How to Spot Fake Jewellery

David Merry FIPG, Goldsmiths Company Assay Office London

How do you spot fake jewellery? To find out, we talked to an expert. David Merry FIPG from the Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office in London tells us about his experience in the field, how hallmarking works – and how to protect yourself against jewellery fraudsters.

Before the main topic of today – spotting fake jewellery – could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

“I’m David Merry, Head of Training, Education & Trading Standards Liaison, Honorary Member of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and Fellow of the Institute of Professional Goldsmiths. 

“Having worked at Goldsmiths Company Assay Office for 45 years – since I was an apprentice here myself – I’m now a Liveryman of the Company. I also now wear many hats! 

“My title gives me day to day duties of managing the apprentices, and I spend a lot of time talking to students and organisations, as well as dealing with enquiries from Trading Standards and consumers. I give tours and talks regularly, in and out of the building.”

Could you tell us a little more about the UK Assay Offices? What is their role and what happens there? 

“There are four Assay Offices in the UK (London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh) – none are Government run, and are private companies but overseen by the British Hallmarking Council.

“The oldest Assay Offices are working off Royal Charters (Edinburgh and London). But the oldest office, Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office in London, began hallmarking in 1327. All four have a legislative remit to control standards of precious metal being sold in the UK.

“We do this by assaying (testing) the precious metal content, then applying the hallmark. It’s a legal requirement for silver over 7.78g, gold and palladium over 1g, and platinum over 0.5g to have a UK recognised hallmark.”

What exactly is a UK Assay Office hallmark?

“See the picture below – the key describes what each mark means. Each office has their own town mark – the leopard is ours in London.”

Hallmarking key 2016 - London Assay Office

What about the “sponsor’s” hallmark, what is that?  

“A brand can inscribe their name into the article, like an artist’s signature on a painting, but it is not part of the required legal hallmark.  Each brand/maker has to have a registered sponsor’s mark (as per diagram attached it’s the first symbol) which becomes part of the hallmark as a whole – this shows who manufactured the piece.”

How does hallmarking work, how do you test jewellery for it? 

“We use various techniques – from ancient to modern.  The oldest being Touchstone testing which dates from 600 BC, to the most modern method which is testing using Xray fluorescence spectroscopy.”

Today, we wanted to get some specific advice from you on how to spot fake jewellery. Do you know if there is a lot of fake gold, silver, platinum or palladium jewellery being sold illegally in the UK today?

“I certainly do – and yes there is!  There are literally tonnes being sold in the UK every day. Trading Standards try to control the flow coming in from the Far East, and often are alerted to fakes driven by consumer complaints. Unfortunately this influx slowly impacts on the real market.”

So would a hallmark be the first thing a customer should check for when they’re buying jewellery?  

“Absolutely! Always ask if it’s hallmarked – it’s your guarantee. Also, in a retail outlet, look for the “Dealers Notice” which the British Hallmarking Council produces for jewellers and silversmiths and carries its own legislation. This is a sign which should be displayed by law detailing UK hallmarking.”

What about when consumers shop online? They cannot physically see the jewellery item and check for a hallmark. What can online shoppers do to make sure they’re getting the real deal?

“Buy from a reputable source. If in doubt, check with Trading Standards websites.  You can also ask the retailer about their hallmarking of course.”

What kind of tricks do jewellery forgers use to make fake items look real? Is there a way to spot forgeries?

“Unfortunately, there is no dead giveaway sign for the consumer to spot. The quality of metal cannot be judged by sight, touch, texture etc. Fakers can plate base metal in precious metal, and pass the whole thing off as precious metal. This is why the hallmark is so vital.”

What about hallmarks, can they be faked? 

“Faking hallmarks is extremely rare. I’ve only seen them once in my 45 years – these were close copies of antique silver hallmarks.  I’m pleased to say that that perpetrator has served time in prison! Counterfeit goods often carry generic marks to include symbols, numbers, pseudo marks – and this is confusing for the consumer who see marks, but not ‘hallmarks’.”

What about price? Can a surprisingly low price be an indicator of fake jewellery?

“Yes, on certain auction sites… This is one of the early warning signs. If it’s too good to be true, it often is. Remember, all that glitters is not gold!”

Do you have any other final advice or tips for our readers about fake jewellery and how to avoid purchasing it?

“Buy from bona fide traders only, familiarise yourself with the UK hallmark, as per the images above, and don’t be afraid to question the maker or retailer about their hallmarking. Our website is a great source of information where you can learn a lot! If you’re still in doubt, talk to an Assay Office or Trading Standards Office about your concerns.”

We’d like to thank David Merry for his valuable advice and the time taken to give us such detailed information on this important topic. If you’d like to learn more, visit the London Assay Office website and follow their news on Twitter @LondonAssay.