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Blog: Foreign watches with British hallmarks

Date: 3 February 2016

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 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.

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Foreign Watches with British Hallmarks

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved.

Swiss made watch case with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1881/82. Click image to enlarge.

If you are interested in pocket watches you will probably have seen a few Victorian specimens with British hallmarked gold or silver cases and foreign movements, usually Swiss or American.

Sometimes these are British made cases with foreign movements, the most frequent examples being cases made by the Dennison Watch Case Company in Birmingham to house American Waltham or Elgin movements. But some of them have the sponsor's marks of importers and were not made in Britain. They are usually Swiss imports and stand out as curiosities because the vast majority of foreign watches with gold or silver cases imported during the nineteenth century don't carry British hallmarks. This begs the question of why some do have British hallmarks when the majority don't?

The photograph here shows a typical example a Swiss made watch case with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1881/82. The case has Charles Nicolet's sponsor mark "C.N" in cameo within a rectangular surround, and is also stamped with the S. S & Co. trademark of Stauffer, Son & Co. This watch and its case were manufactured in Stauffer's large modern factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds. A letter by J. Lecluse describing the Stauffer factory, including case making, appeared in the journal of the British Horological Institute in September 1885, shortly after the watch shown here was manufactured, you can read it on may page about Stauffer at Stauffer, Son & Co.

Charles Nicolet first entered his details and an incuse CN punch mark at the London Assay Office on 1 March 1877. The first cameo C.N punch mark was entered on 10 October 1885. The mark in the case pictured appears to have been made by a punch registered on 15 October 1885. The hallmarks are the lion passant standard mark of sterling silver, the leopard's head of the London Assay Office, and the date letter "F" in a shield showing that the watch was hallmarked in 1881 or 1882.

Watch cases like this, made by Stauffer in La Chaux-de-Fonds, were shipped over to Stauffer's London office from where they were sent to the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and hallmarked. The cases were then returned to Switzerland for final finishing and for the watch mechanism to be put in to complete the watch, which was then returned to Britain to be sold. Whether the sponsor's mark was applied in Switzerland at the factory or in London is not clear. It is quite likely that the registered sponsor's mark punches were sent over to Switzerland and applied in the case making workshop.

This is different from the practice of bare movements being imported and put into British made cases. Right from its foundation in 1874 the Dennison Watch Case Company of Birmingham made cases for imported American and Swiss movements. Many gold cases were manufactured in Britain and fitted with Swiss movements as a result of the imposition of high import duties during the Great War. The cases discussed on this page were manufactured abroad, mainly in Switzerland, and hallmarked in Britain with traditional British hallmarks, including the lion passant on sterling silver and the crown on gold. They were then fitted with foreign movements, either in England or in Switzerland.

It was perfectly legal at the time for foreign gold or silver watch cases to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. In fact it was required by British law that all gold and silver items should be hallmarked before being put on sale. But for many years gold and silver watches had been imported without being hallmarked. This was not legal, but the customs authorities didn't realise this, and the people who should have done something about it, the assay offices and in particular the Goldsmiths' Company in London, knew about it but took no action.

Rather perversely this situation changed around 1874 when foreign manufacturers started to get some watch cases assayed and hallmarked in British assay offices. English watchmakers then raised strong objections to British hallmarks appearing on the cases of foreign watches, even though this was perfectly legal and should have been done all along. The English watchmakers claimed that it was being done so that British customers would be deceived and think that foreign watches were actually made in England, and therefore pay a higher price for them than they otherwise would.

It is possible that the foreign manufacturers wanted the British hallmarks on their watch cases so that the British public could be assured of the fineness of their metal, just as the British law required. This was certainly the argument put forward by Alfred Bedford, managing director of the British branch of the American Watch Company of Waltham. It is also possible that the English watch manufacturers had a point and that foreign watches were being passed off as English by unscrupulous retailers, the British hallmarks, especially the lion passant of sterling silver, being well recognised by members of the public who perhaps did not understand the limits of its power, which was purely to show the fineness of the metal an object was made from and not its place of origin. It is also possible that the English manufacturers, under pressing competition and price pressure from imported watches, saw an opportunity to create some artificial trade barriers, which they almost succeeded in doing. And it is almost certain that all of these factors were involved in what transpired.

1842 Customs Act: Imported Gold and Silver Items

The 1738 Plate (Offences) Act passed in the reign of George II was an important Act. It pulled together and clarified a lot of the law on hallmarking and although amended several times it remained the legal basis for hallmarking in England until 1975. The Act required that all gold or silver items that were sold, exchanged or exposed to sale in Britain must be of specified legal fineness of 22 carat or 18 carat for gold, and sterling for silver, and must be hallmarked.

The Customs Act of 1842 (5 & 6 Vict. c. 47 s. 59) included a provision that made it explicitly illegal to sell imported gold or silver items in the Britain unless they had been assayed at a British office and stamped with the usual British hallmarks. To be hallmarked meant that the imported items would have to meet the British legal standards of fineness.

Why this either explicit statement or extension of the 1738 law was felt to be necessary is not clear from the Act, but in "Hallmark: A History of the London Assay Office" John Forbes says that the 1842 requirement was brought about as a result of the Manufacturing Silversmiths' Society expressing to the London Assay Office concerns that an anticipated reduction in import duties on gold and silver items would result in a flood of inferior foreign products entering the country, "there being no provision in law for hallmarking imported items". This statement is contradicted by evidence given in 1878 to a Select Committee by Walter Prideaux, Clerk to the Goldsmiths' Company, who said that he thought that under the 1738 Act foreign watch cases should be hallmarked, and that he couldn't think of any reasons why they should not be marked. If that was true for foreign watch cases, which Mr Prideaux was being specifically asked about, then it must have been equally true for foreign plate of any description. However, it is evident that prior to 1842 British hallmarking was restricted by custom and practice to items made in the UK.

One effect of the 1842 act was that it implicitly conferred on importers of gold and silver items the right to enter their mark at an assay office so that they could send items for assay. This was recognised in the "Gold and Silver Wares" Act of 1844 (7 & 8 Vict., c.22) when the term "maker's mark" was changed by section 8 to "private mark", which the Act allowed could be registered by any worker, maker and manufacturer of, or trader or dealer in, gold or silver wares. This term never caught on, for obvious reasons, and the term "Sponsor's mark" rather than "private mark" is now used. This is more accurate as to the role of the mark in hallmarking, being an identifier of the person responsible for submitting an item for hallmarking.

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The Foreign Mark “F”

Foreign “F” Mark
Foreign “F” Mark

To answer concerns that items of foreign manufacture with British hallmarks could be thought to have been made in Britain, a requirement was introduced in the 1867 Customs Amendment Act (30 & 31 Vict. c. 82 s. 24) that an additional mark signifying Foreign manufacture, a letter “F” in an oval shield, be stamped alongside the usual hallmarks on all imported foreign made gold and silver items. If you are looking for this mark, be careful not to mistake a date letter for it, it is an additional mark.

The 1867 statute was later repealed by the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876 (39 &40 Vict. c. 36); but the requirement was re-enacted in the same words by the Customs (Tariff) Act 1876 (39 & 40 Vict. c. 35).

Few items from the 1870s are seen carrying the “F” mark. This is perhaps because importers were not keen to see their goods branded as foreign, but also because there was no effective mechanism to ensure that the law was complied with. In 1876 the Goldsmiths' Company issued a notice warning dealers that imported gold and silver items could not legally be sold unless they were of legal standard and had been assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. This had a small effect; Walter Prideaux, Clerk to the Goldsmiths' Company, remarked that some importers told him they were unaware of the requirement before this notice was issued. Many more remained ignorant of the law, or simply ignored it.

The Revenue Act of 1883 (46 & 47 Vict. c. 55 s. 10) changed all this by requiring that all gold and silver plate imported into Great Britain or Ireland be deposited in a bonded warehouse and not be released from bond until it had been hallmarked in a British assay office. The hallmarks were to be the usual British hallmarks, with the additional letter “F” signifying foreign manufacture. Importers couldn't get round this because it was enforced by the British Customs, and the appearance of many more items hallmarked from 1883 onwards that have the letter “F” shows that this requirement of the 1883 Act had an immediate effect.

It might be thought that this would also apply to imported watches with gold or silver cases, and indeed it should have, but the customs authorities treated watches as different from other gold and silver items and so they were inadvertently effectively exempted. There are foreign made watch cases with British hallmarks from this period, before the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act introduced new hallmarks for imported watch cases, but I have never seen one with the “F” mark and I don't believe that any exist.

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Select Committee on Hallmarking

In 1878 following complaints from Coventry watchmakers that foreign watch cases were being marked with British hallmarks, Sir Henry Jackson (1831 - 1881) the member of Parliament for Coventry proposed a draft bill to prevent any watch case not manufactured in the UK from being hallmarked. A Select Committee of the House of Commons was set up to look into the hallmarking of foreign items.

One of the specific areas the committee looked into was the British hallmarking of foreign watches. One of the witnesses to give evidence was Walter Prideaux, Clerk of the Goldsmiths' Company. In his evidence concerning imported gold and silver watches Mr Prideaux said "Foreign watches in unmarked cases have been always, I am informed, sold in England without challenge", a rather surprising statement for the person who was largely responsible for adjudicating day to day when questions arose about what items should or shouldn't be hallmarked. Mr Prideaux went on to say that he thought that under the 1738 Act foreign watch cases should be hallmarked and he couldn't think of any reasons why they shouldn't. In later evidence Mr Prideaux said by way of explanation of this anomalous position:

"What I say is this : that we have never been asked to sue for penalties. No man has ever come and given information, and said, " Here is a foreign watch case which I saw being sold, and I ask you to sue." The thing has never been done. The practice has existed from time immemorial; in point of fact, before the time of 12 Geo. 2 [the 1738 Act] ; and I certainly, in my position as legal adviser of the company, could not advise them to sue under those circumstances; but then I should find it difficult to give a reason for not doing it."

Mr Prideaux first noticed in around 1874 that significant quantities of foreign made watch cases were being sent to Goldsmiths' Hall for hallmarking, and that the assay officers could easily recognise these foreign watch cases so he asked them to record the numbers. At first they were only about 1,500 out of 150, 000 cases marked in the year and he thought that it was such a small matter that no action was needed, but the number had subsequently grown rapidly. In the hallmarking year ending 28 May 1878 the totals of watch cases marked were 101,017 silver and 30,161 gold, of which 10,440 silver and 2,110 gold cases were foreign. Foreign watch cases were 10.3% of the total number of silver cases marked, and 7% of the gold cases.

These watch cases were being marked with British hallmarks, but they were not marked with the foreign "F" as required by the 1867/1876 law. Mr Prideaux explained that Goldsmiths' Hall had no power of inquiring into the origin of things and that if a registered dealer sent items in with his private registered mark upon it, Goldsmiths' Hall were bound to assay them and mark them without any power of inquiring where they were made. Mr Prideaux also said that if the laws were to be implemented as intended then it was absolutely necessary that the Customs not be allowed to part with imported goods unless they had been hallmarked.

In its report in May 1879 the committee said:

The chief complaint against the operation of the existing law comes from the manufacturers of watches and watch-case. They have established by evidence that within the last few years a practice has sprung up, and is rapidly increasing, under which foreign-made watch-cases are sent to this country to be Hall-marked with the British Hall-mark, and are afterwards fitted with foreign movements, and are not then unfrequently sold and dealt in as British made watches; and they assert that this not only injures their own reputation and lowers the credit of British workmanship, but is contrary to the spirit and intention of our legislation. The Assay Offices are unable legally to refuse to Hall-mark these foreign watch-cases when brought for assay by registered dealers, though their officials are practically able to distinguish them from cases of British manufacture.

That Parliament has recognised the distinction between foreign and British plate is shown by the provisions of an Act 30 & 31 Vict. c. 82, s. 24 [the 1867 Customs Amendment Act], which requires all imported plate to be marked before sale with the letter F in an oval escutcheon, "in order to denote that such gold or silver plate was imported from foreign parts, and was not wrought or made in England, Scotland, or Ireland."

Until the practice of Hall-marking foreign watch-cases sprang up, the British Hall-marks were taken to indicate British workmanship, and your Committee cannot doubt that foreign watches in watch-cases so Hall-marked are frequently sold as of British manufacture. The Committee are therefore of opinion that all foreign-made watch-cases assayed in this country ought to be impressed with an additional distinctive mark (the letter F, by reason of its resemblance to existing marks, is not sufficiently distinctive) indicative of foreign manufacture, and that the law ought to be altered accordingly.

The committee felt that the letter "F" was not sufficiently distinctive because the public was used to looking for the standard mark of the lion passant on UK made items. There were always other marks in addition to the lion, such as the maker's mark, and the public not being expert in matters of hallmarking were quite likely to assume that the letter "F" was one of these marks. Seeing the lion on a watch case they were likely to assume that the whole watch was made in the UK. They were also concerned that the letter F was too easy to remove. One of the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee in 1878, James Walker a watch case maker from Coventry showed them several watch cases that had been hallmarked at Goldsmiths' Hall that morning and which by the time he showed them to the committee in the afternoon some of the marks had been removed so that there was no trace of them although the other hallmarks were still clearly visible.

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Who was Responsible?

Evidence was presented to the committee of the number of watch cases marked at Chester. Before 1876 all were English made, and in 1875 they hall marked 25,778 English made silver watch cases. In 1876 they hall marked 34,846 watch cases, of which 10,224 were foreign made, and in 1877 they hall marked 45,355 watch cases, of which 20,704 were foreign made. The quantity of English manufactured watch cases marked at Chester over the three years had remained virtually static at 25,778, 24,622 and 24,651 whereas the number of foreign cases had increased markedly. Although it is not mentioned whether these cases were marked with the additional "F" hallmark signifying foreign manufacture, it seems most likely that they were not and that the Chester Assay Office, like the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths' Hall were recording the numbers of cases they thought were of foreign manufacture but were powerless to require them to be declared as such when they were submitted for hallmarking.

Who was sending these foreign watchcases for British hallmarking? Watches were being imported from two countries; Switzerland and America. The principal, I believe at the time the only, company importing American watches was the American Watch Company of Waltham, or Waltham for short. The first person to enter a mark for this company was Frederick Francis Seeland, who was the first manager of Waltham in the UK. He left the company in late 1876 to take over as manager at IWC in Schaffhausen. He was succeeded as manager of Waltham UK by Alfred Bedford. Watches were imported by Switzerland by a much larger range of enterprises. These ranged from well established and respectable operations such as of Baume & Co. represented by Arthur Baume and who imported their own watches and Longines watches, and Stauffer & Co. represented by Charles Nicolet who imported watches from their own Swiss factory through to much smaller operations. Notable amongst these latter were one Antoine Castelberg who was not associated with any factory but acted on his own accord, ordering watches from various factories in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The dates of first entry of their marks are shown in the table below.

Registrant London Birmingham Chester
Antoine Castelberg 25/8/1875 n/a 17/10/1877
Frederick Francis Seeland 2/11/1875 n/a 31/1/1876
Alfred Bedford 30/8/1876 12/3/1879 16/9/1876
Arthur Baume 18/11/1876 5/1/1901 Circa 1887
Charles Nicolet 1/3/1877 n/a 13/12/1906

The earliest mark I have identified was registered by Castelberg in August 1875, followed by Seeland in November 1875. This doesn't fit with Mr Prideaux's statement that he first noticed in around 1874 that significant quantities of foreign made watch cases were being submitted for hallmarking and there might well be an earlier registration of an importer or agent that I have not yet identified, although I have been carefully through the register at the London Assay Office. What would be really useful is a to find a Swiss case hallmarked in 1874. These are not easy to spot from the hallmarks, but having an opening inner cuvette inside the case back is usually a dead give away.

The dates of registration of Seeland and Bedford accord well with the evidence from Chester. Of course the Dennison watch case factory was getting under way at that time which would soon eliminate the need of Waltham in the UK for imported watch cases. This list is by no means exhaustive, it is only an attempt to identify who began the practice of having foreign watch cases hallmarked in British assay offices.

Other sponsor's marks that have been seen in Swiss watches with British hallmarked cases from this era, in no particular order, are:

Alfred Bedford presented a petition to parliament arguing against the proposal in the draft bill by Sir Henry Jackson that a Select Committee to be set up to investigate the matter. Bedford was also the only witness to appear before the Select Committee to protest against possibly being denied the right to send foreign made watch cases to have British hallmarks. In his evidence he stated that in 1877 Waltham UK had imported 5,000 cases from the United States and 18,000 from Switzerland, most of which had been hallmarked at Chester. It is interesting to compare the total of these figures, 23,000, with the figure of 20,704 foreign watchcases reported to have been hallmarked at Chester in 1877. It appears that all of the foreign watchcases marked at Chester in that year were submitted by Waltham UK. Although Bedford opposed the draft bill, because he wanted to continue to be able to send foreign cases to be hallmarked, he pointed out that the American Watch Co. of Waltham always marked its own name on its watch movements so there was no question of them being passed off as English manufacture.

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1883 Revenue Act

The suggestion of Walter Prideaux regarding the Customs Authorities, that they not release gold or silver items until they had been hallmarked, and the Committee's recommendations were not acted upon immediately, but the Revenue Act of 1883 (46 & 47 Vict. c. 55 s. 10) required that all gold and silver plate imported into Great Britain or Ireland be deposited in a bonded warehouse and not released from bond until it had been hallmarked. The marks remained the usual UK hallmarks and the letter "F". When I consulted The Goldsmiths' Company about the use of the "F" mark from when it was first required in 1842 they told me that there was considerable difficulty in enforcing the 1867 act, to the extent that hardly any items of silver are known to bear the "F" mark until the early 1880s. The appearance in the 1880s (presumably starting in 1883) of silver items marked with the letter "F" shows that this requirement of the 1883 Act had an immediate effect on imported gold and silver items in general, but imported watches with British hallmarks and the "F" mark are unknown, so the law was evidently still not effective in their regard.

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1887 Merchandise Marks Act


1887 Town Marks for Imported Watch Cases

London Hallmarks for Imported Watch Cases
Birmingham Assay Office Foreign Hallmark
Birmingham Assay Office “Foreign” Hallmark. Click image to enlarge.

English watchmakers raised strong objections to British hallmarks appearing on the cases of foreign watches, even though this was perfectly legal and should have been done all along. The English watchmakers claimed that it was being done so that British customers would be deceived and think that foreign watches were actually made in England, and therefore regard them more highly and pay a higher price for them than they otherwise would.

The introduction of the “F” mark to combat this was deemed a failure because it was insufficiently distinct from either the sponsor's (maker's) mark or the official date letter, and it was also easy for agents of foreign manufacturers to avoid the “F” by submitting items for assay without declaring that they were of foreign manufacture. Although this had been addressed for most imported items by the 1883 Revenue Act, the provisions of that Act were not applied to imported watch cases.

The concerns of watchmakers were addressed in the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act (50 & 51 Vict. c. 28). The Act required that a statutory declaration of the country of origin be made for all watch cases submitted for assay, and that the hallmarks stamped on foreign made watch cases be completely different to the normal UK hallmarks. Note that this Act was specific to watch cases only, it did not apply to other imported items of gold or silver.

An Order in Council made in December 1887 implementing the requirements of the Act came into force on 1 January 1888. New town marks shown in the upper part of the figure here were introduced for the assay offices to stamp on foreign made watch cases. For example, the London Assay Office mark of the leopard's head mark was replaced on imported items by the sign of Phoebus, a radiant sun's head.

The Order in Council also introduced a new and completely different style of composite cameo hallmarks as shown in the second part of the figure to be used for foreign manufactured watch cases, with the word "Foreign" prominent across the centre. The idea was to make it impossible to obliterate or remove the word foreign without this alteration being obvious.

The traditional standard marks of a crown for gold and the lion passant for sterling silver were not used. For gold the fineness was indicated by the carat and decimal fineness, e.g. 18 and ·75 as shown on the cruciform punch design. Silver of legal standard fineness (sterling or Britannia) was indicated simply by the octagonal shape of the punch mark.

The effect of these new hallmarks, very different from the normal UK marks and with the prominent word "Foreign" in the middle, was to stop immediately foreign manufactured watch cases being sent for British hallmarking, as effectively as if the wording had been "Foreign muck" - which is probably what it was intended to imply! Very few watch cases received the “Foreign” hallmarks; two rare examples can be seen at Foreign Hallmark.

It was still implicit in British law that gold and silver watch cases should be hallmarked in a British assay office, but the 1887 Act contradicted this without repealing it by allowing watches to be imported if their cases had hallmarks from their country of origin. This enabled watches with gold or silver cases to be imported without having the composite cameo hallmark with "Foreign" across the middle if they carried Swiss Hallmarks or recognised hallmarks from another country.

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Foreign Hallmark

As a result of pressure from English watchmakers, the British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 introduced new hallmarks that were to be used on imported gold and silver watch cases sent to British assay offices for hallmarking. For the fist time, all watch cases sent to an assay office for hallmarking had to be accompanied by a formal declaration of the country in which they had been manufactured so that any foreign cases were clearly identified and could be correctly hallmarked.


Hallmarks for Imported Watch Cases From 1 January 1888

The form of the hallmarks to be applied to imported watch cases was specified in December 1887 by an Order in Council. Instead of three separate punches usually used for the town mark, the standard mark and the date letter, all three elements were combined into a single composite cameo hallmark with the word “Foreign” across the middle as shown in the drawing here. This was stated to make it more difficult to subsequently alter the mark, but the fact that the derogatory mark might put off foreign manufacturers from having their cases hallmarked was no doubt in the mind of whoever designed this mark. The large single punch used instead of three separate, smaller, punches would also have caused significantly more distortion to the watch case where it was struck, requiring more work to rectify the case after hallmarking.

The town mark, in this case the equilateral triangle of the Birmingham Assay Office, is within the mark at the top. The traditional standard marks, of e.g. the lion passant of sterling silver and the crown marked on gold, which it was said were often assumed designate English origin, were not used; the outline shape of the punch mark was itself was the standard mark. For silver, an octagon outline was for cases containing at least 92.5% fine silver, that is sterling standard. There was no provision for marking foreign watch cases with the higher Britannia 0.9584 standard so the same punch mark would have been used. The marks to be used on gold cases had the outline of a cross, with the fineness shown in carats and decimals, e.g. “18” and “.75” for 18 carat gold as shown in the image. The additional standards of gold that had been made legal in 1854; 15, 12 and 9 carat, were to hallmarked in a similar way with carat and decimal fineness, e.g. 9 and 0.375 for 9 carat gold.

The requirement to stamp the composite cameo Foreign hallmark applied only to watch cases. All other imported gold and silver items that were sent to be hallmarked in a British assay office continued to receive the usual British hallmarks with, in addition, the Foreign “F” mark, until 1904.

In 1904 the hallmarking of all imported gold and silver items other than watch cases was changed. The town marks used on imported items were changed to those specified by the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act, and numerical standard marks were used instead of the crown or lion. The format of these new import hallmarks followed the traditional pattern of separate punch marks rather than the single composite cameo mark required for watch cases. Some of these town marks were revised in 1906. However, the changes in 1904 and 1906 did not affect watch cases which, if they were sent for hallmarking, would receive the “Foreign” marks specified in 1887.

Most likely because of the ugly and derogatory composite hallmarks, very few imported watch cases received British hallmarks after 1 January 1888. However, this was actually illegal because all gold and silver items, including watches, were required by law to be hallmarked before being put on sale. This situation was eventually rectified and from 1 June 1907 it was made a required that all imported gold and silver watch cases be hallmarked in a British assay office. This brought a cry of protest from importers about the ugly composite hallmarks specified for watch cases, which were still required under the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act, the relevant section still being law, so the hallmarks on imported watch cases were altered by Order in Council to be the same as those on other imported items, replacing the composite cameo mark by three separate punch marks for town, standard and date. This is discussed in detail on the page British Import Hallmarks.

Birmingham Assay Office Foreign Hallmark
Birmingham Assay Office "Foreign" Hallmark. Click image to enlarge.
Birmingham Assay Office Foreign Hallmark
Birmingham Assay Office "Foreign" Hallmark. Click image to enlarge.
Birmingham Assay Office Foreign Hallmark
Birmingham Assay Office "Foreign" Hallmark. Click image to enlarge.

I know that the Birmingham Assay Office prepared punches every year after 1887 ready to stamp the composite hallmarks. I have been on the lookout for a watch case actually hallmarked with one of these Foreign import hallmarks for many years, but they are rare. This is principally because very few watch cases received the derogatory “Foreign” hallmarks, but also because very few people recognise them as British hallmarks at all.

I eventually found a watch with the hallmarks shown in the main image here, and since then correspondents have sent me details of two watches with the marks shown in the smaller images. These remain the only three such hallmarks seen.

The large composite octagonal cameo mark is the hallmark designated by Order in Council to be used on imported silver watch cases, sterling silver and Britannia were not distinguished. The triangle within the top of the octagon is the town mark that the Birmingham Assay Office used on foreign watch cases.

Interestingly, all three cases have the date letter “n”, which was used by Birmingham from July 1887 to June 1888. They must all therefore have been hallmarked between 1 January 1888, when the provisions of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act came into force, and 30 June 1888, after which the Birmingham date letter punch was changed.

The sponsor's mark FP incuse within an incuse oval surround was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office by Fritz Petitpierre on 11 November 1882. Petitpierre was a Swiss watchmaker and importer with offices at 66 Holborn Viaduct in London. He had been an partner of the importer Antoine Castelberg until the latter got into financial difficulties, which caused him to leave the partnership in May 1878 and Petitpierre to enter his own sponsor's marks at the Chester Assay Office on 18 June 1878 and the London Assay Office 22 November 1878, and later at the Birmingham Assay Office in 1882. Many Swiss watch cases with British hallmarks from this period carry Petitpierre's sponsor mark.

The sponsor's mark LC in cameo was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office on 13 April 1885 by Laura Clarke of 16 Percival Street, Clerkenwell, London. This sponsor's mark is seen in other Swiss watches with British hallmarks from the years before 1888. This sponsor's mark is recorded by Priestley under Birmingham, but rather unusually there is no entry for Laura Clarke at the London Assay Office. This seems strange for someone with an address in Clerkenwell, London, but none of the Clarkes listed in Culme have a Percival Street address.

The sponsor's mark EL in cameo within an rectangular surround with round corners was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office by Edward Ling, listed as ‘Watch manufacturer and jeweller’ and also as ‘watch maker and jeweller’- addresses given as 41 Hatton Garden and 321 High Holborn, first punch registered 1 June 1886 and another punch on 26th January 1888. This mark is not in Priestley, and Ling is not mentioned in Culme. He was almost certainly not a jeweller or watch manufacturer but an importer of Swiss watches.

The “Foreign” hallmarks are so ugly that I wonder whether Petitpierre, Clarke and Ling were unaware of the legislation until some watch cases came back from being hallmarked carrying the new marks. It is difficult to image anyone actually sending in cases to be marked like this, and they must have had a fit when they saw them! The fact that all the watch cases in the images were hallmarked in the first six months of 1888, immediately after the Merchandise Marks Act came into force on 1 January 1888, supports the idea that either Petitpierre, Clarke and Ling were not expecting the new mark, or that the cases were submitted in late 1887 before the Act came into force but were not hallmarked marked until after 1 January 1888.

It is not known how many watch cases were marked with the "foreign" hallmarks. It seems likely that it was a very small number, perhaps in the tens rather than hundreds. Further work at the assay offices to go over their records is required. It is also possible that these hallmarks are not well known because very few people recognise them as hallmarks.

In the House of Commons on 21 June 1904 Mr Charles Murray (MP for Coventry) asked the President of the Board of Trade for the number of foreign gold and silver watch cases marked by each of the Assay Offices in the years 1902 and 1903. Mr. Gerald Balfour replied that in London one foreign gold watch case was marked in 1902, and one gold and one silver case in 1903. No foreign watch cases were at any of the other Assay Offices in either year. That's a total of three cases in two years!

If you have a watch with one of these “foreign” hallmarks, please let me know.

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Concerns About Imported Watches

By the end of the nineteenth century it appeared that the authorities had at last got the hallmarking of imported gold and silver watch cases sown up absolutely water tight. The 1842 Act required that all imported plate was hallmarked, the 1883 Act required that it was kept in bonded warehouses until sent for assay, the 1887 Act required a statutory declaration of the country of origin, and the Order in Council following the 1887 Act required that different symbols were to be used for the hallmarks on foreign gold and silver watch cases so that the public could not be deceived into thinking that foreign watches were actually of UK manufacture.

But there was evidently still a problem. Despite the huge number of Swiss watches that were imported and sold in the UK, very few had British hallmarks. A question about this was asked in the House of Commons on 21 June 1904:

MR. CHARLES MURRAY (Coventry) To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he can inform the House of the number of gold and silver watch cases marked by each of the Assay Offices in the years 1902 and 1903, on declarations that such cases were made outside the United Kingdom.

(Answered by Mr. Gerald Balfour.) The Assay Offices have been good enough to supply the information desired by my hon. friend, and it appears that in London one gold watch-case was marked in 1902, and one gold and one silver case in 1903, on declarations that they were made outside the United Kingdom. No watch-cases were marked under similar circumstances at any of the other Assay Offices in either year.

Three watches in two years! That was a puzzle, and then there was a bombshell! It was discovered that although the Customs authorities treated empty gold and silver watch cases as plate under the meaning of the various Acts, they didn't treat the gold and silver cases of imported complete watches as plate. They had therefore not been ensuring that the cases of such watches were sent for assay. The Goldsmiths' Company was perfectly well aware of this, as Walter Prideaux had told the parliamentary select committee in 1878, but they hadn't challenged it or attempted a prosecution.

Goldsmiths' vs. Wyatt

In 1904 the Board of Customs consulted the law officers of the Crown, who were of the opinion that the cases of watches imported complete should be hallmarked. However, the Board Customs had long treated imported watches as not requiring to be hallmarked and so were reluctant to change their practice without a some more formal decision, so they asked the Goldsmiths' Company to take out a test prosecution. The Company agreed and looked for a likely candidate to prosecute. They didn't have to search far: one William Wyatt had "form" as far as the Company was concerned. In 1897 Wyatt had been found guilty of fraudulently transposing hallmarks (cutting the hallmarks from a legitimate item and soldering them onto another item of substandard fineness) and sentenced to 14 months' imprisonment with hard labour. So, on the 14th day of March 1905, Sir Walter Sherburne Prideaux, Clerk of the Goldsmiths' Company and son of Walter Prideaux, went calling on William Wyatt and purchased four watches, two in silver cases and two in gold cases. None were hallmarked, so the Goldsmiths' Company took out a prosecution under the 1842 act.

The judgment by Mr. Justice Channell in the initial trial of Goldsmiths' Company v Wyatt went against the Company on the grounds that watches were not "plate". This judgment was reversed in the Court of Appeal before Lord Justice Collins, Master of the Rolls, and Lords Justice Cozens-Hardy and Farwell in November 1906.

Lord Justice Sir George Farwell, in presenting the judgment of the higher Court, identified two different uses of the term "plate" and concluded that watch cases clearly were "plate" within the meaning of section 59 of the 1842 Act. Empty watch cases had in fact been treated as plate by the customs, and the appeal judges found that it could not be contended that the mere insertion of works into a watch case could make the watch case "not plate". He also pointed out that a schedule the customs had relied on when distinguishing between watch cases as "plate" and complete watches as "not plate" was concerned only with taxation, and this schedule did not change the requirement of section 59 of the 1842 Act that required all foreign plate to be hallmarked.

In his concluding remarks Lord Justice Farwell addressed the comment that no one would use the term "plate" as including gold and silver watches in common parlance, pointing out that the proper question was not whether gold and silver watches would be described as plate in ordinary language, but whether they were described as such in Acts of Parliament, which the Court found that they clearly were. Lord Justice Farwell concluded that watch cases were "plate" within the meaning of section 59 of the 1842 Act, and therefore should be assayed and marked as required by the law.

The case of Goldsmiths v. Wyatt revealed starkly that British law since 1842, and probably since 1738 or even earlier although that question was not addressed, required that gold and silver watch cases should be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office, and that there were no exceptions for foreign manufactured watch cases, and that this had not been taking place due to a misunderstanding by the Customs authorities with the supine cognisance of Goldsmiths' Hall.

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The Term "Plate"

The origin of the confusion revolves around the use of the term "plate" in the 1842 Act. Plate is used by the assay offices, and hence in Acts of Parliament about assay and hallmarking, in two distinct ways, (1) in the ordinary way, to mean platters or shallow dishes, and (2) in a particular way as a genus, stemming from the origin of the word in the Spanish "plata" for silver, the major source of work of the assay offices and which became extended over time to include gold items. When used by the assay offices the genus "plate" includes as species vessels, dishes, cups, bowls and every other form of gold or silver ware, even candle sticks. The High Court determined that it was the specialised use of the term that the Act intended to be used. Obviously this specialised use of the term plate includes items that would not ordinarily be called plate by anyone outside the assay office, but that doesn't matter as far as the law is concerned.

Unfortunately, in this case, "anyone outside the assay office" included the British customs authorities. They were primarily concerned with levying customs duties, not with hallmarking, and naturally turned to the schedules at the back of the Act containing lists of articles on which duty was to be imposed and the amounts of the duty to be charged. In this schedule "Plate of Gold" and "Plate of Silver" appear in Class VI, and "Watches of Gold or Silver, or other Metal" appear in Class XIX. This difference lead the customs authorities to treat empty gold and silver watch cases as "plate", because they were clearly not watches, but they treated complete watches as "not plate", because watches were in a different class to plate. Such confusion often occurs when the arcane language, often jealously preserved, of one profession is encountered by someone outside that profession.

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1904 and 1906 Hallmarks for Imported Plate

In 1900 British manufacturers of gold and silver items started to demand of the government the same protection from foreign competition as was given to British watchcase makers. On 28 June 1900 a deputation from the Birmingham Jewellers and Silversmiths' Association, and members of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths' Trade in London and Sheffield, was received at the Board of Trade in London. Speaking for the deputation, Mr. E. T. Pendleton (Birmingham) said that the British hallmark was looked upon by general public as a sign of British workmanship, and that the letter "F" that was applied to foreign manufactured items was inadequate because it was could easily be confused with the initials of the firm making the goods, or with the official date mark. The deputation therefore suggested the desirability of hallmarking foreign plate and jewellery with the distinctive Assay marks that were ordered to be used on foreign manufactured watch cases by the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 and which had effectually stopped unfair competition in the sale of foreign watches in Britain.

The Board of Trade was not initially sympathetic, but in 1904 the "Hall-Marking of Foreign Plate Act" and Order in Council complied with the request. The Act specified that a hallmarks different from the usual UK hallmarks were to be struck on "any plate or article imported from foreign parts" and the Order in Council specified that from 31 October 1904 the same town marks were to be used on imported items as had been defined in 1887 for hallmarking imported watch cases (e.g., the sign of Phoebus for London). The combination mark specified in the 1887 legislation, with all of the individual marks together with the word "Foreign" contained within a single shield, was not required; the word "Foreign" was omitted, and the marks were to be struck separately in the same way as traditional British hallmarks.

Numerical values were specified for the fineness mark so that the crown for gold and the lion of sterling silver would not be used on foreign plate. For gold the carat value together with its decimal equivalent was marked, for silver items the decimal equivalent of the standard was marked. E.g. 18 carat gold was to be marked 18 and .75, sterling silver was to be marked ·925.

Some of the 1904 marks for imported items were soon found to resemble existing trademarks, so in 1906 new marks for imported items were defined by Order in Council for the London, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Dublin assay offices; the marks for Birmingham, Chester, and Edinburgh remaining the same as before. The London Assay Office mark became the sign of the constellation Leo, which looks like an omega symbol, on a cross in an oval shield for silver and square for gold. The Glasgow Office mark became two opposed block letters "F" prone. The Birmingham Office symbol became an equilateral triangle.

The 1904 Act and consequent Order in Council, and the 1906 Order in Council that altered the town marks, did not alter or repeal the sections of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act that applied to watchcases, or the Order in Council that defined the hallmarks that were to be applied to foreign manufactured watchcases from 1 January 1888. This meant that watchcases were still by law required to be marked in accordance with the 1887 Order in Council, including the composite marks with the word "Foreign" across the middle and with the town marks that had been found to be problematic when used on imported plate after the 1904 Order in Council came into force. The fact that these discrepancies were not noticed probably simply shows that no foreign watchcases were being sent for hallmarking at the time.

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Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption) Act


Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption)

The judgment of 1906 caused great concern to retailers who had stocks of watches that they thought had been imported correctly, after all, the Customs authorities had permitted it, so a bill the "Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption)"" Act 1907 was passed to exempt all watch cases imported into the UK before 1  June 1907 from the requirement, made law by Act of Parliament in 1842 some 65 years previously, from being hallmarked.

In the House of Lords on 15 July 1907 The Earl of Granard introduced the second reading of the bill with the following words:

"My Lords, the necessity for this Bill has been brought about in a rather curious way. According to the Customs Act, 1842, all foreign plate imported into this country must be of the same standard as our own plate and must be hall-marked. For some reason the customs authorities have always considered that watch cases did not come within the meaning of the Act, and consequently up to the present time they have always been exempted from assay and marking. The result is that watch cases of all kinds have been brought into this country, and cases have been sold as gold and silver which were nothing of the sort. The Court of Appeal the other day ruled that watch cases were plate within the meaning of the Act, and the object of this Bill is to exempt from assay and hall-marking all watch cases which are at present in stock over here and which came into this country before 1st June last."

The Act received Royal Assent on 2 August 1907.

You will note that the passage of the Act through parliament and its assent into law in August was actually after the date of 1 June specified in the Act as being the effective date. This was not retrospective legislation, the law requiring all imported watches to be hallmarked already existed, as had been shown by the case of Goldsmiths vs. Wyatt. The effect of the new Act was to exempt from being retrospectively hallmarked all the thousands of watches that had been imported without hallmarks before June 1907.

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1 June 1907: All Cases to be Hallmarked

In May 1907 the Board of Trade issued the following notice:

"All Gold and Silver Watch Cases imported into this country on and after June 1st next will be dealt with by the Customs as Plate within the meaning of Section 10 of the Revenue Act, 1883, which provides that Gold and Silver Plate shall not be delivered for home use until assayed, stamped, and marked according to law."

The result of all this muddle is that from 1842 large numbers of complete Swiss watches in gold and silver cases were imported without being hallmarked as the law required, and that the exceptions in small numbers that did get hallmarked were ones the Swiss manufacturers wished to pass off as British! An astonishing state of affairs given the large numbers of Swiss watches entering the country in the second half of the nineteenth century. In "Marks on Gold & Silver Plate" by William Redman, 1907, Redman says that the 1887 act was "almost a dead letter" and that he had only seen three watch cases marked as required by the act in the twenty years that it was in force.

Foreign watch manufacturers and importers were naturally concerned that the watchcases they were now required to submit for hallmarking would be marked with the large and offensive marks defined in 1887. On 23 January 1907 a report in The Times said that the Board of Trade had received representations that it would be difficult to place these marks on watchcases of small size or delicate manufacture. It was suggested that the simpler marks prescribed for foreign plate by the Order in Council of 11 May 1906 could be placed even on small watchcases and this suggestion was adopted by a new Order in Council issued in May 1907, effective on 14 May. This Order essentially repeated the requirements of the 1906 Order in Council that applied to imported items that were not watch cases, but this time with specific application to watchcases, repealing the 1887 Order in Council.

I wonder what bright spark noticed in 1907 that the 1887 Order in Council was still in force for watch cases? It was probably someone at Goldsmiths' Hall who, on learning of the outcome of Goldsmiths' v. Wyatt, thought that he had better look out some punches to be used for the expected flood of foreign watch cases!

The town mark identifies at which assay office an article was tested and hallmarked. From 1 June 1907 the town marks used by British assay offices on imported gold and silver watches differed from those used on items made in Britain and were:


London
Sign of Leo

Birmingham
Equilateral triangle

Chester
Acorn and two leaves

Sheffield
Sign of Libra

Edindurgh
St. Andrew's cross

Glasgow
Opposed "F"s prone

Dublin
Boujet (water carrier)
Town marks used by British assay offices on imported watches after 1 June 1907

Because the assay and hallmarking of foreign watches came after the 1904 marks for imported items had been found to resemble existing trademarks and new town marks for the London, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Dublin assay offices for imported items were defined, the 1904 marks were never used on watch cases.

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Assay Agents

Before 1 June 1907 there were several methods by which Swiss and American watches reached British retailers. A representative working in Britain would visit retailers around the country, showing them samples and taking orders. This person might be from a British branch of a manufacturer, either employed directly by the manufacturer or working on commission, or an independent person working on their own account.

Orders would be fulfilled either from stocks already held in Britain, or by the factory sending watches to Britain, which might be sent directly to the retailer, or to the representative who would pass them on the to the retailer. All imported watches had to pass through British customs at the port of entry, where they were checked for legality and the import duty was levied, which had to be paid before the good would be released by the customs authorities. Sometimes the supplier paid this and then added it to the customer's invoice, for smaller orders the retailer would make the payment and take away the goods. But however the orders were taken and fulfilled, Swiss watches usually came into Britain from the Swiss manufacturers complete; cased, timed and ready to be retailed.

Some Swiss manufacturers had UK based branch offices or agents that were large and long standing, such as Dimier Brothers, Baume and Company, and Stauffer & Co. These had premises where they could store stock ready to be sent out in response to orders. Others such as Castelberg, Pettitpierre and Co. were one man, or in this case two man, bands working out of offices in London with no storage or workshop facilities.

In the 1870s some foreign manufacturers began having foreign watch cases hallmarked in British assay offices. Waltham imported Swiss cases that were hallmarked and then used to house American made Waltham movements. Some Swiss manufacturers sent empty cases to be hallmarked and then returned them to Switzerland to be finished into watches. The British watch manufacturers objected to this, and the practice of having foreign watch cases marked with the usual British hallmarks was stopped by the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act, which required that any foreign watch cases hallmarked in Britain should be marked "Foreign". This effectively stopped the practice and between 1 January 1888 and 1 June 1907 no foreign watch cases were hallmarked in Britain - there might have been a few, perhaps two or three that have never been seen since, but this was negligible compared to the hundreds of thousands of watches that were imported.

After 1 June 1907 the requirement for all imported watches to be hallmarked in the UK added an extra complication. Some large manufacturers found that it was practical to bring in the bare cases, get them hallmarked and then return them abroad to be finished into watches. In other cases watches were imported already complete, the movements removed, the cases hallmarked and then the watch reassembled in England. This meant that someone had to remove the movement from the case and stamp the case with a registered sponsor's mark. The details of the sponsor, the person who took responsibility for the standard of the case, must have been registered with the assay office beforehand, and the details of the punch that was used to make the mark recorded. The watch case could then be sent to the assay office, where it would be assayed and hallmarked, and then returned to be reunited with its movement. Obviously this required a workshop and premises where the movements could be removed and stored while the cases were being assayed, and staff to remove the movements, mark the cases with the sponsor's punch, and replace the movements once the hallmarked cases were returned.

Some Swiss and American companies already had branches or agents with substantial businesses in the UK, and these were able to put in hand the necessary premises and staff to process watches for hallmarking, but many smaller Swiss companies simply had travelling sales representatives or small offices in London and could not afford the extra cost of setting up an office and workshop in Britain to process watches for hallmarking.

From June 1907 many of these smaller Swiss companies arranged for Assay Agents in the UK to handle the hallmarking process for them. The largest of these were Stockwell & Company, sponsor's mark "GS" and Robert Pringle and Sons, sponsor's mark "A·G·R".

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Stockwell & Company were a large company of commercial carriers, transporting goods across Europe like UPS, FedEx or City Link do today. Stockwell & Co. had branches in cities all over the UK, and also in many cities on the continent. Before June 1907 Stockwell and Co. were transporting parcels of watches from Switzerland into Britain, which included making the necessary arrangements to get the parcels cleared through British customs and paying the British import duty on behalf of the manufacturer.

When the British law was changed in 1907 to require that all imported gold and silver watch cases be assayed and hallmarked, the Swiss manufacturers who used Stockwell & Co. to transport and import watches into Britain asked them to arrange arrange for the hallmarking as part of the import process, so Stockwell added this to their range of services. George Stockwell's sponsor's mark was first registered with the London Assay Office on 15 June 1907.

From the middle of the nineteenth century Robert Pringle & Sons of 40/42 Clerkenwell Road, London, was one of the UK's largest wholesalers of jewellery, silverware, clocks and watches. I am not sure whether they imported watches before 1907 but it seems likely; they certainly did after 1907 as is shown by the large number of watches carrying their sponsor's mark. The sponsor's mark used by Robert Pringle and Sons on imported watches "A·G·R" was first registered on 25 June 1907 by Arthur George Rendell, who was the manager of watch imports at Pringles.

The fact that both Stockwell & Company's and Robert Pringle & Sons' marks were not registered until around the time that the new rules governing the hallmarking of imported gold and silver watches actually came into effect is rather curious. This indicates that they and their Swiss customers were not prepared for the new rules and that there was something of a scramble as the law came into effect.

One of the largest and long established importers of Swiss watches at the time was Dimier Brothers. They were evidently well aware of what was going on and registered some new punches on 12 December 1906, less than two weeks after the judgement in the Court of Appeal and more than six months before the change in the law cam into effect. You can read more about this company at Dimier Brothers.

In Scotland it appears that James Weir of Glasgow acted for many companies, submitting large numbers of watch cases to the Glasgow Assay Office for hallmarking.

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Effects at Goldsmiths' Hall

From June 1907 there was a flood of foreign watch cases to be hallmarked. The number of silver watch cases received at the London Assay Office in the hallmarking year to 29 May 1908 was approximately 200,000, compared with only 3,000 for the previous hallmarking year of 1906 to 1907. It can be inferred that the 3,000 were all of UK manufacture, and the difference of 197,000 was made up of foreign watch cases. By the 1912 to 1913 hallmarking year the number of silver watch cases marked at the London Assay Office was around 700,000, reaching a peak in 1918 of more than 1.25 million. There was a similar increase in the number of gold watch cases. In the hallmarking year to 29 May 1908 this was approximately 78,500, compared with only 4,700 for the previous hallmarking year of 1906 to 1907. By the 1912 to 1913 hallmarking year the number of gold watch cases marked at the London Assay Office was around 255,000, then declined due to the war, and sharply declined after an ad valorem import duty duty of 33.⅓% was imposed in 1915 on imported luxuries, including clocks and watches, to conserve foreign currency reserves as part of the war effort. Silver watches were also subject to the tax, but as they were cheaper than gold watches their numbers didn't suffer the same decline. Nearly all the watch cases hallmarked at the London Assay Office between 1908 and 1918 were of Swiss manufacture.

It appears that the new rules still didn't stop the import of watches in unhallmarked cases entirely. In the House of Commons on 1 April 1914 Mr. Burgoyne asked the President of the Board of Trade Mr. Montagu whether he was aware that "... no steps have been taken to prevent the importation of watch cases by registered letter post, with the result that such goods are sold in this country in contravention of the law as to hall-marking ... ". Mr Montagu said that he would look into the matter and presumably the practice was stopped.

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The Great War and Gold Cases

Before the Great War (1914-1918) London was used by many Swiss companies and importers of Swiss watches as the route by which they could access the large market of the British Empire. One such company was Wilsdorf & Davis, a company founded in London in May 1905 to import and wholesale Swiss watches. London was the company's export centre for every market in the world and by 1914 it had grown to such an extent that it occupied a large suite of offices and had a payroll of more than sixty employees.

During the Great War, in 1915, in order to conserve foreign currency reserves as part of the war effort, Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Herbert Asquith's coalition government, imposed an ad valorem customs duty of 33⅓% on imported luxuries, including clocks and watches. These “McKenna duties” meant that any watches imported into London, even if only for checking with subsequent export abroad, would be subject to this new high rate of duty. The duties included motor vehicles, musical instruments and cinema film. It was initially intended to include hats, but it proved too difficult to formulate a precise definition of a hat.

The McKenna duties had a major effect on the import of Swiss watches in gold cases. The high cost of gold meant that a large part of the cost of a gold watch was due to the cost of the metal in its case, which is also why so many gold watches have been stripped of their cases over the centuries. Because of this high rate of duty, companies started to import bare Swiss movements and have them put into gold cases by English companies such as the Dennison Watch Case Company.

Chester 1938 to 1939
Chester Assay Office Hallmarks for 1938 to 1939

To avoid paying the McKenna duties on watches that were not destined for sale in Britain, many companies started exporting them directly from Switzerland to other countries. One such was Wilsdorf & Davis, which was incorporated in London 1915 as the Rolex Watch Company Limited. Before the war this company was principally based in London with a small branch office in Bienne. As a result of the import tax, Rolex transferred to that office the management of exports to third countries, and then later moved the Rolex headquarters there. If it hadn't been for the McKenna duties, Rolex might still today be a British Company based in London!

Silver watches were not so affected by the McKenna duties because the cost of a silver case made up a much smaller proportion of the total cost of the watch than a gold case, so it was not worthwhile having silver cases made in Britain. Swiss watches continued to be imported in Swiss made silver cases for sale in Britain throughout the war and the period of the higher tax.

The McKenna war duties started a trend for importing bare Swiss watch movements and putting them into British made gold cases that continued long after the Great War had ended. The McKenna duties were technically repealed in 1938, but the charges on imported goods were continued by Treasury Order under the provisions of the Import Duties Act 1932, which made it easier for changes to be made in the rates charged.

The case back in the picture here with Chester Assay Office Hallmarks for 1938 to 1939 illustrates this. The hallmarks in this case are Chester Assay Office hallmarks for a British made rather than imported item. The town mark is the triangular shield with three wheatsheaves around an upright sword, the traditional town mark of the Chester Assay Office. After 1 June 1907 this was only used on watchcases actually made in Britain, it was not used on imported watch cases hallmarked at Chester, they got the town import mark instead. The standard mark is the crown and "·375" of nine carat gold, the date letter is the "N" in "Court hand" script of 1938 to 1939. The sponsor's mark B & S was entered by B H Britton & Sons, the punch that made this mark was registered in May 1931.

The patent number seen in the case, 378233, for "Improvements in watch cases" was granted to Charles Henry Britton, Walter Britton and Herbert Britton of 35 Hockley Hill, Birmingham, on 11 August 1932 with a priority date of 15 September 1931. The object of the invention was to provide an improved construction of a two piece watch case with a neat and attractive appearance that could be cheaply manufactured. The case was made from a short piece of tube that formed the middle part of the case. This was pressed or rolled at both ends to provide the recess for the glass at the front and an undercut at the rear for the case back to snap on to.

The watch that the case back is from has an anonymous Swiss movement. Taken together with the patent this suggests to me that rather than a Swiss manufacturer sending watches to be cased to avoid duty, Britton & Sons were buying in movements on their own initiative from one of the Swiss ébauche factories and casing them, possibly having got into this during the Great War as a result of the high duty on imports.

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