Case Marks: Marks in Watch CasesCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.
This page is principally about hallmarking. In Europe the hallmarking of precious metal objects was, and still is, a legally required process. It involves testing and the fineness of the metal and then stamping it with control marks that show the results. Hallmarking is carried out by an organisation independent of the manufacturer of the item. In addition to the fineness, hallmarks can show where and when an item was hallmarked, and who submitted it.
This page isn't an end in itself, it is intended to help make a start on identifying the hallmarks in your watch case and then lead you to another page with more detail. On this page there is a brief description of a number of different types of hallmarks that you are likely to find in a watch case, and then for the British and Swiss marks there are links to take you to the full page of information for that type of mark.
There is a lot of information on this page and I know it can be difficult to take it all in, so if you are struggling to understand the marks in your watch case please ask me for help via my contact me page.
I don't make any attempt here to cover manufacturer's trade marks, of which there are thousands. If you want to identify a trademark, an invaluable resource is Mikrolisk.
Background to Hallmarks and Case Marks
The testing (assay) and hallmarking of gold and silver items in Britain goes back to the year 1300. At first the wardens of the Goldsmiths' company would visit guild members workshops and stamp their work with the mark of the leopard's head. In 1478 the first permanent assayer was appointed and items had to be taken to Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and marked, the origin of the term "hallmarking". A system of variable letters, changed each year when new wardens were elected, was introduced to identify when, and therefore by whom, an item had been assayed. At first this was called the "assayer's mark" but is now commonly known as the date letter.
Gold and silver watch cases submitted for hallmarking at a British assay office had first to be stamped with a mark identifying the person submitting the work, using a punch that had been previously registered at the assay office. Swiss watch cases were required to be assayed and hallmarked from 1880 but the identities of Swiss watch case makers are poorly documented before 1925, after that date all Swiss gold watch cases had to be stamped with a mark that identifies the maker.
NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin article November/December 2014.
Click this link to DOWNLOAD D9494
There has never been a system of legally required independent hallmarking in America. Watch cases made in America carry marks stamped by their makers that were not legally mandated or controlled. These are not hallmarks; the customer relied on the manufacturer's honesty rather than legal protection. American watch cases usually carry the maker's name and trade mark whereas British and Swiss made gold and silver cases are often anonymous apart from the hallmarks. Many American watches were imported into Britain as bare movements and cased with British made watch cases which, if they are gold or silver, carry British hallmarks.
In Britain gold or silver watch cases, wherever they were made, should always have been assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office before sale. British laws on hallmarking were enacted long before watches were even invented! Foreign made watch cases were no more exempt from the law than British made cases, but hallmarking of imported watch cases was not enforced before 1907. There was a from a short period between 1874 and 1887 when a small proportion of foreign watch cases were hallmarked in the same way as British made watch cases, but apart from this most watches were imported into Britain either without hallmarks at all, or with hallmarks from their country of origin.
Swiss gold and silver watch cases were not hallmarked in Switzerland until hallmarks for watch cases were introduced by law in 1880. Before that date gold cases were usually stamped with their carat fineness by the case maker, and silver was marked with its millesimal fineness, usually 800, or sometimes just "fine silver".
British practice changed in 1907 when it was ordered that all imported gold and silver watch cases be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. From 1 June 1907 the assay offices were ordered to strike hallmarks on imported watch cases that were different from those struck on watch cases made in the UK. For instance the London Assay Office town mark for watch cases manufactured in Britain was a leopard's head, but the town mark used on imported watches became the zodiac symbol Leo on a crossed back ground in an oval shield.
An easy way to distinguish a British hallmark struck on an imported watch case after 1 June 1907 is to look at the town mark, the symbol that shows which assay office carried out the assay and hallmarking. The new town marks shown below were used from 1 June 1907 on imported watch cases to distinguish them from watch cases made in Britain.
Zodiac sign of Leo
Acorn and two leaves
Zodiac sign of libra
St. Andrew's cross
Opposed "F"s prone
Boujet (water carrier)
|Town marks used by British assay offices on imported watches after 1 June 1907|
If it is a silver watch case another clear indication is that the silver standard is given as .925 in an oval shield rather than by the traditional mark for sterling silver made in Britain of the lion passant, a walking lion with raised right forepaw.
You can read more about this on my page about British assay and hallmarking, or in my article published in the November/December 2014 NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin as shown here.
Articles in the NAWCC Bulletin are copyright and usually only available to NAWCC members. However, after a request from the the archivist of the Incorporation of Goldsmiths, who looks after the historical records of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Assay Offices, the editor of the NAWCC Bulletin has allowed the article to be made publicly available and it can now be downloaded by clicking on this this link: DOWNLOAD. My research has also been incorporated in the latest version of Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks, you can read about this at Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks. I will be publishing some corrections and additions to my NAWCC article that I will make available as a download here.
The following sections illustrate some characteristic marks to help you identify the type of marks you might find in a watch case and then link to a page that goes into more details about those marks.
Sterling silver import marks
British Import Hallmarks
After 1 June 1907 all gold and silver watches imported into Britain were required to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. They were stamped with new hallmarks that were intended to show that the item was imported and not of British manufacture. The picture here shows a set of London import hallmarks for silver. NB: For clarity this picture does not include the sponsor's mark, but a set of British hallmarks is not complete and legal without a sponsor's mark.
The zodiac sign of Leo ♌ was used to show that the item was imported and assayed and hallmarked in the London Assay Office, distinguishing it from native British silver items that continued to be stamped with the leopard's head. The sign of Leo was not very well represented by the punch, looking more like an omega Ω, and was often struck upside down as here.
The symbol of .925 in an oval shield was used on imported sterling silver instead of the traditional lion passant, similarly a decimal number in an oval shield was used to represent the fineness of Britannia silver .9584.
Fineness mark for imported 9 carat gold
The fineness of the legal standards of gold were shown in carats and decimals, as illustrated the picture of the import mark for nine carat gold. The first figure is a nine on its side, not a six. The .375 is the decimal equivalent of nine carat: 9 / 24 = 0.375. The other legal standards for gold were represented similarly: (22 .916), (20 .833), (18 .75), (15 .625), (14 .583) and (12 .5).
In the same way that the sign of Leo was introduced as a new town mark for the London Assay Office to use on imported items, other British assay offices used different town marks for imported items. Decimal fineness marks were used on imported gold as well as silver in place of the traditional British symbols. The date letters used on imported items were the same as those used on native items, and each assay office continued with its own unique sequence of date letters.
To go to my page about British import hallmarks click on this link: British import hallmarks.
British Traditional Hallmarks
British traditional hallmarks on sterling silver
These marks, the walking lion passant of sterling silver, the leopard's head, and a date letter, are traditional British hallmarks on silver with origins that go back to the year 1300 in the reign of King Edward I. The lion passant, the walking lion with raised right forepaw, was introduced in the reign of King Henry VIII, the king who had six wives. Gold items were marked with similar hallmarks, with a crown or numbers identifying the gold standard.
A valid and legal British hallmark in a nineteenth or twentieth century watch case must have four marks; sponsor's mark, town mark, standard mark and date letter. For clarity this picture does not include the sponsor's mark, but a set of British hallmarks is not valid without a sponsor's mark.
British hallmarks like this were applied to all gold and silver items made in Britain, and they were also applied to some foreign watches between about 1874 and 1887 until the English watchmakers got this stopped. If you have such a foreign watch with native British hallmarks, you can read about this on Foreign watches with British hallmarks.
After 1 June 1907 all imported gold and silver watches were assayed and hallmarked in British assay offices but they were not marked with the traditional British hallmarks, instead new British import hallmarks were stamped on imported watches.
The leopard's head shown here, when used on its own, is the mark of the London Assay Office at Goldsmith's Hall. Other assay offices have their own "town marks"; symbols that show where the item was assayed and hallmarked. The town marks most often seen on English watches are the leopard's head of London, an anchor for the Birmingham assay office, and a sword between three wheatsheaves for the Chester assay office, most used by Liverpool watchmakers.
To go to my page about British hallmarks click on this link: British hallmarking.
In order to send any item to a British assay office to be tested and hallmarked, a person had first to enter their details and a unique punch mark at the assay office they wanted to use. The punch mark is usually the registered person's initials within a shaped shield. This is called the "sponsor's mark" and is one of the four parts of a legal British hallmark. The sponsor's mark was applied to each item before it was submitted for hallmarking, and can tell us interesting information about where a watch case was made, or imported a watch.
This mark is sometimes erroneously called the "maker's mark" due to misunderstanding its exact purpose and use. This can be very misleading at the best of times, and in the case of an imported watch it is just simply totally wrong. The term "sponsor's mark" should always be used, irrespective of whether the item is British or imported. The sponsor was the person who took responsibility for an item when it was submitted for hallmarking, making a legal declaration of where it was made and bearing the penalty if an item was found to be substandard. The mark was never intended to show who made an item; there was no requirement for a sponsor to be involved in any way in the manufacture of an item submitted for hallmarking and there has never been a requirement for the assay offices to know who actually made an item.
To go to my page about British sponsor's marks click on this link: Sponsors marks.
Swiss Hallmarks and Other Marks
Silver .925 from 1933
Swiss hallmarks from 1880: Gold 18 and 14 carat, silver .875 and .800
Swiss hallmarks for watch cases were introduced in 1880. The marks were the ones shown here; for 18 carat gold the head of Helvetia, the female national personification of Switzerland which is also called the Confederation Helvetica, for 14 carat gold a squirrel, and for silver either a rampant bear, a bear standing with forepaws raised, for the higher standard of 0.875 silver, or a grouse for 0.800 silver.
Silver 0.935 Watch Case with three Swiss bears
In 1888, in response to the British Merchandise Marks Act, the Swiss authorities introduced a higher standard of silver of 0.935 that was intended to be the equivalent of British sterling silver, the minimum standard of silver that the Act permitted to be imported. The Swiss bureaux de contrôle were authorised to assay this standard and hallmark watch cases that met it with three "standing bear" stamp marks; one small bear above two large bears as shown in the picture here.
Swiss Federal cross
In 1933 the fineness of the Swiss higher silver standard was raised to .925. The punch mark of a standing bear for the higher silver standard was replaced by a duck.
Marks such as "Fine silver", 800, or 875 could also indicate a Swiss origin, and French names of parts such "cuivre", "ancre", rubis or "spiral" indicate a Swiss or French origin. The Swiss Federal Cross mark often indicates a Swiss patent.
To go to the page about Swiss hallmarks and other Swiss marks click on this link: Swiss hallmarks.
Swiss Poinçons de Maître
In Switzerland in the 1920s a system of responsibility marks called "poinçons de maître" was introduced for watch cases. Poinçon is pronounced with a soft c like "pwan - son" and means punch, so a poinçon de maître is literally the "punch of the master". This system was introduced to provide traceability back to the case manufacturer for precious metal cases. It is always seen on gold and platinum watch cases after that date, but rarely on silver cases.
To make the marks relatively inconspicuous a system of the symbols shown here and registration numbers was used. When one of the symbols shown in the picture was stamped in a watch case, the XX or XXX was replaced by the registration number indicating the maker of the watch case.
To go to my page about Swiss poinçons de maître click on this link: Poinçons de Maître.
Imitation or Fake Hallmarks
If you have a set of hallmarks that are stubbornly resisting your attempts to identify them, consider that they might possibly not be genuine. Hallmarks have been imitated and forged in the past, and no doubt will be in the future; you can't always trust everything that you see.
The marks here that look at first glance as if they might be British hallmarks; there is a leopard's head, a lion and a date letter. But these are not British hallmarks. They were stamped into a watch case with the intention of giving that impression and deceiving a potential purchaser into thinking that the watch is English.
How can you tell whether hallmarks are genuine or fake? These are pretty easy to spot because it has 0.875 fineness mark in an oval in the centre, a legal Swiss standard of fineness that corresponds to the Swiss bear mark that can be seen very faintly below the lion mark at the top. The 0.875 fineness is below the minimum British legal fineness for silver, which was and still is sterling silver of 0.925 fineness, and therefore this watch case could not have been legally be hallmarked in a British assay office so the three marks that look like British hallmarks are clearly fake. However, it is not always so easy and the only way to learn how to identify fake hallmarks is to look at lots of genuine examples and then the differences start to jump out at you.
But if you are still stuck, you are welcome to ask me for help via my Contact me page.
"Watch Case Makers of England" by Philip Priestley
Watch Case Makers of England 1720-1920
If you are interested in watch cases and the sponsor's marks found in them, an invaluable reference is Philip Priestley's Book "Watch Case Makers of England 1720-1920." This book is only available from the author in Europe for £15 plus p&p. In America a friend of the author in North Carolina has some copies. This book contains the results of painstaking research into the case makers of London, Liverpool, Prescot, Chester, Coventry, Birmingham and other provincial towns, and has extensive appendices of hallmarks to enable you to identify who entered a sponsor's mark for watch cases at the London, Chester and Birmingham assay offices.
The book doesn't only cover watch case makers of England as its title suggests but also records the sponsor's marks entered by watch importers such as Arthur Baume for Longines and Charles Nicolet for Stauffer & Co., and sponsor's marks entered by assay agents such as Arthur George Rendell for Robert Pringle and Sons and George Stockwell for Stockwell and Company. At £15 it is an absolute bargain, and every serious collector of watches of the period covered should have a copy of it.
You can contact Philip Priestley by email at , please mention that you got his email address from this web site.
Philip has also written books on watch case sponsor's marks covering the earlier period of 1631 - 1720 and the watch case maker Dennison.
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The term "hallmark" is used for a control mark applied to precious metals after assay (testing) by a legally authorised body that is independent of the manufacturer of the item. This provides a reliable indication of the fineness of the precious metal which is otherwise difficult for a purchaser to assess without specialised equipment.
The marks are called hallmarks because since 1478 goldsmiths and silversmiths in England have to take or send their wares to Goldsmiths' hall to have them independently tested for fineness and marked with the legally designated control marks. The term hallmarking is now generally in English used to mean a mark or set of marks applied to precious metal by a testing body independent of the manufacturer of the item.
There has never been an equivalent system of hallmarking in America and so there are no such thing as American hallmarks. Watch case manufacturers stamped their own marks onto watch cases to show the fineness of the metal. The customer must either rely on the veracity of those marks or make their own tests. In the case of a well known watch case maker relying on the marks will be safe, but one must always be alert to the fact that the marks might not be what they purport to be: caveat emptor.
Half moon and imperial crown, Halbmond und Reichskrone silver
Sun and Imperial crown, Sonne und Reichskrone, on gold
Before 1871 German states were independent and Sovereign and decided their own laws. Each state, city state or city had their own stamps, or "Feingehaltstempel", for gold and silver. These were applied by the manufacturer of an item rather than in an independent assay office and should not be called hallmarks. The term "hallmark" originated in originated in 1478 when London craftsmen were first required to bring their work to Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and marked. It means that the item has been assayed and stamped (hallmarked) by someone independent of the manufacturer.
After the unification of the 39 sovereign German states into the German Empire in 1871, country wide laws began to be introduced. In 1884 the "Gesetz über den Feingehalt der Gold und Silberwaren" or "Act on the Fine Content of Gold and Silver Goods" was passed. In 1888 this law was revised. The law was implemented by the manufacturers who stamped their own products, there were no official independent German assay offices.
There were two minimum standards, 14 carat for gold and 800‰ (800 mil or 80% fine) for silver. The imperial crown, the Reichskrone, within a circle representing the sun ( Reichskrone und Sonne) was to be stamped on gold, and a crescent or half moon with the imperial crown (Halbmond und Reichskrone) was stamped on silver. The actual fineness of the metal was expressed in thousandths, and a mark identifying the company, or the trademark of the business, which stamped and guaranteed the marks.
German Sun and Reichskrone mark
These marks were stamped on imported items as well as German made items, so the sun and crown or half moon and crown can be seen alongside e.g. Swiss hallmarks such as the bear or grouse on Swiss items imported into Germany. The image here courtesy of Peter O. shows a German sun and crown mark alongside a Swiss 18 carat gold hallmark in a watch case back. The sun and moon mark was stamped by the Swiss case manufacturer after the case had been assayed and hallmarked in a Swiss Bureau de Contrêle. This is explained further in the following section. For the meaning of the small symbol of a hammer with a number on its head see Swiss Poinçons de Maître.
Not only in Germany!
It would be natural to think that these marks were only stamped at a German assay office. However, John Matthews observed that there are a significant number of Swiss watch cases in the UK, Scandinavia and other countries having both Swiss and German hallmarks with no evidence of their passage through Germany. He was informed by the Swiss authorities that for watch cases and jewellery in gold and silver intended to be exported to Germany, after they had been assayed and hallmarked in a Swiss assay office (Bureau de Contrêle) the Swiss manufacturer then could stamp them with the appropriate German mark.
In fact, there are no German official Assay Offices like the independent assay offices in Britain, e.g. the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths' Hall, run by the Goldsmiths' company under Royal Charter, or the official government run Bureaux de Contrêle in Switzerland. In Germany the fineness stamps can be applied by the manufacturer or the retailer, and they are then legally responsible for them. Because they were not stamped by an independent organisation, German marks are not accepted in Britain as legally valid and should not be called hallmarks.
This means that the presence of one of the German marks does not prove that an item was assayed and hallmarked in Germany, or that it had ever been in Germany. It is possible that the item, although obviously at one time intended to be exported to Germany, could have been directed to a different market after being stamped in Switzerland and never actually passed into or through Germany at all.
It seems that although the German marks were compulsory in Germany, the German government was prepared to accept the Swiss hallmarks as sufficient evidence that the item was of the correct grade, so after assay and hallmarking at a Swiss office the manufacturer was permitted to strike the required German mark with no further checking required.
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Since the Middle Ages over 5,000 different punches have been used in France to hallmark silver and gold. The huge number of different punches and the the complexity of the French administration of hallmarking means that this is a massive subject that requires an encyclopaedia to cover it, which I am not going to attempt here.
One French mark that comes up quite often on Swiss watches is that of a swan or cygne. Even this mark is rather difficult to pin down. It was used for items that were not hallmarked in France in the normal way and so was principally used on imported items, such as Swiss watches imported into France.
The swan shows that the item meets the minimum French legal standard, which for silver was 800 millièmes or 800 parts per thousand (80% silver).
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In Russia before the revolution fineness was expressed in zolotniks, which was derived from the Russian for gold, zoloto, and which was also the name of a gold coin. There were 96 zolotos to a pound and zolotniks are a ratio of this, e.g. 56 zolotniks = 56/96 = 0.583, the fineness of 14 carat gold, and 84 zolotniks = 84/96 = 0.875 for silver.
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Poland appears to have started hallmarking gold and silver in 1920. A male head with a helmet was used for gold (zloto) and a female head covered with a scarf was used for silver (srebro). Three standards of gold were recognised, 960, 750 and 583. Three standards of silver were recognised, 940, 875 and 800.
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Watches with British Sponsor's Mark but No British Hallmarks
Sometimes Swiss watches are seen with with British sponsor's marks but no British import hallmarks. This is because the case was stamped with the sponsor's mark in Switzerland by the case maker but then not imported into Britain.
It was easy to for someone with a British registered mark to arrange for this to be stamped as part of the watch case manufacturing process, avoiding the need for the mark to be stamped later as a separate operation. This was done for watch cases that were intended to be imported into Britain, but the lack of British hallmarks shows that the importation never actually took place. The watches with these pre-stamped cases were sent directly from Switzerland to countries such as Canada and Australia.
The reason for this goes back to 1915. With the first World War (WW1) starting to impose a severe strain on the British economy, the Government imposed an ad valorem duty of 33.3% on imported luxuries, including clocks and watches, to conserve foreign currency reserves as part of the war effort. This meant that any watches imported into Britain, even if only for checking before subsequent export abroad, would be subject to this high rate of tax. Prior to this, many watches were imported to Britain before being re-exported to the Empire. Britain had large overseas territories at the time which were a big market.
To avoid paying the tax on watches not required for the British home market, many companies, including Wilsdorf & Davis, Rotherham and Sons, and Baume & Co., made arrangements to export watches direct from Switzerland to the British Empire, bypassing Britain and avoiding the high import duty. Because there was at least a possibility that watches ordered by these companies might end up being exported to Britain, cases were stamped with their sponsor's mark during manufacturing. If the watch was not imported into Britain it would carry the sponsor's mark but no hallmarks.
I have also seen cases stamped with the GS of Stockwell & Co. or the AGR of Robert Pringle & Sons but with no British hallmarks. Stockwell and Pringles acted as Assay Agents for a number of Swiss companies who did not have British based offices, so cases that they would have been responsible for having hallmarked if they were imported into Britain were likewise stamped with their sponsor's marks during manufacture.
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Cautions about using Tables of Hallmarks
When you first pick up a book of hallmarks such as Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks, you might think that it is easy to use the tables to discover all that you need to know about a hallmark. Although these books are a good summary of hallmarking, it has a very long history and is surprisingly complicated. Here are a few things you need to be cautious about.
Date Letter Cycles
Each assay office used its own cycles of date letters, which depended on when the office was set up and the date on which the wardens were elected. Because of this, date letter tables are unique to each assay office. You cannot use a date letter from one assay office to read a hallmark struck by a different office.
Also, most date letter tables give only the year in which the punch was first used, but it reality the punch was used over two calendar years, so for instance the "a" used first used by the London Assay Office in 1916 shows only that the item was marked in 1916 or 1917.
- From the restoration of Charles II in 1660 until 1973 the London Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 29 May to 28 May the following year.
- The Chester Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June, neatly bisecting the the year. The Chester Assay Office closed in August 1962.
- The Glasgow hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June. The Glasgow Assay Office closed in 1964.
- The Birmingham Assay Office office also changed its date letter with the annual election of the wardens on 1st July.
Date Letter Shield Shapes
London date letter "H" for 1883/84 from Bradbury, and same date on 18 carat gold
The picture here has superimposed at the top the entry from Bradbury of the London date letter "H" for 1883 to 1884. It also shows an "H" date letter mark on an 18 carat gold watch case for the same hallmarking year 1883 to 1884. But the shape surrounding the letter is different, so how can it be the same year? The reason is that different shield shapes were used on silver and gold, but most reference books show only the marks used on silver.
The date letter in this 18 carat gold watch case is rectangular, which is the shape used by the London Assay Office on 18 and 22 carat gold for date letter cycle XXI. The shields around date letters marked by the London Assay Office on 15, 12 and 9 carat gold during this cycle were round.
Why do most books only show the marks on silver? Most collectors of old hallmarked plate collect silver, for the simple reason that items made from gold such as plates, spoons and cream jugs are virtually non-existent and prohibitively expensive. I expect that the only person who has a collection of gold plate is Her Majesty the Queen, and I doubt that she needs to consult a book to know about it. Gold watches are an exception, along with gold wedding rings. Watch collectors with a gold watch are thus often left in confusion.
There is only one book that I am aware of, Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks, that shows the shield shapes for gold as well as for silver. Why did Jackson choose to list the different shield shape marks for date letters on all the standards of gold and silver? Well, he was a very thorough chap and his book is regarded as the bible of silver collecting for good reason. There is a reasonably priced pocket version available that shows the different shapes of all date letter shields.
However, I have recently become aware that even Jackson's doesn't show all of the variations in the marks. Research in the library at Goldsmiths' Hall showed me that there were special punches for watch cases. These had all the marks (lion, leopard, letter) combined into one "press punch" so that all three marks were made at the same time using a fly press. The shields around the marks on these press punches were often different to those used on larger pieces of plate. For instance, instead of the base of the shield around the date letter having a small point it was rounded. This was most likely because of the difficulty of making the point on a small punch.
Some Birmingham town mark and date letter shields for silver are also not the same shape as shown in the published tables but instead are triangular with a point at the base, and sometimes 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 that watch cases often have different shield shapes. 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, so I think this was principally a nineteenth century practice.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated April 2017. W3CMVS.