The ancient tradition of hallmarking is Roshan Nightingale’s forte. Here, with insightfulness that can only come from decades of experience, she gives us a glimpse of life on Assay Office Birmingham’s marking floor. August 2013.
Eagle-eyed hallmarking supervisor Roshan Nightingale is happy today. There’s a mountain of work to be getting on with, and as another tub of impossibly fiddly articles lands on her trolley, she shouts ‘bring it on’, a favourite expression of hers. Nightingale has worked at The Assay Office for more than 26 years and recalls a time when there were more than 100 hallmarking staff (20 of them handmarkers) working the floor. In those days, most of the work came in from the local trade unfinished, a far cry from the highly polished items that are submitted for hallmarking today.
There may be fewer now, but they are no less busy. Nightingale is responsible for allocating the flow of work to the team of highly experienced operators. In fact, such is the skill and dexterity needed from every member of the hallmarking team, that her most recent recruit was hired 10 years ago – no room for the mistakes that come with lack of experience. The markers make it look easy, but on close inspection, the complexity of decision-making and depth of expertise they deploy when stamping the tiny symbols that constitute a hallmark, is remarkable.
Items submitted to the Assay Office for hallmarking are booked in, weighed, and then assayed to determine their fineness before being sent to Nightingale’s team for the mark to be applied. Rings are marked on a ‘fly’ press, other items on a ‘flick’ press. As is the case fore every other item that arrives at each of the Assay Office's four operating divisions, the first – and most important – step is visual assessment by an expert.
Nightingale considers each job, using her knowledge of the customer’s requirements, and the challenge presented by the particular pieces submitted for hallmarking. She then allocates the customer’s punch – carrying their sponsor mark – from a vast bank of drawers. Some customers have as many as 15 or 20 punches depending upon the variety or type of item they are submitting for marking. It is crucial the correct one is selected. The control of these punches, which are all made in-house, is strictly controlled and each one is signed in and out to provide traceability, in line with the Assay Office’s ISO 9001 accreditation.
Having selected the appropriate punch it has to be fastened to the press using a suitable jig. The jig determines the position and height of the punch, allowing the flexibility for the same punch to be used for a small item such as a chain link, and also a much deeper article such as a bangle. The operator then searches their selection of ‘beds’ or support tools to find one with the correct profile to support the item and avoid distortion or ‘bruising’ under the pressure of the mark being struck.
It is amazing how many different shapes are needed. For example, a ring can be narrow or wide, large or small size - affecting its curve - and have a ‘D’, ‘V’ or flat profile. Setting up the item in the press correctly is important to the quality of the mark but the real skill comes in aligning the item so that the punch makes contact in exactly the right place, and then applying exactly the right pressure to strike a mark of the required depth. There are no second chances in this job.
Over the past three decades mid market gold jewellery manufacturers have increasingly been making items lighter to help maintain an affordable price. This has been particularly apparent over the last five years, while the price of gold has been rocketing. Hallmarking highly finished lightweight items requires a very different – and much gentler – technique compared with unfinished items. If the article still needs finishing and polishing after hallmarking, it will need a much deeper mark to make sure it is still visible later on.
In recent years, the Assay Office has had to change its methods and retrain its staff to keep up with the ever changing market. The most notable evolution is in the profile of work arriving. Gone are the bags of 3,000 identical chains, which a skilled operator could sit and patiently feed through a hydraulic press, a skein of chain passing steadily from their wrist one by one. Now everything is pre-bagged, often pre-tagged and comes in ones and twos thanks to the significant drop in volumes and reduction in retail stock holding. “We call it ‘Bombay mix’ and it really slows us down,” says Nightingale, brandishing a bag with twenty rings, all different sizes and styles.
Watching her carefully adjusting the bed and angling the item under the punch each time it is easy to see why. Every item has to be individually assessed, adjusted and readjusted prior to marking, and often the bed (and sometimes the punch itself) has to be changed. Even these experienced operators are forced to take their time. Some are now sitting within easy reach of two presses, a fly press for rings and a flick press for other items, as both are often required to deliver one bag of work.
Nightingale explains all this with enthusiasm, not complaining about the challenges but instead brimming with pride about the way her team overcomes them. Praise is heaped on the skilled engineers in the tool room who make all the punches, jigs and support tools in-house: “They can make us absolutely anything we need,” she says.
Driven by Nightingale’s level of passion, the team has to be good. Those trained in the risky technique of hand-marking (there are only four) have to be even better. Once that hammer and punch has made contact with a silversmith’s beautiful creation, the consequences are more disastrous than a bit of re-polishing if the mark is not right. Hand markers spend hours carefully mapping out where to strike the mark before they pick up their hammer and punch.
These very skilled workers take three years to train fully. They are tested after one year and if they do not pass the rigorous test then they return to the presses with no second chances. It seems a bit draconian but, Nightingale insists, it has always been that way. It will be a brave marker who argues with her.
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