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Blog: Three Bears and 935 Silver

Date: 10 August 2018

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.

This is from my page about Swiss hallmarking that can be found at Swiss Hallmarks.

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

935 ‘Sterling’ Silver and the Three Bears

Before 1880 the vast majority of Swiss watches with silver cases that were sold in Britain had no hallmarking at all, British or Swiss. British manufacturers didn't want Swiss watches marked with British hallmarks, and before 1880 Switzerland had no legal requirement or system for hallmarking watch cases.

The silver cases of Swiss watches were made from either 0.800 or 0.875 fineness silver. Although this wasn't legal in Britain, the legal standard being sterling and all silver items goods offered for sale should have been hallmarked as such with the lion passant, the British authorities turned a blind eye. A small number of silver Swiss watch cases were assayed in England in the years 1874 to 1887 and marked with British hallmarks. Sterling silver was used for these cases to meet the British standard.

The Swiss introduced their own hallmarking laws for watch cases in 1880. Swiss silver watch cases were then assayed and hallmarked in Switzerland to the Swiss fineness standards of 0.800 or 0.875. Since this was lower than the British sterling standard of 0.925 it was not legal to sell watches with these lower fineness cases in Britain, but few people realised that at the time, and nobody did anything about it until 1887. The legal situation was not properly remedied until 1907.

In 1887 the British Merchandise Marks Act introduced new requirements for imported gold and silver watch cases. From 1 January 1888 they all had to be hallmarked. This could be either in a British assay office or in their country of origin. The Act also defined new, and quite objectionable, styles of hallmarks to be struck by British assay offices on imported gold and silver watches. This was in response to English watch manufacturers, who objected to imported watches being given British hallmarks. The intention of the new British hallmarks for imported watch cases was clearly to put off anyone from using them! For examples of these rare hallmarks see Birmingham "Foreign" Mark.

935 Sterling
Sterling Silver 0.935

As a result of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act, from 1 January 1888 the British customs authorities would stop the import of watches with silver cases of either the 0.800 or 0.875 Swiss standards. This was discussed at a Swiss Federal Council meeting on 24 December 1887. It was decided that a higher standard for silver of 0.935 be allowed in Switzerland to comply with the British legal minimum of sterling silver. It is clear from the minutes of the meeting that the Swiss authorities thought that sterling silver was actually 0.935, which explains why this standard, which was higher than necessary to meet British standard, was adopted. Watch cases are seen marked "935 Sterling" as shown here, confirming the view that the Swiss thought that sterling silver was actually 0.935, or 93.5% fine silver.

The reason for the adoption of the 0.935 standard is not explained in the Federal Council meeting minutes. However, a reasonable explanation is that the British standard mark of sterling is the lion passant, the walking lion with raised right forepaw, which doesn't reveal the percentage analysis of sterling silver. The Swiss authorities needed to know the actual fineness in order to make a law, and a clerk tasked with the job of writing the new law probably decided to simply get hold of a piece of British hallmarked sterling silver and have it analysed. Silversmiths always use silver slightly above standard in order to make certain that the work will pass assay - if it doesn't the item can be ‘battered’ and the labour in making the piece lost. It is therefore not surprising that, when tested in Switzerland, a sterling silver item marked with the British lion passant would have assayed at 0.935, hence the mistake.

Three bears
Silver 0.935 Watch Case with three Swiss bears
silver hallmark bears
Silver 0.935 Bow with Two Bears, and Pendant with a Bear

At the meeting of the Swiss Federal Council it was decreed that silver watch cases destined for Britain and made of 0.935 silver could be assayed and marked by Swiss Bureaux de Contrôle (assay offices). To confirm that a watch case had assayed at 0.935 or better, a distinguishing hallmark was needed. It was decreed that this should be the set of marks shown here in the picture of a watch case; the number 0.935 in a rectangular shield indicating the standard of fineness, with a hallmark of three bears, one small bear above two large bears.

The minutes of the meeting of the Federal Council when this was decreed are beautifully handwritten in German ‘Sütterlin’ script and state für den Feingehalt Silber 0,935 durch zwei Abdrücke des Stempels „großer Bär“ und einen Abdruck des Stempels „kleiner Bär“ (for the fineness of silver 0.935 by two impressions of the stamp "big bear" and one of "little bear").

The bows of pocket watches were to be stamped with two bears, as shown by the red arrows in the second picture. Another bear was stamped on the head of the pendant as shown by the single third arrow. Because of the way the rampant bears are struck almost horizontally on the bow, and the small size of the marks, people sometimes mistake theses marks for lions passant.

The British customs authorities were not bothered about the number of bears; so long as silver watch cases were stamped with a number 925 or greater, and had some official looking Swiss hallmarks, whether one bear or three, they were happy to let the goods pass – after import duty had been paid.

Three Bears for Angleterre!

Sterling 935 with one Bear

The use of 0.935 silver and the three bears marks was discussed in La Fédération Horlogère Suisse in October 1890, after a suggestion by the authorities that the practice should be discontinued and that watch cases be marked with 0.935 and a single bear. The watch manufacturers were strongly of the view that it was necessary to continue with it for watches that were to be exported to England, because English customers had come to recognise and appreciate the mark of the three bears. The mark of the three bears therefore continued to be an available option as before.

The mark of the three bears was not universally appreciated. It was said that customers in the United States preferred to see a single bear. Because of this, watch cases of 0.935 silver that were submitted to the Bureaux de Contrôle (assay offices) in packets identified with "Destinée à l'Angleterre" (destined for England) were stamped with three bears; without this identification they were stamped with a single bear.

Manufacturers could therefore choose whether to have three bears or just one bear stamped on 0.935 silver watch cases by marking the packets "Destinée à l'Angleterre" if they wanted three bears, or omitting this if they wanted just a single bear. The image here of the case back of a Tavannes watch shows just such a mark, 0.935 and a single bear. It is also marked "Sterling", which shows that the Swiss thought sterling silver was 0.935.

1907 and All Change

From 1 June 1907 all imported Swiss watches had to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office and marked with the new import hallmarks. After this date imported Swiss watches rarely also have Swiss hallmarks; there was little point in getting them assayed and hallmarked twice, although there was not a sharp cut off and watches are sometimes seen with both Swiss hallmarks and British import hallmarks. There was no legal reason why a watch could not be hallmarked in both Switzerland and Britain, and no doubt sometimes this was expedient, say if a watch had already been hallmarked in Switzerland originally intended for another market and then an urgent order caused it to be sent to Britain.

Marking silver watch cases with three bears, which was specifically for the British market, probably stopped on or soon after after 1 June 1907 when all imported Swiss watches had to be assayed and hallmarked in Britain. However, I have no evidence for this, so if you have a watch case with three bears and a British import hallmark later than 1907 I would like to hear from you.

Imported silver
Imported ·925 Silver

It was probably in 1907 that the Swiss authorities also realised that the sterling silver standard was 0.925 and not 0.935. British hallmarks for imported watches did not use the traditional lion passant of sterling silver, which English manufacturers objected to being used on foreign watch cases. Instead the decimal fineness ‘·925’ in an oval as shown here was marked. This made it abundantly clear to all for the first time that the standard of sterling was 0.925. or 92.5% fine silver.

I don't know when Swiss manufacturers stopped making watch cases in 0.935 silver. The highest legal standard in Switzerland was 0.875 and they were only making cases of a higher standard to meet British import requirements, which had no legal force in Switzerland, so there was no legal pressure on them to change. The difference in cost of the material between 0.935 and 0.925 would be very small, especially compared to the potential logistical nightmare of trying to make some cases in 0.925 and some in 0.935. The change could have been as soon as 1907, or it might have been as late as 1933 when the Swiss higher standard for silver was changed from 0.875 to 0.925, although even then of course 0.935 would have still been legal. The pressure was financial, and the likelihood is that existing stocks of 0.935 silver were used first, then replaced by 0.925 sometime soon after 1907.

In 1933 a silver standard of 0.925, the same as British sterling, was introduced in Switzerland, identified by a symbol of a duck. The bear and the 0.875 standard were discontinued, as was the semi-official standard of 0.935 and the three bears. The grouse continued as before to signify for silver of 0.800, which could not be imported into the UK. The traditional standard mark of the lion passant continued to be used on native British items, and is still used today although it is no longer a legal requirement.

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

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved. This page updated August 2018. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.