The History of Glasgow Assay Office
While many associated the assay office with the past, they are still around today serving a vital function in the hallmarking of precious metals. While the Glasgow Assay Office has been closed for more than a half-century, it served the public interests in the region thanks to its diligent work in testing and hallmarking noble metals to protect the consumer.
This means for silversmiths and manufacturers, using precious metals that have been officially recognized for their purity is an important part of their business. From France to England to Scotland to the US and around the world, the assay office is a critical part of quality control for the use of precious or noble metals.
Today, there are assay offices around the world. In the UK, there are four assay offices that serve the public with their testing and identification of noble metals.
Function of an Assay Office
The basic function of the assay office is to test the purity of noble or precious metals. This means metals that are usually removed from the earth, although the testing can also be performed on items that may contain precious metals. The assay office may be most associated with the UK and the Old West in the United States, but it was actually created in France during the 13th century with the Goldsmith’s Statute of 1260.
The assay office was established to provide protection for those who purchased either raw precious metals or those used in the manufacturing of products. Using standardised guidelines, the testing of the metals is performed to provide confidence in the public that the metals are as advertised.
The assay offices tests the metals for their purity and those that meet or exceed the standards are marked. Manufacturers who create products from precious metals will only take those that that have been so hallmarked by an assay office.
What is Hallmarking?
Hallmarking is the official stamping of precious or noble metals such as gold, silver, and platinum. Although in some nations palladium is also hallmarked. It is an official mark that designates the metal to be of noble nature. This means metals that have an inherent value well beyond how they are used to create many different products.
The Glasgow Assay Office had a unique hallmark that not only distinguished the noble metals that were stamped, but where the metals were hallmarked. From 1819 to its closing in 1964, the hallmark was distinguished by the inclusion of a tree, fish, and bell which denotes the location as being in Glasgow. Such hallmarking efforts before 1819 included these items in other Scottish towns as well.
Early History of Assay Office in Glasgow
The Glasgow Assay Office was officially established in 1819. However, there is a lengthy history well before the office was established that reaches back to 1681. While not officially the Glasgow Assay Office, from about 1681 to 1710, there was official hallmarking performed in Glasgow that distinguished the noble metals for proper identification.
At that time, a date letter was placed on the wrought silver that was produced and used for manufacturing in the area. The date letter usually consisted of the letter “S”, which was often reversed at times, along with the letters “E”, “F”, and “O”. While not common today, date letters were used for a 26-year cycle to help identify when the metal was officially hallmarked.
Such date letters were changed in July of each year. From 1681 to 1710, the assay office in Glasgow used this approach. However, it was discontinued from 1710 until the official establishment of the Glasgow Assay Office in 1819.
Official Establishment of Glasgow Assay Office
1819 was the year that the assay office in Glasgow became official. Serving the Glasgow area, the assay office routinely inspected, tested, and hallmarked precious metals, most often silver, for the next 145 years. Over that time, the growth of manufacturing, the rise of the middle class, and the use of precious metals in more applications meant that the work in the assay office was constantly building over time.
The industrial revolution which occurred when the Glasgow Assay Office was officially established meant that those who wished to sell their precious metals had to schedule the purity testing to be performed at assay offices like the one in Glasgow. In Scotland, manufacturing took off along with the rest of the UK. This not only mean the use of noble or precious metals in manufactured items for common use, but also the long-established jewelry industry.
As more people grew wealthier, the demand for precious metals increased as well. This put additional pressure on the assay office to identify and recognise precious metals as they were brought in. The Glasgow Assay Office served an important function during the growth of the industrial revolution and continued to serve the public through the Victorian era.
The dawn of the 20th century brought new challenges as manufacturing, ship building, and the expansion of the middle class progressed even further. The advent of the first and second World Wars were a time of great tumult in which the culture of the times changed from the Victorian to the modern era in an almost abrupt fashion.
It was this change along with the post-World War II de-emphasis on manufacturing and mining that saw a downturn in the amount of precious or noble metals being brought into the assay office. Scotland was no longer the centre of manufacturing and with the mining of precious metals also falling, it was only a matter of time before the office would be forced to close.
Although the Glasgow Assay Office closed in 1964, there are still four assay offices in the UK which include Birmingham, Edinburgh, London, and Sheffield. While no longer around, the importance of the Glasgow Assay Office should be noted for how it served the people of Scotland for centuries. The hallmarking of so many precious metals was a source of pride for the Scottish people, especially the silversmiths who made their home in the region.