What does the Pawnbroker Symbol Mean?

The famous three gold balls sign of a pawnbroker's shop, above a street in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, eastern England.

The symbol for pawnbroking is three gold spheres suspended from a bar. The pawnbroker symbol has been in use at least since the medieval period in Europe. It is still used by pawnbrokers all around the world today. There are differing theories proposing how these three spheres came to represent pawn shops and pawnbroking.

House of Lombard

Although pawnbroking and pawn shops have existed for thousands of years, pawnbroking became synonymous with the Italian province of Lombardy, which is located in Northern Italy. Bankers in this province built up the success of their businesses using the pawnbroking business-model, which later acquired the name, Lombard banking. Lombard merchants are said to have hung three golden spheres outside their homes. It is thought that the golden spheres originally represented three gold coins, which later were redesigned as spheres to attract more attention.

The Medici

Three circles make up the family crest of the famous (and sometimes infamous) Medici family. The Medici family were affluent bankers who were widely known throughout Europe as influential patrons of the arts. With deep pockets, the family held sway with politicians, lawmakers and church leaders. As the Medici family’s success in finance and money-lending increased, other families assimilated the three circles into their coat of arms. Before long, the three circles became synonymous with money-lending and banking.

St. Nicholas of Myra

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th century Greek Bishop and is the patron saint of pawnbroking. Tales abound recounting his generosity to the poor. According to a well-known tale, a poor man in his town had three daughters but was not able to afford an adequate dowry for them to be married. Without a dowry, they would not be able to fetch husbands and, as such, would most likely have to become prostitutes. St. Nicholas, under cover of night, dropped a sack filled with gold coins into each daughter’s window, effectively rescuing them from a life of misery. The three bags of gold came to represent the three gold spheres used by pawnbrokers on their store fronts. Saint Nicholas day is December 6th, which is also National Pawnbrokers Day.