British HallmarksCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
I started my pages about hallmarking to document information about imported watches, which is not readily available in the standard references such as Bradbury and Chaffers. However, I realised that many people with a watch that they have perhaps been given or inherited don't have ready access to these standard works, so on this page I show some examples of the British hallmarks that were found in any watch cases that were hallmarked before 1 June 1907, and which continued to be used in British manufactured watch cases after 1907.
I can't (for copyright reasons apart from anything else) reproduce the information in Bradbury or Chaffers, but I hope the examples here will help you read the hallmarks in your own watch. If you want some help, don't hesitate to email me, but do try to send me a clear picture or sketch of the mark you need help with.
Please bear in mind that in this context “silver” means the element silver, number 48 on the periodic table. It does not mean something that is silver coloured or silver plated. In Britain it is illegal to describe something as silver unless it is principally composed of silver. Small amounts of alloy are allowed for practical reasons, but an item described as sterling silver must be at least 92.5% fine (pure) silver. Similar considerations apply to the word gold.
The principal use of a hallmark on silver or gold is to show the fineness of the metal; sterling or Britannia for silver, the carat fineness for gold, e.g. 18 carat. British hallmarks also indicate to within 12 months of when the item was hallmarked, and this is of great interest to collectors. The 12 month period in which the item was hallmarked is indicated by a "date letter" which were used in "cycles", A for a certain period, B for the next and so on. British assay offices all used different cycles of date letters, so to read a British hallmark date letter you must first identify at which assay office the item was hallmarked by identifying the assay office town mark. Then you must use a table of date letters appropriate for that office.
At first sight British hallmarking seems very easy to understand, but there are many traps for the unwary. For instance, London Assay Office cycles of date letters started in 1478, using the 20 letters a to u, excluding the letter j which didn't exist at the time. The Birmingham Assay Office cycles of 25 or 26 date letters started when the Birmingham office was founded in 1773, nearly 300 years later. So it is no wonder that their date letter cycles are different. And then you must bear in mind that most published tables only show date letters for silver; date letters punched on gold were different.
British Hallmarks on Silver
There are lots of examples of British hallmarks on silver on my British hallmarks examples page, but let's make a start with the hallmarks in the picture here, just to get a feel for what a set of British hallmarks looks like.
The first thing to note is that there are four distinct marks. A valid and legal British hallmark on silver or gold must always have at least these four marks. Sometimes there are additional marks to do with duty or Commemorative Marks stuck to celebrate major events, but the four marks described here are the absolutely essential ones.
Starting at the top the first mark is a walking lion with raised right forepaw. This is the “lion passant” which indicates that the silver is of sterling fineness. Below this is a leopard's head, which in this case is the “town mark” of the London Assay Office. To the right is the London “date letter” e, which shows that the item was assayed and hallmarked in 1860 or 1861. At the bottom is the “sponsor's mark” R.O in rectangular shield, the mark of Richard Oliver, first registered 16 February 1859. This mark shows under whose responsibility an item was submitted for hallmarking, it is not intended to show who made the item.
These marks are each explained in greater detail below, but please be aware of two important points. First, that British assay offices all used different cycles of date letters, so to read a British hallmark date letter you must first identify at which assay office the item was hallmarked and then use a table of date letters appropriate for that office. Second, that the sponsor's mark shows under whose name an item was submitted for hallmarking, its purpose is not show who made an item.
From 1975 the legal requirement for the fineness mark changed from the lion passant on sterling silver to a millesimal mark, i.e. 925, which is sterling silver expressed in millesimal form. It is still possible to ask the assay office to strike the traditional lion passant mark but this is no longer a legal requirement. The assay office charge extra for striking this additional mark so it is not always done, but I like to see the lion, the most recognised of marks for over 470 years, so I have the full set of traditional marks struck on my work. The lion passant was introduced in 1544 in the reign of Henry VIII and I like to think that if King Henry walked into my workshop today he would recognise the all hallmarks on my work apart from the 925.
British Hallmarks on Gold
London Hallmarks for 1883 to 1884 on 18 Carat Gold: Note shape of date letter shield. Click image to enlarge.
9 carat gold
Because of the enormous cost of gold, most of the hallmarks that collectors find are on silver items. Very few private individuals have gold dishes or gold candlesticks in their homes, and for this reason the standard reference books, Bradbury, Chaffers' etc. concentrate on hallmarks on silver. This applies particularly to the date letter.
Watches are unusual in this regard, because gold watches are quite often purchased or inherited, and are often the only items of gold other than jewellery that a collector will ever see and own. As jewellery, apart from wedding rings, is almost never hallmarked, the hallmarks on gold, particularly the shape of the shield around date letter, are unfamiliar territory to most collectors who know about hallmarks. The tables of date letters found in most reference books show only the date letters and their shields that were impressed on silver items, although they don't tell you this. The same date letter was used on gold items, but the enclosing shield shape was different from that used on silver.
The larger picture here shows a set of hallmarks in an 18 carat gold watch case. There are five distinct marks, although two of them, the crown and the figure 18, are parts of one mark, the standard or fineness mark. The sponsor's mark AF is at the top, the date letter to the left, the leopard's head of the London Assay Office to the right, and the standard mark in the centre in two parts, a crown and the figure 18 signifying 18 carat gold.
When the 18 carat standard was introduced in 1798 it was marked with a crown and the number 18. The lion passant remained as the fineness mark used on 22 carat gold from 1544 until 1844, which is potentially confusing in the case of silver gilt. After 1844 both standards were marked with a crown and either the number 22 or 18.
When the lower standards of 15, 12 and 9 carats were introduced in 1854 they were not marked with the crown. Their fineness marks were the carat and its decimal equivalent, i.e. 15/.625, 12/.5 and 9/·375. When the 15 and 12 carat standards were replaced in 1932 by the 14 carat standard, that fineness was marked with 14/.585. The smaller image here shows how 9 carat gold is marked, with a 9 and the decimal equivalent ·375.
From 1975 the legal requirement for the fineness mark changed from carats, e.g. 18, to millesimal, e.g. 750, which is 18 carats expressed in millesimal form; 18 / 24 = 0.750. It is still possible to ask the assay office to strike the traditional crown mark on gold, but this is no longer a legal requirement. The assay office charge extra for striking this additional mark so it is not always done, but I like to see it so I have a full set of traditional marks struck on my work, and they will strike the crown on 9 carat gold, which surprised me.
Note that the date letter "H" for 1883 to 1884 struck by the London Assay Office on 22 carat and 18 carat gold is surrounded by a rectangular shield with cut corners. This is different to the shield around the date letter used on silver items. The inset picture of the same date letter "H" from the table of date letters on silver in Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks shows the difference. The shield shape for the date letter used on silver is "shield" shaped , i.e. with a pointed base, curved sides and double concave top. The date letter in the 18 carat gold watch case is rectangular, which is the correct shape for a London Assay Office date stamp on 18 and 22 carat gold for letter cycle XXI . The shields used by the London Assay Office around date letters on 15, 12 and 9 carat gold during this cycle were round.
Caution about Date Letters
Note that each assay offices had its own unique cycles of date letters so you must use the correct one. Date letters span two calendar years because the punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which was usually about half way through the calendar year. This is often not explained and many “experts” don't seem to know. See also my note about the shields around date letters. Those on old may different from those on silver, particularly if they are London Assay Office hallmarks. Most guides only show shield shapes for date letters on silver. Also different shield shapes were often used for small items, and for watch cases. There is only one book that I am aware of, Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks, that shows the London Assay Office shield shapes used on gold as well as those used on silver, but not even this shows all the shields used on watch cases. You are welcome to email me via my contact page if you need help with a hallmark or date letter.
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Assay and Hallmarking
Let's now have a look at the four parts of a British hallmark in more detail. Watch cases made in Britain from silver or gold were by law subjected to "assay" (which simply means "to test") to determine the purity or fineness of the metal and, provided they are of the required standard, stamped with marks showing at least the following four things:
- Assay Office mark - showing at which assay office the article was tested and hallmarked.
- Standard mark - the tested and guaranteed minimum fineness of the metal.
- Date letter - a mark which shows when the item was marked.
- Sponsor's mark - a mark showing under whose name an item was submitted for hallmarking.
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Assay Office Marks
Each assay office has its own unique office or town mark to show where the item was assayed. The exception to this is the London Assay Office. It is often said that the leopard's head is the town mark of the London office, but this is not strictly true, only if struck with no other town mark does the leopard's head show that the item was hallmarked in London.
Amongst the most familiar town marks are:
- London - leopard's head (but see note below)
- Birmingham - anchor.
- Chester - upright sword between three wheat sheaves (garbs).
- Sheffield - a crown for sterling silver, and from 1903 a rose for gold.
- Edinburgh - a three towered castle.
- Glasgow - a tree with a bird, a bell, and a fish with a ring in its mouth.
- Dublin - a figure of Hibernia seated.
Note: In describing the leopard's head as the town mark of the London Assay Office I am following the practice of standard works such as Bradbury and Chaffers, but in reality the leopard's head was and remained the standard mark - the London Assay Office didn't have its own unique town mark. The leopard's head was struck along with the lion passant by the old offices of Chester, Exeter, Newcastle and York from 1720 for some time after the sterling standard was reintroduced. It was only the new offices of Sheffield and Birmingham that used the lion passant alone as the standard mark. So strictly I should say that when the leopard's head is found on its own without a separate additional town mark it can be inferred that the item was hallmarked in London.
The early form of the leopard's head looks suspiciously like a lion, because the medieval heralds term for a lion shown passant guardant, i.e. looking towards the viewer, was "leopart", which was used in the Act of 1300 by Edward I, which became rendered into English as "leopard". The depiction of this creature gradually changed over the centuries so that it eventually looked like a leopard.
From 1478 until 1821 the leopard was pictured wearing a crown, since then he has been without the crown or mane. The reason these were omitted is not known.
It might be thought strange that Birmingham, set in the middle of the England and about as far from the sea as you can get, would use an anchor for its symbol. This is said to go back to 1773 when silversmiths from Birmingham and Sheffield petitioned Parliament for their own assay offices so that they wouldn't have to send items to London to be marked. The petitioners held meetings in The Crown and Anchor public house off The Strand in London. Each town adopted one of these signs as its mark and they tossed a coin to decide which; Sheffield got the crown and Birmingham the anchor. From 1773 the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices were authorised to assay and mark silver. Birmingham was authorised to assay and mark gold in 1824, using the anchor town mark for both gold and silver. Sheffield was authorised to assay and mark gold in 1903 and then used two town marks - the crown for silver and the rose for gold. Use of the crown on gold was reserved for the standard mark of 22 carat gold
The emblem of Glasgow can be traced back to the legend of Saint Mungo, the founder and patron saint of the city of Glasgow.
After 1 June 1907 very different town marks were used for imported watch cases, which you can read about on my page about Import Hallmarks.
Leopard's Head Caution!
The leopard's head was the first standard mark, not a town mark, and it wasn't superseded by the lion passant when that came into use in 1544.
The London Assay Office did not have an office or town mark and, speaking technically, it never has. The leopard's head and the lion passant were both standard marks applied by the London Assay Office. If there is no town mark of another assay office, then it is implied that the item was hallmarked at the London Assay Office.
When the provincial assay offices were set up, each had a unique town mark to identify it, usually the arms of the town. This was stamped along with the leopard's head standard mark. After 1720 and the restoration of the sterling standard of silver, the lion passant and leopard's head were both marked by provincial assay offices as standard marks until the leopard's head fell out of use for reasons unknown.
Chester 1822 to 1823 with Leopard, Lion and Wheatsheaves
Image courtesy of and © Jacqueline C.
Until 1697 London was the only office that marked the leopard's head and lion passant on silver. However, when the Britannia standard was introduced the assay offices of Chester, Exeter, Newcastle upon Tyne and York were authorised to strike the marks of the lions head erased and the figure of Britannia on silverwares of the new standard. When the old standard was reintroduced in 1720, these offices were also authorised and required to strike the leopard's head and lion passant on sterling silver.
The mark of a leopard's head and lion passant without an additional town mark shows that the item must have been hallmarked in London at Goldsmiths' Hall, but the leopard's head and lion passant marks can also be found on silver marked at provincial English assay offices, when they are accompanied by a town mark.
The image here of a Chester hallmark for sterling silver. At the top is the lion passant, to the left is a leopard's head. The leopard's head was struck along with the lion passant by the Chester assay office with a crown from 1720 until 1822, and then without a crown from 1822 until 1839.
The sponsor's mark "T•A" in cameo with an elliptical shield was entered at Chester by Thomas Adamson of Liverpool. In the nineteenth century a Chester hallmark in an English watch case like this usually identifies the watch as having been made in Liverpool. Liverpool didn't have its own assay office so watch cases were sent from Liverpool to Chester, a distance of only about 20 miles, to be assayed and hallmarked.
The Exeter assay office struck the leopard's head with a crown until 1778, York struck the leopard's head with a crown until the 1850s and Newcastle struck the leopard's head with a crown until its office closed in 1884.
The reason why the provincial offices stopped striking the leopard's head standard mark alongside the lion passant is not known.
Since 1720 all English assay offices struck the lion passant on sterling silver. The Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices, authorised in 1773, never struck the leopard's head mark, their authorisation only specified the lion passant.
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Although hallmarks are very interesting in their own right and can tell us a lot about the history of an item, the original reason for hallmarking and the item of principal interest to the original purchaser was the fineness of the metal, i.e. how much gold or silver is actually contained in the alloy. This is indicated by the standard mark.
In this context the word standard does not mean normal; it refers to a certain level of quality in terms of fineness. The standard mark does not show the actual gold or silver content, but shows that it meets or exceeds a legally defined minimum proportion.
There are two standards for silver in Britain. Sterling silver, the most widely used, contains at least 11 ounces and 2 pennyweight of pure silver in the pound troy, making it at least 92.5% pure silver. The standard of Britannia, introduced in 1697 and still called the ‘new standard’, contains at least 11 ounces and 10 pennyweight of pure silver in the pound troy, making it at least 95.8333...% pure silver, usually rounded to 95.84%.
Gold purity is measured in carats, where 24 carat gold means pure gold and fineness is measured as a proportion of 24, e.g. 18 carats is 18/24 = 75% pure gold. It is important to note that these proportions are by weight. Because the density of gold is so much greater than other metals the proportions by volume are smaller. The first legal standard for gold in 1300 was 19⅕ carats, which was reduced to 18 carats in 1477 and then raised to 22 carats in 1575, which remains the higher standard to this day. An additional lower standard of 18 carats was introduced at the request of watchmakers in 1798, and then in 1854, again at the request of watchmakers, additional standards of 15, 12 and 9 carat were allowed. The 15 and 12 carat standards did not prove popular and by Order in Council in 1932 they were both replaced by a standard of 14 carat.
From the start of hallmarking in England in the year 1300 the standard mark struck on both silver and gold was the leopard's head. The early form of the leopard's head mark looks suspiciously like a lion, because this is in fact what it is. The Norman-French medieval heralds term for a lion shown passant guardant, i.e. walking and looking towards the viewer, was "leopart". This was stated in Norman French in the Act of Edward I in 1300 as une teste de leopart, which was translated into English as "the head of a leopard". In medieval English this mark was sometimes called the "Liberdes Hede" or "Liberd Heed", and sometimes, rather charmingly, the "Catte's Face".
The leopard's head is therefore properly the head of a lion looking towards the viewer, i.e. simply a lion's face. However, it has always been called in English the leopard's head, and the representation has gradually morphed over the centuries to match its name so that it now truly looks like a leopard. Early versions had a full mane and until 1821 the leopard was pictured wearing a crown, since then he has been without the crown or mane.
From 1544: the lion passant
In 1544 during the reign of King Henry VIII an additional standard mark was introduced, the "lion passant guardant", a lion walking with three paws on the ground and right forepaw raised, his head turned over his shoulder to face the viewer. In some later versions of this mark the lion is shown looking straight ahead with his head in profile to the viewer.
The origin of the lion passant mark is a mystery, it was not introduced by statute. It seems most likely that it was introduced when Henry VIII appointed by commission of the Lord Chancellor and Council two men, Matthew Dale and William Knight, to take charge of the London Assay Office as assay masters and touch makers. A struggle between the goldsmiths' and the King for control of the assay office ensued, and it appears likely that the lion passant was the standard mark applied under the direction of the King's assayers, but the leopard's head remained the standard mark applied by the goldsmiths' assayer, so both marks were struck on items marked at the London Assay Office.
During the period 1697 to 1720 sterling was replaced as the standard for silver wares, but not for coins, by the higher Britannia standard, indicated by the marks of a lion's head "erased", a heraldic term meaning that the head has a jagged rather than a straight edge at the neck line, and the figure of Britannia. This was to stop coins being melted down and used as raw material for silver wares. There was a shortage of silver caused by wealthy families replacing silver wares that had been lost during the civil war.
The Act of 1697 that introduced Britannia silver specified that silver of the new higher standard should be marked with ... the marks of the mystery or craft of the goldsmiths which instead of the leopard's head and the lyon shall for this plate be the figure of a lyon's head erased and the figure of a woman commonly called Britannia ....
Due to an administrative blunder, the Act omitted to authorise any assay office other than London to assay and hallmark Britannia silver. This left the provincial assay offices in limbo. Although it might have been argued that they were authorised to mark the leopard's head by ancient statute, the lion passant had been introduced in 1544 and there was no legislation to require or authorise its use by any office other than London. The 1697 Act made it quite clear that sterling was no longer a legal standard for plate and so the provincial assay offices of Chester, Exeter, Newcastle upon Tyne and York were prevented from assaying any silver until a new Act was "rushed" through in 1701, although Newcastle was omitted and had to be made the subject of a separate Act. These Acts authorised and required that the provincial offices strike the marks of the lions head erased and the figure of Britannia on silverwares of the new standard.
When the sterling standard was reintroduced in 1720, all assay offices, London and provincial, were authorised to mark the leopard's head and lion passant on sterling silver as well as the lions head erased and figure of Britannia on silver of the higher fineness. The leopard's head was struck by the assay office of Chester with a crown until 1809 without until 1839, Exeter with a crown until 1778, York with a crown until the 1850s and Newcastle with a crown until its office closed in 1884. The reason why the provincial offices stopped striking the leopard's head alongside the lion passant is not known. The Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices, authorised in 1773, never struck the leopard's head mark.
The lion passant became the most widely recognised hallmark symbol because it was used by all of the English assay offices. Although the town mark, the date letter and the sponsor's mark all varied from place to place depending on which assay office was used, the same lion passant was always present on "good English silver", and also for many years on gold.
From 1544 to 1549 the lion struck by the London Assay Office was shown "passant guardant" and crowned. From 1550 to 1820 the London lion remained passant guardant, but without the crown. From 1822 the London lion passant was no longer shown guardant but instead with his head in profile, looking forward in the direction he is walking. Other English assay offices varied their depiction of the lion. At Birmingham he was passant guardant until 1875 and passant thereafter. At Chester he was passant guardant until 1822, passant from 1823 until 1883, and then passant guardant from 1884 again until the Chester Assay Office closed in 1962.
The lion passant was the legal fineness mark used on all sterling silver in England until 1999, and was also used on 22 carat gold until 1844, but not for the additional lower 18 carat standard introduced in 1798 which was marked with a crown and the number 18. The use of the lion as the standard mark on both silver and gold meant that silver gilt items could possibly be mistaken for gold, so from 1816 an additional sun mark was struck on 22 carat gold. This was discontinued in 1844 when the lion passant was replaced by the symbol of a crown and the number 22 as the standard mark for 22 carat gold. Since the year 2000 the legal standard mark for sterling silver is the ·925 symbol, but the lion passant can still be struck as an additional mark - for an extra charge of course - and I make sure that this traditional mark is struck on my hand made sterling silver buckles.
The standard mark for sterling silver used by the Edinburgh Assay Office was a Scottish thistle, Glasgow a lion rampant, and Dublin a harp crowned.
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The year denoted by the date letter can be confusing because before 1975, when the 1973 Act came into force, the hallmarking year did not run from 1 January.
The mark that is now called the date letter was introduced at the London Assay Office in 1478. It was a record of who was responsible for the assay of an item if questions later arose and was at first called the warden's or assayer's mark. For this reason it was changed each year when the new wardens were elected and thereby indicates the date when the item was assayed and hallmarked, although this was not its original purpose.
Prior to the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, the London hallmarking year commenced on 19 May, the Feast Day of Saint Dunstan, Dunstan was born at Glastonbury in about the year 925 and is the first recorded working goldsmith in England. He built a cell near the Abbey of Glastonbury containing a forge where he made censers and crosses, chalices and patens, as well as articles for domestic use. He successively became Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury. After his death on 19 May 988 he was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, canonised in 1029, and became the patron saint of all good goldsmiths. The London Goldsmiths' Company especially honoured St. Dunstan, subscribing towards the light of St. Dunstan in the Church of St. John Zachary, keeping his day as a holiday, and designating him in their records as "Seynt Dunstan our blessed Patron, Protector and Founder". patron saint of English gold and silversmiths. From the restoration of Charles II to the Monarchy in May 1660 until 1973, the London hallmarking year officially commenced on Oak-apple Day (the King's birthday), 29th May, but the actual date when the new letter was first struck was sometimes later by days, and even weeks, depending on when the new punches were accepted by the Wardens, the letter "s" causing trouble on several occasions because the there is no distinct lower case version of the letter s.
The letter j was invented in the 16th century as a variant of the letter i to allow finer nuance in the written word. This bit of obscure information can be useful if you come across a word like fjord (a partially submerged Norwegian coastal valley). At first sight most English speakers would stumble on this word, but just imagine the j as an i and the pronunciation becomes “fee-yord” - not exactly the same because the j sound is slightly different from the i sound, but it is close. And you can do vice-versa with i for j.
Why was j left out of the London date letter cycles? The letter j didn't exist before the 16th century, and didn't make its way into common English usage until the 17th century. The Goldsmith's Guild weren't going to change their ways when a new fangled thing like that came along. Even the hallmarking act of 1973, which did away with the London cycle ending in u and allowed the date letters to run up to z, didn't introduce the letter j into London hallmarks - still a bit too modern I guess.
The point of all this is that the date letter change is nearly half way through the calendar year! So an item marked by the London Assay Office with an a, which the table in Bradbury indicates is the date letter for 1916, could have been marked at any time from 29 May 1916 to 28 May 1917, or possibly even some time in June.
The date letters used by the London Assay Office to indicate the hallmarking year ran in sequences of 20, starting at the letter a and running up to u;, omitting the letter j;. Other offices used the full cycle from a to z.
See also my note about the shields around date letters. Those on gold may different from those on silver, particularly if they are London Assay Office hallmarks. Most guides only show shield shapes for date letters on silver. Also different shield shapes were often used for small items and watch cases.
Date Letters and Hallmarking Years
Date letter marks, also called the “assayer's mark”, show who was responsible for the assay and were therefore changed when new Wardens were elected. This was usually about half way through the calendar year, so a hallmark date letter refers to parts of two calendar years. For brevity, most tables of hallmark date letters show only the first year in which the date letter was used, but you need to remember that an item could equally well have been hallmarked in the first part of the following year.
Each assay office used its own cycles of date letters, which depended on when the office was set up and the date on which the wardens were elected, which is also when the date punches were changed. Because of this, date letter tables are unique to each assay office. You cannot use a date letter from one assay office to read the date of a hallmark struck by a different assay office.
- From the restoration of Charles II in 1660 until 1973 the London Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 29 May to 28 May the following year. I doubt that you will be looking at gold or silver from before the restoration, but then it was 19 May, the Feast Day of Saint Dunstan.
- The Chester Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 5th July from 1701 until 1839, then from 5th August until 1890, after which it ran from 1st July, neatly bisecting the calendar year. The Chester Assay Office closed in August 1962.
- The Birmingham Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June.
- The Glasgow Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June. The Glasgow Assay Office closed in 1964.
- The Edinburgh Assay Office hallmarking year ran from the start of October to September the following year. The new wardens were elected on Michaelmas day, 29 September. The new date punches were used from the first hallmarking day in October.
Date Letters Cautions
When you first pick up a book of hallmarks such as Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks, you might think that it is easy to use the tables to discover all that you need to know about a hallmark. This is not the case! Although such books are useful summaries, they are very condensed and cryptic. Hallmarking has an extremely long history and can be surprisingly complicated and difficult to interpret correctly. As a “for instance”, here are two things you need to be cautious about which most published works don't mention:
- The shapes surrounding date letters on gold may different from those on silver, particularly if they are London Assay Office hallmarks. Most guides only show surround shapes for date letters on silver.
- Because of the difficulty of making very small cameo punches with fancy details on the nose which form the surround, different (simpler) shapes were often used for small items and watch cases.
If you read the rest of this section, you will know more about the complexities and variations in date letters than many “experts”.
Date Letter Shields on Gold
London date letter "H" for 1883/84 from Bradbury, and same date on 18 carat gold
The picture here has superimposed at the top the entry from Bradbury of the London date letter "H" for 1883 to 1884. It also shows an "H" date letter mark on an 18 carat gold watch case for the same hallmarking year 1883 to 1884. But the shape surrounding the letter is different, so how can it be the same year?
The reason for this is that the shield shapes used on gold were often different from those on silver, but most reference books show only the marks used on silver.
Shield shapes were also different for different standards of gold. The date letter in this 18 carat gold watch case is rectangular, which is the shape used by the London Assay Office on the "higher standards" of 18 and 22 carat gold for date letter cycle XXI. The shields around date letters marked by the London Assay Office on the "lower standards" of 15, 12 and 9 carat gold during this cycle were round.
Why do most books only show the marks on silver? Most collectors of hallmarked plate collect silver, for the simple reason that items made from gold such as plates, spoons and cream jugs are virtually non-existent and extremely expensive. I expect that the only person who has a collection of gold plate is Her Majesty the Queen, and I doubt that she needs to consult a book to know about it. Watches and wedding rings are the only gold items most people will ever own or handle, and tables do not usually reproduce the date letters found on them.
There is only one book that I am aware of, Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks, that shows the London Assay Office date shield shapes for the higher and lower standards of gold in addition to those for silver for each cycle of date letters. Why did Jackson choose to list the different shield shape marks for date letters on all the standards of gold and silver? Well, Sir Charles James Jackson was, inter alia a barrister, and very thorough, which is why his book is regarded as the bible of British silver collecting.
There is a reasonably priced pocket version of Jackson's available that shows the different shapes of most date gold and silver letter shields. But note: only for London hallmarks.
The date letters shown in the tables in Jackson's are more reliable than those found in most reference books and online tables. Jackson took copies of date letters from real examples, although that usually means larger items of plate rather than small items like watch cases.
Even Jackson's doesn't show all of the variations in the punch marks. Punches were made in various sizes, and those for watch cases were at the smallest end of the range. The marks were combined in a single "press punch" so that they were all struck in one go using a fly press. The shields around the marks on the press punches used on watch cases were often different to those used on larger pieces of plate of the same metal. For instance, on silver instead of the base of the shield around the date letter having a small point it was rounded. This was most likely done because of the difficulty of making the point on a very small punch.
Birmingham Date Letters
Birmingham 1899 / 1900 hallmarks on a sterling silver watch case.
Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks on a sterling silver watch case.
Birmingham 1886 / 1887 hallmarks on a sterling silver watch case.
Some Birmingham hallmarks have surrounds for the date letter that are different shapes from those shown in tables, especially those used on watch cases.
The shapes for the Birmingham Assay Office date letter cycle from 1875 to 1900 shown in Bradbury's and Jackson's are round or rectangular. Bradbury notes that from 1872 to 1894 Birmingham date letters on silver are also found in a rectangle with cut corners. However, that is not the full story. The shield shapes used on watch cases during this period are usually shaped like a shield with a pointed base. Sometimes these have a flat top, sometimes cut top corners.
Two of the images here show Birmingham Assay Office (anchor) hallmarks for sterling silver (walking lion) with these different date letter shield shapes. The date letter with the flat top doesn't correspond to any Birmingham Assay Office date letter in Bradbury's or Jackson's and is a mystery. It must be from 1876 or later because the sponsor's mark A.L.D in cameo within a rectangular surround was first entered by the Dennison Watch Case Company on 20 April 1876. The date letter with cut corners at the top is for the Birmingham hallmarking year from July 1899 to June 1900.
However, not all the surrounds to Birmingham date letters during this period are shield shaped. The date letter “m” shown here for 1886 to 1887 found in a watch case has a rectangular surround with cut corners. This shape was probably chosen as being a better fit around the letter m than the shield shape would be.
The Birmingham Assay Office told me that the outline around hallmarks for watch cases are not shown in Bradbury, and that the punches used on watch cases often create different shapes. However, I have at least one example of a watch case with Birmingham hallmarks and the "k" of 1909/1910 that is the same shape as shown in Bradbury, so it appears that this was principally a nineteenth century practice as indicated by Bradbury.
It should also be noted that the representations of date letters found in most tables are not necessarily totally accurate, and that variations can occur simply due to the smaller size of the punches used on small items such as watch cases. The most accurate representations of date letters are found in Jackson's, which are taken from real examples, although that usually means larger items of plate rather than small items like watch case.
Birmingham Import Hallmarks
From June 1907, foreign items that were hallmarked in a British assay office were required to be stamped with import hallmarks to distinguish them from items made in Britain. Instead of the town mark of an anchor, the Birmingham Assay Office was identified by the sign of an equilateral triangle. This was surrounded by an an oval for silver or a rectangle with cut corners for gold. Instead of the lion passant, sterling silver was identified by its decimal fineness ·925.
The Birmingham Assay Office import hallmark for sterling silver in image here has the date letter “p” for 1914 to 1915 within a rectangular surround with cut corners and a flat base. This is different from the letters shown in Bradbury and others which have a curly pointed base for the surrounds of Birmingham date letters in the cycle from 1900 to 1924. This suggests that the Birmingham Assay Office, in common with other assay offices, used different shaped surrounds for date letters on imported watch cases.
The sponsor's mark JR in cameo within a diamond was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office under the name of John Rotherham of Rotherham & Sons. These hallmarks are in the Borgel case of an Electa wristwatch.
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To send an item to an assay office to be assayed, a person responsible for the item must first register their details with the assay office. The reason for this is pretty obvious - the office needs to know who to charge for their services and who to return the items to, and who to prosecute if a criminal offence has been committed. To facilitate this, the Assay Office requires that each registered person have a registered punch mark, called the “sponsor's mark”, which is unique to them. This usually consists of the persons initials, often set within a surrounding shape. If a person has the same initials as someone already registered, the surround of their mark will be made different so that the two marks can be distinguished. Every punch used to impress the sponsor's mark must be registered.
This mark is sometimes called the “maker's mark” by people who don't really understand its purpose and use. The sponsor's mark is the registered mark of the person under whose responsibility an item is submitted for hallmarking, who is not necessarily the person who actually made the item. This was first officially recognised in law in the 1738 "Plate Offences Act" but had obviously been practice for some time before then.
Even today and knowing the truth full well, the term “maker's mark” is often casually used by people at the assay offices, but the acid test is to ask them if they will guarantee that the registered sponsor actually made the item, and then they will explain that is not the purpose of the mark.
As an example consider the work of Paul de Lamerie, the most famous English silversmith of the eighteenth century. It is known that de Lamerie, in common with many other goldsmiths and silversmiths, often subcontracted work to a range of other workshops. He had the finished items marked with his registered mark before submitting them for assay and hallmarking. Although de Lamerie also had his own workshop in which some items were made, the presence of Paul de Lamerie's mark on an item of gold or silver does not show who made it, which might have been a subcontractor or workmen in de Lamerie's own workshop, and therefore it is clearly misleading to describe it as a "maker's mark".
There is more about this subject and some selected sponsor's marks at Sponsor's Marks.
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Plate Duty Mark
If a watch case was hallmarked between 1784 and 1798 there will be a fifth mark, a plate duty mark of the reigning sovereign's head showing that duty, a form of tax, had been paid when the item was hallmarked.
By the Act 6 Geo. I. c.11 in 1719/20, the first tax on silver plate of sixpence per ounce was imposed. This was called a “duty”. The duty on hallmarked was repealed in 1757/58 and replaced by an annual dealer's licence, to be paid by anyone dealing in gold or silver. In 1784 the duty was reimposed at 8s. per ounce on gold and 6d. per oz. on silver, increased to one shilling per ounce in 1769/97.
In 1797-8, by the Act 38 Geo. III. c. 24, both gold and silver watch cases were made exempt from this duty in order to enable English watch manufacturers to better compete with foreign made watches.
Although the duty was removed from watch cases in 1798, the requirement to purchase a plate dealer's licence remained for anyone selling watches with gold or silver cases. The requirement to purchase a plate licence to deal in silver or gold was abolished in 1882.
This exemption from duty for watch cases was continued until the repeal of the duty on plate. The duty mark shown between 1784 and 1890 in tables of hallmarks, such as in Bradbury and other standard references, is not found on watch cases.
The duty on all other types of gold and silver plate was abolished in 1890, and consequently the sovereign's head showing that the duty had been paid ceased to be impressed on any assayed articles.
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Commemorative marks are optional hallmarks stuck to celebrate major events such as a monarch's coronation or jubilee.
Two examples of such commemorative marks are shown here.
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 case was made by the Dennison Watch Case Company of Birmingham.
The second commemorative mark is in the case of a watch retailed by the London company J W Benson Ltd. The case has Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for 9 carat (·375) gold, the date letter "C" is for the Birmingham hallmarking year from 1952 to 1953.
The commemorative mark in this case is a bust of Queen Elizabeth, a coronation mark to mark her accession to the throne in 1952. This mark was struck by the Birmingham Assay Office in the hallmarking years 1952 and 1953, that is the Birmingham date letters C and D. The case was made by the Dennison Watch Case Company of Birmingham.
NB: Although these two examples of commemorative marks were struck by the Birmingham Assay Office, all the assay offices in Britain were authorised to strike the same marks, although their hallmarking years and date letters are different.
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Foreign Mark ‘F’
You just possibly might find a letter ‘F’ in an oval shield like the one shown here signifying Foreign manufacture if the watch case was imported and hallmarked between 1867 and 1887. I have never seen one of these marks in a watch case so if you do find one, please let me know - don't get it mixed up with an "F" date letter which will have a different shaped shield around it, remember that this F mark will be in addition to the date letter. After 1 January 1888 imported watch cases were no longer allowed to be marked with the usual form of British hallmarks, so this mark was no longer applicable either.
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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 among many was Wilsdorf & Davis, a company founded in London in May 1905 to import and wholesale Swiss watches, which later became Rolex. 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 September 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 watches have been stripped of their gold cases over the centuries.
In late 1916, further restrictions on imports of precious metals were introduced by Royal Proclamation under Section forty-three of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876. In November, importation of jewellery and all manufactures of gold and silver other than watches and watch cases was prohibited. This was followed shortly afterwards by a revision in December, which prohibited the importation of gold, manufactured or unmanufactured, including gold coin and articles consisting partly of or containing gold; all manufactures of silver other than silver watches and silver watch cases, and jewellery of any description.
Note that the wording changed from allowing, as exceptions, the importation of gold and silver watches and watch cases, to only silver watches and silver watch cases. The importation of gold watches and gold watch cases was prohibited for the remaining duration of the war.
Because of the high rate of duty, and then the outright ban on the importation of gold watch cases, companies started to import bare Swiss movements and have them put into gold cases made by English companies such as the Dennison Watch Case Company, already established in Birmingham for the manufacture of gold, silver and gold plated (rolled gold) watch cases. However, the opportunity presented by the duty, and then the outright ban on imports of gold cases, resulted in a number of other manufacturers not previously engaged in manufacturing watch cases to begin to manufacture specifically gold watch cases and bracelets.
Silver watches were not so affected by the McKenna duties, and their import was never banned, 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 for this reason, although Dennison continued to make cases for imported American movements. 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.
In August 1916 the Horological Journal reported that “... some Swiss gentlemen are interested in a scheme for starting a factory in Birmingham for the manufacture of watch cases. Premises have been taken, machinery installed and workmen have been obtained. The products of the factory will be modelled on Swiss lines. The avoidance of the heavy import duties is, no doubt, the cause of the enterprise.” The identity of this watch case factory is not known.
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 directly from Switzerland to other countries. One such was Wilsdorf & Davis, incorporated in London in 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!
The McKenna war duties, and the outright ban on importation of gold watches for the final two years of the war, 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 continued levy of duty especially affected gold cases and gave a significant price advantage to British manufacturers of watch case that continued for many years.
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 wheat sheaves 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 of an acorn and oak leaves 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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Punches, Shields and Escutcheons
Marks such as a sponsor's mark or the walking ‘lion passant’ are usually rendered in "cameo" or "relief". To make the mark the metal around the letter or shape is pressed down by a punch and the letter or shape itself remains at the original surface level, standing out in relief against the metal that has been pressed down. The shape formed by the nose of the punch as an outline around the mark is called the "shield", or sometimes the "escutcheon".
An alternative form of punching is called "intaglio" or "incuse". The shape of a letter or mark is simply pressed or cut into the surface of the metal. This type of mark often has no shield, although sometimes the punch also presses or cuts a shield around the letters or mark.
Cameo and Incuse Punches and Marks
AC: Antoine Castelberg incuse mark
AB: Arthur Baume cameo mark
The images here shows the two types of marks, and how the punches for impressing them.
- The cameo punch is cut away so that the initials are created in relief (cameo) by pressing down the metal around them. The outside shape of the nose of the punch forms the shield around the initials. This is called a cameo mark.
- The intaglio or incuse punch presses the shape of the initials into the metal. Sometimes a shield is also made, as shown in the picture, which is also pressed into the metal. This is called an incuse mark.
The shield shapes around cameo marks, and around incuse marks if they have them, are an important part of the sponsor's mark. This applies to all the parts of a hallmark, but is especially important for sponsor's marks where there are lots of similar sets of initials that must all be unique punches. For instance, when I registered my sponsor's mark at the London Assay Office I found that someone with the same initials, DBB, had already registered their mark with a rectangular shield, so I chose to have a shield with angular ends as shown in the picture, which makes this mark unique to me.
Note that the shield shapes around date letters were often different, simpler, on small items such as watch cases, because it is more difficult to make a fancy shaped small punch. Hallmarks in watch cases were made by ‘press punches’. These had all the separate hallmarks; town mark, standard mark and date letter, combined into one punch that was applied using a fly press. This gives the layout of the hallmarks a regular appearance, which forgers often did not understand or replicate.
Blurred or ‘Rubbed’ Marks
Faint marks that are difficult to read are described as blurred or "rubbed". This is often thought to be the result of years of polishing, but the most substantial rubbing took place as the case was being finished after hallmarking.
The punching of hallmarks at the assay office often caused considerable distortion to the case and so, after hallmarking, watch cases needed "rectification" to straighten out distortions caused by the punch and polish out any scratches. If the polisher was not paying attention or left the work on the rotating buff for a little too long, a punch mark in gold or silver, which are relatively soft, is easily rubbed or blurred. Anyone who works with silver or gold knows this from experience.
Sometimes the marks were none too clear when they were stamped. The punches used to stamp the marks wore down a little bit each time they were used, and eventually the mark they made was nothing like as crisp as when the punch was new. Because punches were expensive they continued to be used until they had worn down to the point at which the mark was no longer clear.
Shield Shapes Generally
The shields around date letters are maintained for one cycle of date letters, i.e. A to U for the London Assay Office or A to Z for most of the other offices. For the next cycle the case and the font face of the letter is changed, for example from upper case sans-serif letters to lower case serif letters. The shield shape is also changed for each cycle to make it even more unique.
Different shield shapes were sometimes used for the date letters on gold and silver. This often causes confusion because often only the shield shapes for date letters used on silver are shown in most reference books. There is more explanation about this at Cautions about Tables of Hallmarks.
Different shield shapes were sometimes used for the date letters of Import Hallmarks.
The shape of the shield of a sponsor's mark is very important because it is part of what makes each sponsor's mark unique. A sponsor's mark is a compulsory component of the hallmark and comprises the initials of the sponsor's personal or company name surrounded by a shield to form a unique mark. All sponsors' marks are unique and once allocated will never be re-issued to anyone else. When I wanted to register my sponsors mark I found that there was already a mark registered with my DBB initials. By choosing a shield shape with angled ends as shown in the picture, I was able to create a sponsor's mark that was unique to me. Bear this in mind when you are looking at a sponsor's mark, the shield shape is just as important as the letters.
London Hallmarks, Date Letter 1839/1840, Earlier Leopard
The photograph of the London hallmarks shown here has a date letter which is a "Black Letter" capital "D". This is the date letter for the London Assay Office hallmarking year from June 1839 to May 1840. Date letter punches were changed at the London Assay Office when new wardens were elected at the end of May, so the London hallmarking year ran from June to May of the following year.
The leopards's head is uncrowned, which shows that the hallmarks were applied after 1821. The appearance of the leopards's head mark is particularly badly designed and looks rather like a jug-eared monkey. William Chaffers was very scathing about this mark, saying that it looked more like a half-starved cat than a lion.
Jackson's “Silver & Gold Marks” shows that punches like this were used from 1822 until 1836, when a much more "leopard like" head for the date letter cycle that began in June 1836. However, for some reason that is not explained, the jug-eared monkey style punch was used for the years between June 1837 and May 1840, after which the more leopard-like punch was used.
The tables in Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks do not show the different leopard's head used between 1837 and 1840 and, looking at Bradbury's and the leopard's head stamped here, you could easily be misled into thinking that the date must be 1836 or earlier.
The sponsor's mark in the image, LP in cameo within a rectangular surround, was entered by Lewis Phillips, a London watch case maker first registered at the London Assay Office 27 November 1838, this mark registered 13 May 1839.
Examples of British Hallmarks
There is nothing like looking at a few examples to give you an idea of what to look out for when you are trying to read a set of hallmarks. There are lots of examples on my British hallmarks examples page.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated July 2022. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.