In the mid-1970s, Ashley Carson could be found as a schoolboy sweeping the yard and polishing the bosses’ cars at Sheffield’s Assay Office.
Now the Assay Master, who rose to the top to take one of the city’s most historic titles, has his own motor to be proud of - not that he delegates its cleaning.
A bright yellow Audi R8 Spyder will be Ashley’s ‘new car for the summer’, and he’s determined to keep it pristine, betraying a perfectionism in keeping with his role leading the firm that puts a legally-required mark of quality - the Sheffield rose - on items of precious metal from across the world.
“It’s probably not in keeping with my status,” smiles the company boss, whose passion for fast machines befits a man whose office is lined with signed pictures of all six James Bond actors.
“It probably should be a dark blue Jaguar!”
Still, these are just rewards, as the challenges of steering a business that began hundreds of years ago are immense, Ashley freely admits - meaning his responsibilities are a far cry from those of Sheffield’s first ever Assay Master, Daniel Bradbury, who in 1773 worked from a rented house on Norfolk Street just three days a week.
Today the office is housed in a modern, purpose-built facility off Penistone Road in Hillsborough, equipped with large rooms for hallmarking and sampling items, as well as laboratory spaces, lasers and other cutting-edge devices, meaning the business can attract trade by diverse means.
And Ashley believes the Sheffield mark has lately begun to possess more of a cachet.
“I think 10 years ago London had the monopoly on the special marks - people like Asprey’s, Garrard’s and Mappin and Webb would all request the London hallmark, to have the leopard’s head on items.
“But that has certainly changed.
“Now I can walk down Bond Street, have a look in shop windows, and proudly see Sheffield hallmarks in there. We’ve broken down that barrier. We’ve got some great brands that use us as well - Bulgari, De Beers, George Jensen.
“I still have as much enthusiasm as I always did. It’s such a different job and a unique position.”
In simple terms, assaying is the oldest form of consumer protection. Hallmarking dates back to 1300, when a statute of Edward I established the testing, analysis and marking of precious metals.
The aim was to prevent fraud and tackle unfair competition among traders, in a time when unscrupulous manufacturers would make articles from base metal, then add a thin coating of gold or silver to pass them off as special items.
It remains illegal to sell pieces described as gold, silver or platinum unless they have been tested and hallmarked by one of the UK’s four assay offices - Sheffield, Edinburgh, Birmingham or London. Marks for the sponsor - often the maker - the item’s fineness and the Assay Office are compulsory.
When Ashley joined the office in 1977 as a 17-year-old fresh from Jordanthorpe School, there was a spike in demand for hallmarking. It was the silver jubilee year, and to celebrate the occasion there was a commemorative hallmark bearing the Queen’s head.
“It was the height of the fashion where everyone was wearing silver dog tag pendants and ingots,” remembers Ashley, who’s friendly, down-to-earth and dressed down in a jumper and jeans for a day of ‘catching up’ when we meet.
His mother, Shirley Carson, was the deputy assay master and chief chemist, and Ashley had already begun spending time in the office during school holidays by his early teens.
“I used to fetch the sandwiches for the lads in the marking hall, clean the bosses’ cars, sweep the car park and any other jobs they gave me. I used to build a little nest egg up.”
Gradually he soaked up the ‘fascinating’ world of assaying, and when the office was recruiting - and with thoughts of buying a new Suzuki motorbike very much on his mind - Ashley applied, starting as a ‘marker’.
“I was never fantastic at hallmarking, so they moved me on to the sampling side. I did really well and probably ended up being the best sampler that they’d got. Both things are an art and a skill, but marking is a particular skill. You’ve got to get the marks right, get them in the centre and to the right depth, and you’ve got to get the right tooling to support the item as well - you’ve got to be very patient.”
Ashley was then asked to head up a department that dealt with second-hand pieces, which suited his expertise at identifying problems with items, while his skill at building up a rapport with customers led to his appointment as something of a travelling salesman.
“That got me out and about up and down the country trying to get new business in.”
He was soon appointed general manager, and in 1993 the board offered Ashley the position of Assay Master when the role’s incumbent, David Johnson, retired.
At the time, Ashley was the youngest master ever aged 32, and only the 13th in Sheffield. He was keenly aware of the weight of history the title carried.
“You get a badge of office, which is very special, and you’re accepted within the heirarchy of the city. It’s a very important role.
“That’s the burden, or the huge responsibility, to keep that tradition going, and the business as well. Over the last 10 years we’ve escalated our staff up to as many as 180, and then when we had massive downturns in the economy we had to scale back to 65 staff.
“It’s more difficult to get new business now. The industry has shrunk quite considerably over the last 10 years.”
He explains there is ‘just not enough work out there’.
“UK manufacturing, sadly, is diminishing, more imports are coming through, and the volumes have declined. People can’t always afford to splash out on luxury items like jewellery.
“Last year we were slightly down on the year before, and we thought things were coming back round nicely, but they just haven’t, so we’re still on this rollercoaster at the moment.”
However, there are reasons to be optimistic.
“More so these days, people will contact us, because they hear we’ve got a really good reputation. We’re very competitive on price, we’ve got a highly modern building, a very good workforce and we’re very efficient - if we need overtime, staff will stay until six, seven, eight o’clock at night.
“We’re a friendly office as well. It’s my philosophy really - you’ve got to be friendly with people. Some of the customers have been dealing with me for over 30 years.”
This year the office has invested in a new hallmarking software system, and the laboratory tests more than precious metals - steel and nickel can be checked, along with water samples.
Ashley is involved with committees in Europe on standardising hallmarking, and supports Sheffield’s designers, silversmiths and craftspeople whenever he can. The office has a close relationship with Sheffield Hallam University, and the Yorkshire Artspace studios complex.
“I’m not always in the office all day, every day.”
Ashley, aged 56, of Wortley, has two sons - Joshua, 25, who has a job in HR at London Overground, and Jordan, 23, an aspiring football coach who works part-time in the Assay Office.
The Sheffield Wednesday fan - who once spent five years on the Owls board - is company secretary at Chesterfield FC, presently battling to stave off relegation.
If Ashley gets his way, Sheffield will not see its 14th assay master for some time.
“If you take away the fancy title, it’s chief executive. If I fail, I could get sacked - but I do hope I can go on until I retire.
“We were heavily involved last year with the Women of Steel, which was a tremendous success, and we’re really proud of the Advanced Manufacturing Park with Boeing and McLaren - both amazing brands.
“I think the city is very much on the up and we are getting a lot more recognition now for the way we operate.”
How Milan office was forced to close by France
Sheffield’s Assay Office was the first to open a branch overseas in Italy three years ago - but had to close the venture in Milan in December when France stopped accepting its hallmarks.
“It killed the business overnight - they said they wouldn’t recognise the hallmarks that we applied in Milan,” says Ashley. “They accept the hallmarks we apply in Sheffield into France without a problem.”
He calls the development ‘a kick in the teeth’.
“I had to go to all my 22 customers and tell them if they were considering sending anything from Italy into France, they couldn’t use my mark. I lost 80 per cent of the Milan business overnight.”
Ashley adds: “It was bad really, because it was a perfect little business. We had four full-time members of staff. It was growing, and starting to make money, but sadly we had to close it down because of the French.”
Staff at the Assay Office ‘keep asking themselves’ whether Brexit will have an impact on the industry, but Ashley is doubtful.
“We’ve had no hints at the moment.”