From sweeping the car park at Sheffield’s Assay Office to taking one of the city’s most historic titles, Ashley Carson worked his way to the top in time-honoured fashion. And the Assay Master - in his 40th year with the business - never takes his role for granted.
“I still have as much enthusiasm as I always did,” says Ashley, who leads the company that puts a legally-required mark of quality - the Sheffield rose - on items of precious metal from across the world. His responsibilities are much greater than those of Sheffield’s first Assay Master, Daniel Bradbury, who in 1773 worked from a rented house on Norfolk Street just three days a week.
Today the office is housed in a modern, purpose-built facility off Penistone Road, equipped with large rooms for hallmarking and sampling items, as well as laboratory spaces and lasers.
And Ashley believes the Sheffield mark has begun to possess more of a cachet.
“I can walk down Bond Street in London, look in shop windows, and proudly see Sheffield hallmarks there. We’ve broken down that barrier. We’ve got some great brands that use us - Bulgari, De Beers, George Jensen.”
Hallmarking dates back to 1300, when a statute of Edward I established the testing, analysis and marking of precious metals. It remains illegal to sell pieces described as gold, silver or platinum unless they have been tested and hallmarked by one of the UK’s four assay offices - Sheffield, Edinburgh, Birmingham or London.
When Ashley joined the office as a 17-year-old fresh from Jordanthorpe School, there was a spike in demand for hallmarking. It was the silver jubilee year, and to celebrate the occasion there was a commemorative mark bearing the Queen’s head.
“It was the height of the fashion where everyone was wearing silver dog tag pendants and ingots.”
His mother, Shirley Carson, was the deputy assay master and chief chemist, and Ashley had already begun spending time in the office during school holidays.
Once employed, he became a marker, then a sampler, and headed up a department dealing with second-hand pieces. He was appointed general manager, and in 1993 the board offered Ashley the position of Assay Master when the role’s incumbent, David Johnson, retired. Ashley was the youngest master ever aged 32, and the 13th in Sheffield.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve escalated our staff up to as many as 180, and then when we had massive downturns in the economy we had to scale back to 65 staff. The industry has shrunk quite considerably.”
This year the office has invested in a new hallmarking software system, and its laboratory tests steel and nickel, along with water samples.
However, the Sheffield office had to close its branch in Milan - opened in 2014 - when France refused to accept its hallmarks, a development Ashley calls a ‘kick in the teeth’.
Ashley, now aged 56, of Wortley, has two sons - Joshua, 25, who has a job in HR at London Overground, and Jordan, 23, an aspiring football coach who works part-time in the Assay Office. The Sheffield Wednesday fan - who spent five years on the Owls board - is company secretary at Chesterfield FC, battling to avoid relegation.
Cars are a ‘big passion’ too - befitting for a man whose office is lined with signed pictures of all six James Bond actors. Ashley has just taken delivery of his ‘new car for the summer’, a bright yellow Audi R8 Spyder.
If Ashley gets his way, Sheffield will not see its 14th assay master for some time.
“It’s a job and it’s an appointment - if you take away the fancy title, it’s chief executive. If I fail, I could get sacked - but I do hope I can go on until I retire.”