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Straps for vintage fixed wire lug trench or officer's wristwatches.

Blog: The Great War and Gold Cases

Date: 10 March 2020

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. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.

This section is about duties levied on imported gold watch cases during the Great War, which stimulated the production in England of gold cases for imported Swiss watch movements. It is difficult to know which page this should go on; should it be on the page about British Import Hallmarks, the page about British Hallmarks or the page about Foreign Watches with British Hallmarks? Being unable to decide I have put it on all three. The marvels of server-side scripting!

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

The Great War and Gold Cases

Before the Great War (1914 - 1918) London was used by many Swiss companies as the route by which they could access the large market of the British Empire, through subsidiaries or branch offices in London with English speaking staff.

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 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 tax. The duties included motor vehicles, musical instruments and cinematograph film. It was 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 tax, many Swiss companies switched to importing bare movements into Britain and having them put into gold cases by English companies such as the Dennison Watch Case Co..

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

To avoid paying import duties on watches that were not destined for sale in Britain, many Swiss companies started exporting them directly from Switzerland to British colonies and overseas territories, bypassing Britain and the British import tax. One of the companies that was affected was the Rolex watch company, which before the war was entirely based in London. As a result of the import tax, Hans Wilsdorf at first set up an office in Switzerland, and then later moved the Rolex headquarters and main operations there. If it hadn't been for that tax, Rolex today might still be a British Company!

Silver watches were not so affected by the tax because the cost of the case made up a much smaller proportion of the total cost of the watch, so it was not worthwhile getting them cased in Britain. Silver 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.

These import duties continued after the Great War had ended. The case back in the picture here with Chester Assay Office Hallmarks for 1938 to 1939 shows that it 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 hallmarks in this case are Chester Assay Office marks for a British made 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.

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 March 2020. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.