Dublin’s Assay Office is worth its weight in gold

Since the 17th  century, Dublin’s Assay Office has been testing the country’s fine metals to
ensure that an engagement ring that might pop out of a box this Valentines Day is
quality assured writes Ailin Quinlan

The picturesque red-brick building nestled in the grounds of Dublin Castle, home to the Assay Office has a hidden vault crammed with gold, silver and platinum — but, alas, it doesn’t remind me of Gringott’s Wizarding Bank at all!

Like the infamous goblin bank in the Harry Potter series, the Assay Office is very old — it dates back to the 1600s — but unlike Gringotts, all Assay Office employees are human, and, sadly, goblin-driven carts are not used to access the sophisticated time-lock vault holding thousands of valuable pieces of gold, silver and platinum.

But, then, the Assay Office isn’t a bank at all.

It’s a highly sophisticated state-approved laboratory where all testing and hallmarking of precious metals; gold, silver and platinum takes place in this country — the Assay Office does not assess the quality of precious stones, such as diamonds.

While the exterior is deceptively old-fashioned; snuggled behind a tree, the two storey-with-basement red-brick building is extremely picturesque. The interior is highly sophisticated and there’s a high turnaround on the valuables, which are kept in a special time-locked vault and surrounded by state-of-the-art security.

Explains Assay Master, Ana Izquierdo, a Spaniard by birth who has lived in Ireland for almost two decades — she first came here as a student — and one of 13 staff at the office: “There can be thousands of individuals pieces in the vault at any one time. The jewellery varies from inexpensive pieces of silver to extremely spec gold and platinum.”

Dublin’s Assay Office is worth its weight in gold

Needless to say, St Valentine’s Day comes early at the Assay Office. In fact, staff have been working towards our annual Day of love on February 14 since just after Christmas.

And their message is that if you’re spending money on gold, platinum or silver jewellery for your loved one this St Valentine’s Day be sure to check for the mark of the Dublin Assay Office before you buy it – that’s hallmark which guarantees the quality of your purchase.

If you’re shopping for an engagement ring to present to on bended knee, also keep an eagle eye out for the all-important Assay Office hallmark guaranteeing the ‘fine-ness’ of the gold — in fact, don’t be embarrassed to request an eye-glass from the jeweller to check that it’s there.

(And also request a certificate from your jeweller guaranteeing the quality of the diamond!) The Assay Office hallmark contains a number of elements, including the Hibernia mark which is the stamp of the Dublin Assay office and shows a seated lady, along with some digits guaranteeing the precious metal content — for example 18ct gold or 750/1000 is 75% gold and 25% other metal.

The hallmarks, which can be viewed at www.assay.ie or in the panel to your right, can only be stamped in the Assay Office, which has been operating since 1637.

Jewellers should by law display a special explanatory hallmark card in their shops — since 2012 it has been compulsory to have the card on display in the shop. But shoppers don’t always realise the importance of a hallmark, or even what it is, says Izquierdo. “Some people think that if they buy sterling silver and see a figure like 925 on the ring that that is the hallmark. People also might see ‘9ct’ stamped on a gold ring and presume that too is a hallmark, but it’s not.

Jewellery comes to the office from all over the world. It is hand-delivered posted or brought by courier because by law all jewellery sold in this country has to be first assessed by Assay Office experts.

“Mainly we test the whole piece. Years ago, there was quite a lot of home-produced gold and silver jewellery, but nowadays there’s a lot of imported jewellery, mainly from Asia.

“The foreign jewellery comes from wholesalers who bring it into the country to be sold.

“All the jewellery sold in the country has to come to us before it goes on sale, whether it is the wholesaler or the retailer.”

Assay Office experts determine the amount of precious metal in apiece —this is called “the fineness” of the piece — in their laboratory on the grounds of Dublin Castle. Despite what we might presume, St Valentine’s Day is not actually the busiest time of year for the Assay Office staff - the goods come from the wholesalers long in advance of the important February 14 date, as they have to be sold on to retailers well in advance. In fact, unsurprisingly, Christmas is the biggest time of year, closely followed by St Patrick’s Day, which is a major event on the US jewellery market.

That’s because the big TV retail channels will often run specially themed programmes for St Patrick’s Day, emphasising Celtic designs and Irish jewellery.

For the Assay Office, Izquierdo explains, Christmas really starts in October, while preparations for St Valentine’s Day and St Patrick’s Day start in January!

For more information visit www.assay.ie 

Other reasons to go to the Assay office:

  • If you need to top on your gold bullion coin collection, the Assay Office is the place to go. You can even buy the coins online.
  • If you have serious cash hanging around that could be made into a gold bullion bar, the office will do this. You can do it in person or online.
  • Forget about ‘cash for gold’ shops, show some class and sell your gold, silver and platinum to the Dublin Castle office. They take jewellery and tableware and accept it marked and unmarked. The office will melt the precious metal where appropriate.


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