• Dear Diary : BAJ : The London Assay Office

    Goldsmiths Assay Office Carpet

    The carpet in the Drawing Room.

     

    love nerding out over history, tradition, and mysterious historical guilds so I was very excited to have a tour of the London Assay Office (the place where all of my pieces are tested and hallmarked) with the British Academy of Jewellery.

    It is also known as The Goldsmiths' Company Assay Office as it was founded by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in the 14th century (how fantastical does that sound?) and received its royal charter in 1327. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths was one of the original 12 Great Livery Companies of the City of London who were ranked according to their political and economic power. The Goldsmiths came fifth after Mercers, Grocers, Drapers and Fishmongers. Who would have thought fish came before gold?

    In the crest shown in the carpet design; the woman who stands above holds a set of scales and a touchstone (used for testing metals). Within the crest, the leopards heads are the symbol of the London Assay Office, the covered cups represent larger metalwork and the shoe buckles represent the smaller metalwork. I asked where the leopard symbol originated but it seems that it may actually have been an Anglo-French translation issue as 'leo' was misunderstood as 'leopard'. The motto reads 'Justice is the Queen of Virtues'. The supporting unicorns are just royal and flashy with their on-trend pastel manes. Unicorn hair, if you will.

     

    Words from The Book of Job in the Binding Room

    Words from The Book of Job in the Binding Room

     

    First we visited the library; you do not have to be a member to visit the library you do need to book an appointment and one of the main things that blew me away here was the organisation. Seriously, they index topics, jewellers and other categories in every single magazine and printed out online article so if you want to research a niche technique or maker they will be able to gather a pile of material waiting for you when you come to your appointment.

     

    Binding of Apprentices

    The book of binding of apprentices.

     

    Amazingly the Goldsmiths have preserved their books of minutes and apprentices through the Great Fire and World Wars. This book shows the promises made by apprentices in the 1600s as they entered their bondage. This was a serious endeavour as they generally belonged to their master for seven years and often lived in the workshop, sleeping under the bench. They had to promise to stay with their master, protect his secrets and not to drink or gamble. They were expected to be able to write and so these were not the children of poor families though occasionally a comparably fortunate orphan could be taken in. On this page there was one boy, Samuel, who could not sign his own name as so his promises were written for him and he signed 'X'.

    Designers and makers are registered to the Assay Office and have a Sponsor's Mark or Maker's Mark. In the 1700s women were not permitted to have their own mark but could obtain a mark as a widow to continue their husbands' business. We were shown the example of Eliza Godfrey. She was born into a Huegunot silversmithing family and was widowed by not one but two goldsmith husbands! She registered a lozenge-shaped mark, a heraldic symbol denoting widowhood, and successfully carried on her business. Her mark is found on many examples of mid-eighteenth century silversmithing. It is not known whether she worked at the bench or worked more as a businesswoman but this has definitely caught my interest to discover more women in the industry at that time.

     

    Edward Spencer rendering

    Rendering by Edward Spencer (1873-1938)

     

    Our classes at the BAJ are currently focusing on technical drawing and rendering so it was lovely to see some stunning examples of rendering. There were technical drawings of pieces of paper that looked as delicate as moths' wings, some designers painted directly onto a material like acetate and some were quite playful like this Art Deco piece by Edward Spencer which renders the pavé diamonds as little smilie faces!

     

    The Exhibition Hall

    The Exhibition Hall

     

    We were not allowed to take photos in the rooms were the punches are kept and the metals are tested but it was fascinating to learn about the process. Above is an image of a chandelier in the Exhibition Hall which is currently being renovated. Most metals are now tested using an X-ray which registers the fluorescence of the elements in the item being tested and so does not simply show whether there is the required amount of gold or silver but also the precise makeup of other alloys. Many of my silver pieces are made in Thailand but are hallmarked at the London Assay Office. This is not to imply that they were made in London but to show that they have been tested by the Assay Office and as an assurance of quality. It is actually illegal to sell precious metals over a certain weight in the UK without having them tested and marked by the Assay Office! Today I learned that there used to be another hallmark distinguish between pieces made in the UK and those made abroad but these were scrapped by the EU. I would welcome the return of these marks so we shall see what happens now.

     

    That's all for now!

    Yasmin

    x

    Posted by Yasmin Everley