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Das deutsche Stempelgesetz von 1884

With Imperial Crown, Sun and Crescent Moon - The German Stamp Act of 1884

Who has not held a piece of cutlery or jewelry made of silver in their hands - be it an heirloom from a family estate or a trouvaille from an antique or flea market - and wondered what the symbols of the sun and crescent moon stamped on it meant?

New legislation as a result of the founding of the German Empire in 1871

In the course of the founding of the German Empire following the defeat of France in 1871, a whole series of laws were passed to provide the newly formed state with the national legal framework necessary for its economic prosperity. One need only recall the introduction of the(gold) mark as the imperial currency, but also that of the Civil Code as a uniform civil code. It was also hoped that national legislation would remove legal obstacles to the jewelry industry, which was booming in the newly founded German Empire.

Decisively triggered by the high reparation payments of France, a strong demand for jewelry and equipment made of gold and silver developed in the 'founding years'. This was also the result of an increased need for representation on the part of broad middle classes. It found its stylistic expression in Historicism, which looked back on historical objects made of gold and silver. In addition, the neighboring states of the German Empire - France, the British Empire, but also the states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - had long since passed national laws on the stamping of gold and silver. German products from Hanau and Pforzheim, to name only the most famous cities of the jewelry industry in Germany, competed with them.

Hallmarking of gold and silver before the introduction of the Stamp Act 1884


Fineness stamp

Hallmark / Photo: Mario Sarto Masa

As a result of the territorial fragmentation of Germany that had developed over the centuries, a variety of regulations regarding the hallmarking of gold and silver had evolved in the individual cities and states, some of which dated back well into the Middle Ages.

This strong craft-pre-industrial tradition resulted in a variety of marks on gold and silver.

In addition to the individual master's mark and the city mark of the state control body (inspection mark), which was often also stamped in the workshop, such as the master masons of the guilds, there were fineness stamps and sometimes annual marks in coded form, as well as various state control and tax marks. As a result, at the time of the founding of the empire there was a sheer confusing multiplicity of marks and - if visible at all on the pieces - non-metric fineness indications, in short: an inconsistent, unmanageable system of marks for gold and silver.

Hallmarking the fineness before the introduction of the Stamp Act of 1884


Brands silver

Marks on a silver tablespoon, Biedermeier, German circa 1830.
Tremolier engraving, city mark with lotness 12(fineness 750/1000) and master mark

Until 1884, following a practice dating back to the Middle Ages, it was customary to indicate the silver content in lots. The weight basis of the system was the Cologne mark at 233.86 g, which was divided into 16 parts (lots). Accordingly, until 1884, silverware was hallmarked with the fineness in lots, with 16 lots corresponding to a fineness of 1,000 (so-called fine silver). Common for processed items were alloys of 12, 13, and 14 lots, corresponding to a metric fineness of 750, 813, and 900, respectively.

The fineness specifications for gold also referred to the Cologne mark as the unit of weight until 1884, but gold was calculated in a standard of 24 carats, which is still in use today, rather than 16 lots as is the case with silver.

The "Law on the Fineness of Gold and Silverware" of 1884

The new legal regulation in the territory of the German Empire was introduced by the "Law on the Fineness of Gold and Silverware" (FeinGehG) of July 16, 1884, which was introduced on January 1, 1888. The law, which has been updated several times until recent times and is known today briefly as the 'Stamp Law', is still valid in its essential features and thus lays down important regulations for the hallmarking of gold and silver up to the present day.

In its design, the clearly betrays its time of origin. Thus, regulations are only made for gold and silver, while platinum metals, including palladium, remain unnoticed, as they were not yet significantly processed at that time. The period of validity of the German Stamp Act is manageable, since the EU has already been developing a new regulation for years in order to harmonize the different national regulations in the EU area.

The most important regulations of the Stamp Act


Crescent imperial crown

Stamp: crescent and imperial crown; Photo: Mario Sarto Masa

When it was introduced in 1888, the geographical scope of the Stamp Act encompassed the then national territory of the German Empire and thus also Alsace-Lorraine, which became German in 1871. As a national law, its validity today is limited to the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany. Due to its basic idea of hindering trade and commerce as little as possible, it is considered one of the most generous stamp laws in the world.

Remarkable is therefore the provision that in Germany the use ofhallmarking is not reserved to jewelry manufacturers or jewelers, but is allowed to anyone on jewelry, watches and equipment. A professional qualification is therefore not necessary. There is no legal obligation to hallmark, nor is there any government control, which existed to some extent before. However, anyone who hallmarks is required to do so under the Hallmark Act.

"Gold and silverware may be made and displayed at any fineness. Indication of fineness, however, shall be made in accordance with the provisions of the Act." (§ 1).


Marks silver (2)

Marks on a silver tablespoon, German, around 1900 around 1900. indication of the manufacturer ("RANGE") as well as fineness mark ("800"), crescent and Imperial crown analogous to the Stamp Act of 1884

Thus, by law, unusual fineness indications are also possible. The hallmarking of the fineness has to be done in thousandths, which are not stamped as well. Stamping in lots and carats is therefore no longer permissible. The seller of the goods is liable for the correctness of the fineness indication; in the case of stamping in Germany, the owner of the company for which the stamping was carried out is also liable.

The Stamp Act divides gold and silver articles into three groups, which are accordingly regulated differently, namely apparatus (§ 2 and § 3), watch cases (§ 4) and jewelry (§ 5), for which different regulations are made.

The Imperial Gold and Silver Stamp of 1884

Hallmarking with the Imperial Gold or Imperial Silver Stamp confirmed conformity with the "Law on the Fineness of Gold and Silverware". The stamp images were determined by a provision of the Federal Council of January 7, 1886 for gold and silverware - i.e. not jewelry - with reference to the Stamp Act of 1884 as follows.


Imperial gold silver stamp

Imperial gold stamp and imperial silver stamp

The imperial gold stamp consists of the imperial crown in the sun sign (circular), the indication of the fineness in thousandths, and the indication of the firm or trademark of the business for which the stamp is being used.

The imperial silver hallmark consists of the imperial crown to the right of the crescent moon, the fineness in thousandths, and the company name or trademark of the business for which the hallmark is being used.

Hallmarking with the Imperial Gold or Imperial Silver Stamp confirmed conformity with the "Law on the Fineness of Gold and Silverware". The stamp images were determined by a provision of the Federal Council of January 7, 1886 for gold and silverware - i.e. not jewelry - with reference to the Stamp Act of 1884 as follows.


Element symbols

Element symbols of the alchemists: 1=tin, 2=lead, 3=gold, 4=sulfur, 5=mercury, 6=silver, 7=iron; Graphic: Wikipedia s.v. element symbol (Robert Mattern)

The choice of the sun disk for gold and the crescent moon for silver followed the traditional symbolic language of alchemy, which for centuries was closely linked to astrology.

In it, seven metals played a prominent role, analogous to the seven classical celestial bodies known to antiquity, the Middle Ages and early modern times.

For watch cases, it was possible to use the imperial gold or silver mark until 1976.

For jewelry made of gold and silver, the law allows any fineness, but it must be hallmarked in thousandths. The tolerance here is 10 thousandths if the item is melted down in its entirety. The application of the imperial gold stamps and imperial silver stamps is expressly prohibited.

Interesting is also the provision for gold and silverware imported from abroad. They may only be traded if they bear a stamp mark in accordance with the Stamp Act, unless they already bear a fineness mark that conforms to the law.

The special provisions of the Stamp Act for material combinations and special cases, which are not easy to understand, will not be further discussed here, nor will the updates to the Act that have been made in the meantime.

Express mention should be made here of the stamping of silver-plated cutlery and silver-plated tableware, which is regulated in § 9.2.


Marks silver (3)

Stamps on a silver-plated tablespoon, Art Nouveau, German circa 1900. Indication of the manufacturer ("GEBR. HEPP") and the silver plating (90)

The number stamp used does not indicate the fineness in silver, but refers to the quality of the silver plating. A silver plating of 90 or 100 means that 90 g or 100 g of silver were used on a defined area of 24 qdm, which corresponds to 12 tablespoons and forks. The layer thickness of the silver coating is only 24 µm or 45 µm; the substrate material can be different.

The most common material today is a stainless steel alloy of 18/10 chrome-nickel steel. In so-called hard silver plating, the silver plating is additionally hardened by adding antimony to protect it against mechanical abrasion.