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Case marks: marks in watch cases

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2016 all rights reserved.

Marks in watch cases can often tell us something about the history of the watch. They can sometimes tell us where and when the case or the watch was made, and who made it. But not always!

This page is a front end for a number of more detailed pages. 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 and the linked pages and it can be difficult to take it all in, so if you are still struggling to understand the marks in your watch case please feel free to ask me for help via my contact me page.

Background to hallmarks and case marks

This page is principally about legally mandated and regulated hallmarks found on gold and silver English and Swiss watch cases, because these are the marks that a watch collector is most likely to encounter. In Europe "hallmarking" was and is a legally regulated activity carried out by someone independent of the manufacturer of an item. I don't make any attempt to cover watch case maker's trade marks.

NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin article.
Click this link to DOWNLOAD D4246

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, and the customer relied on the manufacturer's good name 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 should always have been assayed and hallmarked before sale - the laws on hallmarking were enacted long before watches were 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 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 all imported gold and silver watch cases were ordered to 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
Equilateral triangle
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 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. NB: 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.

Sponsor's marks

Charles Nicolet
AGR Arthur George Rendell

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.

Three bears
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

Collective Responsibilty Marks

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.

Fake hallmarks: Click image to enlarge

Fake British hallmarks

If you have a set of hallmarks that are stubbornly resisting all your attempts to identify them, consider that they might possibly be fake. Yes, hallmarks have been 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.

I have provided a lot of examples of genuine British hallmarks on the page at British hallmark examples. There is also a page that shows examples of fake hallmarks at fake hallmarks.

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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German Hallmarks

German Halbmond und Reichskrone hallmark
Halbmond und Reichskrone

Before 1871 German states were independent and Sovereign and decided their own laws. Each state, city state or city had their own hallmarks, or "Feingehaltstempel", for gold and silver.

After the unification of the 39 sovereign German states into the German Empire in 1871, the foundation of modern Germany, country wide laws began to be introduced. From 1886 a single mark of a crescent or half moon and imperial crown (Halbmond und Reichskrone) was used by all German states .

An old German quantification of silver purity was based on sixteenth parts called "lots", e.g. 14 lots was 14 parts out of 16 pure silver, equal to 0.875 or 87.5% silver. A minimum standard purity for silver of 800 parts per thousand (80% or .800) had been established in 1884.

These marks were stamped on imported items as well as German made items, so the half moon and crown can be seen alongside e.g. Swiss hallmarks such as the bear or grouse on Swiss items imported into Germany.

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French Hallmarks

French swan hallmark
French "swan"

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 encyclopedia 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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Russian Hallmarks

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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Polish Hallmarks

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 marks but no British hallmarks

Sometimes watches are seen with with British sponsor's marks, but no import marks. The reason for this is that in 1915, with the first World War (WW1) starting to impose a strain on the economy, the British Government imposed an ad valorem duty of 33.?% 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 destined for the British home market, many companies, including Rolex, George Stockwell, Rotherham and Sons, Rendells, and Baume & Co., either set up Swiss offices, or made arrangements to export watches direct from Switzerland to the British Empire, bypassing Britain and avoiding the high import duty.

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 - 2016 all rights reserved. This page updated May 2016. W3CMVS.