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Presidents’ outing visit to the Assay Office

PRESIDENTS’ OUTING TO BIRMINGHAM ASSAY OFFICE, 18TH JULY 2013

A small (but exclusive) group of members & friends ventured north to Birmingham to visit the Assay Office in Newhall Street, on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter. It has occupied its current site from 1877 – although the Birmingham Assay Office was originally established by Act of Parliament in 1773.
This was due to lobbying by Matthew Boulton, who was fed up with transporting his manufactured metal goods to London & Chester for testing & hallmarking. The anchor became the hallmark symbol for Birmingham – not because it was as far as you can get from the sea in England, nor because it was the centre of the canal network – but because it was the name of the London inn where Boulton took refreshment when he was lobbying parliament. It was the Crown & Anchor & lots were drawn to see which mark Birmingham & Sheffield (granted hallmarking rights at the same time) would have. Sheffield got the crown.
Initially the Office dealt with precious metals (& still does) but its range of high tech equipment now allows it to test other materials eg colour fastness in M&S clothes. This diversification also ensures the continued viability of the Office. Its longstanding independence means customers of all products tested there can buy with confidence.
Our visit included a talk by one of the curators on the Office’s history & a film about the processes involved. Visitors are not allowed to see the actual workshops, for obvious reasons of security. Even the permanent staff have to undergo searches & cannot wear their own jewellery, in case there are substitutions!
One of the most entertaining (& time consuming) aspects of the visit was an opportunity to check the hallmarks of our own jewellery – manufacturer, date of manufacture, place of hallmarking & whether Grandma’s precious ring was really gold after all! If you decide to visit/revisit take some (small) items with you to check.
The visit ended with a tour of the upstairs rooms, still with the original decoration, carving & furniture – Board Room, Library & Silver Collection. The latter is an historic collection of spectacular silver objects donated to or bought by the Office, including items by Boulton, Elkington & Co & commemorative ware. There are Georgian, Victorian, Arts & Crafts/Art Nouveau & more modern items, some you wouldn’t have a table big enough to use & others we would all happily covet.
It was a fascinating visit, giving an insight into something we all rather take for granted.
Some of us went on to enjoy an Italian lunch nearby; others to explore the Jewellery Quarter.

Tricia Richards