British HallmarksCopyright © Notice
I started my pages about hallmarking to document information about imported watches that is not readily available in the standard references such as Bradbury and Chaffers. However, I realised that many people with a watch that they have perhaps been given or inherited don't have ready access to these standard works, so on this page I show some examples of British hallmarks in watch cases. I can't (for copyright reasons apart from anything else) reproduce the information in Bradbury or Chaffers, but I hope the examples here will help you read the hallmarks in your own watch.
There are lots more examples further down the page, but let's start with the hallmarks in the picture here. Starting at the top and then left to right, the marks are the lion passant of sterling silver, the leopard's head of the London Assay Office, the assayer's mark (date letter) "e" for 1860/1861, and the sponsor's mark R.O in rectangular shield of Richard Oliver, this mark first registered 16 February 1859, a second similar mark was registered 4 July 1860.
Until 1821 the leopard was pictured wearing a crown, and the lion was shown guardant as well as passant. Passant means walking with three feet on the ground and right front forepaw raised. Guardant means looking over his left shoulder towards the viewer. From 1821 the leopard was stripped of his crown and the lion is shown passant, but his head is in profile, looking in the direction he is walking, as in this example.
Richard James Oliver, the maker of the watch case shown in the picture, is first recorded as working in Galway Street London in 1845. He was partnered for a short time by John Edwards and they traded as Oliver and Edwards, but the partnership was dissolved in 1859, Richard Oliver continuing business at the same address. He then moved in 1876 to 1 Northampton Square, Clerkenwell, and in 1895 to 31 Wynyatt Street, Clerkenwell. From 1903 the business was carried on by his son Albert Thomas Oliver, moving at some time to 25 Spencer Street, Clerkenwell.
The business never modernised to the use of steam or electrically powered machines, and continued to make cases in the time honoured way by hand until it eventually closed in 1970. Some of the benches, lathes and tools were acquired by the Liverpool museum and set up in a replica workshop. The tools and techniques used by the Olivers, and the work shop itself, were not even Victorian; they would have been familiar to watch case makers of the eighteenth, and even the seventeenth, century. A video exists showing Mr Oliver working on turning a watch case using a foot powered pole lathe, a type of lathe that the ancient Egyptians would have recognised.
Assay and Hallmarking
Watch cases made in the UK from silver or gold should by law have been subject to assay to determine the purity of the metal and carry hallmarks showing four things:
- The Sponsor's mark - the registered mark of the person who submitted the article to the Assay Office for testing and marking.
- The Standard Mark - the guaranteed minimum fineness of the metal.
- The Assay Office Town Mark - showing at which office the article was marked.
- The Date Letter - showing the hallmarking year the article was marked.
The item of principal interest to the original purchaser was of course the "fineness" of the metal, i.e. how much gold or silver is actually in the material. In the UK this fineness is guaranteed by the Assay Office, which is why there is such a formal process of submitting, testing and marking the metal, but for researchers the marks can tell us more than just the basic fineness. Sterling silver, which is the most widely used standard in Britain, is 92.5% pure silver, the rest being a base metal alloying element, usually copper, that makes the resulting alloy stronger than pure silver. Gold purity is measured in carats where 24 carat gold is pure gold. Legal standards of gold were 22, 18, 15, 12, 9 and 14. When 14 carat became legal the short lived standards of 15 and 12 carats were discontinued.
Each Assay Office has its own "town" mark to show at which office an item was assayed. Amongst the most familiar of these are:
Leopard's head for London. The medieval craftsmen who designed this mark had never seen a leopard, which they thought was a cross between a lion (which they had also never seen) and a "pard", which is why the older leopard designs have manes and look suspiciously like lions.
Anchor for Birmingham.
Upright sword between three wheatsheafs (garbs) for Chester.
A castle for Edinburgh.
A tree with a bird, a bell, a fish and a ring for Glasgow.
Year Date Letters
The year denoted by the date letter can be confusing because until 1975, when the 1973 Act came into force, the hallmarking year did not run from 1 January. This mark was introduced in 1478 and was at first called the "assayer's mark", because it was intended to be a record of who was responsible for the assay of an item if questions later arose. For this reason it was changed each year when the new wardens were elected.
Prior to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the London hallmarking year commenced on 19 May, the Feast Day of Saint Dunstan, Dunstan was born at Glastonbury in about the year 925 and is the first recorded working goldsmith in England. He built a cell near the Abbey of Glastonbury containing a forge where he made censers and crosses, chalices and patens, as well as articles for domestic use. He successively became Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury. After his death on 19 May 988 he was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, canonised in 1029, and became the patron saint of all good goldsmiths. The London Goldsmiths' Company especially honoured St. Dunstan, subscribing towards the light of St. Dunstan in the Church of St. John Zachary, keeping his day as a holiday, and designating him in their records as "Seynt Dunstan our blessed Patron, Protector and Founder". patron saint of English gold and silversmiths. From the restoration of Charles II to the Monarchy in May 1660 until 1973, the London hallmarking year officially commenced on Oak-apple Day (the King's birthday), 29th May, but the actual date when the new letter was first struck was sometimes later by days, and even weeks, depending on when the new punches were accepted by the Wardens, the letter "s" causing trouble on several occasions because the there is no distinct lower case version of the letter s.
The point of all this is that the date letter change is nearly half way through the calendar year! So an item marked with an " a", which the table in Bradbury indicates is the date letter for 1916, could have been marked at any time from May 29th 1916 to 28th May, or possibly even some time in June, 1917.
The Glasgow hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June, neatly bisecting the the year. The Glasgow office closed in 1964. The Birmingham office also changed its date letter with the annual election of the wardens on 1st July.
The date letters used by the London Assay Office to indicate the hallmarking year ran in sequences of 20, starting at the letter "a" and running up to "u", omitting the letter "j". Other offices used the full cycle from "a" to "z".
Why was "j" left out? Well, the letter "j" was only invented in the 16th century, and didn't make its way into common English usage until the 17th century. The Goldsmith's Guild weren't going to change their ways for a new fangled thing like that. Even the hallmarking act of 1973, which did away with the London cycle ending in "u" and allowed the date letters to run up to " z", didn't introduce the letter "j" into London hallmarks - still a bit too modern I guess.
The shield shape (the outline around the letter) can sometimes be a bit confusing if you look in one of the reference books for a date letter in a gold case. Bradbury and other books show the shield shape for silver date letters, which often have serifs (points) along the bottom or top edges. The shields used for the date letter on gold items have plainer square or oblong shields and are hardly, if ever, shown in the reference books.
Maker's / Sponsor's Marks
To send an item to the Assay Office to be assayed, a person must be registered with the particular Assay Office. The reason for this is pretty obvious - the Office needs to know who to charge for their services and who to return the items to. To facilitate this, the Assay Office requires that each registered person have a registered mark, called the "Sponsor's mark", which is unique to them. This usually consists of the persons initials set in a "shield", a surrounding shape. If a person has the same initials as someone already registered, the shield of their mark will be made different, so that the two marks can be distinguished.
The sponsor's mark is not necessarily the mark of the person who made the item, which is why the name of the mark was changed in the nineteenth century from the previous "maker's mark".