British lion is replaced by a number in the age of the Euro hallmark

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BRITISH lion silver hallmark, which has been used for more than 450 years, is to be abolished and replaced with the number "925" as part of a European drive to unify standards across the Continent.

Silversmiths are angry that the famous symbol of the lion passant, which has represented England in heraldry since the 12th century, is to be phased out as the statutory mark of authenticity and replaced with an "anonymous number".

The hallmark of the crown, denoting gold, which dates back to 1798, and the orb, representing platinum, are also to be replaced with figures, surrounded by an oval ring.

Antique dealers also are angry that the traditional symbols identifying the year in which an item has been made, are being dropped too.

The new rules, which follow an EU directive on the markings of precious metals and which will apply to all member states, are due to come into effect on 1 January.

Britain has won a concession which allows it to continue using the traditional hallmarks on a voluntary basis. This means that hallmarkers will still be able to stamp the lion on silver as a purely decorative symbol. However, the marking will have no legal significance and could be legally left off. Silversmiths are likely to be charged extra if they ask for the marking to be included on their items.

Brussels is also insisting that British hallmarkers may only use the lion symbol on silver from this country if they agree to put it on items from other countries as well, to establish a "level playing field" across the Continent.

Sterling silver will be legally identified by the number 925 (representing 92.5, the percentage of purity required) and 22-carat gold by the figure 916.

Martin Levene, a silversmith, said: "There's been a lion punched on to silver in an unbroken line since 1544. If you've got a piece of silver that's new or 200 years old, it's still got the same mark on it.

"That was a symbol of Britain. And they're now saying it has to change to a number with a more 'Euro-friendly' look. We are very upset."

The British Hallmarking Council, which represents hallmarkers in the four centres of London, Sheffield, Birmingham and Edinburgh, also regrets that the legal significance of the symbols is being abolished. Michael Winwood, its secretary, said: "We have had to accept the situation. We had no choice."

The Conservative trade and industry spokesman, John Redwood, condemned the "absurd" regulation. "The sterling virtues of British silver have been recognised for centuries and embodied in the hallmark," he said. "The Government must ensure that British silver can still proudly carry this badge."

Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP for Great Grimsby, is to raise the matter in Parliament through a House of Commons motion. "The lion is part of a long line which gives historical continuity to silver and must go on," he said. "It fits into the English tradition and is recognised all over the world."

Hallmarking was first instituted in around 1300 as a way of protecting precious-metal buyers. The rules were extended in 1975 to include the metal, platinum.

It is an offence for any trader to sell or describe an article as gold, silver or platinum unless it has been hallmarked.