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Blog: Aaron Dennison and The Dennison Watch Case Company

Date: 23 July 2015

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable, so I decided to create this blog section to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that I have either changed or added to significantly.

There were bits of information about Dennison scattered about on several pages of this web site; I have decided to draw them all together into one page, as you see below.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact Me page.

Dennison, Wigley & Co.

Dennison Watch Case Company

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

The company that eventually became the Dennison Watch Case Company was founded in 1874 as Dennison, Wigley & Co., a partnership between Aaron Dennison, who had recently left the English Watch Company, and Alfred Wigley, a rose engine turner. The American Watch Company of Waltham was involved in the establishment of the company. The company continued under the name Dennison, Wigley and Co. until 1905 when the partnership was dissolved and the business continued by Franklin Dennison under the name Dennison Watch Case Company.

Aaron Dennison was an important pioneer in watchmaking by machinery; in fact it could be said that he was the most important pioneer, in that it was his ideas that started the mass production of watch movement parts by machinery in America, which had major knock-on effects on watchmaking in Switzerland and England.

Aaron Lufkin Dennison

Aaron Lufkin Dennison was born in the USA on 6 March 1812 in Freeport, Cumberland County, Maine, the son of Colonel Andrew Dennison and Lydia Lufkin. His father was a cobbler by trade, but Aaron didn't like shoemaking and had a mechanical turn of mind, so in 1830 he was apprenticed to James Carey, a clock and watch maker, gunsmith and gold and silversmith of Brunswick. In 1833 Dennison set up on his own as a watch repairer, but shortly after entered the employ of Jones, Low and Ball where he learnt from Tubal Hone, then considered to be one of the finest watchmakers in America.

In about 1840, Dennison began to think about manufacturing complete watches in the United States by machine. In 1849 Dennison approached Edward Howard, partner in the company Howard & Davis, with his plan, and a workshop was created in a small room of the Howard & Davis clock factory at Roxbury, Massachusetts. The business was conducted at first under the name of the American Horologe Company, later changed to the Warren Manufacturing Company, and, later still, when it moved in 1854 to Waltham, Massachusetts, to the Boston Watch Company. They manufactured a watch similar in many respects to the English, and intended to run eight days. The factory was lavishly supplied with mahogany counters, benches and tables, elegant pictures, &c. The firm operated until the beginning of 1857 when it went bankrupt.

Dennison is quoted as saying: “I do not think there were seven times in the seven years we were together that we had enough money to pay all our employees at the time their wages were due.”

The assets of the company were auctioned, and the buildings and some machinery were bought Royal E. Robbins. Watch manufacture restarted under the name of Tracy Baker & Company with Dennison superintendent of the mechanical department. Robbins felt that Dennison was too creative when it was graft and application that was required, and in December 1861 he was dismissed. After Dennison had left, the cheaper William Ellery model watch he had been trying to introduce became a financial success for the company, selling in large numbers to soldiers during the American civil war. From the confusing jumble of company restructurings that followed eventually emerged the American Watch Company of Waltham, but Dennison was no longer involved in the company he had helped to found.

In 1864 Dennison and A. O. Bigelow set up the Tremont Watch Company in Boston with the idea of buying in the small fine parts, such as the balance, escapement and train wheels from Switzerland, where wages were lower than in America, and making in America the larger parts, such as the watch plates and mainspring barrel, and assemble watches. Dennison went to Zurich to supervise the ordering and delivery of parts to America.

The strategy was initially successful. In 1866 the company relocated to Melrose, Massachusetts, and was renamed the Melrose Watch Company. At the same time, Bigelow decided to make all the parts of the movements, and to increase production to 100 per week. Dennison disagreed with this and left the company. The new strategy was not a success and the Melrose Watch Company ran out of money and failed in 1868. Dennison returned to Boston and tried to form a new company to purchase the machinery and factory of the Melrose Watch Company, but failed. After much searching he found investors in Birmingham, England, who were prepared to put up the capital to buy the Melrose machinery and form a watchmaking company.

The company was initially named the Anglo-American Watch Company. The watches were understandably American in nature, with going barrels rather than fusees, and the initial products, uncased movements, were sent to America for sale, but there was little demand because of a financial recession at the time meaning that the market was already over supplied.

The name of the company was changed in February 1874 to the English Watch Company, following a change in focus to selling watches on the British market. It appears that Dennison left the company at around this time.

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Alfred Wigley

Alfred Wigley was born in 1838 in Birmingham. His obituary in the Horological Journal says that he began his career as a Rose engine turner in Caroline Street in 1864, and soon after that he started making the component parts of watch cases. A rose engine is a type of lathe used to engrave the pattern on the backs of pocket watch cases. Watch case pendants are seen with Alfred Wigley's sponsor's mark, so these are one of the component parts of watch cases he manufactured.

In 1864 he would have been about 26, so this must have been when he set up in business on his own account, a few years after finishing his apprenticeship.

Alfred Wigley is described by Philip Priestley and Arthur G. Dennison, great grandson of Aaron Dennison and past Managing Director of the Dennison Watch Case Company, as an engraver, polisher and springer of watch cases. The 1881 census gives his address as 28 Villa Road, where he employed 10 men and one boy in the manufacture of watchcase parts such as bows, pendants and springs. They were listed as Rose engine Turners and Case Springer/Polishers in the trade directory.

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Dennison, Wigley and Company

Letter from Edith Wigley, 21 March 1912
Letter from Edith Wigley, 21 March 1912: Click image to enlarge

In 1874, Aaron Dennison formed a partnership with Alfred Wigley in Dennison, Wigley & Co and established a watch case manufactory in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. The first workshop was in a stable at the rear of 24 Villa Road. The company was called Dennison, Wigley & Company until 1905.

Aaron Dennison's previous experience was in making watch movements, so someone with knowledge and experience of making watch cases was needed. Alfred Wigley was involved right from the start.

Aaron Dennison was born in 1812. In 1912, an article about his life prompted Edith Wigley, the daughter of Alfred Wigley, to write the letter reproduced here, complaining that the role of her father in the foundation of Dennison, Wigley and Co had been inaccurately represented.

In 1873 the American Watch Company of Waltham, generally referred to as Waltham for short, established a branch office in Britain. Aaron Dennison's son Edward Boardman was hired and eventually became Assistant Manager. The British company imported movements made by the American parent company and cased them for sale in Britain.

The Waltham company produced watch movements using automatic machines which could churn out far more movements than could be sold in America, so the company began exporting movements to generate another income stream. Case making was not mechanised and Waltham was desperate to find a company in Britain that could make the large numbers of cases required. Not finding any existing company that could take on the work, Waltham encouraged Aaron Dennison to set up a factory to make cases.

There are strong suggestions that Waltham did more than simply encourage Dennison. A record in the Birmingham Trade Directory of 1876 lists “Dennison & Howard, Watchcase Maker, 24 Villa Road”. Edward Howard was one of the founders of the American watch manufacturing company with Dennison and Davis in 1850 and this entry in the trade directory suggests that he was an investor and provided capital to set up the factory. Also in 1876, Alfred Bedford, the manager of Waltham in Britain, described the Dennison factory as our case factory at Birmingham.

In August 1888 The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith reported that Dennison & Wigley were making watch cases so successfully as to be able to send quantities to America in spite of the import duty charged on them. The company employed at the time 100 hands and the factory was “lighted throughout with electric light”.

Aaron Dennison died on 9 January 1895 aged 82 and his son Franklin took over his role. The company continued as Dennison, Wigley and Co, now a partnership between Edward Boardman Dennison and Ethie Gilbert Dennison, trustees of the will of Aaron Dennison, Franklin Gilbert Dennison and Alfred Wigley.

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Dennison Watch Case Company

The London Gazette
The London Gazette: Click image to enlarge

On 31 August 1905, the partnership Dennison, Wigley and Co. was dissolved as shown by the notice from The London Gazette reproduced here. It is likely that Alfred Wigley retired. According to a letter written by Franklin Dennison to his son Gilbert, Wigley sold his share of the partnership to Franklin. The business was continued by Franklin Dennison under the name Dennison Watch Case Company. This implies that Edward Boardman Dennison and Ethel (Ethie) Gilbert Dennison, who were heirs to Aaron's will, also left the company at this time.

On 20 Dec 1905, a sponsor's mark A.L.D incuse with no surround was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office by Dennison Watch Case Company, 40 Terrace Road & 234 Soho Hill, Birmingham. This was followed on 16 Nov 1906 by the first of a large number of sponsor's marks A.L.D in cameo within a rectangular surround with cut corners.

The company was later incorporated and became the Dennison Watch Case Company Limited.

After many successful years the company ran into financial troubles in the 1950s. Major Gilbert Dennison, C.B.E., Chairman of the Board, died in April 1957 at a time when conditions were difficult because of Swiss and Japanese competition. Later that same year there was a difference of opinion at board level that led to the resignation of Arthur G. Dennison, who left the company to set up the Dennison Gold Plate Co Ltd, at Kineton, Warwick. This subsequently became the Gold Plate Division of D Shackman & Sons Ltd, of Chesham, who had become serious competitors to Dennison.

The Dennison Watch Case Company Ltd. failed in February 1967 due to insolvency and the factory in Birmingham was closed. In April 1967 there was a two-day sale of the factory assets and some of the equipment was sold to Shackman & Sons, where it was used until the mid-1980s for the production of watchcases and bracelets.

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Dennison and Waltham

The American Watch Company at Waltham, Massachusetts, could produce more watch movements than they could sell in the USA, so in 1873, Robbins & Appleton, the sole selling agents for Waltham, started a London office at Waltham Buildings, Holburn Circus and began exporting watch movements to Britain. Although Waltham had succeeded in mechanising the mass production of watch movements, advances in watch case making hadn't kept pace and cases were not as easy to manufacture as movements. This meant that movements were exported bare or uncased and Robbins & Appleton looked for English watch case makers to supply cases to house them.

At the time there were no English watch case makers who could supply the quantities of cases that were needed, so at first Swiss, and even some American, watch cases were also imported into Britain. In 1878 the Select Committee of the House of Commons looking into gold and silver hallmarking, took evidence from Alfred Bedford, at the time manager for the American Watch Co. of Waltham in the UK. Bedford stated that in 1877 Waltham UK had imported 5,000 watch cases from the United States and 18,000 from Switzerland.

A·B Alfred Bedford's Sponsor's Mark, Birmingham Hallmarks 1899 to 1900

The first major customer for Dennison watch cases was the American Watch Company of Waltham, and the coincidence of the date of 1874 in Aaron Dennison leaving The Anglo-American Watch Company and setting up a case making company, shortly after the opening in 1873 of the London office of the American Watch Company looks very significant. In fact, Waltham had a significant role in starting the business.

The London office of the American Watch Company at Waltham was first opened by Robbins & Appleton, but soon placed in the hands of N. P. Stratton who was directly responsible to the factory at Waltham. Stratton visited Dennison at Birmingham to ask if he would act as representative for the Company in England, but Dennison was not keen on the idea, probably feeling that a role as a travelling salesman was beneath him at his time in life, over 60 years old, and with his business experience. Dennison stated terms on which he would take the job, which Stratton sent to Royal E. Robbins for approval, but Robbins declined. Stratton then hired Dennison's son Edward instead. However, Robbins did not harbour any ill will against Dennison and gave substantial assistance to his final effort to establish a successful business of his own.

When it began importing watch movements to Britain, Waltham had difficulty obtaining enough cases for them. Bedford said that they imported some American and Swiss cases and had them hallmarked at the Chester Assay Office. It is not known under whose sponsor mark these cases were hallmarked.

The first sponsor's mark entered for Waltham in Britain, F.F.S. in cameo, was entered at the London Assay Office on 2 November 1875 by Frederick Francis Seeland, Assistant Manager, Waltham UK. Two further FFS cameo punches followed on 17 December 1875 and February 1876. The first entry of Seeland's sponsor mark at the Chester Assay Office was on 31 January 1876. Seeland never entered a mark at the Birmingham Assay Office, the first Waltham mark entered at the Birmingham Assay Office was by Alfred Bedford on 12 March 1879.

After representatives of the American Watch Co. of Waltham had entered sponsor's mark at assay offices, all the hallmarked gold and silver watch cases made by Dennison to house imported American Waltham movements had the sponsor's marks of either Frederick Francis Seeland, manager for Waltham in the UK before leaving in late 1876 to take over at IWC, or the A.B of Alfred Bedford, who took over from Seeland as manager of Waltham UK.

Sponsor's Marks

In an attempt to make some sense of the dates I searched the records of the London, Chester and Birmingham assay offices for sponsor's marks entered by people involved with Dennison & Wigley and the Dennison Watch Case Company. The results for the period up to August 1876 are tabled below. It is notable that the first Waltham related mark is the F.F.S entered in November 1875. Two earlier marks were entered by Alfred Wigley.

Date Assay Office Mark Registrant
17 November 1874 Birmingham A.W. cameo Alfred Wigley
14 August 1875 London A.W. cameo Alfred Wigley
2 November 1875 London F.F.S. cameo Frederick Francis Seeland
22 November 1875 London A.W. cameo Alfred Wigley
17 December 1875 London FFS cameo Frederick Francis Seeland
31 January 1876 Chester FFS cameo Frederick Francis Seeland
February 1876 London FFS cameo Frederick Francis Seeland
6 May 1876 London A.L.D. cameo Aaron Lufkin Dennison
30 August 1876 London AB cameo Alfred Bedford
13 September 1879 Birmingham A.L.D cameo Dennison, Wigley & Company
16 December 1895 London AW. cameo Alfred Wigley (after death of Aaron Dennison)

What happened during the period between 1874 when the Waltham office was set up in London and the entry of the first sponsor's mark in November 1875 is not known. Waltham probably ordered cases from English case makers who marked them with their own sponsor's mark.

Alfred Bedford

Alfred Bedford succeeded to the managership of Waltham in Britain when Seeland left to take over as manager of the International Watch Company in Schaffhausen in October 1876. Bedford subsequently became the General Manager in Europe of the Waltham Watch Company.

It is notable that neither Alfred Wigley's or Aaron Dennison's registered sponsor's marks appeared in any of the watch cases they made for Waltham. In evidence in 1887 to the Select Committee examining proposed changes to the Merchandise Marks Act, Bedford was asked "Is there not a branch of the American watch manufacture established in Birmingham?" to which Bedford replied "It is the case shop", implying that it was Waltham's own factory.

In answers to other questions, Bedford stated "At our case factory at Birmingham we turn out something like 50,000 cases a year for our watches." (emphasis added) and "We have at our factory at Birmingham received under permission from me orders to make 500 or 1,000 cases ...." (emphasis added). So it appears that Waltham had some interest in the company more than an average customer. For Bedford to give permission for work to be done he must have had some authority.

The "500 or 1,000 cases" that Alfred Bedford mentioned in his evidence to the Select Committee were ordered from Switzerland. Bedford said they were to house Swiss watches and that they had been ordered specifically to obtain cases that had English hallmarks. His sponsor's mark A.B had been struck on them. When watches with these cases and Swiss movements had started to come into the country he had made some efforts to find out where they had gone to, but he had never been able to trace them.

Waltham London Office Sales

The annualised figures for 1876 and 1884 are calculated from figures for 11 and 5 months respectively.In evidence, Alfred Bedford said that a Waltham watch in a silver case would sell at retail for about 50 shillings (£2.50). The Waltham sales figures represent the wholesale price and the retailers mark up is not known, but assuming that the retailer sold watches for twice the wholesale price, £50,000 in sales would represent about 40,000 watches, and £100,000 would be about 80,000. Some watches would be in gold cases, which would be considerably more expensive, so the numbers would actually be lower than this. In 1887 Bedford said that the case factory in Birmingham turned out about 50,000 cases a year. Given that the peak output of the whole of the English watch industry in the nineteenth century was about 200,000 a year, it is easy to see how the Waltham imports would have a big effect.

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A L Dennison and Early Waterproof Watches

Aaron Dennison was an important pioneer in watchmaking by machinery; in fact it could be said that he was the most important pioneer, in that it was his ideas that started the mass production of watch movement parts by machinery in America, which had major knock-on effects on watchmaking in Switzerland and England. After initiating a revolution in watchmaking and other adventures, Dennison set up a company in Birmingham, England, to make watch cases, and many collectors will have watches with cases made by the Dennison watch case company.

There is more about the Dennison Watch Case Company on my page about A L Dennison.

There are stories that Aaron Dennison was involved in early waterproof watches and invented the screw down crown, but despite searching I have not found any evidence to support this and I believe that the story is apocryphal.

Dennison and the Screw Down Crown

Dennison 1871 patent story
Story from NAWCC web site about Dennison 1871 patent - original source unknown

Donald de Carle in Practical Watch Repairing, in the chapter on Water-Resistant Cases (on page 276 in my copy), says “There are three popular types of [water resistant] button and pendant. The screw button and pendant, originally invented by A. L Dennison as long ago as 1871, is used in various forms today ...”

I have seen another reference to this story in an excerpt from an American publication on the NAWCC web site as shown here. The NAWCC library have been unable to trace the publication in which this appears.

In The Principles of Waterproofing Watches Henry Fried says that Dennison encased watches in waterproof cases as far back as 1871, and that New York watch collector Louis Romaine has a Waltham watch with one of these cases. The problem with Fried's account is that he says that Romaine's watch has a screw cap, and he illustrates it with a figure from an American patent granted to Ezra Fitch. Fitch's patented design is different to a design patented by Dennison in 1872. In fact Romaine's Waltham watch was one of a number of similar watches with a case made in America to Fitch's patent. Dennison had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The use of a screw cap to enclose the crown and seal the gap where the stem enters the case is not really rocket science. It was used on “travellers'” or “explorers'” watches in the 1870s, such as those commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society. A cap over the crown was simple and effective, but not a very elegant solution to the problem. A much more effective solution was to use the crown itself as the cap, to arrange for the crown to screw down on the pendant or stem tube. A crown that screwed down onto the pendant was patented by Fitch in 1881, and this appears to have been the first true screw down crown.

The claim that Dennison invented the screw down crown is repeated in several places, so it might be thought that there may be some truth in it, but I have found no substantive evidence in its support. I have never seen a Dennison watch case from the nineteenth century with a screw cap over the crown or a screw down crown.

I think that this is just a tale that grew and changed in the telling and retelling, and that in fact Dennison did not invent the screw down crown.

Dennison's 1872 Patent

I asked the UK Intellectual Property Office in Cardiff to search for a Dennison patent of around 1871 and they came up with two; No. 356 dated 3rd February 1872 and No. 1113 dated 31st March 1874. These were the only two patents they could find attributed to Dennison around 1871.

Dennison patent 356
Dennison 1872 patent GB 356

On 3rd February 1872 Aaron Dennison of Handsworth, in the County of Stafford, Watch Manufacturer, deposited an application and preliminary specification for a patent for Improvements in Watches and Pocket Chronometers, which were said to consist of constructing the parts of watches and chronometers so that they are simplified and perfected, and the cases made air and water tight. On 29th July 1872 this application was approved and Dennison was granted British patent No. 356.

Dennison 1872 No 356
Dennison patent claims

To make the case air and water tight, in place of the normal hinged bezel, Dennison designed a bezel with an external screw thread which screwed into a thread in the opening at the front of the case, from inside the case. I have circled this in red on the left hand side of the picture. The bezel is item "b" with external screw thread "d". The bezel screws from inside the case into the thread in the front part of the case, part "e" in the diagram.

The back of the case "f" had an internal thread which screwed down onto a thread "g" formed on the middle part of the case. The small screw labelled g2 was there purely to give some grip for screwing and unscrewing the back. This must have been before Dennison conceived of using the peripheral "coin edge" milling seen on later Dennison screw cases, which is not surprising, the patent was written several years before he started his watch case factory.

The winding stem and push piece for engaging the hand setting mechanism were provided with packings of an unspecified nature to make them "air and water tight." Note that these were simple gland packings, there was no screw cap or crown mentioned and I am sure that the story that Dennison invented the screw down crown is wrong.

This case was designed before Dennison set up his watch case factory, but shows that he was thinking about watch cases as well as watch movements. The patent also covered a mechanism for winding and setting the watch via the crown, using a push piece to put the keyless work into the hand setting position. Winding and setting the hands was an important consideration for a sealed case, because it was common at the time for the case to be opened to perform these operations, but there is no suggestion that Dennison invented keyless winding and setting.

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Dennison and Rolex

During the First World War, the British Government introduced various taxes and restrictions on imported items. Initially, in September 1915, a tax of 33⅓% was imposed on imported luxuries, including clocks and watches. In November 1916, the importation of jewellery and all manufactures of gold and silver other than watches and watch cases was prohibited. This was extended in December 1916 to prohibit the importation of gold watches and gold watch cases for the remaining duration of the war.

The import tax on watches in silver cases was uncomfortable but bearable, particularly as there was a huge demand for wristwatches from newly commissioned officers, so increasing prices was not much of a problem. But the outright ban on gold watches could not be got around. As a result, Rolex looked for a British case maker to make gold cases and settled on Dennison. This started a practice of having gold cases for Rolex watches manufactured in England by Dennison. Swiss watch movements were imported bare and cased in England.

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Dennison Sponsor's Marks

AL Dennison
Birmingham Assay Office Hallmarks in a Dennison Watch Case

Watch cases made by the Dennison Watch Case Company which were not made for Waltham are usually easy to identify as they are stamped "Dennison Watch Case Co.". Gold and silver watch cases were also stamped with Dennison's registered sponsor's mark ALD or A·L·D in order to be sent for hallmarking - the assay offices required the sponsor's mark to be composed of the two or three initials of the “responsible person” at the company, a company name or trade mark was not acceptable at the time.

The Dennison Watch Case Company's sponsor's mark A.L.D in cameo within a rectangular surround was first entered at the Birmingham Assay Office on 20 April 1876, the address given as 24 Villa Road, Handsworth, Birmingham. Between 13 September 1879 and 30 March 1905 five similar A.L.D marks were entered for Dennison, Wigley & Company. From 16 November 1906 marks were entered in the name od the Dennison Watch Case Company Limited.

The picture shows a silver case marked with both the Dennison Watch Case Co. and A·L·D sponsor's mark. It has the anchor town mark of the Birmingham Assay Office, the lion passant (the walking lion) indicating the fineness of the silver as sterling, and the date letter "q" for the Birmingham Assay Office hallmarking year of 1915 to 1916.

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Dennison Trademarks

This section contains a small selection of trademarks registered by the Dennison Watch Case Company. It is by no means comprehensive!

Dennison Quality Trademark 1921

The rather nice advertisement shown here appeared in Kelly's London Post Office and Trade Directory in 1921.

Regular and Special Grades

Dennison made two grades of gold and silver watch cases, a standard thickness sometimes stamped “Regular”, and a “Special” grade made from thinner sheet material which are less strong than the regular thickness cases and more prone to damage. An extra thin “XS” grade has been seen in some very thin gold cases.

Base Metal and Plated Cases

Dennison also made gold plated watch cases. Gold-filled or rolled gold plate is a composite material where sheets of gold are bonded by heat and pressure to a core of base metal such as nickel or brass. The thickness of the gold determines how long the item will last in normal use before the gold wears through and the base metal shows. Gold filled should be thicker and constitute at least 1/20th of the weight of the metal in the entire article, rolled gold plate must constitute at least 1/40th of the weight of the metal in the entire article. The layer of gold in gold filled or rolled gold plate items is much thicker than electroplated gold, and therefore longer wearing. Because this material is not solid gold it cannot be hallmarked.

Initially an explanation of the process was engraved inside of Dennison cases, together with the expected lifetime of the gold plate in years, which was the length of time under normal wear that the gold covering was expected to last before it wore through and the base metal showed. On later cases this information was indicated only by one of three words:

Dennison gold filled watch cases are very good quality and are often found in nearly new condition today. If the gold plate has not worn through, then the case looks just like a gold case, because of course you only see the surface which is gold, but the prices are much more reasonable than for a solid gold case. Why would someone pay more for a solid gold case when you can't see the difference? A solid gold, hallmarked, watch case is a valuable thing, a store of wealth.

Sun, Moon and Star Trademark

A mark consisting of three symbols, a radiant sun, crescent moon and a star, was stamped on many Dennison cases, including cases made of nickel. This mark does not appear to indicate any specific type or grade of material but was simply a trademark. A similar mark with no sun but two stars was registered on 16 October 1920 by the Dennison Watch Case Company as a trademark.


George V Queen Mary Jubilee
George V Queen Mary Jubilee: Click image to enlarge

In his book about Dennison, Philip Priestley says he had seen a single example of the Eclipse trademark as shown in the image of case here, but that its origins were unknown. Mikrolisk records that this trademark was registered by the Dennison Watch Case Company for watch cases on 19 January 1926. Unfortunately, the specific meaning of this mark (if it had one) remains unknown.

This watch case also has an interesting Commemorative Mark. The double bust mark is of George V and Queen Mary. The King and Queen ascended to the throne in 1910 and this jubilee mark was created to commemorate 25 years of their rule in 1935.

The watch case shown in the image has Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for sterling silver with the date letter “L” for the Birmingham hallmarking year from 1935 to 1936. The jubilee mark was struck between 1934 and 1936, that is the Birmingham Assay Office letters K and L, and the year in which each Birmingham date letter was used would normally run from 1 July to 30 June the following year, but since George V died 20 January 1936 the jubilee mark might have been discontinued after his death.


The Dennison Watch Case Co. Ltd. registered “Denisteel” as a trademark for stainless steel watch cases on 17 April 1934.


The Dennison “Aquatite” case was a water resistant case with a screw back and bezel. The earliest mention of Aquatite seen is 1950.

The name Aquatite was registered as a trademark a number of times by other companies for raincoats, tarpaulins, waterproof coatings, etc etc. but there appears to be no instance of it being registered by Dennison or for watches. Dennison Adverts about the Aquatite case say "Regd." rather than "TM" for trademark, so Aquatite may actually have been a Registered Design (RD) rather than a trademark.

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Negative Setting

Safety Bow
Dennison Patent Safety Bow

Many of the watchcases made by Dennison until the 1950s were for negative set movements. Negative setting is usually associated with American movements to the extent that it is sometimes referred to as American setting, because it made it easy to marry up the customer's choice of movement and case in the shop. But there are also watches with Swiss negative set movements in Dennison cases.

A negative set movement requires the provision of a detent sleeve spring in the pendant of the case. The detent sleeve is slotted to form spring claws that grip the stem, which has grooves in it so that the grip of the sleeve can hold it in one of several axial positions. As the stem is moved inwards or outwards the spring claws are forced open as they leave one groove and then close into the next groove to hold the stem in that position. The image of the Dennison Patent Safety Bow shows a detent sleeve coloured in grey below an externally threaded brass coloured nut that is used to adjust the position of the sleeve in the pendant.

A watch with a negative set movement can be distinguished from one with the usual method of setting by the absence of a setting lever screw. This is illustrated in the discussion about a Tavannes patent.

These detent sleeves tend to break, which was not an undue problem when Dennison's were in business. But when the factory closed down, such sleeves were discarded by the dustbin load and today are hard to find.

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Screw Back and Bezel Cases

Dennison Screw Back and Bezel
Dennison Screw Back and Bezel: Click image to enlarge
Dennison Advert May 1941
Dennison Advert May 1941: Click image to enlarge

The Dennison Watch Case Company claimed that Aaron Dennison invented the screw back and bezel case. The figure here is taken from a short article published in the Horological Journal in May 1940. The claim refers to Dennison's 1872 Patent, although in the patent the bezel holding the glass was screwed into the middle part of the case from inside, not from the outside as shown in the figure here.

In 1926, Dennison said that they had supplied many thousands of cases of this type to all parts of the world, and watches with this type of Dennison case had been used on the last two Shackleton expeditions. The section from an advert by Dennison in May 1941 was repeated in other advertisements during the Second World War. It is interesting that it says that the Dennison screw back and bezel case was supplied to the War Office in 1914, and that the same case design was still being supplied during the Second World War.

Dennison screw back and bezel cases usually had no waterproof aspects in the pendant or stem tube. The drawing that shows the exploded view of a screw back and bezel case also shows an exploded view of a pendant with a gland or stuffing intended to make it waterproof. This is similar to the packings for the stem and hand set push piece mentioned in the 1872 patent.

Part A has an internal screw thread that screws onto the thread on part F. Part B is a gland or stuffing made from a compressible material. Part C is a brass plug to which the steel detent sleeve D is attached. The stem is part F. When the parts are assembled, the brass plug C is seated on an internal flange in part F. When part A is screwed onto part F, the gland B is then trapped and compressed between part A and the top of the brass plug C. This squeezes it so that the central whole is made smaller, forming a seal with the stem. In the drawing, the stem has been shown too short and with its threaded part barely projecting from the brass plug C. In reality, there would be a length of smooth stem here to form the seal with the gland B and the threaded part, which the crown screws onto, would be further up on part of the stem projecting through part A.

No watches with Dennison screw back and bezel cases, or Dennison cases of any other type, with this waterproof feature in the pendant or stem tube are known.

Issued British Military Wristwatches

1917 British Military Wristwatch
Issued British Military Wristwatch

During the First World War, the War Office issued wristwatches such as the one shown here to signallers who needed a wristwatch for their duties but who, unlike officers, would not be expected to purchase their own wristwatches.

The “pheon” or broad arrow, sometimes called a crow's foot, on the case back denotes it as army issued British government property. The pheon on this case is rather faint but it is just above the army stores number S.O.805. The meaning of these stores numbers is unknown. Each one is a different combination of letters and numbers so they are unlike later military references such as 6B/169 which denoted a pilot's watch.

The watch has a screw back and bezel case made from nickel, and the movement was made by the Swiss ébauche manufacturer A. Schild. You can see a picture of the movement on my Movements page.

The substantial “screw back and bezel” case of this watch is made of nickel, so it carries no hallmarks or sponsor's mark to show who made it, but the case has several very distinctive features; the milling that gives a grip when unscrewing the back and bezel, the flattened pumpkin shape of the crown, and the large diameter stem tube that is cut away at the back and front to allow the bezel and back to screw down.

The pictures here of another of these watches shows another of these wristwatches with War Office markings in a silver case. The manufacturers marks and hallmarks those show that this case was made by the Dennison watch case company of Birmingham and hallmarked in Birmingham. The assayer's mark (date letter) "t" shows that the case was hallmarked in the Birmingham hallmarking year 1918 to 1919.

1918 British Military Wristwatch 1918 British Military Wristwatch
1918 Issued British Military Wristwatch in Dennison hallmarked case

The silver case is clearly from the same manufacturer as the nickel case discussed above. The milling that gives a grip when unscrewing the back and bezel and the large diameter stem tube cut away at the back and front to allow the bezel and back to screw down are the same. The large onion crown is a recent replacement for the original flattened pumpkin crown which was missing when the watch was found. The inside of the back of the silver case is clearly marked with Dennison's trademark and sponsor's mark, and there can be no doubt that both cases were made by Dennison in Birmingham.

These Dennison screw wristwatch cases usually have a very thick mineral glass crystal rather than the unbreakable crystals that were fitted from 1916 onwards to Swiss wristwatches aimed at service men. This suggests that either someone in the British War Office wasn't happy with unbreakable crystals for some reason that isn't immediately apparent, or that the supply of these crystals was restricted to Swiss watch case manufacturers and not exported.

The same cases in silver with Dennison marks are seen quite frequently without the military broad arrow, but silver cases with the broad arrow are uncommon; this is the only one known. A nickel case was perfectly serviceable for military use, and was rustproof, so the extra cost of a silver case was not justified by military requirements. Most officers watches, purchased with their outfit or kit allowance, were silver, but because these were not issued from army stores they do not carry the pheon. It seems most likely that when an urgent order for signaller's wristwatches was issued by the War Department, insufficient nickel cases were available to fulfil the order and one or more silver cases were supplied instead.

Dennison screw case
April 1915 Dennison Screw Case Advert

The advert here appeared in an April 1915 edition of Land & Water magazine and showed that Dennison were making these screw cases for wristwatches from at least 1915. The case in the advert has a screw back and bezel with the same milling on the bezel as the issued wristwatches. In this advertisement drawing, the crown is next to the case and there isn't the large diameter pendant or stem tube of the issued cases. The reason for this is that the case in the advert is for a movement that is normally set; Dennison cases with the large diameter stem tube are for movements with negative (American) set set keyless work and the large diameter tube is required to accommodate the detent mechanism.

These Dennison screw cases were not used only for Waltham movements, they are also seen with Swiss movements, often Tavannes / Cyma, who were the manufacturers of the movement in the silver case. From other evidence, it seems that cases were sent from England to Switzerland to the watch manufacturers to have the movements fitted.

The Waltham movements that these screw cases were originally designed to accommodate movements had typical American negative set keyless work. Swiss movements fitted to these cases are often also seen with negative set keyless work.

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Stainless Steel Cases

Stainless steel began to be used for watch cases in Switzerland in the early 1930s, partly because it was cheaper than gold or silver which was an important consideration during the Great Depression, and partly because it was a new “wonder material”; more attractive and more durable than nickel or ordinary steel.

The Dennison Watch Case Co. Ltd. registered “Denisteel” as a trademark for stainless steel watch cases on 17 April 1934.

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In addition to Aaron Dennison's 1872 patent for a waterproof watch discussed above, over the years of its existence the Dennison Watchcase Company was granted many patents for aspects of watch cases. They are not all listed here, but I have itemised a few that have caught my attention.

Safety Bow

Safety Bow
Dennison Patent Safety Bow
Safety Bow
Distinctive Dennison Bow

An application for a patent for “Improvements relating to Watches or Watch Cases for use in connection with Bracelets or Wristlets” was lodged by Gilbert Dennison on 10 November 1911, for which on 11 November 1912 he was granted British patent No. 25045.

The subject of the patent was a means of attaching wire lugs to the cases of open face watches to take a strap so that they could be worn as wristwatches. The problem addressed was that an open face watch has the crown at 12. In the patented design the upper lug was made large enough that it went above and around the crown. The ends of the wire loops were attached by ball joints to a block of metal soldered to case. The upper lug was made large enough to straddle the crown, and the ball joint allowed it to be swung out of the way for winding. This was not rocket science and a patent was not really justified, because the idea would be “obvious to a person skilled in the art.”

However, the attachment on the lugs to the case was used on pocket watches and referred to as the “Dennison Patent Safety Bow”, even though this idea is not mentioned in the patent.

When watches were key wound, the bow was attached to the pendant by a screw passing through the lower edge of the bow and through the pendant. The introduction of keyless stem winding meant that this was no longer possible due to the stem running inside the pendant. Various methods of attaching the bow were developed, from a simple snap on bow, which was not very secure, to separate screws for each side of the bow which screwed into small steel plates in either side of the pendant, which was fiddly to make. The Dennison safety bow was nearly as simple as a snap on bow, but more secure.

The image here from a later patent, GB1390, is a cross section showing how the patent safety bow was attached to the pendant. The ends of the bow were made spherical and seated into sockets on the pendant. The outer edges of the sockets were burnished over the spherical ends of the bow, “thus avoiding all risk of being detached.”

Although the patent didn't actually mention watch bows at all, which are a feature of pocket watches, an article in the Horological Journal say that the Dennison Safety watch bow was “generally introduced” in 1912, confirming that this is the patent which Dennison claimed protected the design.

The sockets where the ends of the bow are attached to the pendant are very distinctive and allow a Dennison case to be recognised at a glance.

1915 Patent Waterproof Crown

Dennison 1915 patent No. UK 1390
Dennison 1915 patent

In 1915 Gilbert Dennison was granted British patent No. 1390 for a waterproof screw down crown.

There were some minor differences between this design and a US patent granted to Ezra Fitch in 1881. The design also had all of the deficiencies of Fitch's design. It used the winding ratchet to enable the crown to be screwed down after the mainspring was full wound, which required a left hand thread on the outside of the pendant that was exposed to dust and dirt. It also lacked a clutch to allow the crown to be unscrewed with the watch fully wound.

It is not known whether any watches were ever made with Dennison's screw down crown. Philip Priestley records that in 1913 Gilbert Dennison collaborated with Mr M L Bateman in the design and development of waterproof watches for the "fateful Scott Antarctic expedition of 1914/16". However, Scott's last expedition started in 1910 and he died on the ice shelf at the end of March 1912. Scott's watches from this expedition are well known. One was an alarm watch that he used to remind himself to take regular activity to avoid frostbite, this watch is in the BHI collection at Upton Hall. The other watch was a waterproof explorers' watch supplied by S. Smith & Sons that is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. It appears that Philip might have meant the 1914 Shackleton expedition to Antarctica.

Philip also says that in 1914 Dennison produced a special water resistant case for the 1914 Shackleton expedition to Antarctica and shows a photograph of the watch, supplied by John Purser & Sons Ltd. of Cardiff. This watch has a bulky crown which might be of the Dennison 1915 patent waterproof crown design, or of the design with a gland packing shown in the section about Screw Back and Bezel Cases but unfortunately the current location of the watch is not known.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Watch

Shackleton's Expedition Watch 1914-1916
Shackleton's Expedition Watch 1914-1916: Click image to enlarge
Dennison Drawing 1926
Dennison Drawing 1926: Click image to enlarge

A special water resistant watch case was made by the Dennison Watch Case Company for the 1914 Shackleton expedition to Antarctica. The expedition left Britain just as the First World War broke out.

The expedition, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, intended to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. Instead, the expedition's ship Endurance became trapped in ice and, after drifting with the ice for much of 1915, was crushed and sank. The party trekked to the edge of the sea ice, then sailed in the ship’s lifeboats to Elephant Island. They knew that the outside world was unaware of their problems and that they would not be rescued from such a remote location, so Shackleton and two others sailed a small boat, the James Caird, to the Falkland Islands to get help.

Shackleton's watch was supplied by John Purser & Sons Ltd. of Cardiff. The Dennison made case was actually two cases in one, an inner and an outer case, and had two rings for a strap or cord so that Shackleton could wear it around his neck, where it would be easier to access than in a pocket. This watch was left with the men on Elephant Island when Shackleton left to get help.

The watch has a bulky crown and pendant, which is most likely due to a waterproof stem design. A similar crown and pendant design is shown in the drawing published by Dennison in 1926.

There are no screw threads visible on the pendant, which suggests that waterproofing of the crown was not by the Dennison 1915 patent waterproof crown design. The tube or skirt descending from beneath the crown could be the part A shown in the section about Screw Back and Bezel Cases above. By making Part F fully threaded, part A could screw down over it completely, making a cleaner arrangement.

However, the date of the 1915 waterproof crown patent is strongly suggestive that the design was created for Shackleton's watch.

Unfortunately, the current location of this watch is not known.


Dennison Sovereign Case 1913/1914
Dennison Cachecase: Click Image to enlarge.

British patent No. 269,722 was granted on 28 April 1927 to the Dennison Watch Case Company and Charles William Burrows for a “push together” (my term) watch case.

The bezel 9 and middle part of the case 10 are made in one piece, forming the front or top part of the case.

The case back has an upstanding flange 5 which pushes up inside the front part of the case and is held in place principally by friction. A ridge 6 acts as a stop, and also as a place to hold the lower part to pull it from the upper part. The top edge 7 of the flange is bevelled inwards to grip the watch movement and also to act as a lead into the upper part when pushing the two parts of the case together.

The strap lugs were attached to the top part of the case 10 so that, when the watch was worn, the bottom part of the case was trapped between the wrist and the upper part and there was no possibility of its coming out.

This design of case was called the “Cachecase” by Dennison.

Dust Proof Crown

A British patent GB419642 was granted on 13 November 1934 to the Dennison Watch Case Company and Gilbert Dennison for a dust-proof crown. The crown has an internal sleeve axially spring loaded, taking the place of a pendant or stem tube on the case, sealing the gap between the case and the stem against the entry of dust and “other foreign matter.”

This crown would have been difficult to make given the tiny size of the components, and has never been seen. Simpler designs with internal packing sealing against a stem tube attached to the case soon superseded it.

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Sovereign Cases

Dennison Sovereign Case 1913/1914
Dennison Sovereign Case 1913/1914: Click Image to enlarge.
Dennison Sovereign Case 1913/1914
Dennison Sovereign Case 1913/1914: Click Image to enlarge.

The gold Sovereign coin was first introduced in 1489 on the orders of King Henry VII. Gold Sovereigns were struck throughout the reigns of succeeding Tudor monarchs until minting ceased early in the reign of James I. Issue of Sovereigns by the British Royal Mint recommenced in 1817 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Gold Sovereigns were also made from 1850 in Australia, and later in Canada, South Africa and India.

Gold coins in general were withdrawn from circulation in Britain on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to conserve gold reserves. Sovereigns did not return to general circulation in Britain after the war, but they remain legal tender and are still made today in small batches for collectors. Australia, Canada, South Africa and India continued to use Sovereigns as regular currency after they had been withdrawn in the UK.

Dennison sovereign cases, called sovereign purses, were made with either single or double tubes, side by side, for holding holding the coins.

Philip Priestley's book on Dennison (Ref. 1, p.87) records only that Dennison sovereign cases were made “between the wars” in solid gold and silver, but it is known that they were made long before the First World War and were also made in rolled or plated gold and silver, and in nickel. A correspondent Peter sent me an image of a case with the Dennison company's sun, moon and star trademark in the lid and an inscription around bottom piece “English Make Guaranteed Solid Nickel”.

A correspondent Ewen B. contributed the images here of a 9 carat gold Dennison sovereign case. It is a single tube version. The coins go under the horse-shoe shaped retainer, pushing down the plate underneath which has a spring underneath. The case can be dated 1913 to 1914 by the Birmingham Assay Office hallmark. Date letter punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which at the Birmingham Assay Office was at the end of June, so the same date letter was used over two calendar years. At the Birmingham Assay Office this was from 1 July of one year to 30 June the next year.

The date letter is the Birmingham Assay Office “o” of 1913 to 1914 but the surround is a different shape to that listed in most references including Jackson's. It is known that the Birmingham Assay Office used different surrounds for date letter punches, and like the London Assay Office may have used different surrounds of all sizes on gold items, or that the surround was simplified for punches used only on smaller items. Whatever the reason, this illustrates the problem with most tables of hallmark date letters, which show only the punch marks used on large silver items and the first year in which the punch was used. The date letter punches used on small items and gold items are often different, and date letters were used over two calendar years.

Dates of Manufacture

Dennison Sovereign Case hallmarked 1903 to 1904
Dennison Sovereign Case hallmarked 1903 to 1904: Click image to enlarge
1894 Dennison & Wigley Advert including Sovereign Cases
1894 Dennison & Wigley Advert including Sovereign Cases: Click image to enlarge

Philip Priestley does not say over what period these sovereign cases were made by Dennison, only that they were made “between the wars”.

The advertisement from 1894 reproduced here shows that manufacture of sovereign purses by Dennison, Wigley & Co. began in the nineteenth century.

At the London Fair and Market, held at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, in July 1921, it was reported that “A show of Dennison Sovereign Purses added a welcome touch of humour, and our readers will be surprised to learn that they are selling very well just now.” At the British Industries Fair held at the White City, Shepherds Bush, London, in February 1926, Dennison showed sovereign purses in a variety of styles, finished plain, engraved and engine-turned.

From these pieces of evidence, it is clear that Dennison, Wigley & Co, and then later Dennison Watch Company, manufactured sovereign purses between at least 1894 and 1926.

British hallmarks include date letters that show in which hallmarking year, a period usually covering two calendar years, the item was hallmarked. The Dennison sovereign cased or purse shown in the image here was sold on eBay. It in sterling silver and has nice clear Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for 1903 to 1904.

A sovereign case belonging to correspondent Peter L, inherited from his great grandfather, is 15 carat gold and has Alfred Wigley's sponsor's mark with Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for 1901 to 1902. Another sovereign case with Alfred Wigley's sponsor's mark and Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for 1899 to 1900 has been seen.

Research by Peter L indicates that for gold and silver sovereign cases, the AW sponsor's mark was used up to 1901-02, then the ALD sponsor's mark until the war. The presence of Wigley's sponsor's mark rather than the more widely known Dennison sponsor's mark may be why few early cases are known or recognised as Dennison sovereign cases.

Many Dennison sovereign cases are either gold filled, such as a single tube version in 14 carat rolled gold plate guaranteed to wear for 20 years, gold or silver plated, or nickel. These are not precious metal so cannot be hallmarked, which also means they cannot be accurately dated from a hallmark date letter. They usually have the Dennison Watch Case Company trademark of a sun, moon and star trademark in the lid.

If you have evidence of Dennison sovereign purses dating before 1894 or after 1926, please let me know.

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Dennison Powder Compacts

Philip Priestley's book on Dennison (Ref. 1, pp.89-90) contains descriptions of Dennison made powder compacts. Unfortunately no production dates are given. If you have one of these and it is hallmarked, please get in touch with details.

There were three models, the 200 was for loose powder with puff and mirror, the 150 and 350 models had proprietary inserts of powder, also with a puff and mirror. All models came in either 10 year rolled gold or sterling silver, the 150 and 350 also came in 9 carat gold.

The lids were made in a wide range of engine of engine turned finishes, or with enamel pictures of animals on sterling silver. Five enamels are illustrated in the book, a wild duck in flight, an Irish terrier in profile, and heads of an Alsatian dog, a fox terrier and a fox.


  1. Priestley, Philip T: Aaron Lufkin Dennison, an industrial pioneer and his legacy, NAWCC, 2010.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2018. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.