Blog: Assay AgentsCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.
I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable, so I decided to create this blog section to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that I have either changed or added to significantly.
The section reproduced here is from my page about British hallmarking
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The advent of the Assay Agents
Before 1 June 1907 there were several methods by which Swiss and American watches reached British retailers. A representative working in Britain would visit retailers around the country, showing them samples and taking orders. This person might be from a British branch of a manufacturer, either employed directly by the manufacturer or working on commission, or an independent person working on their own account.
Orders would be fulfilled either from stocks already held in Britain, or by the factory sending watches to Britain, which might be sent directly to the retailer, or to the representative who would pass them on the to the retailer. All imported watches had to pass through British customs at the port of entry, where they were checked for legality and the import duty was levied, which had to be paid before the good would be released by the customs authorities. Sometimes the supplier paid this and then added it to the customer's invoice, for smaller orders the retailer would make the payment and take away the goods. But however the orders were taken and fulfilled, Swiss watches usually came into Britain from the Swiss manufacturers complete; cased, timed and and ready to be retailed.
Some Swiss manufacturers had UK based branch offices or agents that were large and long standing, such as Dimier Brothers, Baume and Company, and Stauffer & Co. These had premises where they could store stock ready to be sent out in response to orders. Others such as Castelberg, Pettitpierre and Co. were one man, or in this case two man, bands working out of offices in London with no storage or workshop facilities.
In the 1870s some foreign manufacturers began having foreign watch cases hallmarked in British assay offices. Waltham imported Swiss cases that were hallmarked and then used to house American made Waltham movements. Some Swiss manufacturers sent empty cases to be hallmarked and then returned them to Switzerland to be finished into watches. The British watch manufacturers objected to this, and the practice of having foreign watch cases marked with the usual British hallmarks was stopped by the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act, which required that any foreign watch cases hallmarked in Britain should be marked "Foreign". This effectively stopped the practice and between 1 January 1888 and 1 June 1907 no foreign watch cases were hallmarked in Britain - there might have been a few, perhaps two or three that have never been seen since, but this was negligible compared to the hundreds of thousands of watches that were imported.
After 1 June 1907 the requirement for all imported watches to be hallmarked in the UK added an extra complication. Some large manufacturers found that it was practical to bring in the bare cases, get them hallmarked and then return them abroad to be finished into watches. In other cases watches were imported already complete, the movements removed, the cases hallmarked and then the watch reassembled in England. This meant that someone had to remove the movement from the case and stamp the case with a registered sponsor's mark. The details of the sponsor, the person who took responsibility for the standard of the case, must have been registered with the assay office beforehand, and the details of the punch that was used to make the mark recorded. The watch case could then be sent to the assay office, where it would be assayed and hallmarked, and then returned to be reunited with its movement. Obviously this required a workshop and premises where the movements could be removed and stored while the cases were being assayed, and staff to remove the movements, mark the cases with the sponsor's punch, and replace the movements once the hallmarked cases were returned.
Some Swiss and American companies already had branches or agents with substantial businesses in the UK, and these were able to put in hand the necessary premises and staff to process watches for hallmarking, but many smaller Swiss companies simply had travelling sales representatives or small offices in London and could not afford the extra cost of setting up an office and workshop in Britain to process watches for hallmarking.
From June 1907 many of these smaller Swiss companies arranged for Assay Agents in the UK to handle the hallmarking process for them. The largest of these in England were George Stockwell & Company, sponsor's mark "GS" and Robert Pringle and Sons, sponsor's mark "A·G·R".
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Stockwell & Company were a large company of commercial carriers, transporting goods across Europe like UPS, FedEx or City Link do today. Stockwell & Co. had branches in cities all over the UK, and also in many cities on the continent. Before June 1907 Stockwell and Co. were transporting parcels of watches from Switzerland into Britain, which included making the necessary arrangements to get the parcels cleared through British customs and paying the British import duty on behalf of the manufacturer.
When the British law was changed in 1907 to require that all imported gold and silver watch cases be assayed and hallmarked, the Swiss manufacturers who used Stockwell & Co. to transport and import watches into Britain asked them to arrange arrange for the hallmarking as part of the import process, so Stockwell added this to their range of services. George Stockwell's sponsor's mark was first registered with the London Assay Office on 15 June 1907. You can read more about the history of the company at George Stockwell & Co.
From the middle of the nineteenth century Robert Pringle & Sons of 40/42 Clerkenwell Road, London, was one of the UK's largest wholesalers of jewellery, silverware, clocks and watches. I am not sure whether they imported watches before 1907 but it seems likely; they certainly did after 1907 as is shown by the large number of watches carrying their sponsor's mark. The sponsor's mark used by Robert Pringle and Sons on imported watches "A·G·R" was first registered on 25 June 1907 by Arthur George Rendell, who was one of the managers at Pringles. You can read more about the history of this company at Robert Pringle and Sons.
The fact that both Stockwell & Company's and Robert Pringle & Sons marks were not registered until around the time that the new rules governing the hallmarking of imported gold and silver watches came into effect is rather curious, it indicates that they and their Swiss customers were not prepared for the new rules. One of the largest importers of Swiss watches at the time was Dimier Brothers, who had factories in Switzerland and an office in London. They were evidently well aware of what was going on and had registered their mark on 12 December 1906, less than two weeks after the judgment in the Court of Appeal that resulted in all foreign watches being hallmarked in the UK and more than six months before the change in the law cam into effect. You can read more about this company at Dimier Brothers.
In Scotland it appears that James Weir of Glasgow acted for many companies, but this needs further research.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated November 2017. W3CMVS.