Ashley Carson joined the Sheffield Assay Office aged just 17 in 1977, just over two centuries after it was founded.

He worked his way up the ladder, first as sampler, progressing to marker, computer manager and then general manager. In 1993, at the age of 32, Carson became the organisation’s youngest ever assay master. He would also go on to become its longest serving.

Given the office’s varied work with businesses across the jewellery industry, coupled with Carson’s longevity as a servant of the office, he was perhaps better placed than anyone to first deal with, and then comment on, the shock to us all that the pandemic posed.

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“The last 18 months have certainly proved challenging for everybody, not just our industry,” Carson says soberly, “and we’ve had to constantly evaluate and react to each situation caused by the pandemic.”

How has the organisation dealt with these challenges? “Customer communication has always been really important to us,” he explains, “so we spent a lot of time reviewing all our services in light of the restrictions, to make sure we were doing everything possible to help customers deal with their own challenges.

“We know that our solutions are vital in helping our customers trade with confidence, so we’ve redefined and pivoted our services to ensure that we can continue running all departments at maximum efficiency throughout the pandemic and beyond.”

The way Carson tells it, though, it has been some time since the assay office was operating in this sort of ‘pandemic mode’.

“We have actually been working at full capacity for a number of months now, and it is great to hear the same from many others across the trade,” he tells PJ in an encouraging sign for the industry.

He is careful not to forget the effort that it took the entire team to get to this stage, however, praising it for its “tremendous effort” in making sure it can operate and continue to offer its many services in a Covid-safe manner.

While Carson does not downplay the work of the entire team in righting the ship in impressive time during the pandemic, he is also not at all surprised by its success given the office’s long history overcoming all manner of obstacles.

“We’ve been hallmarking here in Sheffield for 248 years and we continually strive to deliver a smooth, reliable and efficient service,” he explains.

Not just hallmarking
In those 248 years the Sheffield Assay Office has worked to diversify its offering to the trade, still adding new services to this day.

In addition to hallmarking, the organisation also offers engraving, personalisation and fulfillment, all of which have increased in popularity in recent years, as well as a dedicated pick-up and collection service which proved particularly useful to customers during the pandemic.

It is also in the habit of providing legal advice around the regulations of hallmarking.

Furthermore, the office has branched out into a number of analytical services for the jewellery trade and other industries.

“We have a fully accredited analytical laboratory on-site here in Sheffield and I’m delighted that this important part of the business continues to go from strength to strength,” Carson reveals.

“Services include melting and assay of bullion samples, metals analysis, medical research and conformity testing, metal powders, plating thickness measurement, mercury screening for dentists, mineral analysis and land contamination investigations, but we’re continually looking to develop new methods to extend our expertise.”

The latest string in its bow, however, is a new Diamond Verification Service added in July.

“We were so excited to launch this at a time when laboratory-grown diamonds continue to rise in popularity, and retailers and consumers alike need to have complete confidence in their purchase or sale.”

One part of this service that the team is especially proud of is the technology it wields behind the scenes.

The Sheffield Assay Office has acquired the diamond analysis tool, the SynthDetect machine, through partnership with its developer, De Beers.

It tests stones mounted or unmounted to find out whether they are natural or manmade. “Being such a large force within the diamond arena,” the assay master explains, “DeBeers initially designed this instrument to enhance pipeline integrity and in turn consumer confidence throughout the diamond industry.

“We’ve structured our diamond screening service to offer the flexibility to test finished products at a point that best suits our customers.

“This might be existing stock, when stock is received, or can take place as part of the general hallmarking process. With the help of DeBeers we’ve created a specially trained team to run this exciting new division here in Sheffield.”

The future of hallmarking
Moving forward, the Sheffield Assay Office certainly has it work cut out for it as it looks to stay ahead of the competition, but so far it seems to be doing just that.

Carson says of the ever-evolving industry: “The methods of assaying and marking have certainly changed and improved over the years and we’re constantly evolving and looking ahead to make sure we’re offering what our customers need.”

He adds: “But keeping the company’s heritage at heart is also very important to us.”

On the sustainability and ethics side of things – ever more important in any business today – the organisation has not been resting on its laurels there either.

In 2020 it completed its first year in accredited compliance with the Responsible Jewellery Council’s code of conduct.

“We’re really proud to be the only UK Assay Office to become a certified member of the RJC,” comments the assay master.

Carson then adds in conclusion: “Going forward we will certainly continue to be available and responsive to our customers’ and the industry’s requirements, as well as continuing to offer protection and guarantee across our range of services, with independent assessments that enable our customers to sell their products with confidence.”

Ashley Carson

BREXIT? NO PROBLEM

Assay offices have been cropping up in the news a great deal of late due to legal changes Brexit has brought about in the world of hallmarking.

Where does the Sheffield Assay Office fit in all of this?

“I’m pleased to say that Brexit has had very little impact on us,” explains assay master, Ashley Carson, “as the majority of the goods we hallmark are for UK consumers.

“For those outside the UK, and particularly for [those in the Republic of Ireland], we’ve been able to apply the Convention Mark.”