There has been an Assay Office in Sheffield since 1773, when local silversmiths successfully petitioned Parliament for the right to assay silver in Sheffield.
To 'assay' means to test and assess the precious metal content of an item.
It is impossible to tell the precious metal content of an item just by looking at it. Gold, silver and platinum are too soft to use alone for making jewellery, cutlery and other goods. They need to be alloyed with other, baser (and cheaper) metals for manufacturing. To protect the consumer, we test articles to make sure that too much base metal has not been used. At the same time, we ensure the manufacturer's peace of mind by providing an independent assessment of quality and content.
The 1773 Act of Parliament appointed 30 local men as 'Guardians of the Standard of Wrought Plate in the Town of Sheffield' to supervise the work of the Office.
Even as early as 1773, Sheffield already had an established tradition of fine silverware production so it was interesting, but entirely appropriate, that the number of Guardians who were also silversmiths was restricted to just ten to ensure that the Office offered an independent and impartial service - and was run for the benefit of the consumer rather than the manufacturer. After all, the hallmark is the oldest form of consumer protection that exists.
So, almost two and a half centuries ago and right at the start of its long and fascinating history, The Sheffield Assay Office put a marker down for independence and integrity. In those early days, most of the assay business came from within a 20 mile radius and precious items were literally presented 'over the counter' to be assayed.
Today, The Sheffield Assay Office attracts customers from all over the world and the business has evolved to meet the demands of society and industry. Jewellery and items of precious metal are still assayed in their millions each year and bear the distinctive Sheffield 'Town' mark, but Sheffield Assay office now has a world-wide reputation in other arenas too, particularly in cutting-edge analytical services.
From a past rooted in the history of craftsmanship to a present and a future which embraces innovation, The Sheffield Assay Office has built a reputation for integrity in every respect.
The traditional business of hallmarking continues to provide customers both nationally and worldwide with an assurance of quality and purity; the instantly recognisable Sheffield mark of the rose is carefully applied to items of precious metal which can range from the most delicate chain to a stunning one-off table centrepiece created by a contemporary designer. Whatever the item, whoever the customer, the independence and stringent standards of The Sheffield Assay Office ensure accuracy and inspire confidence.
The Sheffield Assay Office was also one of the driving forces in bringing about legislation for the marking of mixed metals; items that are made from a combination of precious and non-precious metals can now be hallmarked to offer consumers more accurate descriptions of the items they are purchasing.
The guiding principles of protection and guarantee have also enabled The Sheffield Assay Office to move successfully into other areas of analysis where, once again, a independent assessment is required.
The Analytical Services division not only provides metals analysis and certification but also operates in areas as diverse as smelting and assay of bullion, mineral analysis and land contamination investigations, mercury screening and medical research, plating thickness measurement and nickel testing.
Clients for these services are drawn from a diverse range of business and industry but they share a common need - for absolute integrity of service and evaluation.
Craftsmanship has provided the cornerstone for the growth of The Sheffield Assay Office and there is still a need for traditional hallmarking skills; by hand is often the best way to hallmark certain items which range in scale from very small to large but irregularly shaped. Skill and care are part of the heritage of the Office - and will play a key role in the future too.
The advent of laser marking, however, has meant that delicate or hollow articles can be hallmarked without any possibility of damage and The Sheffield Assay Office has invested significantly in lasermarking technology for both quality and quantity of output.
Laser marking also has applications in other specialist areas, where clients include major automotive manufacturers and tool makers.
In other areas of the organisation, investment and innovation also provides the impetus. The laboratories are superbly equipped with leading-edge technology and staffed by highly qualified personnel who can, for example, determine the composition of a soil sample, screen for mercury, provide valuable data for the medical profession or test costume jewellery for nickel according to the EC Directive.
Investment in XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) machines has ensured that Sheffield Assay Office Analytical Servcies can deliver very accurate analysis of metal composition and material conformity.
Clients include national high-street retailers and international manufacturers.
Sheffield Assay Office was one of the first laboratories to be given UKAS accreditation and is proud to have retained that accreditation continuously for 34 years, each year satisfying the stringent demands of the standard.
For clients, many of whom must demonstrate Due Diligence, this commitment to quality and continuous improvement is seen in a concise service, confidentiality and comprehensive reporting.
In more than two centuries of history, The Sheffield Assay Office has proudly maintained a position of independence and integrity. Today, a reputation for innovation too provides a compelling reason for business and industry across the spectrum to use the services in delivering consumer protection.