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Blog: The three bears and 935 silver

Date: 26 January 2016

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2018 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.

This is from my page about Swiss hallmarking that can be found at Swiss Hallmarks.

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

Three Bears: 935 silver

Before 1880 the vast majority of Swiss watches sold in Britain were imported without any assay or hallmarking at all. After 1880, when the Swiss introduced their own hallmarking process, Swiss watches were assayed and hallmarked in Switzerland, but to the lower Swiss fineness standards of 0.800 or 0.875, not sterling which is 0.925. This was not legal, but no one in Britain or Switzerland realised at the time. A small proportion of Swiss watch cases were assayed in England and marked with British hallmarks between 1874 and 1888, and a higher grade sterling silver was used for these cases to meet the British sterling silver standard.

Neither of the standards of purity defined for silver in the Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 1880 (0.800 and 0.875) met the UK minimum standard of sterling silver, 0.925 or 92.5% silver content, so items with these levels of silver content in the metal could not be hallmarked in Britain. They could not be legally sold in Britain either, but this went unnoticed or ignored by the British authorities until 1887, and the situation was not properly remedied until 1907.

The British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 introduced new requirements for imported gold and silver watches. From 1 January 1888 they all had to be hallmarked, either in a British assay office or by an in their country of origin. The Act also defined new styles of hallmarks to be struck by UK assay offices on imported gold and silver watches. As a result of this the customs authorities stopped allowing into the UK Swiss watches with silver cases of either the 0.800 or 0.875 standard. As a consequence of this, a higher standard for silver of 0.935 was adopted in Switzerland to comply with the British legal minimum of sterling silver.

Three bears
Silver 0.935 Watch Case with three Swiss bears
silver hallmark bears
Silver 0.935 Bow with Two Bears, and Pendant with a Bear

This was discussed at a Swiss Federal Council meeting on 24 December 1887. It is clear from the minutes of the meeting that the Swiss authorities thought that sterling silver was actually 0.935, which explains why this standard, higher than necessary to meet British standards, was adopted. The reason for assuming this is not explained, but the British fineness mark of sterling is the lion passant, the walking lion with raised right forepaw, which doesn't reveal the exact analysis of sterling silver. A Swiss clerk tasked with the job of framing the new standard might have decided to simply get hold of a piece of British hallmarked sterling silver and have it tested. An alloy slightly above standard was often used in order to make certain that the work would pass assay and, when tested in Switzerland, this would have assayed at 0.935, hence the mistake.

At the meeting of the Swiss Federal Council on 24 December 1887 it was decreed that silver watch cases destined for Britain of 0.935 silver could be assayed and marked by Swiss Bureaux de Contrôle (assay offices). To confirm that a watch case had assayed at 0.935 or better a distinguishing assay mark was needed. It was decreed that this should be the set of marks shown in the picture; the number 0.935 in a rectangular shield indicating the fineness accompanied by three bears, one small bear above two large bears.

The bows of pocket watches were stamped with two bears, as shown by the red arrows in the second picture. Another bear was stamped on the head of the pendant as shown by the single third arrow.

The British customs authorities were not bothered about the number of bears; so long as silver watch cases were stamped with 925 or greater and had an official looking Swiss hallmark, whether one bear or three, they were happy to let the goods pass, after import duty had been paid.

Three Bears for Angleterre

Sterling 935 with one Bear

The use of 0.935 silver and the three bears marks was discussed in La Fédération Horlogère Suisse in October 1890, after a suggestion by the authorities that the practice should be discontinued and that watch cases be marked with 0.935 and a single bear. The watch manufacturers were strongly of the view that it was necessary to continue with it for watches that were to be exported to England, because English customers had come to recognise and appreciate the mark of the three bears. The mark of the three bears therefore continued to be an available option as before.

The mark of the three bears was not universally appreciated. It was said that customers in the United States preferred to see a single bear. Because of this, watch cases of 0.935 silver that were submitted to the Bureaux de Contrôle (assay offices) in packets identified with "Destinée à l'Angleterre" were stamped with three bears; without this identification they were stamped with a single bear.

Manufacturers could choose whether to have three bears or just one bear stamped on 0.935 silver watch cases by marking the packets "Destinée à l'Angleterre" if they wanted three bears, or omitting this if they wanted just a single bear. The image here of the case back of a Tavannes watch shows just such a mark, 0.935 and a single bear. It is also marked "Sterling", which supports the idea that the Swiss thought that the sterling standard was 0.935.

1907 and All Change

From 1 June 1907 all imported Swiss watches had to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office and marked with the new import hallmarks. After this date imported Swiss watches rarely also have Swiss hallmarks; there was little point in getting them assayed and hallmarked twice, although there was not a sharp cut off and watches are sometimes seen with both Swiss and British import hallmarks. There was no legal reason that a watch could not be hallmarked in both Switzerland and Britain, and no doubt sometimes this was expedient, say if a watch had already been hallmarked in Switzerland originally intended for another market and then an urgent order caused it to be sent to Britain.

Marking silver with three bears, which was specifically for the British market, probably stopped after 1 June 1907 when all imported Swiss watches had to be assayed and hallmarked in Britain. It was probably at this time that the Swiss authorities also realised that the sterling standard was 0.925 and not 0.935, the British hallmarks for imported watches using the decimal ".925" in an oval making this abundantly clear to all for the first time. In 1933 a silver standard of 0.925, the same as British sterling, was introduced in Switzerland, identified by a symbol of a duck. The bear and the 0.875 standard were discontinued, as was the semi-official standard of 0.935 and the three bears. The grouse continued as before to signify for silver of 0.800, which could not be imported into the UK. The traditional standard mark of the lion passant continued to be used on native British items, and is still used today although it is no longer a legal requirement.

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

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2018 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2018. W3CMVS.