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Case Marks: Marks in Watch Cases

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved.

This page is principally about hallmarking. A hallmark is a legally mandated mark applied by an independent testing authority that shows the fineness of precious metal; gold, silver or platinum. Not all marks on watch cases are hallmarks! For instance, a mark could be a be manufacturer's trademark, and there are is no such thing as an American hallmark.

Precious metal (gold and silver, and more recently platinum) objects have by law been tested and marked in England since at least the year 1300, and since 1478 had to be taken to Goldsmiths' Hall in London, from which the term “hallmarking” originate. Other assay offices were later opened in centres where goldsmiths worked. The fineness of the metal is tested to make sure it meets legal requirements, and then it can be stamped with a hallmark. In addition to the fineness, hallmarks show where and when an item was hallmarked, and under whose name it was submitted.

This page helps you to make a start on reading the hallmarks in your watch case by identifying in which country it was assayed and hallmarked. You are then directed to another page with more detailed information.

If you want to get a book about British hallmarking, Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks published by the Sheffield Assay Office is a long established reference. Make sure that you get a 2014 or later edition, because only those contain correct information about British import hallmarks applied to watch cases.

Be aware that most published tables of British hallmark date letters are only for British made sterling silver items. Different date letter punch shapes were often used on items made from gold, and after 1907 sometimes on imported gold and silver items. see Cautions about Hallmark Tables.

There is a lot of information on this page and I know it can be difficult to take it all in; if you are struggling to understand the hallmarks in your watch case please ask me for help via my contact me page.

I don't make any attempt here to cover manufacturer's trademarks. If you want to identify a trademark, an invaluable resource is Mikrolisk.

Background to Hallmarks and Case Marks

The testing (assay) and hallmarking of gold and silver items in Britain goes back to the year 1300. At first the wardens of the Goldsmiths' company would visit guild members workshops and stamp their work with the mark of the leopard's head. In 1478 the first permanent assayer was appointed and items had to be taken to Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and marked, the origin of the term "hallmarking". A system of variable letters, changed each year when new wardens were elected, was introduced to identify when, and therefore by whom, an item had been assayed. At first this was called the "assayer's mark" but is now commonly known as the date letter.

Because the date letter punches were changed when new wardens were elected each year, which took place part way through the year, hallmark date letters span two calendar years. This is not noted in most tables of hallmarks, which only show the year when the punch was first used. But please remember that an entry of, for example, "1914" really means 1914 to 1915.

Gold and silver watch cases submitted for hallmarking at a British assay office had first to be stamped with a mark identifying the person submitting the work, using a punch that had been previously registered at the assay office. Swiss watch cases were required to be assayed and hallmarked from 1880 but the identities of Swiss watch case makers are poorly documented before 1925, after that date all Swiss gold watch cases had to be stamped with a mark that identifies the maker.


NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin article November/December 2014.
Click this link to DOWNLOAD D15975

There has never been a system of hallmarking in America. Watch cases made in America carry marks stamped by their makers that were not legally mandated or controlled until 1906 when the National Gold and Silver Stamping Act required an accurate purity mark. These are not hallmarks; they depend to a large extent on the manufacturer's honesty. American watch cases usually carry the maker's name and trade mark. It was not until 1961 that the American government mandated that jewellery manufacturers include a mark indicating the maker. Many American watch movements were imported into Britain and cased with British made watch cases which, if they are gold or silver, carry British hallmarks.

In Britain gold or silver watch cases, wherever they were made, should always have been assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office before sale. British laws on hallmarking were enacted long before watches were even invented! Foreign made watch cases were no more exempt from the law than British made cases, but hallmarking of imported watch cases was not enforced before 1907. There was a from a short period between 1874 and 1887 when a small proportion of foreign watch cases were hallmarked in the same way as British made watch cases, but apart from this most watches were imported into Britain either without hallmarks at all, or with hallmarks from their country of origin.

For a very quick guide to reading traditional British hallmarks, go to British Hallmarks: A Quick Guide.

Hallmarks on Imported Watches

Swiss made gold and silver watch cases were not hallmarked in Switzerland until hallmarks for watch cases were introduced by Swiss law in 1880. Before that date gold cases were usually stamped with their carat fineness by the case maker, and silver was marked with its millesimal fineness, usually 800, or sometimes just "fine silver".

British practice changed in 1907 when it was ordered that all imported gold and silver watch cases be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. From 1 June 1907 the assay offices were ordered to strike hallmarks on imported watch cases that were different from those struck on watch cases made in the UK. For instance the London Assay Office town mark for watch cases manufactured in Britain was a leopard's head, but the town mark used on imported watches became the zodiac symbol Leo on a crossed back ground in an oval shield.

An easy way to distinguish a British hallmark struck on an imported watch case after 1 June 1907 is to look at the town mark, the symbol that shows which assay office carried out the assay and hallmarking. The new town marks shown below were used from 1 June 1907 on imported watch cases to distinguish them from watch cases made in Britain.

London
Zodiac sign of Leo
Birmingham
Equilateral triangle
Chester
Acorn and two leaves
Sheffield
Zodiac 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

If it is a silver watch case another clear indication is that the silver standard is given as ·925 in an oval shield rather than by the traditional mark for sterling silver made in Britain of the lion passant, a walking lion with raised right forepaw.

You can read more about this on my page about British assay and hallmarking, or in my article published in the November/December 2014 NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin as shown here.

Articles in the NAWCC Bulletin are copyright and usually only available to NAWCC members. However, after a request from the archivist of the Incorporation of Goldsmiths, who looks after the historical records of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Assay Offices, the editor of the NAWCC Bulletin has allowed the article to be made publicly available and it can now be downloaded by clicking on this this link: DOWNLOAD. My research has also been incorporated in the latest version of Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks, you can read about this at Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks. I will be publishing some corrections and additions to my NAWCC article that I will make available as a download here.

The following sections illustrate some characteristic marks to help you identify the type of marks you might find in a watch case and then link to a page that goes into more details about those marks.

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Sterling silver import marks

British Import Hallmarks

After 1 June 1907 all gold and silver watches imported into Britain were required to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. They were stamped with new hallmarks that were intended to show that the item was imported and not of British manufacture. The picture here shows a set of London import hallmarks for silver. NB: For clarity this picture shows only the three assay office marks, the town mark, standard mark and date letter. It does not include the sponsor's mark, but a British hallmark must have all four marks, it is not complete and legal without a sponsor's mark.

Because the date letter punches were changed when new wardens were elected each year, which took place part way through the year in May of June, hallmark date letters span two calendar years. This is not noted in most tables of hallmarks, which only show the year when the punch was first used. But please remember that a table entry of, for example, “1914” really means 1914 to 1915.

The zodiac symbol of Leo ♌ was used to show that the item was imported and assayed and hallmarked in the London Assay Office, distinguishing it from native British silver items that continued to be stamped with the leopard's head. The symbol of Leo was not very well represented by the punch and, for some reason lost in the mists of time, was at first struck upside down as shown here. This was not corrected until 1950, from when the Leo symbol was stamped the correct way up.


9 Carat Gold Import Mark
Imported silver
Sterling Silver Import Mark

The mark ·925 in an oval shield was used on imported sterling silver instead of the traditional lion passant, similarly a decimal number in an oval shield was used to represent the fineness of Britannia silver ·9584.

The fineness of the legal standards of gold were shown in carats and decimals, as illustrated the picture of the import mark for nine carat gold. The first figure is a nine on its side, not a six. The ·375 is the decimal equivalent of nine carat: 9 / 24 = 0.375. The other legal standards for gold were represented similarly: (22 ·916), (20 ·833), (18 ·75), (15 ·625), (14 ·583) and (12 ·5).

In the same way that the symbol of Leo was introduced as a new town mark for the London Assay Office to use on imported items, other British assay offices used different town marks for imported items. Decimal fineness marks were used on imported gold as well as silver in place of the traditional British symbols. The date letters used on imported items were the same as those used on native items, and each assay office continued with its own unique sequence of date letters.

To go to my page about British import hallmarks click on this link: British import hallmarks.

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British Traditional Hallmarks


British Traditional Hallmarks on Sterling Silver

The marks shown here, the walking lion passant of sterling silver, the leopard's head, and a date letter, are traditional British hallmarks on silver with origins that go back to the year 1300 in the reign of King Edward I. The lion passant, the walking lion with raised right forepaw, was introduced during the reign of King Henry VIII, the king who had six wives. Gold items were marked with similar hallmarks, with a crown or numbers identifying the gold standard.

A valid and legal British hallmark in a nineteenth or twentieth century watch case must have four marks; sponsor's mark, town mark, standard mark and date letter. For clarity this picture does not include the sponsor's mark, but a set of British hallmarks is not valid without a sponsor's mark.

For a very quick guide to reading traditional British hallmarks, go to British Hallmarks: A Quick Guide.

British hallmarks like this were applied to all gold and silver items made in Britain, and they were also applied to some foreign watches between about 1874 and 1887 until the English watchmakers got this stopped. If you have such a foreign watch with native British hallmarks, you can read about this on Foreign watches with British hallmarks.

After 1 June 1907 all imported gold and silver watches were assayed and hallmarked in British assay offices but they were not marked with the traditional British hallmarks, instead new British import hallmarks were stamped on imported watches.

The leopard's head shown here, when used on its own, is the mark of the London Assay Office at Goldsmith's Hall. Other assay offices have their own "town marks"; symbols that show where the item was assayed and hallmarked. The town marks most often seen on English watches are the leopard's head of London, an anchor for the Birmingham assay office, and a sword between three wheatsheaves for the Chester assay office, most used by Liverpool watchmakers.

To go to my full page about British hallmarks click on this link: British hallmarking.

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Sponsor's Marks

Charles Nicolet
AGR Arthur George Rendell

In order to send any item to a British assay office to be tested and hallmarked, a person had first to enter their details and a unique punch mark at the assay office they wanted to use. The punch mark is usually the registered person's initials within a shaped shield. This is called the "sponsor's mark" and is one of the four parts of a legal British hallmark. The sponsor's mark was applied to each item before it was submitted for hallmarking, and can tell us interesting information about where a watch case was made, or imported a watch.

This mark is sometimes erroneously called the "maker's mark" due to misunderstanding its exact purpose and use. This can be very misleading at the best of times, and in the case of an imported watch it is just simply totally wrong. The term "sponsor's mark" should always be used, irrespective of whether the item is British or imported. The sponsor was the person who took responsibility for an item when it was submitted for hallmarking, making a legal declaration of where it was made and bearing the penalty if an item was found to be substandard. The mark was never intended to show who made an item; there was no requirement for a sponsor to be involved in any way in the manufacture of an item submitted for hallmarking and there has never been a requirement for the assay offices to know who actually made an item.

To go to my page about British sponsor's marks click on this link: Sponsors Marks.

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Swiss Hallmarks

Silver ·925 from 1933
Silver 0·925 from 1933
Swiss hallmarks from 1880
Swiss Hallmarks for Watch Cases from 1880
Left to Right: Gold 18, 14 carat, Silver 0·875, 0·800

Swiss hallmarks for watch cases were introduced in 1880. The hallmarks are hown here.

There were two standards for gold. The hallmark for 18 carat, 0·750, gold was the head of Helvetia, the female national personification of Switzerland or Confederation Helvetica. The hallmark for 14 carat, 0·583, gold was a squirrel.

There were two standards for silver. The hallmark for the higher standard of 0·875 was a rampant bear, a standing bear with raised forepaws. The hallmark for the lower standard of 0·800 silver was a grouse.

In 1888, in response to the British Merchandise Marks Act, the Swiss authorities introduced a higher standard of silver of 0·935 that was intended to be the equivalent of British sterling silver, the minimum standard of silver that the Act permitted to be imported. The Swiss bureaux de contrôle were authorised to assay this standard and hallmark watch cases that met it with a hallmark of three bears; one small bear above two large bears as shown in the picture here.

Three bears
Silver 0·935 Watch Case with Three Bears. Click image to enlarge.
Swiss Bears
Swiss Bear. Click image to enlarge.

Swiss Federal cross

In 1933 the fineness of the Swiss higher silver standard was raised to ·925. The punch mark of a standing bear for the higher silver standard was replaced by a duck.

Marks such as “Fine silver”, 800, or 875 often indicate a Swiss origin from before hallmarking of watch cases was made law in 1880.

French names of parts such "cuivre", "ancre", rubis or "spiral" indicate a Swiss of French origin. If the case is silver or gold and has no hallmarks it must be Swiss; French gold and silver watch cases carry French hallmarks.

The Swiss Federal Cross mark, sometimes accompanied by the word “Brevet” or an abbreviation thereof often indicates a Swiss patent.

To go to the page about Swiss hallmarks and other Swiss marks click on this link: Swiss hallmarks.

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Swiss Poinçons de Maître

Collective Responsibilty Marks

In Switzerland in the 1920s a system of responsibility marks called “poinçons de maître” was introduced for watch cases. Poinçon is pronounced with a soft c like "pwan-son" and means punch, so a poinçon de maître is literally a “punch of the master”. This system was introduced to provide traceability back to the case manufacturer for precious metal cases. It is always seen on gold and platinum watch cases after that date, but rarely on silver cases.

To make the marks relatively inconspicuous a system of the symbols shown here and registration numbers was used. When one of the symbols shown in the picture was stamped in a watch case, the XX or XXX was replaced by the registration number indicating the maker of the watch case.

To go to my page about Swiss poinçons de maître click on this link: Poinçons de Maître.

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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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German Crown and Sun or Moon Marks

German Halbmond und Reichskrone mark
German Halbmond und Reichskrone mark

These marks of the Half Moon and Imperial Crown, Halbmond und Reichskrone, on silver, or the Sun and Imperial Crown, Sonne und Reichskrone, on gold, are often seen on Swiss as well as German made watches. They could be stamped in Switzerland by the case maker and the watch might never have been anywhere near to Germany. For more on this strange arrangement see German Marks.

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Fake hallmarks: Click image to enlarge

Imitation or Fake Hallmarks

If you have a set of hallmarks that are stubbornly resisting your attempts to identify them, consider that they might possibly not be genuine. Hallmarks have been imitated and forged in the past, and no doubt will be in the future; you can't always trust everything that you see.

The marks here that look at first glance as if they might be British hallmarks; there is a leopard's head, a lion and a date letter. But these are not British hallmarks. They were stamped into a watch case with the intention of giving that impression and deceiving a potential purchaser into thinking that the watch is English.

How can you tell whether hallmarks are genuine or fake? These are pretty easy to spot because it has 0.875 fineness mark in an oval in the centre, a legal Swiss standard of fineness that corresponds to the Swiss bear mark that can be seen very faintly below the lion mark at the top. The 0.875 fineness is below the minimum British legal fineness for silver, which was and still is sterling silver of 0.925 fineness, and therefore this watch case could not have been legally be hallmarked in a British assay office so the three marks that look like British hallmarks are clearly fake. However, it is not always so easy and the only way to learn how to identify fake hallmarks is to look at lots of genuine examples and then the differences start to jump out at you.

I have provided a lot of examples of genuine British hallmarks on the page at British hallmark examples. There is also a page that shows examples of fake hallmarks at fake hallmarks.

But if you are still stuck, you are welcome to ask me for help via my Contact Me page.

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"Watch Case Makers of England" by Philip Priestley

Watch Case Makers of England 1720-1920

If you are interested in the sponsor's marks found in gold and silver watch cases, an invaluable reference is Philip Priestley's Book "Watch Case Makers of England 1720-1920." This book contains the results of painstaking research into the case makers of London, Liverpool, Prescot, Chester, Coventry, Birmingham and other provincial towns, and has extensive appendices of hallmarks to enable you to identify who entered a sponsor's mark for watch cases at the London, Chester and Birmingham assay offices.

The book doesn't only cover watch case makers of England, as its title suggests, but also records the sponsor's marks entered by watch importers such as Arthur Baume for Longines and Charles Nicolet for Stauffer & Co., and also sponsor's marks entered by assay agents such as Arthur George Rendell for Robert Pringle and Sons and George Stockwell for Stockwell and Company.

Philip has also written books on watch case sponsor's marks covering the earlier period of 1631 - 1720 and the watch case maker Dennison.

Philip passed away in March 2018. At the time he was working on the book "British Watchcase Gold and Silver Marks 1670 to 1970". This was completed by his widow and the editorial team of the NAWCC and is now available to purchase on line. It includes all the material of the two earlier books about watchcase marks, and a lot of additional information.

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American Hallmarks?

The term "hallmark" originated in 1478 when London gold and silver smiths were first required to take their work to Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and marked. Today it is used to mean a control mark applied to precious metals after assay (testing) by a legally authorised body that is independent from the manufacturer of the item. This provides a reliable indication of the fineness of the precious metal which is otherwise difficult for a purchaser to assess without specialised equipment.

There has never been an equivalent system of hallmarking in America and so there are no such thing as "American hallmarks". Watch case manufacturers stamped their own marks onto watch cases to show the fineness of the metal. The customer must either rely on the veracity of those marks or make their own tests. In the case of a well known watch case maker relying on the marks will be safe, but one must always be alert to the fact that the marks might not be what they purport to be: caveat emptor.

The US Code of Federal Regulations 16 CFR § 23.3 - "Misrepresentation as to gold content" contains the following "An industry product or part thereof, composed throughout of an alloy of gold may be marked and described as “Gold” when such word “Gold,” wherever appearing, is immediately preceded by a correct designation of the karat fineness of the alloy, and such karat designation is of equal conspicuousness as the word “Gold” (for example, “14 Karat Gold,” “14 K. Gold,” “14 Kt. Gold,” “9 Karat Gold,” or “9 Kt. Gold”)." This shows that an alloy of 9 Karat can be described as gold in the US, but as this is simply an example of how such an alloy is described it doesn't preclude an even lower fineness.

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German Marks

German Halbmond und Reichskrone mark
Half Moon and Imperial Crown, Halbmond und Reichskrone: used on silver
German Halbmond und Reichskrone mark
Sun and Imperial Crown, Sonne und Reichskrone: used on gold

Before 1871 German states were independent and Sovereign and decided their own laws. Each state, city state or city had their own stamps, or "Feingehaltstempel", for gold and silver. These were applied by the manufacturer of an item rather than in an independent assay office and should not be called hallmarks. The term "hallmark" originated in originated in 1478 when London craftsmen were first required to bring their work to Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and marked. It means that the item has been assayed and stamped (hallmarked) by someone independent of the manufacturer.

After the unification of the 39 sovereign German states into the German Empire in 1871, country wide laws began to be introduced. In 1884 the "Gesetz über den Feingehalt der Gold und Silberwaren" or "Act on the Fine Content of Gold and Silver Goods" was passed. In 1888 this law was revised. The law was implemented by the manufacturers who stamped their own products, there were no official independent German assay offices.

There were two minimum standards, 14 carat for gold and 800‰ (800 mil or 80% fine) for silver. The imperial crown, the Reichskrone, within a circle representing the sun ( Reichskrone und Sonne) was to be stamped on gold, and a crescent or half moon with the imperial crown (Halbmond und Reichskrone) was stamped on silver. The actual fineness of the metal was expressed in thousandths, and a mark identifying the company, or the trademark of the business, which stamped and guaranteed the marks.

German Sun and Reichskrone mark
German Sun and Reichskrone mark

These marks were stamped on imported items as well as German made items, so the sun and crown or half moon and crown can be seen alongside e.g. Swiss hallmarks such as the bear or grouse on Swiss items imported into Germany. The image here courtesy of Peter O. shows a German sun and crown mark alongside a Swiss 18 carat gold hallmark in a watch case back. The sun and moon mark was stamped by the Swiss case manufacturer after the case had been assayed and hallmarked in a Swiss Bureau de Contrôle. This is explained further in the following section. For the meaning of the small symbol of a hammer with a number on its head see Swiss Poinçons de Maître.

Not only in Germany!

It would be natural to think that these marks were only stamped in Germany. However, John Matthews observed that there are a significant number of Swiss watch cases in the UK, Scandinavia and other countries having both Swiss and German hallmarks with no evidence of their passage through Germany. He was informed by the Swiss authorities that for watch cases and jewellery in gold and silver intended to be exported to Germany, after they had been assayed and hallmarked in a Swiss assay office (Bureau de Contrôle) the Swiss manufacturer then could stamp them with the appropriate German mark.

In fact, there are no German official Assay Offices like the independent assay offices in Britain and Switzerland. In Germany the fineness stamps are applied by the manufacturer, who is legally responsible for their veracity. Because they were not stamped by an independent organisation, these German marks should not be called hallmarks.

This means that the presence of one of these German marks does not prove that an item has ever actually been in Germany. It is possible that the item, although obviously at one time intended to be exported to Germany, could have been directed to a different market after being stamped in Switzerland and never actually passed into or through Germany at all.

Pforzheim

Pforzheim, in the federal state of Baden-Wörttemberg in the southwest of Germany, has long been known known for its jewellery and watch-making industries.

The watch making industry of Pforzheim seems to have comprised companies that imported Swiss watches, or imported bare watch movements from Switzerland and put them into locally made cases. This reduced import charges, because watch movements were cheap compared to the cost of silver, and particularly gold, watch cases, which were expensive because of the intrinsic cost of the precious metals. The import duty on a watch in gold or silver case were much higher than on a bare movement. When stainless steel came into use for watch cases in the 1930s, this financial incentive was largely removed.

D.R.G.M.

D.R.G.M. or DRGM stands for Deutsches Reichs Gebrauchs Muster or 'German Reich Use Template', which was a German version of the British 'Registered Design'. It was used to register designs, that is the specific appearance of items, from 1891 to around 1945. A registered design differs from a patent in that it is what the item looks like that is registered, not how it works. In a patent, the specific implementation of the invention is not important, a registered design is almost exactly the opposite in that it is only what the thing looks like that is important.

D.R.G.M. 6392 was the reference of a celluloid watch protector, a sort of clear celluloid case that slipped over a watch to protect it from bumps and knocks – like today's mobile phone protectors.

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French Hallmarks

French Swan Mark
French Swan Mark

Since the Middle Ages over 5,000 different punches have been used in France to hallmark silver and gold. The huge number of different punches and the complexity of the French administration of hallmarking means that this is a massive subject that requires an encyclopaedia to cover it, which I am not going to attempt here.

One French mark that comes up quite often on Swiss watches is that of a swan or cygne. Even this mark is rather difficult to pin down. It was used for items that were not hallmarked in France in the normal way and so was principally used on imported items, such as Swiss watches imported into France.

The swan shows that the item meets the minimum French legal standard, which for silver was 800 millièmes or 800 parts per thousand (80% silver).

The owl in the second image is also a French import mark, used on gold. The symbol on the owl's chest identifies at which French assay office the item was tested and marked. The swan shows that the item meets the minimum French legal standard for gold, and that it is therefore legal to describe it as a gold item.

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Russian Hallmarks

In Russia before the revolution fineness was expressed in zolotniks, which was derived from the Russian for gold, zoloto, and which was also the name of a gold coin. There were 96 zolotos to a pound weight, and the “zolotnik number” is a ratio of this like carats, e.g. 56 zolotniks = 56/96 = 0.583, the fineness of 14 carat gold.

Silver watch cases are often seen stamped “84 0.875eq#, which refers to 84 zolotniks = 84/96 = 0.875 for silver. When this is seen in a Swiss watch case, often with the Swiss hallmark of a rampant bear, then the watch was made for the Russian market. The cases of Omega and Tissot watches often carry this mark, exports to Russia being a large part of their production.

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Polish Hallmarks

Poland appears to have started hallmarking gold and silver in 1920. A male head with a helmet was used for gold (zloto) and a female head covered with a scarf was used for silver (srebro). Three standards of gold were recognised, 960, 750 and 583. Three standards of silver were recognised, 940, 875 and 800.

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Watches with British Sponsor's Mark but No British Hallmarks

Sometimes Swiss watches are seen with with British sponsor's marks but no British import hallmarks. This is because the case was stamped with the sponsor's mark in Switzerland by the case maker but then not imported into Britain.

It was easy to for someone with a British registered mark to arrange for this to be stamped as part of the watch case manufacturing process, avoiding the need for the mark to be stamped later as a separate operation. This was done for watch cases that were intended to be imported into Britain, but the lack of British hallmarks shows that the importation never actually took place. The watches with these pre-stamped cases were sent directly from Switzerland to countries such as Canada and Australia.

The reason for this goes back to 1915. With the first World War (WW1) starting to impose a severe strain on the British economy, the Government imposed an ad valorem duty of 33.3% on imported luxuries, including clocks and watches, to conserve foreign currency reserves as part of the war effort. This meant that any watches imported into Britain, even if only for checking before subsequent export abroad, would be subject to this high rate of tax. Prior to this, many watches were imported to Britain before being re-exported to the Empire. Britain had large overseas territories at the time which were a big market.

To avoid paying the tax on watches not required for the British home market, many companies, including Wilsdorf & Davis, Rotherham and Sons, and Baume & Co., made arrangements to export watches direct from Switzerland to the British Empire, bypassing Britain and avoiding the high import duty. Because there was at least a possibility that watches ordered by these companies might end up being exported to Britain, cases were stamped with their sponsor's mark during manufacturing. If the watch was not imported into Britain it would carry the sponsor's mark but no hallmarks.

I have also seen cases stamped with the GS of Stockwell & Co. or the AGR of Robert Pringle & Sons but with no British hallmarks. Stockwell and Pringles acted as Assay Agents for a number of Swiss companies who did not have British based offices, so cases that they would have been responsible for having hallmarked if they were imported into Britain were likewise stamped with their sponsor's marks during manufacture.

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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 books such as Bradbury's 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.

The shield shapes around date letters 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 for watch cases.Here are a few things you need to be cautious about.

Date Letter Cycles

Date letter punches, originally called the 'assayer's mark', show who was responsible for the assay and therefore were changed when new Wardens were elected. This was part way through the calendar year, the end of May since the Restoration for the London Assay Office, the end of June for most other assay offices. The new punches were first used in June in London, July at other offices, 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 punch was used, but you need to remember that could equally well have been applied 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 a hallmark struck by a different office.

Date Letters Span Two Calendar Years

Most date letter tables give only the year in which a date letter punch was first used. Punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which was usually in May or June, so same punch was used over a period spanning two calendar years. For instance the "a" used first used by the London Assay Office in 1916 shows that the item was marked either in the later part of 1916 or the early part of 1917.

Date Letter Shields on Gold

London 1883/84 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, he was very thorough, and his book is regarded as the bible of silver collecting as a result. There is a reasonably priced pocket version available that shows the different shapes of most date gold and silver letter shields. But note: only for London hallmarks.

Further Date Letter Cautions

Birmingham Assay Office Hallmarks for 1877 to 1878
Birmingham Assay Office Hallmarks for 1877 to 1878
Birmingham P 1914 to 1915
Birmingham Assay Office Hallmarks for 1914 to 1915: Click to Enlarge.

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 likely because of the difficulty of making the point on a small punch, but might have been done to get even striking.

Some Birmingham hallmarks have different shield shapes for both the town mark and date letter from those shown in tables.

The shield shapes for the Birmingham Assay Office date letter cycle from 1875 to 1900 shown in Bradbury are round, but the actual shield shapes used on watch cases are triangular with a point at the base, and sometimes cut top corners. The image here shows a set of Birmingham Assay Office (anchor) hallmarks for sterling silver (walking lion) with one of these different date letter shield shapes. The date letter itself is the Gothic "c" of 1877 to 1878 - remember that date letter punches were used over two calendar years.

The sponsor's mark A.L.D in cameo was entered by the Dennison Watch Case Company.

The Birmingham Assay Office told me that the outline around hallmarks for watch cases are not shown in Bradbury and that watch cases often have different shield shapes. However, I have at least one example of a watch case with Birmingham hallmarks and the "k" of 1909/1910 that does have the same shield shapes as shown in Bradbury, so I think this was principally a nineteenth century practice.

The image of a Birmingham Assay Office (equilateral triangle) import hallmark for sterling ·925 silver has the date letter "p" in a rectangular shield 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 Birmigham date letters in the cycle from 1900 to 1924. This suggests that the Birmingham Assay Office used different surrounds for date letters on imported watch cases. The sponsor's mark JR in cameo within a diamond was entered by John Rotherham. These hallmarks are in the Borgel case of an Electa wristwatch.

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