The mark makers

© Written by Rachael Taylor for The Financial Times

In the year 1300, King Edward I had had enough. Rogue goldsmiths were fooling his subjects into buying fake or underweight gold and silver. As an early example of consumer protection, he dispatched a trusted group of assayers to assure the validity of precious metals by testing and officially marking them. The heirs to these inspectors uphold this mission today, but as international competitors swallow Britain’s business, its assay offices are turning from a storied past to a radical future to ensure their survival.

Since its peak in 2003, the number of precious metal items hallmarked by the UK assay offices has dropped by more than 70 per cent, according to the AnchorCert Group, which collates statistics from the four UK assay offices. In 2003, the offices in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh collectively stamped 34.7m items; by 2016, 9.7m passed through their workshops.

The decline since 2007 in particular has been “unbelievable”, says Ashley Carson, who joined the Sheffield Assay Office straight from school and became the youngest assay master (head of an assay office) in history in 1993 at the age of 32. A post-recession drop in retail sales, rising precious metal prices and unfavourable EU legislation all took their toll…

This story was originally published in the September 2, 2017, edition of The Financial Times. Read the full story here. Main image: © Charlie Bibby for the FT.

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