Swiss Hallmarks, and Other Swiss Case MarksCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.
Standards for precious metals in Switzerland originated in Geneva in the 15th century, the first recorded regulation concerning the fineness and marking of silver was enacted by Bishop John of Brogny in the year 1424. Regulations were later introduced in the cantons of Neuchâtel and Schaffhausen, each having its own standards for gold and silver, its own system of testing and hallmarking, and its own unique set of marks. To begin with the standards and marking were controlled by the local Guilds. Markham's "Handbook to Foreign Hallmarks" says that an Assay Office was established in Geneva on 22 September 1815, and one in Neuchâtel in 1839. These assay offices were established by law, superseding the medieval Guild system of regulation.
These hallmarks were used for plate, vessels and candlesticks etc. They were not used on watch cases, I don't think there was any Swiss national legal control over the fineness of gold or silver used in watch cases until the Precious Metals Control Act of 1880. Until 1880 Swiss gold watches were usually stamped with the gold fineness, usually 14 carats, a popular standard on the continent, and silver watches were often simply marked "Fine Silver" or "Argent Fin", an unspecified standard of fineness.
It was permissible in Switzerland to use base metal for the cuvette, the inner cover that protected the movement while a key was being used to wind it. This was often made of brass and silver plated. These are often marked "Cuivre" or "Metal". This was not permitted for British made watches, the cuvette or "dome" had to be made of the same material as the rest of the case. If it wasn't, none of the case would be hallmarked by the British assay offices. At one time I thought that the Swiss sometimes made the bow, the ring on the pendant, out of plated brass, but now I think that if a watch has a bow like this it is a replacement for an original bow that wore through.
Although the Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 1880 defined standards for gold and silver watch cases, the British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 caused several changes in Swiss hallmarking, in particular the two Swiss standards for silver were not accepted in Britain, and the British also inadvertently caused the Swiss to create their own national brand or trade mark "Swiss made".
Swiss hallmarking before 1880 and after 1933 is rather outside the scope of this page, but I mention some of the changes made in 1933.
Poinçons de Maître: Case Maker's Marks
In Switzerland in the 1920s a system of responsibility marks for precious metal watch cases was introduced. These are called Poinçons de Maître, which translates literally as "Master's Punches" but are usually called "Collective Responsibility Marks". These can be used to identify the maker of a precious metal watch case.
There is a full description of this system and tables of the marks at Poinçons de Maître: Case Maker's Marks.
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Precious Metals Control Act 1880
Swiss official hallmarks for watch cases from 1880 to 1933
The Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 23 December 1880 introduced a uniform system of hallmarking for watch cases to be used throughout Switzerland with the marks shown in the picture here. These hallmarks marks are seen on the vast majority of Swiss watches with silver or gold cases imported to the UK between 1880 and 1907 before assay and hallmarking of the cases of imported watches in a British assay office became compulsory.
Swiss hallmarks do not indicate dates. Items marked with the symbols introduced in December 1880 were obviously marked after that date. These hallmarks are seen on Swiss watches with silver or gold cases imported to the UK between 1880 and 1907.
From 1 June 1907 Swiss hallmarks are rarely seen on imported watches; British import hallmarks appear instead, sometimes alongside Swiss hallmarks. British import hallmarks, like all British hallmarks since 1478, do include a date letter.
The "standard" is the legal minimum fineness. This means the minimum proportion of precious metal (gold, silver, etc.) in the alloy. It is expressed as a proportion by weight, e.g. 18 carat gold is sometimes expressed as 0.75. This means that 0.75, three quarters, of the weight is gold, the rest is base metal. The alloy must assay at this standard in order to qualify to be hallmarked. To ensure that items pass assay, the alloy used by the goldsmith will be slightly finer than the absolute minimum standard. This is not shown by the hallmark, which records only that the item passed assay and was therefore of at least the required fineness.
The table reproduced here uses the "per mil" or parts per thousand symbol ‰. It is like a percentage sign % but with two zeros below the line indicating that the ratio is per thousand, rather than per hundred used for percentages. Different expressions of the same number are often seen, e.g. the fineness of 18 carat gold might be shown as 0.75, .750, 750 (without the decimal point), 75% or 750‰.
The small "x" shown in each mark is replaced by the identifier of the Swiss assay office or "bureau de contrôle" where the item was tested and marked; "G" for Geneva, "N" for Neuchâtel, "C" for La Chaux-de-Fonds. Both Biel / Bienne and Bern used "B", which was allowed because they are both in the canton of Bern. Watch cases would most likely have been marked in Biel / Bienne because it was closer to the centres of production. Basel used a star.
Note that the Swiss/French word "contrôle" means to examine something, which is different to the meaning of the similar English language word. This led to some confusion during the Brexit referendum about what was meant by control of/at the borders.
The 1880 Swiss Act introduced legal standards for gold used in watch cases in Switzerland. However, some other countries had slightly differing standards for gold and so some modifications were later introduced to accommodate these.
Eighteen Carat Gold
The Swiss symbol for 18 carat gold was the head of Helvetia, the female national personification of Switzerland, which is also called the Confederation Helvetica (CH) or Swiss Confederation. The name is derived from the name of the ancient people of Switzerland prior to the Roman conquest, the Helvetii. The female figure of Helvetia appeared during the construction of a Swiss national identity in the 19th century and Helvetia appeared on coins and stamps after the foundation of the federal state of Switzerland in 1848.
That should really have been enough. Eighteen carats is exactly 75% or 750‰ gold, from 18 / 24. But the British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 forced a change. British hallmarks at the time did not contain a number indicating a percentage or millesimal fineness, the mark for 18 carat gold was a crown and the number 18. Just to be on the safe side the Swiss authorities had some British 18 carat gold tested and found that it assayed at 755‰ so they introduced a new higher standard for gold watch cases that were to be exported to the UK, This is discussed below at Three heads: 18 ct. gold
Fourteen Carat Gold
0.585 and two squirrels Image © Bernd R.
The second standard of gold recognised by the 1880 Swiss Act was 14 carat. This was a standard of gold that had been used on the continent for many years and was very popular. The Swiss legal fineness standard for 14K was 583‰ which was indicated by the mark of a single squirrel as shown in the illustration of the marks.
Fourteen carat gold is not quite as straight forward as 18 carat, the percentage is not a round number because 14 /24 works out to 0.5833... with the 33 recurring to infinity. The Swiss authorities rounded this down to 0.583‰ but some countries such as Germany rounded it up to 585‰ For counties where the minimum legal requirement was 0.585‰ the figure 0,585 with two squirrels, one large and one small, was used to indicate the slightly higher fineness as shown in the image here.
Nine Carat Gold
The Swiss Act of 1880 recognised only 18 and 14 carat gold as legal standards in Switzerland. This presented Swiss case makers with a problem. Nine carat gold was very popular in Britain because it was the cheapest alloy that could legally be called gold, but it was not a legal standard of fineness in Switzerland. Swiss watchmakers didn't want to miss out on this lucrative market so watch cases were stamped by the case makers with nine carat marks. These cases never went anywhere near an Swiss government bureau de contrôle because they could not be officially called "gold" or hallmarked in Switzerland. From 1924 the Swiss Federal Government allowed an official mark with the Swiss cross to be used on nine carat gold. For more details see Swiss nine carat gold.
Silver 875 and 800
Between 1880 and 1933 the Swiss hallmarks for silver were either a "bear rampant", a bear standing on its hind legs, or a grouse. The bear mark indicates that the metal contains at least 0.875 or 87.5% pure silver, and the grouse that the metal contains at least 0.800 or 80% pure silver, the balance being an alloying element, usually copper, that gave the alloy greater strength and wearing ability.
Sometimes the grouse mark on 0,800 silver is struck twice, a large grouse above the fineness mark, a small grouse below. This seems to be prevalent on cases with the German crescent or half moon and crown. I don't know what this double mark signifies but it might follow on logically from the double squirrel mark on 14 carat 0,585 gold that might be exported to Germany. Let me know if you see this mark without the German half moon and crown mark.
Swiss 900 silver
Sometimes a standard of fineness of 900‰ or 0.900 is seen. This was never introduced into Swiss law as a standard, but 900 fineness silver was a popular grade because it was the standard of coin silver in a number of European and other countries. The precious metals act of 1880 specified for silver the higher standard of fineness of 875‰ and higher. There was nothing to stop manufacturers making watch cases from 900‰ silver, stamping them "900" as shown in the picture here, and submitting them for assay and hallmarking. The "bear" was used for silver 875‰ and higher, independent the actual fineness, so this mark was applied to the item as shown in the picture — the faint mark above the 900 is the bear. The bear did not guarantee that the item was 900‰, only that it was at least 875‰.
The Swiss Act of 1880 recognised only 800 and 875 silver as legal standards in Switzerland. This presented Swiss case makers with a problem, because neither of these was legal in Britain, where the minimum legal standard of sterling was 925 fine. This lead to the legalisation in Switzerland of a grade 935 for silver watch cases destined to be exported to Britain. For more about this see the section below about 935 silver and the three bears.
It is not clear when the Swiss authorities realised that British sterling silver was not 935 as they had thought. This might have been in 1907 when British assay offices started stamping imported silver watch cases with 925 instead of the lion passant used on British made items. Certainly items are seen stamped with a bear, which shows they werer marked before the 1933 Act, and 0.925.
The Swiss finally recognised 925 as a single higher fineness for silver in 1933 with a duck hallmark, in the process abolishing the previous 875 and 935 grades and the bear hallmark. See Precious Metals Control Act 1933.
A single standard for platinum of 950‰ or 95% was introduced in 1914, signified by the head of a chamois goat. From 1933 the standard remained the same at 950‰ but the symbol was changed to an ibex goat. Goodness knows why; perhaps Swiss people find it easier to identify an ibex than a chamois: they both look like goats to me . . .
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The British 1887 Merchandise Marks Act
The British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 stipulated that from 1 January 1888 foreign made gold and silver watches or watch cases would only be imported if;
- they were wholly unmarked,
- they were hallmarked in Britain with special "Foreign" hallmarks,
- they carried a foreign country's hallmark, or
- they carried British hallmarks and an equally conspicuous statement that the watch was of foreign make.
In principle this did not present a problem for Swiss manufacturers because gold and silver watch cases had been hallmarked in Switzerland since 1880, apart from a small number that were sent to Britain to receive British hallmarks, returned to Switzerland to be fitted with movements and then the complete watches exported to Britain.
The British 1887 Act effectively stopped the practice of sending Swiss watch cases to Britain to be hallmarked. An Order in Council specified that after 1 January 1888 they would have to be marked with special hallmarks with the word "Foreign" prominently across the middle, which understandably was not desired by Swiss watch importers. This removed the incentive for foreign manufacturers to send watch cases to be hallmarked with British hallmarks, and gave instead a positive disincentive.
Although in principle Swiss hallmarks would be acceptable to the British customs authorities for import purposes, the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act presented three problems for Swiss manufacturers;
- Neither of the two Swiss legal standards for silver, 0.800 and 0.875, met the minimum legal British standard of sterling silver.
- The Swiss authorities were not exactly sure what the British fineness standards were for sterling silver or 18 carat gold.
- Swiss standards did not allow nine carat gold to be hallmarked.
- Watches that did not have a place of origin clearly identified were liable to seizure by the British customs.
These problems were resolved as follows:
- Swiss assay offices were authorised to hallmark a new silver standard of 0.935, discussed in the section below 935 silver and the three bears.
- Swiss assay offices were authorised to hallmark a new gold standard of 0.755, discussed in the section below 755 gold and three heads.
- Swiss watch case manufacturers started to mark nine carat gold cases with pseudo hallmarks, discussed in the section below Nine Carat Gold.
- A new national "brand" for Switzerland was marked on watch movements and dials, discussed in the section below The brand "Swiss made".
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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.
Silver 0.935 Watch Case with three Swiss bears
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.
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.
Silver 0.935 Bow with Two Bears, and Pendant with a Bear
Three Bears for Angleterre
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. The manufacturers could therefore 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 a single bear.
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.
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Three Heads of Helvetia: 18 carat 0.755 gold
Swiss 18 Carat 0.755 Gold with Three Heads of Helvetia Thanks to David MacP. for the image
The Swiss Federal Council of December 1887 that introduced the three bears mark for 0.935 silver also defined a new mark of three heads of Helvetia, two large and one small, for items of 18 carat gold exported to England.
The fineness standard was also altered from the Swiss legal minimum for 18 carat gold of 0.750. For eighteen carat gold watch cases that were to exported to England a new standard of 0.755 was introduced. The fineness stamp could be either one stamp of 18C or 0.755, or two stamps of 18C and 0.755. Each stamp was incuse and surrounded by an incuse rectangular shield.
The image here shows the full set of marks in the back of a watch case: 18C and 0.755 within rectangular shields and three heads of Helvetia, two large below one small. The marks in the gold are indistinct so I have added the marks with the white backgrounds and red lines to show how they would have looked originally.
The reason for the change in fineness from 0.750 to 0.755 was not explained in the Federal Council decree but the British fineness marks for 18 carat gold were a crown and the figure 18, the decimal fineness was not marked by British assay offices at the time. 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 18 carat gold and have it tested. Alloys slightly above standard were usually used by goldsmiths in order to make certain that the work would pass assay, because failure meant that the piece would be "battered" and the work of making it lost. When tested in Switzerland this could have easily have assayed at 0.755, hence the higher fineness stipulated by the decree for items being exported to Britain.
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Nine Carat Gold
Nine, 12 and 15 carat gold were made legal standards in Britain 1854. Nine carat gold quickly became very popular because it was much cheaper than the previous higher standards of 22 and 18 carats, and from 1854 it could legally be called "gold", which was not allowed before.
Nine carat gold contains 9 / 24 = 37.5% gold by weight, the rest is varying amounts of silver, copper and other elements to give different colours. The standards of 12 and 15 carat gold were very little used and were replaced in 1932 by a 14 carat standard.
The Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 1880 specified two legal standards of fineness for gold, 18 and 14 carat. Most Swiss watches with 18 or 14 carat gold cases imported into Britain after 1880 carry Swiss hallmarks; a small proportion of 18 carat gold Swiss cases were sent to England to be marked with British hallmarks before 1888, but 14 carat cases couldn't be hallmarked in Britain because it was not a legal British standard of fineness.
Marks in nine carat gold Swiss watch cases
The lack of official Swiss legal recognition for nine carat gold meant that nine carat gold cases could not be assayed or hallmarked in a Swiss Bureau de contrôle. This did not stop Swiss watch manufacturers from wanting a share of the large and growing market for nine carat gold watches in Britain, and there was nothing to stop them making cases from nine carat gold, but the lack of an official Swiss hallmark was a problem.
Before 1888, nine carat gold Swiss watch cases could be hallmarked in a British assay office with traditional British hallmarks. This was entirely voluntary and most Swiss watch manufacturers didn't bother with the extra expense. But some did. English watch manufacturers objected to this, so from 1888 onwards new British hallmarks for imported watches with the word "Foreign" blazed across the middle were specified. This put a stop to the practice of getting any gold or silver Swiss watch cases assayed and hallmarked in Britain until 1907. This is discussed further on my page British hallmarking.
This left a problem for Swiss watch manufacturers. Watch cases of 18 and 14 carat gold could be legally hallmarked in Switzerland, and these Swiss hallmarks were accepted and allowed by the British Customs authorities. But nine carat gold cases could not be hallmarked in Switzerland, so from 1888 Swiss watch case manufacturers simply applied their own marks official looking marks to nine carat gold watch cases.
The first picture here shows a crown stamp on the inside case back of a Swiss ladies' cocktail watch. The case has stamped on the underside of both the fixed lugs a "9" on its side followed by "375". The crown mark in the image is stamped twice inside the case back. These are not official British or Swiss hallmarks, they are marks that the case maker has put onto the case that look sufficiently official that British customs and customers in Britain would be convinced that the case was in fact nine carat gold.
This practice didn't stop in 1907 when it became compulsory in Britain that all imported gold and silver watch cases be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. The second mark is from a nine carat gold Swiss watch case with London Assay Office import hallmarks for nine carat gold. The date letter is too badly rubbed to read, but the sponsor's mark AS&Co. was entered by Abraham Shoot in 1924.
Naturally these marks were not standardised and different case makers used different marks, often just a simple "9C" in a shield, sometimes accompanied with the Swiss Federal Cross for extra authority.
Swiss Recognition of 9 Carat Gold
In 1924 the Swiss Federal Council received to a request by the Association of Swiss gold watch case manufacturers to permit gold watch cases to be assayed and hallmarked if they were to be exported to countries where lower standards were legal. In response, on 31 March 1924, the Federal Council decreed that watch cases below the minimum legal fineness of 14 carats, but not less than 8 carats, could be counter stamped in an official Swiss bureau de contrôle (assay office).
Borgel 9 carat gold watchcase
Image courtesy of and © Bill Whiteley
From 1 April 1924 an official fineness warranty character, the mark of the Swiss Federal Cross, was allowed. It was also decreed that the fineness should be marked either in parts per thousand such as 0.375 or carats such as "9 C". The decree seems to have simply enshrined in law what had already become the accepted practice among Swiss watch case makers for marking nine carat gold.
The decree didn't change the legal standards of fineness for gold in Switzerland, but it meant that the Swiss Bureaux de contrôle could test and mark items of below 14 carat fineness if they were for export. The photograph here shows a nine carat gold Borgel watch case with an example of these Swiss hallmarks.
One interesting feature of this case is the little dot right in the centre of the case that looks like a punch mark. This has been made by the watch movement centre pivot. The cost of gold compared to other metals was, and still is, very high, the average gold/silver price ratio during the 20th century was 47:1 meaning that gold was nearly 50 times as expensive as silver. Because of this, gold cases were made as thin as possible, thinner than silver cases, to keep the cost down. This watch case has been made so thin that the back of the case can flex inwards and press onto the end of the centre pivot. Needless to say, this is not ideal for good timekeeping!
Bill Whiteley kindly measured the thickness of his 9 carat gold Borgel case for me, the back of the case is 0.28mm thick. This corresponds very well with the definition of Poinçon de Maître No. 5, the Key of Geneva, which was used on gold and platinum watch cases of minimum thickness 0.3mm made in Geneva. I am sure that a bit of polishing over the years could have reduced it by .02mm. For comparison I measured a couple of silver Borgel cases and they were 0.58 and 0.56mm thick.
This is one of the points that English watchmakers and watchcase makers raised with the Select Committee on hallmarking in 1878, that English watchcases had to be made thick enough to withstand the British hallmark punches, whereas Swiss watch cases that were not required to be hallmarked could be made thinner, and therefore cheaper. I haven't yet measured a 9 carat gold Swiss case with British import hallmarks to see if that was made thicker to withstand British hallmarking, but I suspect that they weren't and that the assay offices were simply more careful in their application of the punches.
The Swiss authorities officially recognised nine carat gold as a legal standard in Switzerland in the Precious Metals Control Act of 1933, but only for watch cases. The hallmark for nine carat gold was a "morgenstern", which literally means morning start but is a medieval weapon like a mace consisting of a baton with a spiked metal ball on the end.
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The Origin of "Swiss made"
The Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 was intended to prevent the the importation into Britain of foreign goods carrying names or marks implying that they were of British manufacture. It had the unintended consequence of causing the Swiss to adopt "Swiss made" as a national brand.
English watchmakers had long complained that some foreign watch manufacturers, particularly Swiss, sent watch cases to Britain to receive British hallmarks. These cases were returned to be made into complete watches that were then imported and sold in Britain. This was actually what the British law required, gold and silver watch cases being assayed and hallmarked before being sold, but the English watchmakers complained that the public believed that watches with British hallmarks were made in Britain, and they were thus being misled to their cost and to the detriment of the British watch trade.
There was probably an element of protectionism in the English watchmakers protestations, but it is also fair to say that a watch with a British hallmark upon its case and no other indication of where it was made would be easier to pass off onto a member of the public as English made than if it was marked with its place of origin. Whether this was detrimental is a moot point; if it was a good watch, then the customer would suffer no real harm, but the door was open to unscrupulous traders to pass off poor quality watches as English made, although the English also made their fair share of poor quality watches.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the watchmakers arguments, a significant proportion of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act was taken up with ensuring that foreign watches could not be mistaken for English watches.
One of the provision was that foreign watches that were hallmarked in a British assay office would be stamped with marks that were different to the ones applied to British made items. From 1 January 1888 these new import marks took the form of a combined mark, where all the assay office marks, the town mark, standard mark and date letter, were engraved onto a single punch with the word "Foreign" predominant across the centre. It might as well have said "Foreign muck", which was perhaps what the English watchmakers would have liked to see, and the effect on foreign manufacturers was predictable and instant: no more foreign watch cases were sent to British assay offices.
Another requirement of the Act was that there were no words that implied, or could be taken to imply, British manufacture. The exact wording of the Act in section 7 was:
7. Where a watch case has thereon any words or marks which constitute, or are by common repute considered as constituting, a description of the country in which the watch was made, and the watch bears no description of the country where it was made, those words or marks shall primâ, facie be deemed to be a description of that country within the meaning of this Act.
A footnote made it clear that this was mainly concerned with hallmarks being taken as marks of origin, but it had wider consequences.
A letter published in the Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith journal in March 1888 by a Swiss national working at the time in an English custom house explained how the new law was being put into effect. He reported how watches bearing a mark "Warranted 0.800 silver" had been confiscated for two reasons; firstly, the alloy 0.800 was not of sterling silver, and secondly, "Warranted Silver" are two English words and, as there was nothing else upon the watch indicates its place of origin, the mere fact that the words were in English was deemed to falsely indicate that the watch had been made in England. Other watches without any place of origin but marked "Patent Chronograph", or with only "Fast" and "Slow" upon the regulator and no other words or marks, were also seized for the same reason.
However, it is clear that some Swiss manufacturers were aware of the Merchandise Marks Act and had already taken action. An article in the Swiss watch trade journal La Fédération Horlegère Suisse on 3 March 1888 reported that the Swiss Consulate General in London had requested that the British customs allow watches bearing the inscription "Swiss Make" to be imported. The British customs agreed to this request, but only until the beginning of April and on the condition that for each shipment a prior declaration was sent to the central customs in London so that it could give special orders to the customs of the respective port.
The report does not state why watches marked "Swiss make" were being seized, but the fact that a declaration had to be sent to the central authority prior to each of the shipments so that special orders could be issued to the ports implies that it was local port officers who had concluded that "Swiss make" was not acceptable. The reason for this almost certainly lies in a General Order in regard to watches issued on 18 January 1888 by the Commissioner of Customs. The order stated that watches could be imported if they had a foreign assay mark and no wording ... indicating make or produce in the United Kingdom, and it may be that keen eyed customs officers had picked up on the word "make" in this awkwardly worded phrase, or they had decided that "Swiss make" did not constitute a ... definite indication of the place or country in which the watches were made. Whatever the reason, it is clear that watches bearing "Swiss make" were not going to be allowed in after the first of April 1888.
La Fédération Horlegère Suisse, March 1888
The article concludes with the paragraph shown here, which says We add that from the beginning of April, the brand "Swiss make" will not be accepted and it should be replaced with "Manufactured in Switzerland", "Swiss Made" or simply "Swiss", subject to the decision to be taken by the British government as a recognition of the official Swiss control punching as sufficient indication of origin..
The final sentence about "poinçonnement officiel suisse de contrôle", the Swiss term for government regulated hallmarking, suggests that the British government might accept Swiss hallmarks as as sufficient indication of origin. But these were only placed on gold and silver watch cases, not steel, nickel, plated cases, or watch movements themselves, so there was no chance this would be accepted as adequate.
Of the three possible choices of mark suggested; "Manufactured in Switzerland", "Swiss Made" or simply "Swiss", the first would meet the requirements but was too long to fit comfortably on a watch dial or movement, and simply "Swiss" was probably considered insufficiently definite to meet the British requirements.
As we now know, the wording chosen by the Swiss in the spring of 1888 was the simple yet precise "Swiss Made". Virtually every Swiss watch made since then has carried this proud legend, which became known worldwide and created a strong and unified identity for the Swiss watch industry, all thanks to a British Act of Parliament!
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Plaqué Or - Gold Plated
The phrase "plaqué or" means gold plated; rather confusingly for English speakers, the Swiss/French word for gold is "or".
"Plaque or", or "plaqué or", usually means the item was made from material plated with thin sheets of gold mechanically bonded or welded to a base metal core, rather than plated by electro-deposition. This is often accompanied by a guarantee such as "garanti x ans", which means "guaranteed to wear for x years", usually 10, 20 or 30 years, before the base metal shows through.
The extract from La Fédération Horlegère Suisse from May 1926 shown above says that the Bureau of Control are responsible for the guarantee of duration of the plate - la duree du plaque - that is marked, as well as any other indications that are marked.
When Plaqué is used on its own without the additional "or" it usually means gold plated by electroplating. A thin layer of gold is deposited onto the finished item by putting it into a solution of gold salts and passing an electric current through the solution and the item, which deposits an extremely thin layer of pure gold onto the item. This is cheap because the quantity of gold deposited is very small, usually far to small to weigh. A guarantee of wear cannot be made for electroplated gold because it is so thin that it wears through very quickly.
For more about the different types of plating see metal plating.
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Precious Metals Control Act 1933
Swiss Official hallmarks for watch cases from 1933
Some changes to Swiss hallmarks were made by the Precious Metals Control Act of 20 June 1933.
From 1880 to 1933 there were two Swiss standards for gold, 18 carat signified by the female head of Helvetia, and 14 carat signified by a squirrel. These standards continued after 1933 with the same marks, but the sign of the morgenstern (which translates literally as "morning star"but was actually the name of a rather evil looking medieval spiked club or mace) was added for 375‰, i.e. 9 carat, gold — but only for watch cases as the note in the figure shows.
Since 1907 the UK assay offices had been stamping imported silver watch cases that tested as sterling with .925 instead of the lion passant, so it was obvious to all and sundry what was the legal standard for sterling silver. So 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 was not imported into the UK.
It is possible in watch cases made before 1933 to see both the Swiss .935 and the UK hallmark .925 stamped in the same case. There is no conflict between the .925 and .935, because they are both the standard or guaranteed minimum purity of the metal, not its actual purity, which is usually a little higher then the standard to ensure that the assay test is passed.
A single standard for platinum of 950‰ or 95% had been introduced in 1914, signified by the head of a chamois goat. From 1933 the standard remained the same at 950‰ but the symbol was changed to an ibex goat. Goodness knows why; perhaps Swiss people find it easier to identify an ibex than a chamois: they both look like goats to me . . .
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Déposé No. 9846: Watches with handles
Which was the first company to actually make wristwatches with wire loops to take a leather strap? I doubt that we shall ever know, but there was a little more to the matter than simply soldering a couple of wire loops to the side of an existing watch case.
Curved lugs or "handles"
In 1903 the Anglo-Swiss company Dimier Brothers applied some thought to the matter and produced a design of curved wire lugs that gave the best fit between the case and a one piece strap, and they then registered this design in an attempt to monopolize the nascent market for mens' wristwatches.
This is the earliest documented evidence I have seen of watches with this design of curved wire lugs and one piece leather strap; the first purposely designed man's wristwatch, which during the Great War became known as the "trench" or "officers" watch.
Dimier Frères & Cie had offices in la Chaux-de-Fonds and London. As Dimier Brothers & Co., from 1868 were an important watch importing company in London, You can read more about the London company of Dimier Brothers on my Sponsors Marks page at Dimier Brothers & Co. .
DÉPOSÉ No. 9846 stamp in wristwatch case back
Evidence for the involvement of the Dimier Brothers company in the early development of the wristwatch is the legend "Déposé No. 9846" (sometimes "DEPOSE 9846", or even DÉPOSÉ 9846) which is often seen on the back of very early wristwatches as shown here, sometimes with the Swiss Federal Cross symbol, sometimes without. Déposé is shorthand for Modèle Déposé, which is Swiss/French for "Registered Design".
Swiss Modèle Déposé (Registered Design) No. 9846, July 1903
The author's or designer's legal copyright exists for designs whether they are registered or not, but it can be difficult to prove without evidence of the date the design was created; hence, an entry in a register is a useful official record. NB: a "Registered Design" is not the same as a "Patent", which is something quite different.
The picture to the right here shows the official Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846. It is dated 29 July 1903. As you can see, the description is very short compared to that of a patent: it simply says "Montre à bracelet-courroie" or "Wristwatch with bracelet-belt" and shows a picture of the design. That's it; that is the full entry.
The exact translation of Montre à bracelet-courroie is important. A "montre" is a watch, "à" means with and "bracelet" is a bracelet, but a "courroie" is a belt. The addition of courroie or belt is clearly intended to distinguish this design from a "montre bracelet", a watch on a metal bracelet which ladies had been wearing for hundreds of years. So the specific design features being registered were the use of a leather wrist strap like a belt, and by implication the "anses", handles or wire lugs, that attach the watch case to the leather strap. This is the earliest documented evidence I have seen of wristwatches with fixed wire lugs.
British Registered Design 405488, February 1903
An interesting feature of the strap design is the flared centre section. This approximately covers the same area as the watch case. Since there is no description its purpose can only be guessed at. It could have been to prevent any part of the watch case from touching the wrist for some reason, perhaps concerns about allergies, or about perspiration tarnishing silver watch cases. Or, which I think more likely, it would not have been possible to register a design that was just a straight leather strap, because that would be too simple and obvious, so this more elaborate design was conceived just so that it could be registered. Once a registered design number had been secured, that fact could be used in advertising and to gain a hold over wristwatch manufacturers.
There is a second number in the picture of the Swiss Registered Design. This is No 405488, underneath the main block of text with the registration number 9846. I discovered that this is the number of a British Registered Design, a design that was formally registered by the British Board of Trade for the purposes of copyright protection, in much the same way as the Swiss/French Modèle Déposé discussed above. The picture here shows the entry in the register. This is the full entry, there is no text description. The watch shown mounted on the strap in the picture is crossed out to show that it is not part of the actual Registered Design.
This design was registered by the British Board of Trade in February 1903, six months before the Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846 in July 1903.
RD 499803 buckle design
Watch straps with the same flared centre shape as the British and Swiss Registered Designs are sometimes seen with the British Registered Design number "No. 405488" stamped onto the leather strap, and with another British Registered Design number, "No. 499803", stamped on the buckle. Buckles stamped with this number are an unusual design with two centre bars instead of the more usual single bar.
British Registered Design 499803, April 1907
Underside showing how the strap fits
The British Board of Trade records show that this unusual design of buckle was first registered in April 1907, but they don't show who the registrant was. However, the juxtaposition of the numbers 405488 on the leather strap and 499803 on the buckle, and then the number 405488 on the Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846, indicates that they were all the products of Dimier Brothers.
The Registered Design No. 499803 buckle is an unusual design with two centre bars and it fits onto the strap without being stitched into it. The Registered Design No. 405488 / No. 9846 shows a strap with a circular section the same size as the watch case in the centre, and there are only two ways such a strap could be fitted to a watch with fixed wire lugs, either the buckle would have to stitched to the strap after the strap had been fitted to the watch, or the buckle would have to be designed to fit to the strap without stitching, which is exactly what the Registered Design No. 499803 buckle does. The photograph here shows how it fits to the strap.
Why there was a four year gap between registering the design of the lugs and strap to registering the design of the buckle is a bit of a mystery. These straps and buckles do turn up occasionally, but I suspect that it was linked with the announcement shown below. My feeling is that when Dimier Brothers first registered the design of the watch strap in 1903 there were very few men's wristwatches being produced and so the documents lay on the shelf. But in 1907 the market for men's wristwatches with wire lugs was starting to accelerate and they realised that they could gain some control over it by reinterpreting what exactly it was that they had registered. The announcement shown in the next figure was published in La Fédération Horlogère Suisse in October 1907. It translates as
La Fédération Horlogère Suisse, October 1907
La Fédération Horlogère Suisse, October 1907
To avoid trouble and misunderstandings, we inform Gentlemen makers of watch cases of gold, silver and metal, and Gentlemen watch manufacturers of Switzerland, the curved handles for wristwatches are our registered design No. 9846 dated July 29, 1903.
We will pursue anyone who manufacture watches with these handles, without having previously made arrangements for a royalty to be paid to us, and that does not send his watch cases to our factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds to have our registered mark stamped in the case back.
Dimier Frères & Cie.
This announcement gives more details than appear to be recorded with the registered design. It is clear that the wire lugs ("anses" or handles) are designed to be curved (recourbées) or bent downwards, so that the lugs can be soldered to the middle part of the case and not interfere with the hinged opening back whilst making the path of the strap around the back of the watch case follow a natural curve. It's not rocket science, but someone had to think about it.
Judging from the very large number of early wristwatches that are stamped in their case backs with the legend "Déposé No. 9846", the claim that Dimier Brothers originated the design and the threat of action against anyone who didn't pay them royalties for making wristwatches with fixed wire must have been taken seriously by Swiss watch manufacturers at the time.
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Other Marks on Swiss watches
Swiss Federal Cross
Swiss Federal Cross
The Swiss Federal Cross is often seen in cases and on movements. It is usually a reference to a patent, and if it is followed by a number, then that is almost invariably the number of the patent.
Sometimes a patent number isn't given. There are various reasons for this, which revolve around whether a patent has actually been granted, and whether it is actually relevant. Manufacturers liked to allude to patents in order to give the idea that their design included some clever feature, or that it was protected from copying by a patent. Sometimes this was just sheer bluff.
Brevet Dem., Mod. Dep., etc.
In Swiss/French "brevet d'invention" means patent, this is often abbreviated to simply brevet. "Modèle" means design, "deposé"means to file, lodge or deposit, and "demandé" means requested. Combinations of these words, often together with the Swiss Federal Cross symbol, are often found in the backs of watch cases.
|The Swiss Federal Cross usually signifies that a Patent has been granted. If there is a number it indicates the patent number, often no number is quoted.|
|Brevet||On its own or with the Swiss Federal Cross usually signifies that a Patent has been granted, a number indicates the patent number.|
|Brevet Deposé||Registered Patent - a request for a patent has been registered, the same as Brevet Demandé.|
|Brevet Demandé||Patent Requested. Sometimes abbreviated to Brevet Dem., Brevet Dem, or just Br. Dem.|
|Modèle Déposé||Registered Design. Sometimes abbreviated to Mod. Dep., Déposé or just Dep.|
|Dep. or Dep.||Dep. on its own or with the Swiss Federal Cross usually means Modèle Déposé as above.|
Brevet Deposé and Brevet Demandé both mean essentially the same thing, that a patent has been applied for, but of course there is no guarantee that an application will result in the grant of a patent and neither are official terms. Brevet Deposé sounds more convincing, like the rather presumptive "Patent Pending", which also has no official status.
Modèle Déposé does actually mean something, the design has been officially recorded and "registered", the same as a British "Registered Design". This doesn't convey protection in the same way that a patent protects an invention, but it forms an official record of who first produced the design and can be used in cases of copyright dispute.
Swiss/French Watch terms
|Ancre||Lever escapement ("anchor" from the shape of the lever and the pallet fork carrying the pallets).|
|Ancre Ligne Droite||Straight line lever escapement. In a Swiss straight line lever escapement the pivots of the balance staff, the lever and the escape wheel are all in a straight line, as opposed to the English lever where they form a right angle.|
|Argent||Silver gilt (gold plated silver) was stamped Argent so that it was not mistaken for gold.|
|Balancier compensé||Compensated balance, a balance that compensates for the effect of temperature changes. Usually a "cut bimetallic balance" that changes its radius of gyration with temperature to compensate for changes in the strength of the balance spring.|
|Cuivre||This is the Swiss/French word for "copper". It is often seen on the inner cover or cuvette inside the outer watch case back to indicate that it is made of base metal. These inner cuvettes are usually gold or silver plated and without this word stamped on them could be mistaken for being gold or solid silver.|
|Cylindre||The movement has a cylinder escapement.|
|Double Plateau||Double roller - a lever escapement with separate impulse and safety rollers. Older lever escapements had a single roller.|
|Levée Visibles||A lever escapement with visible pallets. Earlier pallet stones were set into the steel body of the pallet fork so that their top and bottom faces were covered. It was found that pallet stones were sufficiently well retained by shellac that they could be set into simple slots in the pallet fork, leaving their top and bottom faces visible.|
|Metal||Seen on the inner cover or cuvette inside the case back to indicate that it is made of base metal: see cuivre above.|
|Plaqué or||Plaqué means plated, plaqué or means gold plated; rather confusingly for English speakers the Swiss/French word for gold is "or". Usually "plaqué or" means gold filled or rolled gold, whereas "plaqué"" on its own without the additional "or" usually means electroplated.|
|Remontoir||Stem winding with a crown, instead of being wound with a separate loose key. (Remontoire (with an "e" on the end) means a spring in the train designed to even out the torque from the mainspring, which was used by Harrison and Breguet but is otherwise rare.)|
|Rubis||Jewel bearings, which were originally made from natural ruby gem stones, superseded in 1902 when the French chemist Auguste Verneuil found a way to make synthetic sapphire. Sapphire and ruby are variations of aluminium oxide, the different colours produced by traces of other elements.|
|Spiral||Balance spring / hair spring.|
|Spiral Bréguet||Breguet balance spring, a balance spring with an overcoil.|
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated July 2017. W3CMVS.