Goldsmiths’ Guilds of Europe – Creating the Hallmark

by | Dec 30, 2020 | Blog

In the ‘Communist Manifesto’, Karl Marx criticized the guild system for its controlled graduation of social capital

Guild systems have existed throughout the world in various forms for thousands of years. The oldest-known organization of craftsmen is that of the Indian Vedic period (2000 – 500 BCE). It is most likely that these groups were metal workers, weavers, carpenters, and potters who, in their skill sets, worked together to better their economic position in society by controlling the buying and selling of the materials required for their trade. Very little is known about these organizations, and it is only through etymology that historians can make assertions about their existence.

Trade organizations in the Greek Ptolemaic Egypt (323 BC) era were called “koinon”, while the Chinese “hanghui” groups probably existed during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), while it was the 3rd C Roman “collegia” that helped the empire expand across Europe.

The craftsmen of the Roman Empire, known as ‘ars’, were massively influential, driving economies and elevating standards of workmanship and consistency. They did this by imposing long apprenticeship schemes to train craftsmen, refusing entry to those deemed “unworthy” of training, and by controlling the trade of goods in the region. Guilds define mercantilism in economics, which dominated most European political economics systems until the rise of classical economics.

Most guilds required young apprentices to first be accepted by a master. This required good social networking and community standing. Such systems denied those who would launch their own business by ensuring that a closed system controlled the materials required for the craft, and strict acceptance grades kept master craftsmen in control of quality and quantity of produce. In some cases, an apprentice would not be taught some of the fundamentals of their trade for many years to ensure that “trade secrets” were preserved and the apprentice could be trusted before graduating to the role of a journeyman. Some apprentices never graduated from their apprenticeship and many craftsmen never became master craftsmen because of the harsh standards imposed by guild leaders.

10th C Germany – Zunft or Zünfte
10th C Iran – senf or sinf
10th C Arabia and Turkey – futuwwah or fütüvvet
12th C France – Métiers
12th C England – Craft Guilds

Guilds in Europe were given certain privileges according to their economic importance and influence, with state-issued letters allowing the organization certain powers and protections. These letters are the precursor to what we call a “letter of a patent” today and gave rise to trademarking. These systems meant that a master craftsman could be recognized for their work and paid accordingly. An official marking would certify the quality and authenticity of a piece, thereby devaluing any products that did not bear the mark or the authority of the state.

This trademarking and hallmarking is one of the most important developments of the City of London Goldsmiths’ guild. It ensured that not only were goldsmiths some of the most highly regarded members of society, they were also some of the most wealthy and influential craftsmen, whose teachings and ideas linger today.

Goldsmiths in Europe
In medieval Europe, guild membership was limited to each city, and in each city, the goldsmiths’ guild was one of the most wealthy and powerful. These men became “bankers” who were trusted to store the valuables of other citizens, and who had the means to lend money, although in many places the practice of usury was illegal so such dealings were private.

The guild kept records of its members and the marks they used on their products. These marks identified the city of origin, the craftsman and, in the case of silver and gold, the quality of the material used. These markings, used in many crafts but especially in goldsmithing and silversmithing, legitimized pieces and made cities famous for their produce, including Champaign from Campania, lace from Chantilly, Prosciutto di Parma from Parma, and gold jewelry from Florence.

However, guilds were not always considered a safe-haven of development and artistic integrity. Guilds often dampened artistic spontaneity with strict regulations. If an apprentice was not free to experiment or a master could not introduce a new technique because the guild members did not approve of the innovation, it meant that often new ideas or designs would be rejected in favor of preservation.

From the 14th C to the 16th C, goldsmiths throughout Europe worked only on official commissions and using only approved techniques. Workers were threatened with heavy fines for violations or even expulsion from the guild. While the outward aim was to reduce fraud, it was known that the goldsmiths had much power and influence in many parts of Europe and that they used their guild status to protect their wealth and interests. It is somewhat surprising to learn then, that some of the most enduring works of art were created at this time.

In the second half of the 16th C in Italy, many goldsmiths worked at the court of Cosimo I, grand duke of Tuscany. The artisans created vessels of hardstone, mounted in enameled and jeweled gold. Examples of the pieces survive today at the Museo degli Argenti in the Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy.

Most of the surviving goldwork of that time that was produced in France is housed in the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre. Among the most ornate pieces are sardonyx (a type of onyx) and gold ewer, and the gold St. Michael’s Cup, which are housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a sardonyx-covered cup in the Louvre. The Ordre du Saint-Esprit (Louvre), a gold plate dating from 1581–1582, and an enameled gold helmet and shield of Charles IX (1560–1574) are considered some of the finest examples of opulent goldwork, with no parallels to other works found in Europe from that time.

The Craftsman’s Journey

The power that guilds held cannot be underestimated. Young men wanting to enter a guild had to have the correct social background, the correct family lineage, and the right geographic location to enter an apprenticeship. Careful investment in social ties could considerably help a craftsman, and taking on the wrong apprentice or working outside the boundaries of the guild regulations could be disastrous for a craftsman.

The goldsmiths’ guilds set the standards for their trade. They dictated the purity of the materials used, they set the requirement for maker’s marks, and they determined how many underlings a master goldsmith could have and for what period of time. In Hungary, a master goldsmith could only employ two journeymen (legény) and two apprentices (inas) at any given time.

Typically, apprenticeships lasted three to four years before a young man entered the next stage of their career, as a journeyman. The job title is derived from the French words for “day” (jour and journée) from which came the Middle English word “journei” based on the fact that craftsmen at this level were generally paid by the day and were thus day laborers, and their role, which was to travel to other towns to learn new skills.

After an apprentice had produced a qualifying piece of work, he was promoted to the next stage of learning, and as a journeyman, he was issued official documents from the master or guild which allowed him to travel to other towns and countries to learn from other masters of the trade. Such educational journeys meant that techniques, designs, ideas, and styles spread across Europe, keeping the goldsmiths’ guilds connected and influential throughout most of the continent.

When journeymen acquired new patterns or engravings when traveling, they became the property of his entire guild. This freedom of design expression is one of the few allowed in the goldsmiths’ guilds, but one that allowed the trade to flourish. One example is that of an intricate floral design developed in Hungry by a young journeyman that influenced artworks over the course of hundreds of years, becoming an enduring fundamental design in German and Flemish goldsmithing.

The Goldsmiths’ Company
In 17th C London, the Goldsmiths’ Company was widely open to individuals with no previous contacts through geographical proximity, occupational proximity, or kin, although it still excluded the rural and poor apprentices, as well as women. Internal mobility within the goldsmiths’ guild was highly dependant on belonging to a sub-group of goldsmiths who were practicing banking activities – the London Goldsmiths’ Company.

The London Goldsmiths’ Company can be traced to 1180 when the guild was able to operate without the licensing of the king. The guild was formed to protect the craft of goldsmithing and to prevent fraudulent pieces from entering the marketplace. As a secondary benefit, guilds also provided for poorer members who might have retired, those who had left widows or children behind, or those who could no longer work due to accident or illness.

In 1300, King Edward I issued a statute which provided for the standards of gold and silver and enacted that all articles of those metals had to be assayed by the “wardens of the craft”. After assaying an item, it was to be marked the “leopard’s head”, thought to be taken from the royal arms and now known as the King’s mark. This is the first legal recognition of the Company and the beginning of hallmarking in Britain.

In 1327 the Company received its first royal charter, giving it the right to enforce good authority, the standards within the trade, and emphasizing its standing over provincial goldsmiths. The guild had the power to qualify a craftsman, determine the quality of products used, and set the standards for metal quality. It was this act that elevated the legitimacy of the Goldsmiths’ Guild from community networks to powerful politicians with control and influence over cities.

In 1462, England’s Edward IV granted that the Wardens, the Goldsmith Guild members who had been eternally elevated to the highest levels of power, and their successors be a body corporate having perpetual succession and a common seal and that as “the Wardens and Commonalty of the Mystery of Goldsmiths of the City of London” they may implead and be impleaded in any court. They were given powers to write bylaws and ordinances for the regulation of the industry and to search the premises of those thought to be falsifying or fraudulently hallmarking items in London and elsewhere in England.

In 1478, the king made the Goldsmiths’ Company directly responsible for any precious metal items found to be below standard. The Wardens were also to be held accountable for any damages and were fined for allowing items to be “illegally” certified. As a result, the Wardens reorganized the system of assaying and marking, elevating it from a role to a responsibility.
A date letter was introduced to the marking system and workers were required for the first time to bring their wares to Goldsmiths’ Hall to receive the “hallmark” to legitimize their work.

A hallmark:
Is a set of component marks applied to articles made of gold, silver, platinum, or palladium.
Signifies that the article has been independently tested.
Guarantees that it conforms to all legal standards of purity (fineness).
Guarantees provenance by communicating where the item was hallmarked, what the article is made from, and who sent the article for hallmarking.

The standard hallmark formation is horizontal with minimal spacing between the marks.
For 700 years the Goldsmiths’ Company has maintained an Assay Office in London for the purpose of assaying and marking plates. Within England, it is considered the oldest and most reliable system for the assaying and marking of precious metals, and it is considered worldwide to have set the standards for testing and marking of precious metals.

The Decline of Guilds
While guilds for various trades maintained power and influence at a time of mercantile economics, as politics and innovation reshaped Europe, it became apparent that the framework was no longer relevant to the needs of the many.

In 17th C London, the guild system devolved into mutual assistance fraternities, supporting members and their families rather than controlling industries. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalist corporations and trade unions have meant the end of the guilds as powerful bodies with close political influences in most cases. Workers were displaced and separated from their trades as innovation and technology pushed mass production of goods towards large-scale production.

In Italy, Fascism gave rise to corporatism, the organizing of industry workers at the national level rather than the city level. And while there are many examples of how “clubs” of people with common interests and goals form to hold influence, the powerful guilds of the past no longer exist. There are exceptions, such as the Screen Actors Guild in the United States, or having to work as an apprentice to become an architect, plumber, or electrician, but overall, the gilded era of the goldsmiths’ guild has long past.