Tradition to the Letter: The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

Fourteenth-century London was no pleasant place—famine, the Black Plague, royal intrigue, murder, and war were all on the historical agenda—but in the midst of all the madness, the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the city of London were formed. Intended to provide support and protection to members, these new, formal guilds also established standards and prices for their respective trades. Taking their name from the distinctive dress—or livery—worn by their members, the guilds were formally incorporated by royal charter and included Grocers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Haberdashers, Ironmongers, and Vintners.

The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, granted their royal charter by Edward III in 1327, was one of the earliest of the livery companies and continues to thrive.

Aside from leaps in technology, not much has changed since those early days. The Company’s prime responsibilities were, and are, twofold: the promotion and advancement of excellence in the design and craftsmanship of silver and jewelry, and quality control. The London Assay Office, the oldest hallmarking authority in the United Kingdom (other Assay Offices are located in Sheffield, Birmingham, and Edinburgh), is housed within Goldsmiths’ Hall, a magnificent 19th-century building located in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Membership of the Goldsmiths’ Company is largely composed of “Freemen”—both male and female—currently numbering more than 1,500. Many are goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers.

There are three ways to join their ranks: by service, patrimony, or redemption. “Service” requires a number of years’ apprenticeship to a Freeman; “patrimony” allows for automatic inclusion if the subject is over 21 and was born after the date of a parent’s admission to the Freedom; and “redemption” allows a subject to purchase a place if he or she is provided the opportunity by election.

Higher offices in the Company are obtained by election. Around 275 Liverymen are chosen from the Freemen, and from the Liverymen are drawn 30 Assistants, who make up the governing body of the Company. Four members are chosen each year to serve as Wardens. These four form an executive committee, with the most senior member acting as Prime Warden. The Clerk is responsible for the daily management of the Company and is supported by a full-time staff.

The present Goldsmiths’ Hall is the third to exist on the site, which has been home to the Goldsmiths’ Company since 1339. Information on the first hall is limited, but the second was built in 1634-36 (with later restorations to repair damage from the Great Fire of 1666) and was demolished two centuries later in the late 1820s.

The current Hall, designed by architect Philip Hardwick, was opened in 1835 and has seen little alteration since—although it did escape disaster in 1941, when a bomb exploded inside the southwest corner of the building. Both the interior and exterior were carefully restored following World War II, and the building was again refurbished in 1990. While generally closed to the public, the Hall is available for conferences, dinners, and other functions via application to the Hallkeeper.

The best way to glimpse the magnificent interior is by attending an exhibition. Recent shows have spotlighted the work of artists such as René Lalique and Paul de Lamerie—who, aside from being a famous 18th-century silversmith, also was a Goldsmiths’ Company Warden.

Also open to the public is the Goldsmiths’ Fair, a highly anticipated annual selling exhibition featuring the work of Company designers and silversmiths. (See “A Fair to Remember,” p. 130.)

“Hallmarking is regarded as one of the earliest forms of consumer protection,” says David Beasley, Goldsmiths’ Company librarian. When asked his opinion on the most important task carried out by the Goldsmiths’ Company, he replies, “I think personally that hallmarking was, and is, the most important function of all. Before the Company’s first charter from Edward III in 1327, a statute of Edward I in 1300 set the standards for precious metal. … The mark of the leopard’s head [the very first standard mark, and now the mark of the London Assay Office] was introduced then, and, some seven hundred years later, the Goldsmiths’ Company is still performing that same function using the leopard’s head. It is an extraordinary achievement.”

“Extraordinary achievement” may be an understatement when one considers that the system of hallmarks developed by the Goldsmiths’ Company and London Assay Office allows each piece of English silver to be identified not only by fineness but also by date, maker, and where it was hallmarked.

With the United Kingdom’s inclusion in the European Union, some alterations were made to the U.K. hallmarking laws. In 1999, fineness marks began to be stamped numerically, and the date letter and traditional fineness marks (i.e., the lion passant, which indicates sterling silver) were made voluntary.

However, “the use of these marks is still strong amongst English manufacturers and silversmiths,” says Dr. Robert Organ, Superintendent Assayer of the London Assay Office. “In general, many of these use large hallmarks as a display feature to help sell their goods. Usually, the more marks that can be applied, the better.

“The situation is also helped by the fact that the London Assay Office continues to apply the traditional fineness mark and date letter as its normal service and without extra charge,” he says. “It should be noted, however, that it is fair to say that minimum marks (i.e., hallmarks without the date and traditional fineness) and full convention marks (i.e., hallmarks that allow the goods to be sold in convention countries which also do not contain the date and traditional fineness mark) are increasingly requested.”

Another long-standing duty of the London Assay Office is the annual Trial of the Pyx, in which officials from the Royal Mint submit samples of the previous year’s coins to a jury comprising members of the Goldsmiths’ Company. The jury tests the coins according to size, weight, and metal composition and submits a verdict to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The name stems from pyxis, the Latin term for chest or box.

Originally, ancient coins were stored in a pyx, after minting, and were kept in the Pyx Chamber in Westminster Abbey, where the first tests of the coins were held. In 1878 those trials were moved to Goldsmiths’ Hall.

The London Assay Office also is responsible for the inspection of suspicious marks on antique silver and runs seminars to help educate antique dealers, auctioneers, and customs officials on how to spot a fake.

Support and promotion of the craft is carried out in numerous ways by the Company—through apprenticeships, monetary or precious metal grants to promising students, and awards competitions. Master classes also are offered, with subjects ranging from design techniques to merchandising, display, and photography. Pieces from the Company’s collection of antique and contemporary silver, jewelry, and medals are occasionally lent to important exhibitions in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

As Goldsmiths’ Company librarian, David Beasley presides over a remarkable collection. While he specifies that it’s a working library that focuses mainly on English, European, and North American silver, hallmarks, and jewelry, there are a number of treasures preserved both in the collection and the archives.

“Perhaps of interest are editions of A touchstone for gold and silver wares… by William Badcock,” he says. “Published in 1677, it is one of the first printed works on the Assay Office in Goldsmiths’ Hall. There is an illustration in this manual of the way in which a sample for assay, in the form of scrapings, is collected in a paper and folded in very much the same way as it is done today.”

The Hall’s archives contain other items of impressive age. Included are the run of Warden’s Accounts and Court Minutes from 1334 to the present day. “Just one volume is missing, covering the period from 1579 to 1592,” says Beasley. “These volumes are the backbone to the history of the Company and have provided source material for the published books on the Company and its membership.”

Also, he noted, “We have two Books of Ordinances which contain the rules and regulations for the running of the Company and the ‘craft’ and contain illuminated capitals and one or two half-page illuminations,” he says. “They date from 1478 and 1513. The later one contains a ‘lapidary’ reciting the qualities of various stones.”

The archives also contain early registers of silversmith and jeweler’s marks, estate plans from the late 1600s that illustrate early Goldsmiths’ Company properties, and later plans by Philip Hardwick, the architect of the third and current Goldsmiths’ Hall.

Members of the Company may, by appointment, consult the library for research purposes, but the collection is generally off-limits to the public. “Whilst not wishing to be unwelcoming,” says Beasley, “we could not cope with visitors who just wanted to see items like the Books of Ordinances.” A closed collection is the safest option, taking into account the possible damage that could occur to items of such age and fragility, as well as valuable staff time lost in supervisory duties.

What’s in store for The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and the London Assay Office? Sub-offices are a possibility. Both the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices have created small, off-site assay offices to accommodate high-volume jewelry producers, such as Curteis in Shropshire. “We don’t have one in London yet, but some of our customers seem quite interested,” says Robert Organ.

No matter what changes are thrown at it—be it sub-offices, European Union regulations, or general technological advances—after 700 years of devout service to the craft, it can only be hoped that the Goldsmiths’ Company can continue its mission for another seven centuries.