Fake and Pseudo HallmarksCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
Sometimes marks in a watch case may look like British hallmarks when they are not. This can arise simply from a lack of familiarity with reading hallmarks, but sometimes the marks were obviously intended to look like hallmarks, which can be confusing. These are fake or pseudo hallmarks.
The reason for applying fake or pseudo hallmarks might have been to fool potential customers into thinking that a watch had a high-value gold or silver case when it didn't, or it might be simply to make a watch case look more impressive.
It is not possible to read these marks in the way that a British hallmark can be read, because they have no intrinsic meaning. They also cannot be relied upon as a guarantee that the case is made of the quality of gold or silver that may be suggested by the marks.
This page shows some examples of such fake and pseudo hallmarks and explains what marks them out as not genuine hallmarks.
Fake and pseudo hallmarks are easy to spot if you are used to looking at genuine hallmarks, the individual punches are often the wrong shape or design or are applied in the wrong pattern. Although British hallmarking seems at first glance to be a simple matter, the number of subtle changes to hallmarking that have taken place over its 700 year history made it difficult to imitate or forge successfully. There were no publicly available reference books or tables of British hallmarks until the Victorian era.
Imitation British hallmarks often do not include a sponsor's mark. This is because the forger didn't appreciate the role and importance of the sponsor's mark, and did not realise that an item will not be accepted at an assay office for hallmarking unless it carries a registered sponsor's punch mark.
The watch whose case back is shown in the image was sold by K. Serkisoff & Co, the general sales agent for Billodes in Constantinople. In 1865, Georges-Emile Favre-Bulle founded “Georges Favre-Jacot & Cie”. The first workshop was in the Billodes district of Le Locle; it may have been on the same spot where Breguet had his workshop 1793 to 1796. The first trademark registered in 1884 was “Billodes” with this name on a garter surrounding an heraldic coat of arms as seen here. In 1897 the company changed its name and the trademark "Zenith" was registered in Switzerland.
The case has Swiss hallmarks for 0.800 fineness silver (80% fine). The 0.800 fineness mark was stamped by the case manufacturer. The case was then assayed at a Swiss bureau de contrôle. The assay evidently showed that the silver passed assay because it was stamped with the capercaillie hallmark seen at the top of the image.
The four marks distributed in a circle around the central marks and that look somewhat like British hallmarks are fake.
- The mark below the 0.800 fineness mark is intended to look like the leopard's head of the London Assay Office. However, it looks unlike any of the leopard's head punches actually used by the London Assay Office.
- The mark to the right of the Billodes trademark is intended to look like the lion passant, the walking lion that denotes sterling silver. However, sterling silver is a minimum of 0.925 fineness (92.5% fine). It was, and is, illegal for a British assay office to apply the lion passant hallmark to this case because it is only 0.800 fine.
- The mark to the left of the Billodes trademark is intended to look like a British assay office date letter. A fake "U" date letter appears in many of the fake hallmarks on this page.
- The fourth mark above the Billodes trademark, which looks like a card with two spades, is a poor attempt to fake a sponsor's mark. British hallmarks must have a minimum of four marks, which must include a sponsor's mark. An item cannot be accepted for hallmarking without a sponsor's mark, which shows under whose responsibility it is submitted for hallmarking. Makers of fake marks often do not understand this so they apply a random fourth mark like this.
The position of the capercaillie is evidence that all the other marks were present before that mark was struck. Normally it would be struck closer the 0.800 fineness mark, but the number of marks already present meant that there was little choice but to strike it where it is. Serkisoff & Co might have asked for the fake British hallmarks to be put onto the case during manufacture if they thought they would appeal to the Ottoman market and make the watch seem more valuable. English hand made watches were known to be expensive and the purpose of the fake British hallmarks may have been to give the idea that the watch was one of these. The 0.800 fineness mark was plain to see, but since sterling silver was denoted by the lion passant without a numerical fineness, many people would not realise that this case could not possibly be sterling silver.
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Crown and Lion
Sometimes not a lot of thought appears to have been put into marks that were meant to look like hallmarks in order to impress prospective customers.
The two marks here, a crown and a four legged creature with a long tail, are in the lid of a hunter case of an American Watch Co. Waltham pocket watch dating from 1879. Because there are only two punch marks rather than the minimum of four required for a valid and legal British hallmark, these marks are clearly not hallmarks.
British hallmarks used the crown as part of the standard mark on gold, but only on 22 and 18 carat gold along with the number of carats, e.g. a crown together with the number 18 for 18 carat gold. The crown was never struck on its own as in the image, and the design of the crown mark in the image is unlike the crown used for British hallmarks. The lower standards of gold such as 15, 12 and 9 carat gold did not have a crown as part of the hallmark, they were marked with the carat and decimal fineness only, e.g. 9 and ·375 for 9 carat gold.
The second mark is presumably intended to look like the British lion passant, the walking lion that was the standard mark for sterling silver. It doesn't look much like a real lion passant, it looks more like a long tailed sheep, and of course the lion passant of silver is never seen alongside the crown of the higher standards of gold like this.
Because it houses a Waltham movement, this case was most likely made in the USA. It is probably a nickel alloy and the marks were applied to make the case look more impressive than a plain case to a potential customer.
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Pseudo London Hallmarks : B&E
The marks in the case back shown here that look like British hallmarks are actually pseudo-hallmarks; marks that were intended to look like hallmarks to impress a prospective purchaser but in fact were struck by the case maker and are not hallmarks at all.
The mark to the left which looks like a cat's head with whiskers was obviously intended to look like the leopard's head of the London Assay Office. However, the design of the head and the shape of the surrounding shield have never been used by the London Assay Office or any other British assay office.
The mark at the top was obviously intended to look like the walking "lion passant" of sterling silver. The case looks yellow rather than silver - I assume that this is a colour cast in the photograph; if the case really is yellow the faker obviously didn't understand the use of the lion passant. Although the lion itself is heavily rubbed, again the octagonal shape of the surrounding shield has never been used by the London Assay Office or any other British assay office.
The third mark on the right was obviously intended to be a date letter and looks like a "Z". Until 1975, London Assay Office date letter cycles ran from a to u, omitting the letter j. Although many font faces and surround shapes were used over the centuries, the London Assay Office never used the letter Z.
The watch cases that I have seen with marks similar to these are mostly Swiss and I would hazard a guess that the watch this case came from is also Swiss. Unfortunately the incuse B&E mark is not recorded in any of my references.
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Rose Thistle Clover : Fine Silver
These rose, thistle and clover marks are pseudo-hallmarks, which means that they were intended to look like hallmarks to impress a potential customer but in fact were struck by the case maker and are not hallmarks at all.
The watch with these marks is Swiss and the movement has a cylinder escapement - see Cylinder Escapement for more details. Watches with this type of movement were produced in millions in Switzerland in the nineteenth century. Switzerland was also the only watch producing country in Europe which didn't have a system of hallmarking until 1880. So putting these two facts together means that the watch was made in Switzerland before 1880.
The grade or fineness of "fine silver" is undefined; I suspect that it is what became in 1880 the Swiss higher standard of 0·875, denoted by a hallmark of rampant bear, although I have seen a case marked 0·900 and Fine Silver. For more details about Swiss hallmarking see Swiss Hallmarks.
The small circular mark above the pseudo marks is a wear mark or machining mark and means nothing.
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Swiss 0.875 Hallmarks and Fake British Marks
The marks here look at first glance as if they might be British hallmarks; there is a leopard's head, a lion and what looks like a date letter, although there is no sponsor's mark. This is a serious omission on the part of the forger; a case would not be accepted for hallmarking without a sponsor's mark. These are not British hallmarks. They were stamped in a watch case with the intention of giving that impression, and deceiving a potential purchaser into thinking that the watch is English.
The case is also hallmarked with the Swiss bear, this is quite a faint mark at the top under the lion. At first glance you don't see it, the other clearer marks catch the eye; perhaps this was the intention and the bear has been deliberately polished or rubbed to make it almost invisible. Once you notice it, it is clear what it is.
There is also a 0.875 fineness mark in an oval in the centre. This is a legal Swiss standard of fineness that corresponds to the Swiss bear mark. These hallmarks were introduced by the Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of December 1880. The 0.875 fineness is below the minimum British legal sterling fineness for silver, which was and still is silver of 0.925 fineness, and therefore this watch case could not have been legally be hallmarked in a British assay office.
Apart from the bear and the 0.875, another give away that these are not a British hallmark is that there are only three marks. There is no sponsor's mark. A sponsor's mark has been required as part of a valid and legal British hallmarks since 1363 so this item could not even have been submitted to a British assay office for hallmarking.
The importance of the sponsor's mark is often not recognised, mainly as a result of it being erroneously referred to as a "maker's mark" as if it were simply some sort of trademark or logo. It is nothing of the sort, it is a responsibility mark, and the person who entered it at an assay office was responsible if the item was found to be sub-standard. As the penalties in times past included forfeiture of double the value of the item, imprisonment with hard labour, or being paraded through the streets and having your ears nailed to the stocks, this was not something to be taken lightly. An item could not be submitted for assay and hallmarking without a sponsor's mark and its absence condemns the other marks as fake.
Finally, the three marks themselves bear little resemblance to British marks, or London marks as they are obviously intended to. The leopard's head is almost passable but looks too modern. The leopard's head is similar to the mark introduced in 1916, but the shield shape is wrong for that, it seems to be a combination of an earlier shield with a later representation. The marks intended to be the lion passant and the date letter bear no resemblance to any mark ever used by the London assay office. The lion is not a bad representation of a lion per se, but it is not the noble beast from the Royal standard walking with three paws firmly on the ground and right forepaw raised, and the "U" date letter is crude in comparison to the punches used by the London Assay Office.
This watch should not have been sold in Britain, the marks would deceive no one in the trade, who would risk prosecution if they displayed it for sale, and the supposed lion passant, the most recognised mark of all, would probably have raised suspicions in the mind of many members of the British public. It might have been intended for a foreign market where the fake British hallmarks might not be detected and the prestige of being apparently of English manufacture might allow it to command a higher price than otherwise.
The numerals on the dial of the watch with these marks are Turkish and there is no doubt that this watch was made for the Turkish market and was first sold in Turkey. Similar fake British hallmarks are also seen on watches with normal Arabic or Roman numerals that were obviously not for the Turkish market but were probably intended for markets where English watches were held in high regard but genuine British hallmarks not well known.
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Swiss 0.800 Hallmarks and Fake British Marks
Four of the marks here look at first glance as if they might be British hallmarks; there is a leopard's head, a lion, what looks like a date letter, and what might be a sponsor's mark. These are not British hallmarks. They were stamped in a watch case with the intention of giving that impression, and deceiving a potential purchaser into thinking that the watch is English.
The case also has Swiss hallmarks, which I have arrowed in red, at the top a capercaillie, and below the centre a 0.800 fineness mark in an rectangle, the legal Swiss standard of fineness that corresponds to the capercaillie mark. These hallmarks were introduced by the Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of December 1880. The 0.800 fineness is below the minimum British legal sterling fineness for silver, which was and still is silver of 0.925 fineness, and therefore this watch case could not have been legally be hallmarked in a British assay office.
The supposed hallmarks bear little resemblance to British marks, or London marks as they are obviously intended to. The leopard's head is unlike any punch ever used by the London Assay Office and similarly the marks intended to be the lion passant and the date letter bear little or no resemblance to any mark ever used in London. The lion is not too bad, but the "U" date letter is very crude.
The name Excelsior seen in the centre of the case back was used by Dent, a well known English watchmaker. However, I found at least 37 examples of the same name Excelsior registered as trademarks by Swiss, German and American watchmaking companies or dealers.
This watch could not have been sold in Britain, the silver is below legal fineness and the supposed hallmarks would deceive no one in the trade, who would risk prosecution if they displayed it for sale. It was clearly intended for a foreign market where the fake British hallmarks might not be detected and the prestige of being apparently of English manufacture might allow it to command a higher price than otherwise
The numerals on the dial of the watch are Turkish and the writing under the Excelsior in the back of he case is Turkish. There is no doubt that this watch was made for the Turkish market and was first sold in Turkey. It never went anywhere near an English assay office. Similar fake British hallmarks are also seen on watches with normal Arabic or Roman numerals that were obviously not for the Turkish market but were probably intended for markets where English watches were held in high regard but genuine British hallmarks not well known.
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Pseudo Hallmarks on Base Metal
The image shows a set of marks in a nickel case that seem to have been intended to look like British hallmarks. There is a set of four marks, the minimum requirement for a valid and legal British hallmark since 1544, and they are arranged in approximately the pattern of a British hallmark.
The word "Swiss" below the marks doesn't automatically mean that they are fake British hallmarks. Before 1888 it was legal for foreign made watch cases to be hallmarked in a British assay office, and some Swiss made gold and silver cases were, particularly between 1874 and 1877. But this is not such a case and the marks are not British hallmarks.
Two of the marks do look quite like parts of a British hallmark. The letter "o" on the left looks like a British hallmark date letter, and the pair of initials in a rectangular shield look like a sponsor's mark. However, the two star shaped marks at the top and left bear no resemblance to any genuine legal British or Swiss hallmark.
Although I can't be sure from an image, I think that this case is probably nickel or nickel-silver. Base metals such as nickel and nickel-silver not only didn't need to be hallmarked, they couldn't be hallmarked; there was no provision for hallmarking anything other than precious metals; at first gold and silver, and later platinum.
My conclusion is that the marks, which were clearly intended to look like hallmarks, are present in this watch case just to dress it up a bit.
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Fake or Pseudo 18 Carat Gold Hallmarks
The marks here that look somewhat like they might be British hallmarks on 18 carat gold might cause many to pause and wonder if they are genuine. There is what looks like a sponsor's mark, the initials "T H & Co" struck incuse. There is also the figure 18 with a crown over it, which looks quite like a real British 18 carat mark, and there are two other symbols that look like parts of a genuine British hallmark and make up the minimum set of four marks that have been required for a valid and legal hallmark since 1544.
However, these are fake marks that were clearly designed and made with the intention of fooling people into thinking that they are genuine British hallmarks.
How can you tell that they are not genuine British hallmarks? Well for starters the marks that is supposed to be the leopard's head of the London Assay Office looks wrong. When it was first introduced the leopard's head had a full mane and beard as this mark appears to have, but these were quickly lost and the leopard appeared with a shaved chin and various forms of crown until 1821, after which he lost his crown. This mark and its encompassing shield look like none of the various forms of the leopard's head.
However, the easiest to spot and the real clincher is the mark on the left that looks like a horse's head, which has no place in a British hallmark. Given that the other three marks were clearly intended to be the sponsor's mark, the town mark and the standard mark, this mark should be an alphabetical date letter showing when the item was assayed and hallmarked.
British hallmarking on the face of it seems to be a simple matter, but due to its evolution over centuries it is surprisingly complex and forgers often make a simple mistake that gives the game away. In this case the forger has made a good attempt and three out of four of the individual marks bear a resemblance to real hallmarks. But three out of four is not good enough, and the horse's head is a real give away that these are fake hallmarks.
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Fake Eighteenth Century British Hallmarks
The marks in the watch case backs shown here are interesting because although they are clearly fake marks intended to fool someone into thinking that they are British hallmarks, they include a duty mark. The duty mark was only struck on watch cases for a limited period, and the presence of a fake duty mark in this watch case might actually give a clue as to when it was made. The two images are from different watches, which is why the marks are rubbed to different amounts, but they are notably a virtually identical set of marks!
They are obviously fake because although they are laid out in a manner that resembles British hallmarks, the individual symbols bear no resemblance to genuine British hallmarks. The supposed sponsor's mark in the centre has a device that looks like a stag's antlers on top, which was not allowed. The supposed lion passant at the top of the first image looks more like a dead sheep than the noble beast from the English Royal standard. The capital K in a close fitting shield bears no resemblance to any official British mark. The supposed date letter "U" bears no resemblance to any date letter used by the London Assay Office.
The most unusual item in these sets of marks is the head and shoulders to the right of each. It is faint but visible in the first image next to the steel case catch spring. This is clearly intended to be a British duty mark, which was only impressed on watch cases between 1784 and 1798 as explained below. This suggests that the forger had a reasonable knowledge of British hallmarks, although not sufficient to make a good set of fakes. An alternative thought is that because the penalties for forging hallmarks convincingly were severe, perhaps these marks were deliberately made badly with the intention of saying that they would fool no one if the forger was arrested and the case came to trial. This seems unlikely though; it seems prima facie that the marks were intended to be taken as British hallmarks.
The Duty Mark
In 1784 duties were made payable on all gold and silver plate, and the sovereign's head was impressed as a fifth hallmark, to show that duty had been paid. Watch cases manufactured in the UK were made exempt from duty in 1798 (24 Geo. III c. 64, s. 5 "An Act to repeal the duties on gold and silver plate used in watch cases.") to enable English watch manufacturers to better compete with foreign made products. The duty on all gold and silver plate was abolished in 1890, and consequently the sovereign's head ceased to be impressed on assayed articles.
The duty mark shown in tables of hallmarks in Bradbury and other standard references was stamped on watch cases between 1784 and 1798. It continued to be impressed on gold and silver items up to 1890 but is not found on watch cases after 1798.
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Three Ladies' Heads
The three ladies' heads shown here are "pseudo hallmarks". They are not hallmarks and have no legal standing, but were meant to impress a purchaser. People knew that some good quality watches had hallmarked gold or silver cases, so would look down on a gold or silver case without any marks even if the retailer guaranteed that it really was gold or silver. So sometimes marks that looked like the mysterious ‘hallmarks’ were stamped into a watch case to give the customer comfort.
The watch has the name ‘M. H. Gridley, Logansport Indiana’ and a serial number on the dial. Gridley was born in 1818 and had a shop for “Clocks,Watches and Jewellery”. The same name, location and serial number are also engraved on the movement. In common with English practice at the time, it is the retailer's name that appears on the watch.
The movement looks like English work, probably Liverpool from large the size of the visible jewels, called "Liverpool windows". It was most likely exported as a bare movement and cased in the USA where there has never been a system of hallmarking, hence the pseudo marks.
Before the American watch industry got started in the 1850s, there was a big trade in exporting watches from Britain to the USA. Often movements were exported bare and cased in the USA, because the movements could not be made in the USA at the time, but cases could be made more cheaply there than English cases could be bought.
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Swiss 800 Hallmarks and Fake English Lion
The watch case in the image has Swiss hallmarks for 0·800 fineness silver, a large and a small punch mark of a capercaillie. If you click on the image you should get a pop up where these are indicated in red.
These Swiss hallmarks are valid and show that the case was hallmarked in Switzerland after 1880, and therefore the watch is Swiss.
The case also has a walking lion mark to the left of the central design that is obviously intended to look like the English lion passant of sterling 0·925 silver. Of course a lion passant standard mark could not legally be struck on 0·800 silver.
There is also a punch mark of a letter “K” to the right of the central design which is clearly intended to look like an English date letter.
Needless to say, these two marks, the lion and the letter, are not valid English hallmarks.
The person who stamped these marks evidently had a poor knowledge of British hallmarking because there is no assay office mark and no sponsor's mark. These two marks are essential components of a legal British hallmark as explained in my Quick Guide to British Hallmarks. This watch case does not have any British hallmarks.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2022. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.