Still making a mark

Assay Master Ashley Carson shows HRH The Duke of Kent a hallmark when he offically opened the Assay Office, in Beulah Road,Hillsborough.
Assay Master Ashley Carson shows HRH The Duke of Kent a hallmark when he offically opened the Assay Office, in Beulah Road,Hillsborough.

Ashley Carson is a happy man.

Ashley Carson is a happy man.

Tour and Talk at the Sheffield Assay Office, Guardians' Hall, Beulah Road, as part of Galvanize 2011

Tour and Talk at the Sheffield Assay Office, Guardians' Hall, Beulah Road, as part of Galvanize 2011

As Assay Master at Sheffield Assay Office, the recent news that the hallmark has been saved came as a great relief for Ashley and the 80 staff he employs.

“We were in survival mode when we were hit with the government’s Red Tape campaign,” says Ashley. Out of the blue, there was threat to remove the requirement for jewellery to be hallmarked. “It was crazy.”

The Red Tape Challenge was launched with the laudable aim of removing legislation such as shopkeepers requiring a liquor licence to sell liqueur chocolates.

“I think it’s right that in certain areas there is too much red tape and some of that has got to go. But hallmarking was just thrown in there. Where did that come from?”

The decision to include hallmarking in the list of proposed changes to the law led to the formation of a Save the Hallmark campaign which immediately gained a lot of support.

“All the local MPs contacted me to ask if there was anything they could do to help,” says Ashley. “We even had the Duke of Devonshire get in touch to ask what he could do.”

Despite such high-profile interest, one of the most gratifying elements of the campaign was the level of support from the public.

“Within 48 hours 2,000 had pledged their support,” Ashley recalls. This figure eventually tripled.

“When we got the notification through that the hallmark had been saved, it was great news for us and the city.”

The Assay Office can now look forward to 2013 when it will mark its 240th year. Started long before Sheffield became a city, the title of Assay Master is one of the oldest in the city. Ashley is the 13th Assay Master in a line that stretches back to 1773.

As well as being Chief Executive of the Sheffield Assay Office, the role of Assay Master carries with it the responsibility for every hallmark supplied.

This is backed up by taking an oath to the Master of the Mint (the Chancellor) to uphold the Hallmarking Act.

Sheffield is one of only four Assay Offices in the country. “Contrary to a popular misconception, they are all privately owned and are therefore in competition with each other.”

In 2008, faced with a £1 million bill just to maintain their crumbling city centre building, the Assay Office moved to purpose-built premises in Hillsborough. “The move allowed us to streamline our operation and become much more efficient.”

Combined with all the expertise Sheffield has to offer, this has helped attract premier accounts of the likes of Bulgari and DeBeers. Even Bond Street jewellers are coming to Sheffield, despite there being an Assay Office in London.

“We’re getting the contracts because we’re more efficient, competitive and we have a strong reputation.”

Now 50, Ashley started at the Sheffield Assay Office when he was just 14, working in the summer holidays. “I swept up, fetched the sandwiches, washed the boss’s car.”

After leaving school at 17, Ashley joined the Assay Office full time and worked his way up until he became the youngest-ever Assay Master at the age of 32.

“I love it. The enthusiasm is still there from the first day I came here and that’s how I try to run the office now.”

The level of enthusiasm may still be the same but the work of the office has changed over the years.

One of the most notable changes to the business has been the recent trend for selling gold. The Assay Office processes gold for its customers by melting down used jewellery into gold bars. But it isn’t just old rings and chains that the Office receives.

One of the most surprising sides to the current gold rush is that bags of extracted teeth, direct from dentists, are sent in to have their gold fillings and crowns melted down. “It looks a little gruesome,” says Ashley, “but it illustrates how high the gold price is right now.”

As a former director at Sheffield Wednesday and a current director at Chesterfield Football Club, Ashley is used to the ups and downs of the business world. “The importance of hallmarking is particularly evident in the current economic climate. It is more important than ever that there is someone out there acting as a referee to ensure that what you are getting is what you think it is.”

A hallmark shows which Assay Office hallmarked it, the purity of the metal and the year it was hallmarked. Although European legislation has removed the British Lion mark, this can still be requested as an optional extra. Gone too are the familiar symbols, which have been replaced with numbers.

In anticipation of the Diamond Jubilee, from now until October 2012 there will be a commemorative hallmark available. This follows a long tradition of commemorative hallmarks approved by the Palace with the current Queen’s reign being marked by hallmarks for the coronation, silver and golden jubilees.

“I would say to anyone if they want something a little bit different, look for that commemorative hallmark.”

As well as overseeing the day-to-day running of the Assay Office, Ashley is keen to help the next generation.

“We work very closely with Sheffield Hallam University with their Silversmith and Jewellery school. I am still very committed to getting people into the business.

“Over the last ten years we have had a lot of people who have graduated, become silversmiths and stayed in the city. It’s something the Assay Office should be very proud of.”

Ashley is equally proud of his two sons, who are following in their father’s footsteps by working at the office during the summer.

Now that the hallmark has been saved, Ashley can look forward to the future.

“I’m still as committed as ever to the cause, so it would be nice to go down as the longest-serving Assay Master.”