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Blog: Foreign watches with British hallmarks

Date: 3 February 2016

Copyright © 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.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page.


Foreign watches with British hallmarks

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.

Swiss made watch case with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1881/82. Click to enlarge.

If you are interested in pocket watches you will probably have seen a few Victorian specimens that have British hallmarks in their silver or gold cases and foreign, most often Swiss or American, movements. These stand out as curiosities because the vast majority of foreign watches imported during the nineteenth century don't carry British hallmarks, which begs the question of why some do when the majority don't?

The photograph here shows a typical example of one of these cases. The case is stamped with the S. S & Co. trademark of the Swiss watch manufacturer Stauffer, Son & Co. The watch and its case were manufactured in their large modern factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds. A letter by J. Lecluse describing the Stauffer factory appeared in the journal of the British Horological Institute in September 1885, shortly after the watch shown here was manufactured, you can read it on may page about Stauffer at Stauffer, Son & Co.

The case bears the sponsor's mark "CN" which was entered at the London Assay Office by Charles Nicolet on 1 March 1877. The hallmarks are the lion passant of sterling silver, the leopard's head of the London Assay Office, and the date letter "F" in a shield showing that the watch was hallmarked in 1881 or 1882. Watch cases made by Stauffer in La Chaux-de-Fonds were shipped over to Stauffer's office in England in batches, marked with Nicolet's sponsors mark and then sent to the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and hallmarked. The cases were then returned to Switzerland for final finishing and the mechanism put in to complete the watch, which was then returned to Britain to be sold.

NB: I am not talking about watches where the movement was imported bare and put into a British made case. The Dennison Watch Case Company of Birmingham made cases for imported American and Swiss movements, and of course these were British made cases. Many gold cases were manufactured in Britain and fitted with Swiss movements as a result of the imposition of high import duties during the Great War. The cases that I am talking about on this page were manufactured abroad, mainly in Switzerland, and hallmarked in Britain with traditional British hallmarks, including the lion passant on sterling silver and the crown on gold. They were then fitted with foreign movements, either in England or in Switzerland.

It was perfectly legal at the time for foreign gold or silver watch cases to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. In fact it was required by British law that all gold and silver items should be hallmarked before being put on sale. But for many years gold and silver watches had been imported without being hallmarked. This was not legal, but the customs authorities didn't realise this, and the people who should have done something about it, the assay offices and in particular the Goldsmiths' Company in London, knew about it but took no action.

Rather perversely this situation changed around 1874 when foreign manufacturers started to get some watch cases assayed and hallmarked in British assay offices. English watchmakers then raised strong objections to British hallmarks appearing on the cases of foreign watches, even though this was perfectly legal and should have been done all along. The English watchmakers claimed that it was being done so that British customers would be deceived and think that foreign watches were actually made in England, and therefore pay a higher price for them than they otherwise would.

It is possible that the foreign manufacturers wanted the British hallmarks on their watch cases so that the British public could be assured of the fineness of their metal, just as the British law required. This was certainly the argument put forward by Alfred Bedford, managing director of the British branch of the American Watch Company of Waltham. It is also possible that the English watch manufacturers had a point and that foreign watches were being passed off as English by unscrupulous retailers, the British hallmarks, especially the lion passant of sterling silver, being well recognised by members of the public who perhaps did not understand the limits of its power, which was purely to show the fineness of the metal an object was made from and not its place of origin. It is also possible that the English manufacturers, under pressing competition and price pressure from imported watches, saw an opportunity to create some artificial trade barriers, which they almost succeeded in doing. And it is almost certain that all of these factors were involved in what transpired.

1842 Customs Act: Imported Gold and Silver Items

The 1738 Plate (Offences) Act passed in the reign of George II was an important Act. It pulled together and clarified a lot of the law on hallmarking and although amended several times it remained the legal basis for hallmarking in England until 1975. The Act required that all gold or silver items that were sold, exchanged or exposed to sale in Britain must be of specified legal fineness of 22 carat or 18 carat for gold, and sterling for silver, and must be hallmarked.

The Customs Act of 1842 (5 & 6 Vict. c. 47 s. 59) included a provision that made it explicitly illegal to sell imported gold or silver items in the Britain unless they had been assayed at a British office and stamped with the usual British hallmarks. To be hallmarked meant that the imported items would have to meet the British legal standards of fineness.

Why this either explicit statement or extension of the 1738 law was felt to be necessary is not clear from the Act, but in "Hallmark: A History of the London Assay Office" John Forbes says that the 1842 requirement was brought about as a result of the Manufacturing Silversmiths' Society expressing to the London Assay Office concerns that an anticipated reduction in import duties on gold and silver items would result in a flood of inferior foreign products entering the country, "there being no provision in law for hallmarking imported items". This statement is contradicted by evidence given in 1878 to a Select Committee by Walter Prideaux, Clerk to the Goldsmiths' Company, who said that he thought that under the 1738 Act foreign watch cases should be hallmarked, and that he couldn't think of any reasons why they should not be marked. If that was true for foreign watch cases, which Mr Prideaux was being specifically asked about, then it must have been equally true for foreign plate of any description. However, it is evident that prior to 1842 British hallmarking was restricted by custom and practice to items made in the UK.

The English manufacturers were almost certainly concerned about the reductions in import tariffs advocated by the exponents of "free trade", an idea that had been voiced by Adam Smith in 1776:

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.. . . If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.

This idea was taken up and amplified by the economist David Ricardo (1772-1823 ) who opposed the protectionist Corn Laws, which restricted imports of wheat and argued for free trade. His ideas strongly influenced Robert Peel, leading to Peel's great 'free-trade' budgets of 1842 and 1845 and, as British Prime Minister, the repeal of the corn laws in 1846, although this was opposed by most members of his own party and resulted in his resignation. The principles of free trade meant reducing tariff barriers and import duties on foreign good entering the country. Perhaps the silversmiths were concerned that a flood of substandard foreign silverware would be allowed into the country as a result, or perhaps they just wanted to make life as difficult as possible for their foreign competitors.

One effect of the 1842 act was that it implicitly conferred on importers of gold and silver items the right to enter their mark at an assay office so that they could send items for assay. This was recognised in the "Gold and Silver Wares" Act of 1844 (7 & 8 Vict., c.22) when the term "maker's mark" was changed by section 8 to "private mark", which the Act allowed could be registered by any worker, maker and manufacturer of, or trader or dealer in, gold or silver wares. This term never caught on, for obvious reasons, and the term "Sponsor's mark" rather than "private mark" is now used. This is more accurate as to the role of the mark in hallmarking, being an identifier of the person responsible for submitting an item for hallmarking.

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The Foreign Mark "F"; 1867 and 1876 Customs Acts


"Foreign"

To answer concerns that items of foreign manufacture with British hallmarks could be thought to have been made in the UK, a requirement was introduced for an additional mark, a letter "F" in an oval shield signifying Foreign manufacture, to be stamped alongside the usual hallmarks on all foreign made silver and gold items. This requirement was first introduced in 1867 in the Customs Amendment Act (30 & 31 Vict. c. 82 s. 24). That statute was later repealed by the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876 (39 &40 Vict. c. 36); but the requirement was re-enacted in the same words by the Customs (Tariff) Act 1876 (39 & 40 Vict. c. 35).

Few items are seen carrying the "F" mark, perhaps because importers were not keen to see their goods branded as "foreign". In 1876 the Goldsmiths' Company issued a notice warning dealers that imported gold and silver items could not legally be sold unless they were of legal standard and had been assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. But items of plate with the "F" mark are virtually unknown before 1888, and watch cases with this mark from any period are completely unknown. (Unless you have one?)

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Select Committee on Hallmarking

In 1878 following complaints from Coventry watchmakers that foreign watch cases were being marked with British hallmarks, Sir Henry Jackson (1831 - 1881) the member of Parliament for Coventry proposed a draft bill to prevent any watch case not manufactured in the UK from being hallmarked. A Select Committee of the House of Commons was set up to look into the hallmarking of foreign items.

One of the specific areas the committee looked into was the British hallmarking of foreign watches. One of the witnesses to give evidence was Walter Prideaux, Clerk of the Goldsmiths' Company. In his evidence concerning imported gold and silver watches Mr Prideaux said "Foreign watches in unmarked cases have been always, I am informed, sold in England without challenge", a rather surprising statement for the person who was largely responsible for adjudicating day to day when questions arose about what items should or shouldn't be hallmarked. Mr Prideaux went on to say that he thought that under the 1738 Act foreign watch cases should be hallmarked and he couldn't think of any reasons why they shouldn't. In later evidence Mr Prideaux said by way of explanation of this anomalous position:

"What I say is this : that we have never been asked to sue for penalties. No man has ever come and given information, and said, " Here is a foreign watch case which I saw being sold, and I ask you to sue." The thing has never been done. The practice has existed from time immemorial; in point of fact, before the time of [the 1738 Act] 12 Geo. 2 ; and I certainly, in my position as legal adviser of the company, could not advise them to sue under those circumstances; but then I should find it difficult to give a reason for not doing it."

Mr Prideaux first noticed in around 1874 that significant quantities of foreign made watch cases were being sent to Goldsmiths' Hall for hallmarking, and that the assay officers could easily recognise these foreign watch cases so he asked them to record the numbers. At first they were only about 1,500 out of 150, 000 cases marked in the year and he thought that it was such a small matter that no action was needed, but the number had subsequently grown rapidly. In the hallmarking year ending 28 May 1878 the totals of watch cases marked were 101,017 silver and 30,161 gold, of which 10,440 silver and 2,110 gold cases were foreign. Foreign watch cases were 10.3% of the total number of silver cases marked, and 7% of the gold cases.

These watch cases were being marked with British hallmarks, but they were not marked with the foreign "F" as required by the 1867/1876 law. Mr Prideaux explained that Goldsmiths' Hall had no power of inquiring into the origin of things and that if a registered dealer sent items in with his private registered mark upon it, Goldsmiths' Hall were bound to assay them and mark them without any power of inquiring where they were made. Mr Prideaux also said that if the laws were to be implemented as intended then it was absolutely necessary that the Customs not be allowed to part with imported goods unless they had been hallmarked.

In its report in May 1879 the committee said:

The chief complaint against the operation of the existing law comes from the manufacturers of watches and watch-case. They have established by evidence that within the last few years a practice has sprung up, and is rapidly increasing, under which foreign-made watch-cases are sent to this country to be Hall-marked with the British Hall-mark, and are afterwards fitted with foreign movements, and are not then unfrequently sold and dealt in as British made watches; and they assert that this not only injures their own reputation and lowers the credit of British workmanship, but is contrary to the spirit and intention of our legislation. The Assay Offices are unable legally to refuse to Hall-mark these foreign watch-cases when brought for assay by registered dealers, though their officials are practically able to distinguish them from cases of British manufacture.

That Parliament has recognised the distinction between foreign and British plate is shown by the provisions of an Act 30 & 31 Vict. c. 82, s. 24 [the 1867 Customs Amendment Act], which requires all imported plate to be marked before sale with the letter F in an oval escutcheon, "in order to denote that such gold or silver plate was imported from foreign parts, and was not wrought or made in England, Scotland, or Ireland."

Until the practice of Hall-marking foreign watch-cases sprang up, the British Hall-marks were taken to indicate British workmanship, and your Committee cannot doubt that foreign watches in watch-cases so Hall-marked are frequently sold as of British manufacture. The Committee are therefore of opinion that all foreign-made watch-cases assayed in this country ought to be impressed with an additional distinctive mark (the letter F, by reason of its resemblance to existing marks, is not sufficiently distinctive) indicative of foreign manufacture, and that the law ought to be altered accordingly.

The committee felt that the letter "F" was not sufficiently distinctive because the public was used to looking for the standard mark of the lion passant on UK made items. There were always other marks in addition to the lion, such as the maker's mark, and the public not being expert in matters of hallmarking were quite likely to assume that the letter "F" was one of these marks. Seeing the lion on a watch case they were likely to assume that the whole watch was made in the UK. They were also concerned that the letter F was too easy to remove. One of the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee in 1878, James Walker a watch case maker from Coventry showed them several watch cases that had been hallmarked at Goldsmiths' Hall that morning and which by the time he showed them to the committee in the afternoon some of the marks had been removed so that there was no trace of them although the other hallmarks were still clearly visible.

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Who was responsible?

Evidence was presented to the committee of the number of watch cases marked at Chester. Before 1876 all were English made, and in 1875 they hall marked 25,778 English made silver watch cases. In 1876 they hall marked 34,846 watch cases, of which 10,224 were foreign made, and in 1877 they hall marked 45,355 watch cases, of which 20,704 were foreign made. The quantity of English manufactured watch cases marked at Chester over the three years had remained virtually static at 25,778, 24,622 and 24,651 whereas the number of foreign cases had increased markedly. Although it is not mentioned whether these cases were marked with the additional "F" hallmark signifying foreign manufacture, it seems most likely that they were not and that the Chester Assay Office, like the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths' Hall were recording the numbers of cases they thought were of foreign manufacture but were powerless to require them to be declared as such when they were submitted for hallmarking.

Who was sending these foreign watchcases for British hallmarking? Watches were being imported from two countries; Switzerland and America. The principal, I believe at the time the only, company importing American watches was the American Watch Company of Waltham, or Waltham for short. The first person to enter a mark for this company was Frederick Francis Seeland, who was the first manager of Waltham in the UK. He left the company in late 1876 to take over as manager at IWC in Schaffhausen. He was succeeded as manager of Waltham UK by Alfred Bedford. Watches were imported by Switzerland by a much larger range of enterprises. These ranged from well established and respectable operations such as of Baume & Co. represented by Arthur Baume and who imported their own watches and Longines watches, and Stauffer & Co. represented by Charles Nicolet who imported watches from their own Swiss factory through to much smaller operations. Notable amongst these latter were one Antoine Castelberg who was not associated with any factory but acted on his own accord, ordering watches from various factories in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The dates of first entry of their marks are shown in the table below.

Registrant London Birmingham Chester
Baume 18/11/1876 5/1/1901 n/a
Bedford 30/8/1876 12/3/1879 16/9/1876
Castelberg 25/8/1875 n/a 17/10/1877
Nicolet 1/3/1877 n/a 13/12/1906
Seeland 2/11/1875 n/a 31/1/1876

The earliest mark I have identified was registered by Castelberg in August 1875, followed by Seeland in November 1875. This doesn't fit with Mr Prideaux's statement that he first noticed in around 1874 that significant quantities of foreign made watch cases were being submitted for hallmarking and there might well be an earlier registration of an imported or agent that I have not yet identified. The dates of registration of Seeland and Bedford accord well with the evidence from Chester. Of course the Dennison watch case factory was getting under way at that time which would soon eliminate the need of Waltham for imported watch cases. This list is by no means exhaustive and further research is required.

Alfred Bedford had presented a petition to parliament arguing against the draft bill proposed by Sir Henry Jackson and asking for the Select Committee to be set up. He was the only witness to appear before the Select Committee to protest against possibly being denied the right to send cases to have British hallmarks. In his evidence he stated that in 1877 Waltham UK had imported 5,000 cases from the United States and 18,000 from Switzerland, most of which had been hallmarked at Chester. It is interesting to compare the total of these figures, 23,000, with the figure of 20,704 foreign watchcases hallmarked at Chester in 1877. It appears that all of the foreign watchcases marked at Chester could have been submitted by Waltham UK. Although Bedford opposed the draft bill because he wanted to continue to be able to send foreign cases to be hallmarked, he pointed out that the American Watch Co. of Waltham always marked its own name on its watch movements, so there was no question of them being passed off as English manufacture.

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1883 Revenue Act

The suggestion of Walter Prideaux regarding the Customs Authorities, that they not release gold or silver items until they had been hallmarked, and the Committee's recommendations were not acted upon immediately, but the Revenue Act of 1883 (46 & 47 Vict. c. 55 s. 10) required that all gold and silver plate imported into Great Britain or Ireland be deposited in a bonded warehouse and not released from bond until it had been hallmarked. The marks remained the usual UK hallmarks and the letter "F". When I consulted The Goldsmiths' Company about the use of the "F" mark from when it was first required in 1842 they told me that there was considerable difficulty in enforcing the 1867 act, to the extent that hardly any items of silver are known to bear the "F" mark until the early 1880s. The appearance in the 1880s (presumably starting in 1883) of silver items marked with the letter "F" shows that this requirement of the 1883 Act had an immediate effect on imported gold and silver items in general, but imported watches with British hallmarks and the "F" mark are virtually unknown, so the law was evidently still not effective in their regard.


New town marks for imported watch cases

Form of London hallmarks on imported watch cases (Other offices had similar marks)

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1887 Merchandise Marks Act

The principal thing that the English watchmakers and watchcase makers were complaining about was that foreign manufactured watch cases were being imported and sent to British assay offices to be marked with British hallmarks, and then returned abroad to have the watch movement fitted. These entirely foreign made watches were then imported carrying British hallmarks, and it was said that the hallmark misled British people into thinking that the whole watch, case and movement, was made in the UK. The introduction of the "F" mark to combat this was deemed a failure because it was insufficiently distinct from either the sponsor's (maker's) mark or the official date letter, and it was also easy for agents of foreign manufacturers to avoid the "F" by submitting items for assay without declaring that they were foreign.

These concerns were finally addressed in the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act (50 & 51 Vict. c. 28). The Act required that a statutory declaration of the country of origin be made for all watch cases submitted for assay, and that the hallmarks stamped on foreign made watch cases be completely different to the normal UK hallmarks. Note that this Act was specific to watch cases only, it did not apply to other imported items of gold or silver.

An Order in Council implementing the requirements of the Act came into force on 1 January 1888. New town marks shown in the first part of the figure here were introduced for the assay offices to stamp on foreign made watch cases. For example, the London Assay Office mark of the leopard's head mark was replaced on imported items by a radiant sun's head in a square shield for gold, or oval shield for silver. The standard marks were also changed so that could not be mistaken for UK hallmarks; the crown mark of gold and the lion passant of sterling silver were replaced with plain numbers, e.g. .925 for sterling silver.

The Order in Council also introduced a new and completely different style of composite hallmarks as shown in the second part of the figure to be used for foreign manufactured watch cases, with the word "Foreign" prominent in the centre. The idea was to make it impossible to obliterate or remove the word foreign without this alteration being obvious.

The effect of these new hallmarks, very different from the normal UK marks and with the prominent word "Foreign" in the middle, was to stop immediately foreign manufactured watch cases being sent for British hallmarking, as effectively as if the wording had been "Foreign muck" - which is probably what it was intended to imply! The foreign marks would not have been applied to British made watch cases, so it would have been possible (although it would not have made economic sense) for foreign manufacturers to use genuine English made cases with the usual British marks, but the Act anticipated this and also required a clear statement of where the "works" was made. The upshot of the 1887 Act was that no foreign watches received British hallmarks of either sort, the usual British hallmarks or the foreign ones, and the English manufacturers were happy.

I have never seen a watch marked with the British "foreign" hallmarks, but there is some evidence that a few were. Evidence presented to the House of Commons (discussed in the next section) indicates that three watches were marked between 1902 and 1903 on declaration that they were foreign, and in "Marks on Gold & Silver Plate" by William Redman, 1907, Redman says that the 1887 act was "almost a dead letter" and that he had only seen three watch cases marked as required by the act in the twenty years that it was in force. Whether he was referring to the three cases already mentioned or had actually seen three cases, those three or another three, is unknown.

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Concerns about Hallmarking of Imported Watches

By the end of the nineteenth century one might have thought that the authorities had at last got the hallmarking of imported gold and silver watches sown up absolutely water tight. The 1842 Act required that they were hallmarked, the 1883 Act required that they were kept in bonded warehouses until sent for assay, the 1887 Act required a statutory declaration of the country of origin, and the Order in Council following the 1887 Act required that different symbols were to be used for the hallmarks so that the public could not be deceived into thinking that foreign watches were actually of UK manufacture. But there was still a problem. Despite the large number of Swiss watches being imported and sold in the UK, very few were being hallmarked. A question about this was asked in the House of Commons on 21 June 1904:

MR. CHARLES MURRAY (Coventry) To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he can inform the House of the number of gold and silver watch cases marked by each of the Assay Offices in the years 1902 and 1903, on declarations that such cases were made outside the United Kingdom.

(Answered by Mr. Gerald Balfour.) The Assay Offices have been good enough to supply the information desired by my hon. friend, and it appears that in London one gold watch-case was marked in 1902, and one gold and one silver case in 1903, on declarations that they were made outside the United Kingdom. No watch-cases were marked under similar circumstances at any of the other Assay Offices in either year.

Three watches in two years! This must have caused some puzzlement, and then there was a bombshell when it was revealed that the Customs authorities didn't treat imported watches in gold or silver cases as "plate" and had therefore not been ensuring that they were sent for assay, and that although the Goldsmiths' Company was perfectly well aware of this, as Walter Prideaux had told the parliamentary select committee in 1878, they hadn't challenged it or attempted a prosecution.

Goldsmiths' vs. Wyatt

In 1904 the Board of Customs consulted the law officers of the Crown, who were of the opinion that the cases of watches imported complete should be hallmarked. However, the Board Customs had long treated imported watches as not requiring to be hallmarked and so were reluctant to change their practice without a some more formal decision, so they asked the Goldsmiths' Company to take out a test prosecution. The Company agreed and looked for a likely candidate to prosecute. They didn't have to search far: one William Wyatt had "form" as far as the Company was concerned. In 1897 Wyatt had been found guilty of fraudulently transposing hallmarks (cutting the hallmarks from a legitimate item and soldering them onto another item of substandard fineness) and sentenced to 14 months' imprisonment with hard labour. So, on the 14th day of March 1905, Sir Walter Sherburne Prideaux, Clerk of the Goldsmiths' Company and son of Walter Prideaux, went calling on William Wyatt and purchased four watches, two in silver cases and two in gold cases. None were hallmarked, so the Goldsmiths' Company took out a prosecution under the 1842 act.

The judgment by Mr. Justice Channell in the initial trial of Goldsmiths' Company v Wyatt went against the Company on the grounds that watches were not "plate". This judgment was reversed in the Court of Appeal before Lord Justice Collins, Master of the Rolls, and Lords Justice Cozens-Hardy and Farwell in November 1906.

Lord Justice Sir George Farwell, in presenting the judgment of the higher Court, identified two different uses of the term "plate" and concluded that watch cases clearly were "plate" within the meaning of section 59 of the 1842 Act. Empty watch cases had in fact been treated as plate by the customs, and the appeal judges found that it could not be contended that the mere insertion of works into a watch case could make the watch case "not plate". He also pointed out that a schedule the customs had relied on when distinguishing between watch cases as "plate" and complete watches as "not plate" was concerned only with taxation, and this schedule did not change the requirement of section 59 of the 1842 Act that required all foreign plate to be hallmarked.

In his concluding remarks Lord Justice Farwell addressed the comment that no one would use the term "plate" as including gold and silver watches in common parlance, pointing out that the proper question was not whether gold and silver watches would be described as plate in ordinary language, but whether they were described as such in Acts of Parliament, which the Court found that they clearly were. Lord Justice Farwell concluded that watch cases were "plate" within the meaning of section 59 of the 1842 Act, and therefore should be assayed and marked as required by the law.

The case of Goldsmiths v. Wyatt revealed starkly that British law since 1842, and probably since 1738 or even earlier although that question was not addressed, required that gold and silver watch cases should be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office, and that there were no exceptions for foreign manufactured watch cases, and that this had not been taking place due to a misunderstanding by the Customs authorities with the supine cognisance of Goldsmiths' Hall.

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The Term "Plate"

The origin of the confusion revolves around the use of the term "plate" in the 1842 Act. Plate is used by the assay offices, and hence in Acts of Parliament about assay and hallmarking, in two distinct ways, (1) in the ordinary way, to mean platters or shallow dishes, and (2) in a particular way as a genus, stemming from the origin of the word in the Spanish "plata" for silver, the major source of work of the assay offices and which became extended over time to include gold items. When used by the assay offices the genus "plate" includes as species vessels, dishes, cups, bowls and every other form of gold or silver ware, even candle sticks. The High Court determined that it was the specialised use of the term that the Act intended to be used. Obviously this specialised use of the term plate includes items that would not ordinarily be called plate by anyone outside the assay office, but that doesn't matter as far as the law is concerned.

Unfortunately, in this case, "anyone outside the assay office" included the British customs authorities. They were primarily concerned with levying customs duties, not with hallmarking, and naturally turned to the schedules at the back of the Act containing lists of articles on which duty was to be imposed and the amounts of the duty to be charged. In this schedule "Plate of Gold" and "Plate of Silver" appear in Class VI, and "Watches of Gold or Silver, or other Metal" appear in Class XIX. This difference lead the customs authorities to treat empty gold and silver watch cases as "plate", because they were clearly not watches, but they treated complete watches as "not plate", because watches were in a different class to plate. Such confusion often occurs when the arcane language, often jealously preserved, of one profession is encountered by someone outside that profession.

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1904 and 1906 Hallmarks for Imported Plate

In 1900 British manufacturers of gold and silver items started to demand of the government the same protection from foreign competition as was given to British watchcase makers. On 28 June 1900 a deputation from the Birmingham Jewellers and Silversmiths' Association, and members of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths' Trade in London and Sheffield, was received at the Board of Trade in London. Speaking for the deputation, Mr. E. T. Pendleton (Birmingham) said that the British hallmark was looked upon by general public as a sign of British workmanship, and that the letter "F" that was applied to foreign manufactured items was inadequate because it was could easily be confused with the initials of the firm making the goods, or with the official date mark. The deputation therefore suggested the desirability of hallmarking foreign plate and jewellery with the distinctive Assay marks that were ordered to be used on foreign manufactured watch cases by the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 and which had effectually stopped unfair competition in the sale of foreign watches in Britain.

The Board of Trade was not initially sympathetic, but in 1904 the "Hall-Marking of Foreign Plate Act" and Order in Council complied with the request. The Act specified that a hallmarks different from the usual UK hallmarks were to be struck on "any plate or article imported from foreign parts" and the Order in Council specified that from 31 October 1904 the same town marks were to be used on imported items as had been defined in 1887 for hallmarking imported watch cases (e.g., the sign of Phoebus for London). The combination mark specified in the 1887 legislation, with all of the individual marks together with the word "Foreign" contained within a single shield, was not required; the word "Foreign" was omitted, and the marks were to be struck separately in the same way as traditional British hallmarks.

Numerical values were specified for the fineness mark so that the crown for gold and the lion of sterling silver would not be used on foreign plate. For gold the carat value together with its decimal equivalent was marked, for silver items the decimal equivalent of the standard was marked. E.g. 18 carat gold was to be marked 18 and .75, sterling silver was to be marked .925.

Some of the 1904 marks for imported items were soon found to resemble existing trademarks, so in 1906 new marks for imported items were defined by Order in Council for the London, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Dublin assay offices; the marks for Birmingham, Chester, and Edinburgh remaining the same as before. The London Assay Office mark became the sign of the constellation Leo, which looks like an omega symbol, on a cross in an oval shield for silver and square for gold. The Glasgow Office mark became two opposed block letters "F" prone. The Birmingham Office symbol became an equilateral triangle.

The 1904 Act and consequent Order in Council, and the 1906 Order in Council that altered the town marks, did not alter or repeal the sections of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act that applied to watchcases, or the Order in Council that defined the hallmarks that were to be applied to foreign manufactured watchcases from 1 January 1888. This meant that watchcases were still by law required to be marked in accordance with the 1887 Order in Council, including the composite marks with the word "Foreign" across the middle and with the town marks that had been found to be problematic when used on imported plate after the 1904 Order in Council came into force. The fact that these discrepancies were not noticed probably simply shows that no foreign watchcases were being sent for hallmarking at the time.

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Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption)

Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption) Act

The judgment of 1906 caused great concern to retailers who had stocks of watches that they thought had been imported correctly, after all, the Customs authorities had permitted it, so a bill the "Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption)"" Act 1907 was passed to exempt all watch cases imported into the UK before 1  June 1907 from the requirement, made law by Act of Parliament in 1842 some 65 years previously, from being hallmarked.

In the House of Lords on 15 July 1907 The Earl of Granard introduced the second reading of the bill with the following words:

"My Lords, the necessity for this Bill has been brought about in a rather curious way. According to the Customs Act, 1842, all foreign plate imported into this country must be of the same standard as our own plate and must be hall-marked. For some reason the customs authorities have always considered that watch cases did not come within the meaning of the Act, and consequently up to the present time they have always been exempted from assay and marking. The result is that watch cases of all kinds have been brought into this country, and cases have been sold as gold and silver which were nothing of the sort. The Court of Appeal the other day ruled that watch cases were plate within the meaning of the Act, and the object of this Bill is to exempt from assay and hall-marking all watch cases which are at present in stock over here and which came into this country before 1st June last."

The Act received Royal Assent on 2 August 1907.

You will note that the passage of the Act through parliament and its assent into law in August was actually after the date of 1 June specified in the Act as being the effective date. This was not retrospective legislation, the law requiring all imported watches to be hallmarked already existed, as had been shown by the case of Goldsmiths vs. Wyatt. The effect of the new Act was to exempt from being retrospectively hallmarked all the thousands of watches that had been imported without hallmarks before June 1907.

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1 June 1907: All Imported Watches to be Hallmarked

In May 1907 the Board of Trade issued the following notice:

"All Gold and Silver Watch Cases imported into this country on and after June 1st next will be dealt with by the Customs as Plate within the meaning of Section 10 of the Revenue Act, 1883, which provides that Gold and Silver Plate shall not be delivered for home use until assayed, stamped, and marked according to law."

The result of all this muddle is that from 1842 large numbers of complete Swiss watches in gold and silver cases were imported without being hallmarked as the law required, and that the exceptions in small numbers that did get hallmarked were ones the Swiss manufacturers wished to pass off as British! An astonishing state of affairs given the large numbers of Swiss watches entering the country in the second half of the nineteenth century. In "Marks on Gold & Silver Plate" by William Redman, 1907, Redman says that the 1887 act was "almost a dead letter" and that he had only seen three watch cases marked as required by the act in the twenty years that it was in force.

Foreign watch manufacturers and importers were naturally concerned that the watchcases they were now required to submit for hallmarking would be marked with the large and offensive marks defined in 1887. On 23 January 1907 a report in The Times said that the Board of Trade had received representations that it would be difficult to place these marks on watchcases of small size or delicate manufacture. It was suggested that the simpler marks prescribed for foreign plate by the Order in Council of 11 May 1906 could be placed even on small watchcases and this suggestion was adopted by a new Order in Council issued in May 1907, effective on 14 May. This Order essentially repeated the requirements of the 1906 Order in Council that applied to imported items that were not watch cases, but this time with specific application to watchcases, repealing the 1887 Order in Council.

I wonder what bright spark noticed in 1907 that the 1887 Order in Council was still in force for watch cases? It was probably someone at Goldsmiths' Hall who, on learning of the outcome of Goldsmiths' v. Wyatt, thought that he had better look out some punches to be used for the expected flood of foreign watch cases!

The town mark identifies at which assay office an article was tested and hallmarked. From 1 June 1907 the town marks used by British assay offices on imported gold and silver watches differed from those used on items made in Britain and were:


London
Sign of Leo

Birmingham
Equilateral triangle

Chester
Acorn and two leaves

Sheffield
Sign of Libra

Edindurgh
St. Andrew's cross

Glasgow
Opposed "F"s prone

Dublin
Boujet (water carrier)
Town marks used by British assay offices on imported watches after 1 June 1907

Because the assay and hallmarking of foreign watches came after the 1904 marks for imported items had been found to resemble existing trademarks and new town marks for the London, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Dublin assay offices for imported items were defined, the 1904 marks were never used on watch cases.

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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.

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Effects at Goldsmiths' Hall

From June 1907 there was a flood of foreign watch cases to be hallmarked. The number of silver watch cases received at the London Assay Office in the hallmarking year to 29 May 1908 was approximately 200,000, compared with only 3,000 for the previous hallmarking year of 1906 to 1907. It can be inferred that the 3,000 were all of UK manufacture, and the difference of 197,000 was made up of foreign watch cases. By the 1912 to 1913 hallmarking year the number of silver watch cases marked at the London Assay Office was around 700,000, reaching a peak in 1918 of more than 1.25 million. There was a similar increase in the number of gold watch cases. In the hallmarking year to 29 May 1908 this was approximately 78,500, compared with only 4,700 for the previous hallmarking year of 1906 to 1907. By the 1912 to 1913 hallmarking year the number of gold watch cases marked at the London Assay Office was around 255,000, then declined due to the war, and sharply declined after an ad valorem import duty duty of 33.⅓% was imposed in 1915 on imported luxuries, including clocks and watches, to conserve foreign currency reserves as part of the war effort. Silver watches were also subject to the tax, but as they were cheaper than gold watches their numbers didn't suffer the same decline. Nearly all the watch cases hallmarked at the London Assay Office between 1908 and 1918 were of Swiss manufacture.

It appears that the new rules still didn't stop the import of watches in unhallmarked cases entirely. In the House of Commons on 1 April 1914 Mr. Burgoyne asked the President of the Board of Trade Mr. Montagu whether he was aware that "... no steps have been taken to prevent the importation of watch cases by registered letter post, with the result that such goods are sold in this country in contravention of the law as to hall-marking ... ". Mr Montagu said that he would look into the matter and presumably the practice was stopped.


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Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated November 2017. W3CMVS.