The 1738/39 Plate Offences Act in the UK was intended to control the production and sale of gold and silver wares. Goldsmiths were supposed to destroy their old maker’s marks, commonly the first two letters of their surnames, and register new marks which were to consist of the initials of their names and to use a new form of lettering. They were to hallmark all new items they produced but there were exceptions. Jewellery was one exclusion from the operation of the Act: ‘[N]othing therein contained shall extend to any Jeweller’s Works, that is to say, any Gold or Silver wherein any Jewels or other Stones are or shall be set, other than mourning rings, nor any jointed Night Ear-Rings of Gold, or Gold Springs of Lockets.’
So why were mourning rings not included in this exemption. To me, rings are clearly items of jewellery so there had to be a particular reason. However, there were, as I discussed in my last post, different types of mourning rings. In wills and jewellery inventories, some mourning rings were referred to merely as ‘mourning rings’ or were listed by weight while other mourning rings were described in more detail, for example as, a ‘mourning ring set with 3 little diamonds’ or ring set with the Dss of Bedford’s hair and 8 Brilliants’.
Marcia Pointon, in an excellent article on ‘Jewellery in eighteenth-century England’, argues that those simpler mourning rings, which were often just gold bands and which were the ones that were handed out to mourners at funerals, were viewed as being recyclable and disposable and suitable for melting down. They were, however, a high carat gold and these would be the rings that the Assay Office would be interested in and which need to be hallmarked. Those mourning rings which had features like gemstones, human hair and symbolic motifs were viewed as being private pieces of jewellery and fell within the exclusion from hallmarking. This doesn’t mean that this second category of mourning ring was not hallmarked, some were, but it does explain why mourning rings might have been treated differently to other jewellery.
In 1856, gold wedding bands were also required to be hallmarked, as these too were easily able to be melted down and recycled. The requirement to hallmark mourning rings ceased in 1878.