History of the US National Gold and Silver Marking Act

This article provides a layman’s summary and the full text of the 1906 US National Gold and Silver Marking Act, including its subsequent amendments.  Also known as the Jeweler’s Liability Act, it regulates purity markings on gold and silver articles in the United States.

This summary is for those who want a better understanding of gold and silver marking requirements in the United States. If you prefer a much simpler version, free of legalese, check out my United States Gold & Silver Purity Marks blog post, which includes the key points of the law and what it means for you as a consumer.

For those who are still with me on this one, I’ve tried to break the details down further with quick bullet-point summaries of the effect of the 1906 act and that of each amendment. The bullets give a light overview, the paragraphs clarify the details, and for those who REALLY want to go deeper, a link to full text of the current law is provided at the bottom. You can also click the section title links to see the original text of the law as it was documented that year (before subsequent amendments).  I look forward to your comments!

The 1906 Jewelry’s Liability Act and subsequent amendments in layman’s terms

In 1905, Congress passed Title 15 – “Commerce and Trade, Chapter 8 – Falsely Stamped Gold or Silver or Goods Manufactured Therefrom”

This was the beginning of stringent precious metals regulation in the United States. It was largely driven by an influx of counterfeit materials that were stamped with US assay marks.  Essentially, it became illegal for an individual or company to state or imply that US government had tested or validated the purity of items made from precious metals, and provided penalties for violation of the law, including forfeiture of property, fines and imprisonment. In addition to targeting counterfeiting, the law aimed to strengthen the value of US gold and silver coins by increasing confidence in their authenticity.

 In 1906, the “National Gold and Silver Marking Act” was added to Title 15

Dubbed the Jeweler’s Liability Act, this 1906 law outlined specific restrictions for the packaging, labeling and sale of gold and silver items with purity marks in the United States. As of June 13, 1907 (the effective date of the act):

  • It became illegal to sell something as a specific purity of silver or gold if the item was not actually made of the stated purity
  • It became illegal to package or label something as a gold or silver purity if the item was not of that purity (you couldn’t put an unstamped or low-purity piece of silver jewelry in a box marked sterling silver)
  • It became illegal to import or export across state or international lines, any item with a gold or silver purity marking if the item marked was not actually of that purity; this included the solder or any other metal attached to the stamped item
  • The purity of sterling silver was formally defined as 925 parts or more of 1000 pure silver (hence the stamp, “925”), with an allowable three parts per thousand variance; jewelry marked 925 could be no less than 92.2% pure silver
  • The purity of items marked as “coin” or “coin silver” was formally defined as 900 parts or more of 1000 pure silver (marked as “900”), with an allowable four parts per thousand variance; coin silver must be 89.96% or greater pure silver
  • The purity of items marked with a “K” must be within a half carat of that purity; something stamped 14K had to be at least 13.5K, which is within 2% of the stamped purity mark.
  • Products plated or layered in gold were specifically called out as ineligible for standard purity markings
  • The law became applicable to items made in the US for domestic sale or export as well as items imported from other countries for sale in the US
  • Criminal penalties were defined for violations of the law – $500 fine or 3 months in prison.

Essentially, the goal of the law was to make counterfeit gold and silver goods illegal, increase confidence in US made goods, and protect consumers. The 1906 law was more stringent on silver, which made up the bulk of US coinage at the time. While the law included broad provisions for mis-representing metal purity, it largely made it a federal crime to transport falsely stamped goods across state and international lines. This makes sense when you consider the US system of democracy focuses on state’s rights, allowing individual states to create most of their governing laws, while passing federal laws when an issue impacts multiple states. State laws regarding precious metals still apply if they are more stringent than federal law.

It’s important to note that this act does not mandate purity marks on all gold and silver jewelry. More details about this can be found below.

In 1961, an amendment was added requiring trademark stamps

As of October 4, 1961, any jeweler who stamped a gold or silver purity mark in the US, also had to stamp their registered personal, firm, corporation or association trademark. This was an attempt to better regulate product markings. In European countries, systems of gold and silver maker’s marks were already in place. Even Mexican silver makers had structure to their markings. Taxco silversmiths, for example, began using a system of initials and numbers to indicate the artist in the early 1900’s. There is still no standard for silver and goldsmith maker’s marks in the US, which makes it much harder to identify vintage pieces.

This amendment also specified the size and quality of  stamped trademarks on gold and silver, mandating they be equal or better than the accompanying purity mark. Separate marks were also required for jewelery made of two or more pieces of different metal qualities.

Unfortunately, for independent jewelers who did not have a registered company name, trademarks were not feasible and the law failed to drive consistent maker’s marks on jewelry. As noted above, neither the 1906 act, nor its subsequent amendments require purity marks and trademarks on all gold and silver items. Trademarks are only required if a purity mark is stamped on the item or noted on the item’s packaging.

Since the requirement for trademark stamping only applies when a gold or silver purity mark is added, a jeweler can still make and sell a piece of jewelry and not be required to include any markings, provided the item meets the purity standard they sell it as.

A amendment effective July 31, 1970 updated trademark requirements and created civil penalties

The 1970 amendment replaced the phrase, “firm, company or association,” from the trademarks section with the term, “person.” Person was defined as an individual, partnership, corporation or business entity. In essence, this meant there had to be a responsible party behind the trademark that could be held responsible for violations. A larger association of jewelers could not share the same trademark for marking purposes.

Along with the change to definitions, the amendment provided for the right to sue for damages when a company, competitor, association or consumer was negatively impacted by inferior purity precious metals products. Effectively these provisions made illegal use of purity marks a civil issue, in addition to a criminal one. It’s interesting to note that jewelry association trademarks were no longer allowed on jewelry, but those associations were included in parties allowed to sue for damages for false use of markings.

Made effective in 1981, “The Gold Labeling Act of 1976,” amended the stringency of gold purity requirements

Passed in 1976 and made effective five years later on October 1, 1981, gold standards were raised to match those of silver. The phrase, “one half of one carat” was replaced with “three one-thousandths parts.” The law now says that an item made in the US after 1981 which has a purity mark, must actually be of that purity within .003%. A ring made in 1980 marked 14K could be .563 parts per thousand gold, whereas one made in 1982 would have to be .582 parts gold, a difference of 19 parts per thousand, or about 2%.

The rise of gold prices in the 1970’s, along with increased awareness of gold purity, spawned the “KP” mark, which means karats plumb. Jewelers hoping to entice customers with their increased quality specifications added the “P” to many jewelry items throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s. When the 1976 amendment became law in 1981, the KP mark became obsolete.

Click here to read the full text of the current National Gold and Silver Marking Act (with amendments through 1976).

See our feature boxes below for a brief summary of each section!

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The original 1906 act stated:

If made in the US, or imported into the US for sale:

– It’s illegal to sell something as a specific metal purity if it’s not
Sterling silver is legally defined as 92.5% (925)
– Items sold as a specific gold purity (14K, etc.) must be within a half carat of that purity
– Silver and gold plated items CANNOT be stamped with 925, sterling or a K mark
– Silver coins have to be 90% pure silver
– It’s a federal crime to transport falsely stamped goods across state lines

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The 1961 amendment:

– Required a trademark to accompany a purity mark if made in the US
– Regulated the size and quality of trademarks
– Required multiple markings for items made of more than one purity of metal
– Required the addition of a trademark to jewelry with purity marks imported from other states

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A word of caution to small business jewelry makers out there: if you put a purity mark on a piece of jewelry you make, and then ship it to someone, you must have a registered trademark stamped on the item as well.

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The 1970 amendment:

– Better defined who was responsible for trademarks
– Allowed for civil lawsuits/damages for violations of marking laws
– Defined jewelry trade associations and disallowed them from trademarking jewelry

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The 1976 Gold Labeling Act:

– Redefined the requirement for gold purity marks, from a 1/2 carat allowable variance to 3/1000ths

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