British HallmarksCopyright © Notice
I started my pages about hallmarking to document information about imported watches, which 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 the British hallmarks that were found in any watch cases that were hallmarked before 1 June 1907, and which continued to be used in British manufactured watch cases after 1907.
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. If you want some help, don't hesitate to email me, but do try to send me a clear picture or sketch of the mark you need help with.
There are lots more examples on my British hallmarks examples page, but let's make a start with the example of the hallmarks in the picture here, just to get a feel for what a set of British hallmarks looks like. The first thing to note is that there are four distinct marks.
Starting at the top the first mark is a walking lion with raised right forepaw. This is the "lion passant" which indicates that the metal is sterling silver. Below this is a leopard's head, the "town mark" of the London Assay Office together with the date letter "e" for 1860/1861 At the bottom the sponsor's mark R.O in rectangular shield, the mark of Richard Oliver, first registered 16 February 1859.
Assay and Hallmarking
Let's now have a look at the four parts of a British hallmark in more detail. Watch cases made in Britain from silver or gold should by law have been subjected to "assay" (which simply means "to test") to determine the purity of the metal, and provided they are of the required standard, stamped with marks showing at least the following four things:
- Town mark - showing at which assay office the article was marked.
- Standard mark - the tested and guaranteed minimum fineness of the metal.
- Date letter - a mark which shows when the item was marked.
- Sponsor's mark - a mark showing who submitted the item for hallmarking.
There might also be a duty mark of the sovereign's head if the watch case was hallmarked between 1784 and 1798, or a letter "F" in an oval shield signifying Foreign manufacture if the watch case was imported between 1867 and 1887. After 1 January 1888 imported watch cases could no longer be marked with the usual form of British hallmarks.
Each Assay Office has its own "town" mark to show at which office an item was assayed. Amongst the most familiar town marks are:
- London - leopard's head.
- Birmingham - anchor.
- Chester - upright sword between three wheatsheaves (garbs).
- Sheffield - a crown for sterling silver, and from 1903 a rose for gold.
- Edinburgh - a three towered castle.
- Glasgow - a tree with a bird, a bell, and a fish with a ring in its mouth.
- Dublin - a figure of Hibernia seated.
The medieval heralds who designed the London mark had never seen a leopard. They thought thought it was a cross between a lion (which they had also probably never seen) and a mythical creature called a "pard", hence the name "leo-pard" and which is why the older leopard designs have manes and look suspiciously like lions. From 1300 until 1821 the leopard was pictured wearing a crown, since then he has been without the crown or mane.
It might be thought strange that Birmingham, set in the middle of the England and about as far from the sea as you can get, would use an anchor for its symbol. This is said to go back to 1773 when silversmiths from Birmingham and Sheffield petitioned Parliament for their own assay offices so that they wouldn't have to send items to London to be marked. The petitioners held meetings in The Crown and Anchor public house off The Strand in London. Each town adopted one of these signs as its mark and they tossed a coin to decide which; Sheffield got the crown and Birmingham the anchor. From 1773 the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices were authorised to assay and mark silver. Birmingham was authorised to assay and mark gold in 1824, using the anchor town mark for both gold and silver. Sheffield was authorised to assay and mark gold in 1903 and then used two town marks - the crown for silver and the rose for gold. Use of the crown on gold was reserved for the standard mark of 22 carat gold
The emblem of Glasgow can be traced back to the legend of Saint Mungo, the founder and patron saint of the city of Glasgow.
After 1 June 1907 very different town marks were used for imported watches, which you can read about on my page about Import Hallmarks.
Although hallmarks are very interesting in their own right and can tell us a lot about the history of an item, the original reason for hallmarking and the item of principal interest to the original purchaser was the "fineness" of the metal, i.e. how much gold or silver is actually in the alloy. This is indicated by the "standard" mark. The standard mark does not show the actual gold or silver content, but shows that the proportion of gold or silver meets or exceeds a legally defined minimum standard.
There are two standards for silver in Britain. Sterling silver, the most widely used, contains at least 11 ounces and 2 pennyweight of pure silver in the pound troy, making it at least 92.5% pure silver. The new standard of Britannia, introduced in 1697, contains at least 11 ounces and 10 pennyweight of pure silver in the pound troy, making it at least 95.8333...% pure silver, usually rounded to 95.84%.
Gold purity is measured in carats, where 24 carat gold means pure gold and fineness is measured as a proportion of 24, e.g. 18 carats is 18/24 = 75% pure gold. These proportions are by weight, because the density of gold is so much greater than other metals the proportions by volume a smaller. The first legal standard for gold in 1300 was 19⅕ carats, which was reduced to 18 carats in 1477 and then raised to 22 carats in 1575, which remains the higher standard to this day. An additional lower standard of 18 carats was introduced at the request of watchmakers in 1798, and then in 1854, again at the request of watchmakers, additional standards of 15, 12 and 9 carat were allowed. The 15 and 12 carat standards did not prove popular and by Order in Council in 1932 they were both replaced by a standard of 14 carat.
If the fineness of sterling silver were expressed in carats it would be 24 * 0.925 = 22.2 carats.
From 1544: the lion passant
From the start of hallmarking in England in the year 1300 the standard mark struck on both silver and gold was the leopard's head. In 1544 during the reign of King Henry VIII a new standard mark was introduced, the "lion passant guardant", a lion walking with three paws on the ground and right forepaw raised, his head turned over his shoulder to face the viewer. The origin of the mark is a mystery, it was not introduced by statute. The lion became the most widely recognised hallmark symbol because it was used by all of the English assay offices. Although the town mark, the date letter and the sponsor's mark all varied from piece to piece, the same lion was always present on "good English silver", and also for many years on gold.
The lion passant was the legal fineness mark used on all sterling silver in England until 1999, and was also used on 22 carat gold until 1844, but not for the additional lower 18 carat standard introduced in 1798 which was marked with a crown and the number 18. The use of the lion as the standard mark on both silver and gold meant that silver gilt items could possibly be mistaken for gold, so from 1816 an additional sun mark was struck on 22 carat gold. This was discontinued in 1844 when the the lion passant was replaced by the symbol of a crown and the number 22 as the standard mark for 22 carat gold.
During the period 1697 to 1720 sterling was replaced as the standard for silver wares (but not for coins) by the higher Britannia standard indicated by the hallmarks of Britannia and a lion's head "erased", a heraldic term meaning it has a jagged rather than straight edge at the neck.
From 1544 to 1549 the lion struck by the London Assay Office was shown "passant guardant" and crowned. From 1550 to 1820 the London lion remained passant guardant, but without the crown. From 1822 the London lion passant was no longer shown guardant but instead with his head in profile, looking forward in the direction he is walking. Other English assay offices varied their depiction of the lion. At Birmingham he was passant guardant until 1875 and passant thereafter. At Chester he was passant guardant until 1822, passant from 1823 until 1883, and then passant guardant from 1884 until the Chester Assay Office closed in 1962.
The standard mark for sterling silver used by the Edinburgh Assay Office was a Scottish thistle, Glasgow a lion rampant, and Dublin a harp crowned.
Date letter - the assayer's mark
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 and thereby indicates the date when the item was assayed and hallmarked, although this was not its original purpose.
Prior to the Restoration of King 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 letter j, a variant of the letter i, was introduced to allow finer nuance in the written word. This bit of obscure information can be useful if you come across a word like "fjord" (a partially submerged Norwegian coastal valley). At first sight most English speakers would stumble on this word, but just imagine the j as an i and you are close to the correct pronunciation of "fee-yord" - it's not exactly the same because the j sound is slightly different to the i sound, but it gets you close. And you can do vice-versa with i for j if you need to.
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.
To send an item to the Assay Office to be assayed, a person must register his details 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, and who to prosecute if a criminal offence has been committed. To facilitate this, the Assay Office requires that each registered person have a registered punch 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. Every punch that can be used to impress the mark must be registered.
The sponsor's mark is not necessarily the mark of the person who made the item. This was first officially recognised in law in the 1738 "Plate Offences Act" but had obviously been practice for some time before then.
Cameo and Intaglio marks
Punches, Shields and Escutcheons
The individual marks that make up a hallmark are usually "in cameo". This means that to make a shape such as a letter or symbol, the metal around the shape is pressed down by the punch so that the shape is left at the surface and stands out in relief. The shape that forms an outline around the depressed part of the mark is called the shield, or sometimes the escutcheon.
An alternative form of punching is called "intaglio" where the shape of a letter or mark is simply cut into the surface. This type of mark is also called "incuse", and often has no shield, although sometimes the punch also cuts a shield around the initials.
The shape of the shield of a sponsor's mark is very important because it is part of what makes each sponsor's mark unique. A sponsor's mark is a compulsory component of the hallmark and comprises the initials of the sponsor's personal or company name surrounded by a shield to form a unique mark. All sponsors' marks are unique and once allocated will never be re-issued to anyone else. When I wanted to register my sponsors mark I found that there was already a mark registered with my DBB initials. By choosing a shield shape with angled ends as shown in the picture, I was able to create a sponsor's mark that was unique to me. Bear this in mind when you are looking at a sponsor's mark, the shield shape is just as important as the letters.
The shield shape around the date letters can be confusing if you look in one of the reference books for a date letter on a gold item or watch case.
Bradbury and other books only show the shield shape for silver date letters, which often have wavy bottom or top edges. The shields used for the date letter on gold items usually have plain shields, often square with cut corners or oblong; these are hardly ever shown in the reference books.
Some Birmingham town mark and date letter cameos are not the same shape as shown in the published tables but instead have a point at the base and cut top corners. The Birmingham Assay Office told me that the outline around hallmarks for watch cases are not shown in Bradbury and that the marks shown are those used for silver wares and jewellery etc. They said that watch cases mostly have different outline designs and promised further information. However, I have at least one example of Birmingham hallmarks with the "k" of 1909/1910 that does have the same shield shapes as shown in Bradbury.
If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page.
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