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30 Years of sterling work

13 Jun 2007

Sheffield Assay Master, Ashley Carson is celebrating 30 years at Sheffield Assay Office this month. He looks back at his career and forwards to 2008 when he will move the Sheffield Assay Office to a new state-of-the-art purpose built site.

Ashley joined the firm in 1977, the Queen's Silver Jubilee Year. He went on to meet Her Royal Highness just over ten years later when she opened their new offices at the Guardians Hall.

He has hallmarked an amazing array of precious items including a solid silver bed for a sultan and a 45-foot cake stand!

Having presided over dramatic changes in the market, in particular changing trends in the jewellery industry, he has also witnessed a revolution in assay and hallmarking technology.

Says Ashley, "We have continued to invest and innovate whilst sticking firmly to our founding principles of reliability, integrity and efficiency. These may seem old fashioned, but they have stood us in good stead and underpinned our relationships with customers enabling us to ride the trends."

Established in 1773, Sheffield Assay Office is one of Sheffield's oldest and most respected companies. When Ashley began his career straight from school, Sheffield had a thriving silver industry and people would, literally, present baskets of silver teapots for hallmarking over the counter.

"Sadly the local trade has dramatically declined and not only does most of our work arrive by courier or post, rather than by hand, it comes from all over the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. We have gone from being a local supplier to a global business in less than three decades," says Ashley.

Between 10 and 12 million items now pass through Sheffield Assay Office in a single year, but in addition to this many other articles are submitted.

"We are now just as likely to test costume jewellery for nickel content or test dentists for mercury exposure, as we are to put traditional hallmarks on precious metals. This is a significant and growing percentage of our business," continued Ashley.

He began working at the Sheffield Assay Office in the school holidays because his mother worked there. "I used to wash the boss' car and I decided that if I was ever going to have a car like that, I had better work hard and become the boss myself." said Ashley.

He worked in every department and eventually specialised in the testing of metal products, becoming an expert at removing fine shards of metal from items for testing without damaging them or compromising their value. He became Assay Master in 1993.

Ashley continued, "One year everyone will be wearing two or three gold chains, the next, they want a single gold chain with a diamond in it. Our survival and growth has been down to our ability to investigate and penetrate new markets."

"Costume jewellery is very popular at the moment, but it should be tested for nickel to afford protection for the consumer. We have invested significantly in our nickel testing service and now receive thousands of items from major retailers each week for testing,"he said.

In 1997, laser marking was introduced at the Sheffield Assay Office. This is ideal for hollow and delicate items of jewellery and watchcases, which risk being damaged by the traditional hallmarking processes. The firm also introduced XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) analytical technology in order to define the precise content of different metals.

"We recently used our laser marking facilities to imprint the Duchy of Cornwall's crest on the wooden handles of a line of gardening tools," says Ashley.

Under Ashley's leadership, Sheffield Assay Office has invested widely in local talent. It has sponsored various competitions to inspire and motivate designers working with gold and silver. It supplies 25 kgs of silver each year to the jewellery course at Sheffield University and recently financed a fully equipped workshop at Persistence Works for metal and jewellery graduates starting out in business. It is also a corporate member of Sheffield's Millennium Galleries.

"We have an extensive collection of silver pieces with a piece for every year of the Assay office's existence. We also publish Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks and have built a large library which is an invaluable resource for students and industry experts alike," says Ashley.

"We are all very excited about the forthcoming move to our new offices and laboratories. From there, we will continue to develop and invest in of range of hallmarking and analytical services," says Ashley.

Outside the office, Ashley has never lost his passion for fast cars, even though he now has one!

He concluded, "The last thirty years have been both challenging and fascinating, but I have always had the support of a highly committed and skilled workforce, many of whom have been here longer than I have. We will continue to hold onto our traditional values and service but keep our eyes firmly on the horizon to make sure we stay ahead of changing industry trends."


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