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Hallmarking Imports

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved.

This page is about the hallmarking in Britain of imported gold and silver items in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other pages on this web site are principally about the hallmarking of imported watch cases; this page includes the laws and regulations about hallmarking of all imported gold and silver items, watch cases and any other items.

Note that only items that are made of solid precious metal are hallmarked. Items that have a coating of precious metal over a base metal core such as gold filled, rolled gold, electroplated gold, etc. are not included and cannot be hallmarked.

The 1738 Act “An Act for the better preventing Frauds and Abuses in Gold and Silver Wares” (12 Geo. II. c. 26), usually called “The Plate (Offences) Act”, was a very important Act. It pulled together and clarified the laws on hallmarking which had previously been scattered throughout various separate statutes. Although amended several times, it remained the legal basis for hallmarking in Britain until 1975.

As far as this page is concerned, the principal effect of the 1738 Act, in accordance with all preceding British legislation stretching back to the year 1300, was that it was illegal to sell any gold or silver items in Britain unless they were hallmarked. There was no mention of the place of origin of an item, it is very clear that all gold and silver items had to be hallmarked before they were “exposed to sale”.

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1842 Customs Act

In “Hallmark: A History of the London Assay Office”, John Forbes says that in 1842 the Manufacturing Silversmiths' Society expressed concerns that an anticipated reduction in import duties on gold and silver items would result in a flood of inferior foreign products entering the country because “there was no provision in law for hallmarking imported items.” This appears to be a strange statement, because the 1738 Act did not exempt imported gold and silver items from hallmarking and therefore this was implicitly required. However, at the time, imported gold and silver items were not being hallmarked, despite the law.

This situation had arisen because the medieval guild system restricted the privilege of having items tested and hallmarked (the privilege of the “assay and touch”) to members of the Goldsmiths' Guild, which gave them a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of gold and silver items. Before 1842 the amount of gold and silver imports had been small and a blind eye was turned to the fact that these weren't hallmarked, because although the power of the guilds was not what it had been, the Goldsmiths' Guild didn't want to open the privilege of hallmarking to anyone other than guild members.

In 1842 this was about to change as the move to free trade was about to cause the reduction or abolishment of duties on imported items, opening the country to much increased imports. This is what the Silversmiths' Society was worried about, and it resulted in a clause being inserted in the Customs Act of 1842 (5 & 6 Vict. c. 47 s. 59) which made it explicitly illegal to sell imported gold or silver items in the United Kingdom unless they had been assayed at a British office and stamped with the usual British hallmarks. To be hallmarked meant that the imported items had to meet the UK assay standards of 22 or 18 carat for gold, and Sterling for silver.

The reduction in duties didn't happen overnight; the corn laws which had kept the price of imported grains high since the Napoleonic Wars were abolished by Robert Peel in 1846. In 1853 William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, repealed or reduced duties on 250 classes of goods, and in 1860 he removed nearly all the remaining import duties. Whether the flood of foreign products entering the country that the Silversmiths' Society was so concerned about materialised is not clear, partly because the 1842 Act was not enforced. The Act had no provisions for ensuring that importers of gold and silver complied with it, and many were not even aware it existed.

One consequence of the 1842 Customs Act was that it implicitly conferred on importers of gold and silver items the right to enter their mark at an assay office so that they could send items for hallmarking. The Goldsmiths' Company could not oppose this, but they did not make it known.

Foreign watch manufacturers eventually got to know that they could legitimately send items in for hallmarking in Britain and, in circa 1874, some started to send watch cases to be hallmarked. Foreign manufactured watch cases were imported and sent to British assay offices to be marked with British hallmarks, then returned abroad to have the watch movement fitted. These entirely foreign made watches were then imported carrying British hallmarks, and it was said that the hallmark misled British people into thinking that the watch was made in England.

Although imported gold and silver watch cases should, under British law, have been hallmarked, this was not in practice necessary because they were allowed to be imported and sold freely at the time. It was also not without some cost and inconvenience. The English sterling silver standard was higher than the usual standard for continental watch cases, so cases that were to be hallmarked had to made from a finer and more expensive grade of silver, and cases had to be transported to England to be hallmarked, and then returned to their place of origin, usually Switzerland, to be finished and made into watches. The fact that it involved extra expense and cost, which was not strictly necessary when Swiss watches were already selling very well, suggests that the motives might have been to produce a demonstrably high quality product rather than to deceive the British public, but that was not how it was perceived by some in England.

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The Foreign Mark “F”

Foreign “F” Mark
Foreign “F” Mark

To answer concerns that items of foreign manufacture with British hallmarks could be thought to have been made in Britain, a requirement was introduced in the 1867 Customs Amendment Act (30 & 31 Vict. c. 82 s. 24) that an additional mark signifying Foreign manufacture, a letter “F” in an oval shield, be stamped alongside the usual hallmarks on all imported foreign made gold and silver items. If you are looking for this mark, be careful not to mistake a date letter for it, it is an additional mark.

The 1867 statute was later repealed by the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876 (39 &40 Vict. c. 36); but the requirement was re-enacted in the same words by the Customs (Tariff) Act 1876 (39 & 40 Vict. c. 35).

Few items from the 1870s are seen carrying the “F” mark. This is perhaps because importers were not keen to see their goods branded as foreign, but also because there was no effective mechanism to ensure that the law was complied with. In 1876 the Goldsmiths' Company issued a notice warning dealers that imported gold and silver items could not legally be sold unless they were of legal standard and had been assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. This had a small effect; Walter Prideaux, Clerk to the Goldsmiths' Company, remarked that some importers told him they were unaware of the requirement before this notice was issued. Many more remained ignorant of the law, or simply ignored it.

The Revenue Act of 1883 (46 & 47 Vict. c. 55 s. 10) changed all this by requiring that all gold and silver plate imported into Great Britain or Ireland be deposited in a bonded warehouse and not be released from bond until it had been hallmarked in a British assay office. The hallmarks were to be the usual British hallmarks, with the additional letter “F” signifying foreign manufacture. Importers couldn't get round this because it was enforced by the British Customs, and the appearance of many more items hallmarked from 1883 onwards that have the letter “F” shows that this requirement of the 1883 Act had an immediate effect.

It might be thought that this would also apply to imported watches with gold or silver cases, and indeed it should have, but the customs authorities treated watches as different from other gold and silver items and so they were inadvertently effectively exempted. There are foreign made watch cases with British hallmarks from this period, before the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act introduced new hallmarks for imported watch cases, but I have never seen one with the “F” mark and I don't believe that any exist.

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1887 Merchandise Marks Act


1887 Town Marks for Imported Watch Cases

London Hallmarks for Imported Watch Cases
Birmingham Assay Office Foreign Hallmark
Birmingham Assay Office “Foreign” Hallmark. Click image to enlarge.

English watchmakers raised strong objections to British hallmarks appearing on the cases of foreign watches, even though this was perfectly legal and should have been done all along. The English watchmakers claimed that it was being done so that British customers would be deceived and think that foreign watches were actually made in England, and therefore regard them more highly and pay a higher price for them than they otherwise would.

The introduction of the “F” mark to combat this was deemed a failure because it was insufficiently distinct from either the sponsor's (maker's) mark or the official date letter, and it was also easy for agents of foreign manufacturers to avoid the “F” by submitting items for assay without declaring that they were of foreign manufacture. Although this had been addressed for most imported items by the 1883 Revenue Act, the provisions of that Act were not applied to imported watch cases.

The concerns of watchmakers were addressed in the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act (50 & 51 Vict. c. 28). The Act required that a statutory declaration of the country of origin be made for all watch cases submitted for assay, and that the hallmarks stamped on foreign made watch cases be completely different to the normal UK hallmarks. Note that this Act was specific to watch cases only, it did not apply to other imported items of gold or silver.

An Order in Council made in December 1887 implementing the requirements of the Act came into force on 1 January 1888. New town marks shown in the upper part of the figure here were introduced for the assay offices to stamp on foreign made watch cases. For example, the London Assay Office mark of the leopard's head mark was replaced on imported items by the sign of Phoebus, a radiant sun's head.

The Order in Council also introduced a new and completely different style of composite cameo hallmarks as shown in the second part of the figure to be used for foreign manufactured watch cases, with the word "Foreign" prominent across the centre. The idea was to make it impossible to obliterate or remove the word foreign without this alteration being obvious.

The traditional standard marks of a crown for gold and the lion passant for sterling silver were not used. For gold the fineness was indicated by the carat and decimal fineness, e.g. 18 and ·75 as shown on the cruciform punch design. Silver of legal standard fineness (sterling or Britannia) was indicated simply by the octagonal shape of the punch mark.

The effect of these new hallmarks, very different from the normal UK marks and with the prominent word "Foreign" in the middle, was to stop immediately foreign manufactured watch cases being sent for British hallmarking, as effectively as if the wording had been "Foreign muck" - which is probably what it was intended to imply! Very few watch cases received the “Foreign” hallmarks; two rare examples can be seen at Foreign Hallmark.

It was still implicit in British law that gold and silver watch cases should be hallmarked in a British assay office, but the 1887 Act contradicted this without repealing it by allowing watches to be imported if their cases had hallmarks from their country of origin. This enabled watches with gold or silver cases to be imported without having the composite cameo hallmark with "Foreign" across the middle if they carried Swiss Hallmarks or recognised hallmarks from another country.

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1904 and 1906 Hallmarks for Imported Plate

The 1887 Merchandise Marks Act introduced entirely new British hallmarks specifically only for imported watch cases. In 1900 British manufacturers of gold and silver items other than watch cases began to strenuously demand the same protection from foreign competition.

On 28 June 1900 a deputation from the Birmingham Jewellers and Silversmiths' Association, and members of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Trade in London and Sheffield, was received at the Board of Trade in London. Speaking for the deputation, Mr. E. T. Pendleton (Birmingham) said that the British hallmark was looked upon by general public as a sign of British workmanship, and that the letter “F” that was applied to foreign manufactured items was inadequate because it was could easily be confused with the initials of the firm making the goods, or with the official date mark. The deputation therefore suggested the desirability of hallmarking foreign plate and jewellery with the distinctive Assay marks that were ordered to be used on foreign manufactured watch cases by the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 and which had effectually stopped unfair competition in the sale of foreign watches in Britain.


1904 Town Marks Adopted from 1887 Marks

The Board of Trade was not initially sympathetic, but in 1904 the "Hall-Marking of Foreign Plate Act" (4 Edw. VII. c.6.) gave effect to the request. The Act specified that any imported items that were hallmarked in a British assay office should be marked in such manner “as His Majesty may determine by Order in Council” so as readily to distinguish whether it was made in Britain or imported from foreign parts.

The use of an Order in Council was to enable a principle to be established by statute, an Act of Parliament, but the precise details of its implementation to be determined by the Government. This enabled changes to the details to be made at a later date without requiring a further Act, which is what happened in 1906 when some problems were discovered with the hallmarks specified in 1904. The Act also specified that, for the first time, the origin of articles submitted for hallmarking must be stated in writing. An exemption from this was made for items sent for hallmarking under the provisions of the Revenue Act 1883, which were already known to be imports.

The subsequent Order in Council specified that from 31 October 1904 the assay office town marks that had been defined in 1887 for hallmarking imported watch cases (e.g., the sign of Phoebus for London) were to be used on all imported gold and silver items. The combined hallmark specified in the 1887 legislation, with all the separate marks and the word "Foreign" in a single cameo hallmark, was not required. The individual marks were to be separate, in the same way as traditional British hallmarks, and the potentially derogatory word “Foreign” was omitted.

Imported silver
Imported Sterling Silver

Because they were not used as part of a composite mark, each cameo punch produced a shield shape around the mark. Town marks on gold were surrounded by a square shield with cut corners, on silver an oval shield was used.

Numerical values were specified for the fineness mark so that the crown for gold and the lion of sterling silver would not be used on foreign plate. For gold the carat value together with its decimal equivalent was marked, for silver items the decimal equivalent of the standard was marked. E.g. 18 carat gold was to be marked 18 and .75, sterling silver was to be marked ·925 in cameo with an oval surround as shown here, the equivalent to the lion passant struck on British made sterling silver items.

Some of the 1887 town marks for imported items were found to resemble existing trademarks, so in 1906 an Order in Council defined different town marks to be used on imported items by the London, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Dublin assay offices; the marks for Birmingham, Chester, and Edinburgh remaining the same as before. The London Assay Office mark became the sign of the constellation Leo, which looks like an omega symbol, on a cross in an oval shield for silver and square for gold. The Glasgow Office mark became two opposed block letters "F" prone. The Birmingham Office symbol became an equilateral triangle. These changes came into effect from 29 May 1906 for all assay offices except Sheffield and Glasgow, where the order took effect on 1 July 1906.


London
Sign of Leo

Birmingham
Equilateral triangle

Chester
Acorn and two leaves

Sheffield
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 Items from 1906

The first import hallmarks stamped by the London Assay Office had the symbol of Leo upside down. This was not corrected until 1950, from when the Leo symbol was stamped the correct way up as shown above.

The 1904 Act and consequent Order in Council, and the 1906 Order in Council that altered the town marks, did not repeal or alter the sections of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act that applied to watch cases, or the Order in Council that defined the hallmarks that were to be applied to foreign manufactured watch cases from 1 January 1888. This meant that watch cases were still by law required to be marked in accordance with the 1887 Order in Council, including the composite marks with the word “Foreign” across the middle and with the town marks that had been found to be problematic when used on imported plate after the 1904 Order in Council came into force. The fact that these discrepancies were not noticed probably simply shows that no foreign watch cases were being sent for hallmarking at the time.

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1907 Assay of Imported Watch-Cases Act

In 1907 the provisions of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act regarding hallmarking of watch cases were replaced by the Assay of Imported Watch-Cases Act. In May 1907 the Board of Trade issued the following notice:

"All Gold and Silver Watch Cases imported into this country on and after June 1st next will be dealt with by the Customs as Plate within the meaning of Section 10 of the Revenue Act, 1883, which provides that Gold and Silver Plate shall not be delivered for home use until assayed, stamped, and marked according to law."

The effect of this was that from 1 June 1907 all imported gold and silver watch cases were assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office in the same way that all other imported items of gold and silver had been since 31 October 1904, using the town marks defined by the 1906 Order in Council.

Leo Upside Down

London Leo Symbol
London Leo Symbol. Click image to enlarge.

In 1907 the Assay of Imported Watch-Cases Act specified that all imported gold and silver watch cases be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. The town marks that each assay office was to use were required to be different from their traditional town marks. In particular, the London Assay Office mark was to be the Zodiac symbol of Leo as shown in the drawing here.

London 9 Carat 1914 / 1915
London 9 Carat 1914 / 1915. Click image to enlarge.
London 925 Silver 1910 / 1911
London 925 Silver 1910 / 1911. Click image to enlarge.
London 9 Carat 1915 / 1916
London 18 Carat 1915 / 1916. Click image to enlarge.

However, all the watch cases that I have seen with London Assay Office import hallmarks have the Leo symbol upside down, as shown in the three photographs here which are typical of watches in my collection.

One photograph has London import hallmarks for 18 carat gold with the date letter “u” for 1915 to 1916, one has London import hallmarks for ·925 Silver with the date letter “p” for 1910 to 1911, and the third has London import hallmarks for 9 carat gold with the date letter “t” for 1914 to 1915. Something I hadn't really noticed before is that the marks for silver and 9 carat gold are laid out in a T shape, whereas the one for gold is an inverted T.

In each one of these hallmarks the Leo sign is inverted or upside down.

London Leo Symbol
London Leo on Gold. Left as Specified, Right as Struck. Click image to enlarge.

This couldn't have been an operator error, because the three marks were made by a single “press punch”; a punch that combined three separate punches (assay office mark, standard mark and date letter) into one so that all three marks could be struck at a single blow. To apply the punch to the work a fly press, a variant of a screw press, was used. A horizontal flywheel was spun, turning a screw which drove the punch onto the work, when the energy stored in the flywheel was converted into the work needed to impress the mark. This enabled the large number of watch cases that were hallmarked to be marked quickly and neatly.

Because in watch cases all three parts of the hallmark were struck in a single blow, if the orientation of the date letter is ambiguous, e.g. it is not easy to tell which way up an "s" is, or a "u" might be an "n", the standard mark can be used to determine the orientation of the hallmarks.

So the Leo symbol wasn't struck upside down in error, it was the way that the press punch was made, and it appears this way consistently, year after year. Of course, I was not the first person to notice this. In his massive tome on hallmarking, Sir Charles Jackson remarks that “The first Leo marks were actually produced with Leo upside down.” The tables show that the Leo mark was turned the right way up from 1950! The same information is contained in abbreviated form in the pocket version. Unfortunately the reason for Leo being struck upside down appears to have been lost in the mists of time and I suppose that we shall never know why.

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1973 Hallmarking Act

The 1973 Hallmarking Act, which came into effect on 1 January 1975, had no significant effect on the hallmarking of imported items. Its most significant change was to make the date letter the same at all four assay offices that were then operating, London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh, and the period covered by a date letter the same as a calendar year. All four offices commenced hallmarking on 1 January 1975 with an italic capital date letter A.

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Common Control Marks

In 1976 convention hallmarks that feature a common control mark of a decimal fineness between the pans of a balance, were introduced particularly for use on items to be exported to convention countries. These did not replace the traditional hallmarks which continued to be used for items that were not intended for export.

Hallmarking Act 1998

The use of special town marks for imported items was effectively discontinued from 1 January 1999 by the Hallmarking Act Amendment Regulations 1998, leaving only the traditional town marks such as the leopard for London and the anchor for Birmingham as legal marks, so that there was no longer any distinction in hallmarking made between items made in the UK and those made abroad.

The assay offices have taken this as an opportunity to expand their business by promoting the hallmarking of items made outside the UK with traditional British hallmarks, and some have even opened offices abroad. This often comes as a surprise to people who are not aware of this change in hallmarking law.

Sheffield were the first assay office to mark offshore in Italy using the Rose town mark. The London and Edinburgh assay offices hallmark at Heathrow products taken straight off aeroplanes while they are in customs. The Birmingham Assay Office now hallmarks items in India using the anchor. In 2016 the assay master of the Birmingham Assay Office told me “At a conservative estimate we have marked 50 million imported articles with anchor hallmarks since 1999.”

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