quick to sue if suspect violations of consumer rights and win huge claims.
Thus, it may be said that in the U.S.A. it is not the government hallmark, but the threat of legal prosecution, which serves the major protection against unscrupulous sellers.

Canada
The first colonists and the first jewellers to come to the territory of French Canada were immigrants from France, so the major part of jewelry, too, came from this country. Thus, from the start of independent jewelry production in Canada the original Canadian hallmarks were actually identical to those French. First of all, this was true in relation to letter initials placed inside a figurate heraldic shield under a crown, a lily and a star.

After 1763, in the period of British colonization the hallmark was made much simpler losing some elements of the French monarchical heraldry and leaving only letter symbols in a rectangular or semi-circled shield. Instead of a state emblem or a city emblem, the Quebec and Montreal artisans put in short inscriptions containing ciphered names of cities. For instance, the Halifax (New Scotland) artisans affixed the “H”, “HX” or “XNS” letters, while those from Saint John (New Brunswick) set in “STJ” or “NB”.

From the beginning of the 19th century, the Canadian set of hallmarks largely resembled the traditional U.K. hallmarks, and in the period from 1908 to 1946, the hallmark itself complied with the British sterling standard, i.e. the .925 assay grade.
At present, in force is the Precious Metals Marking Act adopted in 1996. It served the basis for developing the Hallmarking Regulations. See http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/pics/ct/cp01001e.pdf for the appropriate documents. The Act and the Regulations proceed from the buyer’s right to have valid information about the quality of a jewelry article. The major responsibility for hallmarking and its correctness lies with dealers – physical persons engaged in jewelry turnover, i.e. manufacturers, importers, wholesale traders, retail merchants (chief executive officers, managers, officers or agents). This kind of personal liability is an outstanding peculiarity of the Canadian hallmarking system.
The regulations pertaining to hallmarking are not many. In the first place, the hallmark must be registered on the Register of Trademarks, Industry Canada. In the second place, if an article was hallmarked in the United Kingdom, there is no need to affix additional hallmarks (a kind of a gesture of trust towards the British hallmarking system). In the third place, there is no need in additional hallmarking for wares brought from the countries, which are recognized by the Department of Industry. In the fourth place, for Canadian jewelry it is permitted to use the national hallmark – the maple-leaf inside the “C” letter. Finally, it is allowed to apply any methods to affix a hallmark.

The greater part of hallmarking regulations describes recommended designations for solid items, hollow ware and for articles with various coatings. It is permitted to use both commonly accepted abbreviations and inscriptions in the English or French languages. For instance, silver items with assay grades not lower than .925 may have the hallmarks of “.925”, “silver”; “sterling silver”; “sterling”; “argent”; “argent sterling”. Gold coating of several micrometers may be marked as “gold electroplate”; “gold plated”; “G.E.P”; “electro-plaque d`or”; “or plaque”.
There is a detailed description of tolerances. Thus, gold articles from 9 K. to 24 K. may have a tolerance of 3/1000 if unsoldered and 7/1000 if soldered. White gold articles of 18 K., if soldered, must contain 15 parts of gold per 1 000 parts by weight. For articles produced in .925 silver or better, 2 parts of silver are permitted per 1 000 parts by weight, where no solder is used, and 6 parts per 1 000 parts by weight, where solder is used.
Taken as a whole, the Canadian system is close to the hallmarking system of the U.S.A., although it is more stringent, as if inoculated by the British hallmarking views.