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British Import Hallmarks

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Hallmarking Imported Watches
HJ July 2021 Hallmarking Imported Watches: Click image or link to access

Precious metal (gold and silver, and more recently platinum) objects have by law been independently tested for fineness in England since at least the year 1300, and since 1478 have had to be taken or sent to an assay office for this process. The first of these assay offices was at Goldsmiths' Hall in London, from which the term “hallmarking” originates.

This page is about a change to British law concerning the hallmarking of imported watch cases which occurred in 1907.

If you are interested in British hallmarking of imported gold and silver items in general, not just watch cases, there is a page about that at Hallmarking Imports.

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 hallmarked.

Since at least 1738 the cases of foreign gold and silver watches retailed in Britain should, by law, have been assayed and hallmarked with British hallmarks in exactly the same way as British made gold and silver cases, but the law was misinterpreted by both the customs and assay authorities. This made it effectively a choice of a foreign manufacturer or importer as to whether the cases of imported gold and silver watches were hallmarked in Britain. Only a very small proportion were, the majority of those between 1874 and 1887 which is explained on the page about Foreign Watches with British Hallmarks.

The introduction of British import hallmarks and how to read them is discussed on this page. If you would like to know more about why these hallmarks came into being, and the confusion surrounding the hallmarking of gold and silver items imported into Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an article about this was published in the British Horological Institute's Horological Journal (HJ) in July 2021, as shown in the image above. Normally this would only be available to members, but it was made an Article of the Month (AOTM), which the BHI encourages visitors to its website to feel free to download and share, so if you would like to read or download the article, click on the image or this link: Hallmarking Imported Watches.

In 1887 British law was changed to require that imported watch cases that were submitted for hallmarking at a British assay office be marked with new specific hallmarks that identified them clearly as imported items. The new hallmarks were unattractive and, since the law also allowed watch cases without British hallmarks to be imported, watch cases with these ugly and derogatory “Foreign” hallmarks are very rare. Most watches with gold or silver cases imported from Switzerland after 1887 avoided British hallmarking and had only Swiss hallmarks.

Foreign gold and silver items other than watch cases were given British hallmarks, with an additional "F" to signify foreign origin, until 1904, after which hallmarks similar to those introduced in 1887 for watch cases were introduced. Watch cases continued to be imported without British hallmarks until 1907, when the law was changed to require that from 1 June 1907 all imported gold and silver watch cases had to be hallmarked in a British assay office with “Import Hallmarks”.

Merchandise Marks Act 1887


Town Mark and Composite Cameo Marks used on Foreign Watch Cases between 1888 and 1907

In circa 1874 some Swiss gold and silver watch cases started to be hallmarked in English assay offices with British hallmarks. Although at first only a few watch cases were hallmarked like this, the number quickly increased. English watch manufacturers objected to imported watch cases having British hallmarks because, they said, people could be deceived into thinking the watch was of English make, so the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 specified new town marks to be struck as part of a composite hallmark with the word “Foreign” across the middle. These new hallmarks were to be applied to any foreign watch case sent to a British assay office to be hallmarked from 1 January 1888. This effectively put a stop to the practice of having imported gold or silver watch cases hallmarked in Britain.

These ugly and derogatory hallmarks are very rare. It is obvious why manufacturers would not want one of these marks on their work, but surely hallmarking was a legal requirement? Yes, it was, but the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act contained an error. It stated that gold and silver watch cases could be imported if the carried foreign hallmarks, although this was actually illegal under existing law which was later found to have precedence.

For a long time I thought that they had never been actually used, but there are images of three at Foreign Hallmarks. I have only ever seen Birmingham Assay Office “Foreign” hallmarks like this; if you ever see any such mark, please let me know.

In 1904 an Act of Parliament introduced new hallmarks for all imported gold and silver items that were not watch cases; the 1887 Act continued to apply to watch cases. The new marks for gold and silver items that were not watch cases included the town marks that had been specified for watch cases in 1887. Some of these town marks were found to resemble existing trademarks so were changed in 1906. The 1904 and 1906 laws regarding the hallmarking of imported gold and silver items did not apply to watch cases, because the section of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act that concerned hallmarking of imported watch cases was not repealed and remained in force until 1907.

Imported Watch Cases Act 1907

British law regarding the hallmarking of imported watch cases was changed by the Assay of Imported Watch-Cases Act, which required that from 1 June 1907 all imported gold and silver watch cases had to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. The 1907 Act repealed the section of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act that concerned watch cases, bringing them under the same requirements as the hallmarking of other imported gold and silver items, which had begun in 1904 and had been slightly modified in 1906.

The Town Mark identifies at which assay office an article was tested and hallmarked. In 1887 new town marks, distinct from those traditionally used, were introduced for hallmarks on imported gold and silver watch cases. These were used on imported watch cases from 1 January 1888 as part of a single composite cameo hallmark with “Foreign” across the middle, which are very rarely seen.

From 1904 the town marks specified by the 1887 Act began to be struck by British assay offices on imported gold and silver items that were not watch cases. Rather than the single composite cameo mark required for watch cases, these hallmarks followed the traditional pattern of separate punch marks. The traditional marks of a crown for gold and walking lion passant for sterling silver were not used on imported items, the fineness was identified by carats (for gold) and a decimal fineness mark, e.g. ·375 for 9 carat gold or ·925 in a cameo mark with an oval surround for sterling silver.

Some problems were discovered with the new town marks that had been specified in 1887, so in 1906 all the town marks except those for Birmingham, Chester and Edinburgh were changed by Order in Council. These hallmarks in the same format were used on imported watch cases from 1 June 1907, instead the rarely used composite cameo hallmark which, until then, had still been required under the 1887 Act for any imported watch cases that were sent to be hallmarked.

The town marks first struck on imported gold and silver items that were specifically not watch cases from 1906, and then onto watch cases from 1 June 1907, are shown here specifically for silver. Town marks on gold frequently have a square surround with cut corners, on silver an oval surround as shown was used.

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 on Imported Silver Watch Cases from 1 June 1907
Town Marks on Gold have a Square Surround with Cut Corners.

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 change in the law gave rise to an enormous amount of new and extra work for the British assay offices, because many thousands of watches with gold and silver cases were imported every year. Before 1 June 1907 these had simply imported and sold without British hallmarks. The Act also created work for the importers of watches, because cases had to be marked with a British registered sponsor's mark before they could be sent to be assayed and hallmarked. No item would be accepted at an assay office for hallmarking without a sponsor's mark, which showed who was legally responsible for submitting the item.

Logistics of Import Hallmarking

Some large and well organised companies such as Longines sent watch cases via their British agents, which for Longines' was Baume & Co, to be hallmarked and then returned to Switzerland to have movements put in. Other Swiss watch case manufacturers used the services of a British assay agent, the largest of which was the carrier Stockwell & Company whose “GS” sponsor's mark appears on may imported watch cases.

Stockwell & Company registered a large number of punches with their “GS” sponsor's mark. At least some of these, if not all, would have been sent to watch case makers in Switzerland. The case maker applied the "GS" sponsor's mark to the rough case during production, before the case was finished. Stockwell and Company then transported packages of rough cases from the case maker in Switzerland to the London Assay Office for hallmarking, and returned them afterwards. Stockwell & Company probably never even opened the packets to see what was inside. The Swiss case maker then finished the case - straightened the dents from hallmarking and polished it. The case was then sold to a Swiss watch manufacturer, who put in the movement and punched serial numbers in the case for their records. The completed watches were then sent to Britain for sale to British retailers.

Some smaller watch manufacturers found this impractical and so sent over complete watches. Before these could be retailed, the movements had to be taken out of the cases and the cases punched with the registered sponsor's mark before they were sent for hallmarking, after which the cases had to be polished to remove marks caused by hallmarking and re-fitted with their movements.


NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin article.
Click this link to DOWNLOAD D5087

Import Standard Marks

Imported silver
Imported Sterling Silver

One of the principal changes to the British hallmarks struck on imported silver items was that the lion passant, the walking lion that had been struck on sterling silver since 1544, was not allowed to be used. The lion was widely recognised by the public and thought to be a mark of British manufacture. Instead, imported items were marked with the decimal equivalent of the fineness of sterling silver, ·925 for 92.5% fine silver, in an oval such as the mark shown here.

British made gold items of the higher standards of 22 and 18 carat, and for its brief existence 15 carat, were marked with a crown and the decimal fineness. The crown was omitted on imported items of these standards. The lower standards of 14, 12, and 9 carat gold were only ever hallmarked with the numerical carat value and its decimal equivalent, e.g. "9/·375" for 9 carat gold which is 9 / 24 = 0.375 or 37.5% fine gold, which was continued on imported gold wares.

The new law regarding watch cases came into effect on 1 June 1907; this is discussed further at the bottom of this page and in my article published in the 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.

If you want details of British hallmarks used on watch cases before 1907, and which continued to be used on British manufactured watch cases after 1907, please refer to my British Hallmarks page.

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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Import Hallmarks

Most of the early wristwatches that I am interested in were imported after June 1907, simply because there were very few men's wristwatches made before 1907. The picture here shows the inside case back of a silver wristwatch imported in 1916 or 1917 with typical British import hallmarks. The principal differences between these and hallmarks on a British made silver item is that the town mark of the assay office is one of the new town marks, and the standard of fineness is indicated by the decimal equivalent of sterling silver, ·925, instead of the lion passant. The British import hallmarks are inside the red box. If you click on the image a larger version will pop up.

Marks on imported gold cases are very similar to marks in this silver case. The new town mark indicates the assay office, and the standard of fineness is given as the decimal equivalent of the legal gold standards. The crown that was used on 22 and 18 carat gold British items was not struck on imported items. The date letters for gold items have a different shaped surround to those on silver items, as discussed below.

Valid Hallmarks


Import marks - Click image to enlarge

A British hallmark of this period must have the four parts described below, although these are not always struck in the same order. If at least these four marks are not present, it is not a British hallmark.

The three marks stamped into watch cases by the assay offices were applied in one go by a combined punch in fly press, they are called press marks and that is why they are always in the same regular triangular pattern for each assay office. The sponsor's mark was struck separately by a single punch and could be just about anywhere. When you are looking at a hallmark make sure you identify all four marks. Reading from top left these marks in the case pictured are:

  1. The standard mark showing the fineness of the metal, in this case ·925 for sterling silver.
  2. The town mark showing where the article was assayed and hallmarked, in this case the zodiac symbol of Leo used by the London Assay Office on imported items. 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.
  3. A date letter showing when it was hallmarked, in this case the “a” of 1916 to 1917. 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. Please remember that an entry of, for example, "1914" really means 1914 to 1915.
  4. A sponsor's mark showing under whose name an item was submitted for hallmarking, in this case the initials "AB" in a rectangular surround with cut corners, the registered mark of Arthur Baume for Baume & Company. One sponsor's that is very often seen on imported Swiss watches is the "GS" of Stockwell & Company.

These four marks are discussed in more detail below. All four of these marks must be present in a valid and legal British hallmark.

The serial number and the case maker's trademark, if there is one, were applied in Switzerland. Unfortunately many watch cases don't have a maker's trademark, just an anonymous serial number. In this case we are lucky and the case has the mark of François Borgel. If the case was made after about 1924 and is made of gold or platinum, then there will also be an encrypted mark registered by its maker. See the section on Swiss hallmarks and Poinçons de Maître on the page about Swiss Hallmarks. Unfortunately very few silver watch cases are marked with Poinçons de Maître.

There may also be additional marks from the country of origin such as a bear rampant (standing on his back legs), and 0·935 (a Swiss standard for silver purity) which you can see in the case back of my grandfather's Rolex on my Rolex page. A Swiss law which came in to force in 1880 required that items made from precious metals should be tested and have Swiss hallmarks, and these are seen on items imported between 1880 and 1907. Most imported gold and silver watches after 1907 have only the British hallmarks. It appears that once the law requiring imported watches to have UK hallmarks was enforced, the Swiss makers stopped submitting them for Swiss hallmarking. There was no sense in paying to have items hallmarked twice.

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Town Marks

The ‘town mark’ identifies at which assay office an article was tested and hallmarked. It does not show where an item was made. British assay offices were ascribed a town mark by Royal Charter when they were founded. The London Assay Office has the mark of a leopard's head, the Chester Assay Office an upright sword between three wheat sheaves, the Birmingham Assay Office an anchor, etc.

Because these assay office town marks had been used on British items for hundreds of years, there was a concern that if they were struck onto imported items, the public might assume that the item was British, so from 1906 the town marks struck on imported gold and silver items other than watch cases were made different from those struck on items that had been made in Britain. This requirement was first applied to imported watch cases on 1 June 1907.

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 on Imported Silver Watch Cases from 1 June 1907
Town Marks on Gold have a Square Surround with Cut Corners.

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.

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 worth noticing 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 by a press punch that combined all three punches into one, if the orientation of the date letter is ambiguous, e.g. whether a "u" might be an "n", the standard mark can be used to determine the orientation of the hallmarks and therefore the date letter.

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.

Standard Marks

Imported sterling silver
Imported .925 Silver
9 carat gold
Imported 9 Carat Gold

A “standard” mark in the context of hallmarking does not mean standard in the sense of normal or usual, it refers to the standard of fineness of the precious metal. The principal standard for silver is sterling, which is 92.5% fine or pure silver, the rest being alloying elements that make the metal harder and more durable.

One of the principal changes to the hallmarks struck on imported silver items was that the lion passant, which had been struck on English sterling silver since 1544 and was widely recognised and thought by the public to be a mark showing English manufacture, was not struck on imported silver items. The crown mark used on the higher standards of English gold items was similarly not struck on imported gold items.

Silver

Imported silver items were marked with the decimal equivalent of the legal fineness in an oval such as the mark shown here. The decimal ·925 was used instead of the lion passant on sterling silver, the decimal ·9584 instead of the figure of Britannia for the higher "new" standard of Britannia silver. I have never seen this on a watch case and I doubt that any imported watch cases were made of Britannia fineness silver.

Gold

For imported gold items the standard marks show the carats and decimal equivalent, as shown here for 9 carat gold. The decimal equivalent of the purity is found by dividing the carats by 24, so for 9 carat the decimal equivalent is 9/24 = 0.375, which is 37.5% gold. From 1854 the gold standards allowed were 22 carats (·916), 18 (·75), 15 (·625), 12 (·500) and 9 (·375). The Dublin Assay Office only was authorised to also mark 20 carat (·833) gold. In 1932 the standards of 15 and 12 were replaced by a single standard of 14 (·585) carats, the others standards remaining.

Sponsor's Mark

To send an item to an assay office to be assayed, a person must first be registered with that particular office. The reason for this is pretty obvious - the office needs to know who to invoice for their services and who to return the items to. To facilitate this, each registered person has a registered sponsor's mark which is unique to them. This usually consists of the persons initials either incuse or in cameo within a surrounding shape, which are made into a punch that is used to stamp the sponsor's mark onto items.

Before use, every sponsor's mark punch has to be registered by the sponsor with an assay office, by making a mark with the punch on a sheet of lead or copper. Even if several punches are identical, each one has to registered. The records of the punch marks are kept by the assay office in case a question arises about an item, when the mark on it can be compared to the recorded punch marks.

Items have to be stamped with a sponsor's punch mark before they are even assayed, let alone hallmarked. It has been the law and practice since 1363 (the year 1363 that is, over 650 years ago) that an item will not be hallmarked unless it already bears the sponsor's mark. Today the assay office will hold your punch and stamp items for you if you wish. This is what I do. If the items fail assay they would still charge for punching the marks, but fortunately I have never encountered this, I buy my silver and gold from a reliable bullion dealer.

This mark is sometimes erroneously called the “maker's mark”, but this is misleading at the best of times and, of course, for an imported watch case it is completely wrong. The term “sponsor's mark” should always be used for this mark to avoid confusion.

If a person wishing to register a mark has the same initials as someone already registered, the surround of their mark will be different so that the two marks can be distinguished. The registered sponsor's mark is punched on to each item before it is sent for assay and hallmarking. If more than one punch is needed, because the are a lot of items to be marked, or because one wears out, then each individual punch must be registered.

The sponsor's mark is the registered mark of the person with a British address under whose name an item was submitted for hallmarking. On a Swiss made watch case there may also be the Swiss maker's mark, but a Swiss based sponsor would not be acceptable to a British assay office and therefore the sponsor must have a British address. You can look up details of sponsor's marks on my Sponsor's Marks page.

Date Letters

The year denoted by the so called "date letter" can be confusing because, until the 1975, the hallmarking year did not run from 1 January. This mark was introduced in 1478 and was at first called the “warden's mark” or “assayer's mark” because it identified who was responsible in the assay office at the time the assay was conducted. The of the date letter was changed each year when new wardens were elected. At the London Assay Office, after the restoration of Charles II in 1660, this took place on 29 May, the King's birthday. The new punches might then have been used on 30 or 31 May, but really this is splitting hairs and it is best to say that they were first used at the start of June. So an item marked with a Gothic “a”, which the table in Bradbury indicates is the date letter for 1916, could have been marked at any time from June 1916 to May 1917.

Each assay office had its own sequence of letters, which was different from all the other assay offices, depending on when the office first opened for business. The Glasgow hallmarking year ran from 1 July to 30 June the next year, evenly spanning two calendar years. The Glasgow office closed in 1964. The Birmingham office also changed its date letter with the annual election of the wardens on 1 July.

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. Remember that an entry of, for example, "1914" really means 1914 to 1915.

See also the sections below about Import Hallmark Surround Shapes and Cautions about using Tables of Hallmarks.

British and Irish Hallmarks

Both Glasgow and Dublin hallmarks
Both Glasgow and Dublin hallmarks: Click image to enlarge

Sometimes watch cases are seen with hallmarks from a British mainland assay office, and a second set of hallmarks from the Dublin Assay Office. The British hallmarks were struck first, the Dublin marks were struck later when the watch was imported into Ireland.

Before 1922 all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and hallmarks struck in any UK assay office were valid throughout the realm. In 1922 the Irish Free State separated from the United Kingdom and formed the republic of Ireland. As a result of this separation, Irish hallmarks were not accepted in the UK after 1923, and UK hallmarks were not accepted in Ireland after 1927. Because of this, watches imported into Britain and hallmarked in Britain, if sent to Ireland, were then also assayed and hallmarked in Dublin. This could of course happen with any British assay office mark, but Glasgow Assay Office hallmarks are the ones most commonly seen alongside Dublin hallmarks.

This was confirmed to me in 2013 by Mr Le Bas, at the time Assay Master at the Dublin Assay Office.

This happened more than you might think at first sight, because many Swiss manufacturers and watch importers had offices in London, and held stocks of hallmarked watches in England. If a retailer in Ireland ordered a watch, it was sent from England and assayed and assayed and hallmarked again in Dublin before sale, so one watches with both British and Irish hallmarks are not too unusual.

This seems to have happened more with Rolex watches than any other brand. The picture here shows a Rolex case with Glasgow and Dublin hallmarks. The Glasgow marks are three below the W&D sponsor's mark; the Glasgow Assay Office import mark of two horizontal capital letters "F" facing each other, the date letter “f” for 1928/29, and the imported sterling silver standard mark of ·925 in an oval. Below these Glasgow marks the Dublin import hallmarks have been squeezed in straight line; the Dublin Assay Office import mark of a boujet or water bucket, the ·925 standard mark and the date letter “Q” for 1932/33.

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Punches: Cameo and Incuse

Hallmarks are usually rendered in cameo or relief. To make the mark the metal around the letter or shape is pressed down by a punch and the letter or shape itself remains at the original surface level, standing out in relief against the metal that has been pressed down. The shape formed by the nose of the punch as an outline around the mark is the surround, sometimes called the escutcheon.

An alternative form of punching is called intaglio or incuse. The shape of a letter or mark is simply pressed or cut into the surface of the metal. This type of mark often has no surround, although sometimes the punch also presses or cuts a surround around the letters or mark.

The marks struck by an assay office, the hallmarks, are always in cameo. Sponsor's marks may be in cameo or incuse. The surround to a cameo mark is an important part of the mark. Incuse marks usually do not have a surround, but sometimes they have an incuse surround.

Cameo and Incuse marks
Cameo and Incuse Punches and Marks
AC
AC: Antoine Castelberg Incuse Mark
AB Arthur Baume
AB: Arthur Baume Cameo Mark

The images here shows the two types of marks, and how the punches for impressing them.

The surround shapes around cameo marks, and around incuse marks if they have them, are an important part of the sponsor's mark. This applies to all the parts of a hallmark, but is especially important for sponsor's marks where there are lots of similar sets of initials that must all be unique punches. For instance, when I registered my sponsor's mark at the London Assay Office I found that someone with the same initials, DBB, had already registered their mark with a rectangular surround, so I chose to have a surround with angular ends as shown in the picture, which makes this mark unique to me.

Note that the surround shapes around date letters were often different, simpler, on small items such as watch cases, because it is more difficult to make a fancy shaped small punch. Hallmarks in watch cases were made by ‘press punches’. These had all the separate hallmarks; town mark, standard mark and date letter, combined into one punch that was applied using a fly press. This gives the layout of the hallmarks a regular appearance, which forgers often did not understand or replicate.

Blurred or ‘Rubbed’ Marks

Faint marks that are difficult to read are described as blurred or "rubbed". This is often thought to be the result of years of polishing, but the most substantial rubbing took place as the case was being finished after hallmarking.

The punching of hallmarks at the assay office often caused considerable distortion to the case and so, after hallmarking, watch cases needed "rectification" to straighten out distortions caused by the punch and polish out any scratches. If the polisher was not paying attention or left the work on the rotating buff for a little too long, a punch mark in gold or silver, which are relatively soft, is easily rubbed or blurred. Anyone who works with silver or gold knows this from experience.

Sometimes the marks were none too clear when they were stamped. The punches used to stamp the marks wore down a little bit each time they were used, and eventually the mark they made was nothing like as crisp as when the punch was new. Because punches were expensive they continued to be used until they had worn down to the point at which the mark was no longer clear.

Surround Shapes Generally

The surrounds around date letters are maintained for one cycle of date letters, i.e. A to U for the London Assay Office or A to Z for most of the other offices. For the next cycle the case and the font face of the letter is changed, for example from upper case sans-serif letters to lower case serif letters. The surround shape is also changed for each cycle to make it even more unique.

Different surround shapes were sometimes used for the date letters on gold and silver. This often causes confusion because often only the surround shapes for date letters used on silver are shown in most reference books. There is more explanation about this at Cautions about Tables of Hallmarks.

Different surround shapes were sometimes used for the date letters of Import Hallmarks.

The shape of the surround of a sponsor's mark is very important because it is part of what makes each sponsor's mark unique. A sponsor's mark is a compulsory component of the hallmark and comprises the initials of the sponsor's personal or company name surrounded by a surround to form a unique mark. All sponsors' marks are unique and once allocated will never be re-issued to anyone else. When I wanted to register my sponsors mark I found that there was already a mark registered with my DBB initials. By choosing a surround shape with angled ends as shown in the picture, I was able to create a sponsor's mark that was unique to me. Bear this in mind when you are looking at a sponsor's mark, the surround shape is just as important as the letters.

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Import Hallmark Surround Shapes


Glasgow "U" in Oval: 1917/1918


Chester "Z" in Oval: 1925/1926
Birmingham P 1914 to 1915
Birmingham “p” in Square with Cut Corners: 1914/1915: Click to Enlarge.

The surrounds of British import hallmarks around the date letters are oval. This means that they are different from the surrounds around date letters of native manufactured silver items, which are the ones that are illustrated in reference books such as Bradbury's and other references.

This was no doubt done so that import hallmarks were also clearly different in this respect from the hallmarks applied to items manufactured in Britain. The date letters themselves were usually the same.

One of the pictures here shows a Glasgow "u" for the hallmarking year 1917 to 1918 in an oval surround in an imported silver watch case, together with a picture of the same date letter "u" from Bradbury, showing how it would appear on a native British manufactured silver item, in a square surround with a curly base.

The picture below of a Chester "Z" also shows an oval around the date letter, whereas Bradbury shows that a square surround with a curly base would be used on UK manufactured items.

Rather strangely, Glasgow didn't use an oval surround around the date letter of imported gold items, using the same shaped surround for the date letters on both imported and native gold items. I am not sure what the other assay offices did in this regard - if you have any evidence, please get in touch.

The image of a Birmingham Assay Office import hallmark (equilateral triangle) for sterling ·925 silver has the date letter "p" in a rectangular surround with cut corners and a flat base. This is different from the letters shown in Bradbury and others which have a curly pointed base for the surrounds of Birmigham date letters in the cycle from 1900 to 1924. I have at least one example of a watch case with Birmingham hallmarks and the "k" of 1909/1910 that does have the same surround shapes as shown in Bradbury. It is known that the Birmingham Assay Office used different surrounds for date letters on 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.

The other assay offices used the same date letter surrounds for both native and imported wares, with different surrounds being used for silver and gold as noted above.

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Selected Date Letters from June 1907

Note that the assay offices started their cycles of assayer's marks (date letter) in the year they were founded, so they are all different. The table below shows examples the different assayer's marks for imported items from 1 June 1907* for the offices most commonly encountered on imported watches, and some date letters which should also give you a stab at a date.

The date letters used by the London and Birmingham assay offices are quite easy to read, standard lower case serified letters pretty much as I have shown. But some of the Glasgow and Chester offices' letter forms from this period are so outrageous that you need to look in one of the standard references to have a chance of reading them. The picture here shows one mark that I struggled with; it is a Chester mark on sterling silver with the sponsor's mark for Rotherham & Sons. The date letter is actually the "Z" of the hallmarking year 1925 to 1926, but a mark that looks less like the letter Z would be difficult to imagine.

Because the date letter punches were changed when new wardens were elected each year, which took place part way through the year, the hallmarking year and 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. Please remember that an entry of, for example, "1914" really means the hallmarking year of 1914 to 1915 for the specific assay office.

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

Selected Assay Office Import Date Letters from 1 June 1907*

London

Glasgow

Birmingham

Chester

Edinburgh
Hallmarking
Year
1907/1908mKhGB
1908/1909nLiHC
1909/1910oMkID
1910/1911pNlKE
1911/1912qOmLF
1912/1913rPnMG
1913/1914sQoNH
1914/1915tRpOI
1915/1916uSqPK
1916/1917aTrQL
1917/1918bUsRM
1918/1919cVtSN
1919/1920dWuTO
1920/1921eXvUP

* Notes of caution about using these date letters

  1. The "Import Marks", the special town marks pictured here that were struck on imported watches instead of the usual assay office marks, came into use by Order in Council and Customs Declaration on 1 June 1907 and not before. If you think you have a watch with import hallmarks dated earlier than 1907 you are mistaken - You can read the full explanation of this on my Hallmarks page. See also note 3 for why date letters are sometimes confused.

  2. British assay offices changed their date letter punches when new wardens were elected, part way through the calendar year. At the London Assay Office this was at the end of May, for most other offices it was the beginning of July. This is why hallmark date letters only pin down the date of hallmarking to a two year period.

  3. Because of limitations of web font faces I can't accurately reproduce the font faces used for the letters. Until 1915 London used lower case date letter with serifs, from 1916 lower case Gothic. The Glasgow and Chester date letters covered by the table are all upper case in a flowing script that is hard to read. The Birmingham date letters covered by the table are all lower case with serifs.

  4. There are not enough letters in the alphabet to cover the 600 years plus that date letters have been struck, so they have to be used repeatedly with difference between the styles of letter in different cycles. The letters I have listed above cover the dates of the watches I am most interested in. However, if you have bought, found or inherited a watch it may well not fall into this date range, so don't just read the London letter "s" and assume that your watch is dated 1913/1914, it might well be 1933/1934 when the letter s was used again, this time in Gothic rather than plain. If you have any doubts, do just drop me an email, ideally with a picture of the watch, the movement and the hallmarks.

Caution about Date Letters

Note that each assay offices had its own unique cycles of date letters so you must use the correct one. Date letters span two calendar years because the punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which was usually about half way through the calendar year. This is often not explained and many “experts” don't seem to know. See also my note about the surrounds around date letters. Those on old may different from those on silver, particularly if they are London Assay Office hallmarks. Most guides only show surround shapes for date letters on silver. Also different surround shapes were often used for small items, and for watch cases. There is only one book that I am aware of, Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks, that shows the London Assay Office surround shapes used on gold as well as those used on silver, but not even this shows all the date letter surrounds used on watch cases. You are welcome to email me via my contact page if you need help with a hallmark or date letter.

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British hallmarks for imported watches before 1907


1888 to 1907 foreign marks

Before 1738 specific requirements for hallmarking foreign items had not developed because there were very few such items in circulation. An Act of 1738 required that all items of silver or gold that were traded or "exposed for sale" must be hallmarked; by implication this included foreign made wares. An Act of 1842 stated explicitly that all imported silver and gold items must be hallmarked. An Act of 1867 required that a letter "F" be struck alongside the hallmarks to indicate that the that item was not made in the UK.

Each Assay Office has its own "town" mark to show at which office an item was assayed. Amongst the most familiar of these are the leopard's head for London, the anchor for Birmingham, the upright sword between three wheat sheaves (garbs) for Chester, etc. An Act of 1887 required that after 1 January 1888 the marks struck on foreign watch cases were to be completely different from the normal UK hallmarks, so that they couldn't be mistaken for UK manufactured watch cases.

New town marks were stipulated for use on foreign watch cases as part of a single compound punched mark containing the town mark, the standard mark and the date letter all inside a single cross (for silver) or octagonal (for gold) surround with the word "foreign" prominently across the middle. The marks to be used by the London Assay Office are shown in the picture to the right, other offices had similar marks with their own town letter where the sun symbol is in the London mark.

As I explain on my Assay and Hallmarking page, the use of these compound marks is more than extremely rare, it is virtually unknown; I have never seen one, and I don't know anyone who has. If you ever see one of these marks, please let me know!

Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption)
Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption)

However, due to a massive misunderstanding of the law by the UK Board of Customs and the Assay Offices, these legal requirements were not properly implemented until 1 June 1907, and Swiss watches with UK hallmarks (either normal UK hallmarks, with or without the letter "F", or the special import marks introduced for watch cases in 1887) before that date are rare. The 1887 marks (shown at 1887 Merchandise Marks Act are so rare that at one time I thought that there were no watches still in existence carrying them, but then I found one, and shortly after another turned up. You can see these at Foreign Hallmark.

In 1907 an Act, the "Assay of Imported Watch-Cases (Existing Stocks Exemption) Act 1907" was passed to exempt all watch cases imported into the UK before 1 June 1907 from hallmarking, but requiring that all watches imported after 1 June 1907 be correctly hallmarked. As a result of this there was a sudden and huge increase in workload at the assay offices. You can read the full sorry tale of this 169 year long run of misunderstanding on my Hallmarks page.

This change in the law in 1907, or rather the official implementation of the existing law, was the reason the major importing agents Arthur George Rendell (AGR) of Robert Pringle & Sons (one of the UK's largest wholesalers of jewellery, silverware and watches), and George Stockwell (GS) (one of the UK's biggest carriers and import agencies) registered sponsor's marks for the first time at the London Assay Office in 1907, Stockwell on 15 June 1907 and Rendell on 25 June 1907. These assay agents and many others registered their sponsor's marks so that they could organise the hallmarking of imported watches. You can look up details of Rendell, Pringle, Stockwell and other sponsor's and maker's marks on my Sponsor's and Maker's Marks page.

After 1 June 1907 all imported watch cases have the new town marks struck on their own in the usual fashion for hallmarks, that is not part of a composite mark but struck separately from the standard and date letters. The symbols defined in 1888 for watch cases had never been used until in 1904 they began to be stamped on imported gold and silver items other than watch cases. This brought to light problems with some of them the symbols, such as the sign of Phoebus (a radiant sun's head) that had been defined for London. To overcome this new town marks were defined in 1906 for London, Dublin, Glasgow and Sheffield. The marks shown in reference books as being in use by these assay offices between 1904 and 1906 were never used for watch cases.

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World War One and Gold Cases

Before World War One (1914-1918) London was used by many Swiss companies and importers of Swiss watches as the route by which they could access the large market of the British Empire. One such company among many was Wilsdorf & Davis, a company founded in London in May 1905 to import and wholesale Swiss watches, which later became Rolex. London was the company's export centre for every market in the world and by 1914 it had grown to such an extent that it occupied a large suite of offices and had a payroll of more than sixty employees.

During World War One, in September 1915, in order to conserve foreign currency reserves as part of the war effort, Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Herbert Asquith's coalition government, imposed an ad valorem customs duty of 33⅓% on imported luxuries, including clocks and watches. These “McKenna duties” meant that any watches imported into London, even if only for checking with subsequent export abroad, would be subject to this new high rate of duty. The duties included motor vehicles, musical instruments and cinema film. It was initially intended to include hats, but it proved too difficult to formulate a precise definition of a hat.

The McKenna duties had a major effect on the import of Swiss watches in gold cases. The high cost of gold meant that a large part of the cost of a gold watch was due to the cost of the metal in its case, which is also why so many watches have been stripped of their gold cases over the centuries.

In August 1916 the Horological Journal reported that “... some Swiss gentlemen are interested in a scheme for starting a factory in Birmingham for the manufacture of watch cases. Premises have been taken, machinery installed and workmen have been obtained. The products of the factory will be modelled on Swiss lines. The avoidance of the heavy import duties is, no doubt, the cause of the enterprise.” The identity of this watch case factory, if it ever existed, is not known.

In late 1916, further restrictions on imports of precious metals were introduced by Royal Proclamation under Section forty-three of the Customs Consolidation Act, 1876. In November 1916, importation of jewellery and all manufactures of gold and silver other than watches and watch cases was prohibited. This was followed shortly afterwards by a revision in December, which prohibited the importation of gold, manufactured or un-manufactured, including gold coin and articles consisting partly of or containing gold; all manufactures of silver other than silver watches and silver watch cases, and jewellery of any description.

Note that the wording changed in the December revision from allowing, as exceptions, the importation of gold and silver watches and watch cases, to allowing only silver watches and silver watch cases. This was not made widely known in advance and several members of the British Horological Institute complained that they only became aware of the prohibitions when goods in transit were suddenly seized by British Customs.

The importation of watches, movements and parts, if of gold or containing gold, which principally affected gold watch cases, was prohibited for the remaining duration of the war.

Because of the restrictions on the importation of gold watch cases, British companies started to make gold watch cases to house Swiss movements. The best known of these was the Dennison Watch Case Company, already established in Birmingham for the manufacture of gold, silver and gold plated (rolled gold) watch cases. However, the opportunity presented by the duty, and then the outright ban on imports of gold cases, resulted in a number of other manufacturers not previously engaged in manufacturing watch cases to begin to manufacture specifically gold watch cases and bracelets.

1917 Customs Notice: Cases Sent Abroad
1917 Customs Notice: Cases Sent Abroad

It might be assumed that bare Swiss movements would be imported to be fitted into these British made gold cases, but in fact it appears that, in at least some instances, gold cases were sent to Switzerland to be fitted with movements, a practice that had evidently been going on before the ban which brought it to light.

In November 1917, new regulations issued to the Customs and Excise stated that watch cases that were exported for the purposes of being fitted with movements abroad and subsequently returned to this country could be dealt with under existing regulations prescribed for the exportation of watches for repair abroad. The finished watches could be imported without payment of duty on the value of the cases provided that the full value of the movements was declared, including the cost of fitting them in the cases, freight or postage and insurance, and duty paid on that.

Although at first sight this seems unlikely, in fact it makes perfect sense. Watch case makers were not watchmakers and could not be expected to fit movements to the cases they made. Watch case workshops were dirty and dusty places due to the polishing of gold and silver cases, apart from all the hammering, banging and soldering that went into making a case, an environment far from ideal for fitting movements into cases.

Watchmakers usually received cases from the case makers and fitted the movements to them, and then put them under test for a period of at least several days before releasing the watches to be shipped out to customers. Only by doing that could they be sure that the watch was performing as they and their customers expected.

The Customs notice reproduced here shows that not only did the export of British made watch cases to have movements fitted abroad actually happen, there was also a practice of sending watches abroad to be repaired. This would presumably apply to Swiss watches where the import agent didn't have the capability to repair them and preferred to send them back to the factory for repair, something that still happened today.

Silver cased watches were not so affected by the McKenna duties and their import was never banned, because the cost of a silver case made up a much smaller proportion of the total cost of the watch than a gold case, so it was not worthwhile having silver cases made in Britain for this reason, although Dennison continued to make cases for American movements. Swiss watches continued to be imported in Swiss made silver cases for sale in Britain throughout the war and the period of the higher tax.

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 directly from Switzerland to other countries. One such was Wilsdorf & Davis, incorporated in London in 1915 as the Rolex Watch Company Limited. Before the war this company was principally based in London with a small branch office in Bienne. As a result of the import tax, Rolex transferred to that office the management of exports to third countries, and then later moved the Rolex headquarters there. If it hadn't been for the McKenna duties, Rolex might still today be a British Company based in London!

The McKenna war duties, and the outright ban on importation of gold watches for the final two years of the war, started a trend for putting Swiss watch movements into British made gold cases that continued long after World War One had ended. The McKenna duties were technically repealed in 1938, but the charges on imported goods were continued by Treasury Order under the provisions of the Import Duties Act 1932, which made it easier for changes to be made in the rates charged. The continued levy of duty especially affected gold cases and gave a significant price advantage to British manufacturers of watch case that continued for many years.

The case back in the picture here with Chester Assay Office Hallmarks for 1938 to 1939 illustrates this. The hallmarks in this case are Chester Assay Office hallmarks for a British made rather than imported item. The town mark is the three wheat sheaves around an upright sword, the traditional town mark of the Chester Assay Office. After 1 June 1907 this was only used on watch cases actually made in Britain, it was not used on imported watch cases hallmarked at Chester, they got the town import mark of an acorn and oak leaves instead. The standard mark is the crown and "·375" of nine carat gold, the date letter is the "N" in "Court hand" script of 1938 to 1939. The sponsor's mark B & S was entered by B H Britton & Sons, the punch that made this mark was registered in May 1931.

The patent number seen in the case, 378233, for "Improvements in watch cases" was granted to Charles Henry Britton, Walter Britton and Herbert Britton of 35 Hockley Hill, Birmingham, on 11 August 1932 with a priority date of 15 September 1931. The object of the invention was to provide an improved construction of a two piece watch case with a neat and attractive appearance that could be cheaply manufactured. The case was made from a short piece of tube that formed the middle part of the case. This was pressed or rolled at both ends to provide the recess for the glass at the front and an undercut at the rear for the case back to snap on to.

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Hallmarking Years

Date letter marks, also called the “assayer's mark”, show who was responsible for the assay and were therefore changed when new Wardens were elected. This was usually about halfway through the calendar year, so a hallmark date letter refers to parts of two calendar years. For brevity, most tables of hallmark date letters show only the first year in which the date letter was used, but you need to remember that an item could equally well have been hallmarked in the first part of the following year.

Each assay office used its own cycles of date letters, which depended on when the office was set up and the date on which the wardens were elected, which is also when the date letter punches were changed. Because of this, date letter tables are unique to each assay office. You cannot use a date letter from one assay office to read the date of a hallmark struck by a different assay office.

Before 1975, the hallmarking years of the assay offices that frequently hallmarked watch cases were as follows:

There were a number of other assay offices, Sheffield (first Monday in June), Exeter (since 1701, on the 7th of August), Newcastle upon Tyne (from 1702, on the 3rd of May), etc., but since these were not routinely used to hallmark watch cases I have not included them all. If you have one that you want to know the dates of the hallmarking year for, please feel free to ask.

Date Letters Cautions

When you first pick up a book of hallmarks such as Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks, you might think that it is easy to use the tables to discover all that you need to know about a hallmark. This is not the case! Although such books are useful summaries, they are very condensed and cryptic. Hallmarking has an extremely long history and can be surprisingly complicated and difficult to interpret correctly. As a “for instance”, here are two things you need to be cautious about which most published works don't mention:

If you read the rest of this section, you will know more about the complexities and variations in date letters than many “experts”.

Date Letter Surrounds 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 surrounds shapes used on gold were often different from those on silver, but most reference books show only the marks used on silver.

Surround 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 surrounds 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.

Jackson's

There is only one book that I am aware of, Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks, that shows the London Assay Office date surround 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 surround shape marks for date letters on all the standards of gold and silver? Well, Sir Charles James Jackson was, inter alia, a barrister, and very thorough one, which is why his book is regarded as the bible of British silver collecting.

There is a reasonably priced pocket version of Jackson's available that shows the different shapes of most date letter surrounds for both gold and silver.

However, there is an additional caution. The date letters shown in the tables in Jackson's are more reliable than those found in most reference books and online tables because Jackson took copies of date letters from real examples, but these were large items such as church silver, candlesticks, jugs etc. The punches used on watch cases were necessarily much smaller than those used on such large items. From examining proofs of date letter punch marks at Goldsmiths' Hall that it is known that the punch marks used on watch cases are often quite different, principally due to the difficulty of cutting such small punches.

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 surrounds 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 surround around the date letter having a small point it was rounded. This was most likely done because of the difficulty of making the point on a very small punch.

Birmingham Date Letters


Birmingham 1899 / 1900 Hallmarks on a Sterling Silver Watch Case.
Birmingham Assay Office Hallmarks for 1877 to 1878
Birmingham Assay Office Hallmarks on a Sterling Silver Watch Case.

Birmingham 1886 / 1887 Hallmarks on a Sterling Silver Watch Case.

Some Birmingham hallmarks have surrounds for the date letter that are different shapes from those shown in published tables, especially those used on watch cases.

The shapes of the surrounds for the Birmingham Assay Office date letter cycle from 1875 to 1900 shown in Bradbury's and Jackson's are round or rectangular. Bradbury notes that from 1872 to 1894 Birmingham date letters on silver are also found in a rectangle with cut corners.

However, that is not the full story. The surrounds for Birmingham Assay Office date letters found on watch cases during this period are usually shaped like a knight's shield with a pointed base. Sometimes these have a flat top, sometimes cut top corners.

Two of the images here show Birmingham Assay Office (anchor) hallmarks for sterling silver (walking lion) with these different date letter surrounds. The date letter with the flat top doesn't correspond to any Birmingham Assay Office date letter in Bradbury's or Jackson's and is a mystery. It must be from 1876 or later because the sponsor's mark A.L.D in cameo within a rectangular surround was first entered by the Dennison Watch Case Company on 20 April 1876. The date letter Z with a surround in the shape of a shield with a flat top with cut corners is for the Birmingham hallmarking year from July 1899 to June 1900.

However, not all the surrounds to Birmingham date letters during this period are this shape. The date letter “m” shown here for 1886 to 1887 found in a watch case has a rectangular surround with cut corners. This shape was probably chosen as being a better fit around the letter m.

Birmingham “v” 1895 to 1896
Birmingham “v” 1895 to 1896: Click image to enlarge

The Birmingham Assay Office told me that the outline around hallmarks for watch cases are not shown in Bradbury, and that the punches used on watch cases often create different shapes. However, I have at least one example of a watch case with Birmingham hallmarks and the "k" of 1909/1910 that is the same shape as shown in Bradbury, so it appears that this was principally a nineteenth century practice as indicated by Bradbury.

It should also be noted that the representations of date letters found in most tables are not necessarily totally accurate, and that variations can occur simply due to the smaller size of the punches used on small items such as watch cases. The most accurate representations of date letters are found in Jackson's, which are taken from real examples, although that usually means larger items of plate rather than small items like watch case.

However, even Jackson's can't be taken as perfectly correct on all matters pertaining to Birmingham Assay Office date letters. The date letter for 1895 to 1896 has caught me out more than once. As can be seen from the photograph here, at first glance it looks like a Blackletter (Gothic) lower case “b”, which would make it the date letter for 1876 to 1877. However, it doesn't look much like the “b” reproduced in Jackson's or any other reference. The sponsor's mark was entered by Alfred Bedford, who was the manager of Waltham UK and helped to set up the Dennison Watch Case company in the 1870s. Bedford first entered a sponsor's mark at the Birmingham Assay Office in 1876, so that would fit, but the watch has a much later Waltham movement and doesn't appear to be a marriage.

The Birmingham Assay Office confirmed to me that the date letter is actually the Blackletter (Gothic) lower case “v” of 1895 to 1896.

Birmingham Import Hallmarks

Birmingham P 1914 to 1915
Birmingham import hallmarks for 1914 to 1915.

From June 1907, foreign items that were hallmarked in a British assay office were required to be stamped with import hallmarks to distinguish them from items made in Britain. Instead of the town mark of an anchor, the Birmingham Assay Office was identified by the sign of an equilateral triangle. This was surrounded by an an oval for silver or a rectangle with cut corners for gold. Instead of the lion passant, sterling silver was identified by its decimal fineness ·925.

The Birmingham Assay Office import hallmark for sterling silver in image here has the date letter “p” for 1914 to 1915 within a rectangular surround with cut corners and a flat base. This is different from the letters shown in Bradbury and others which have a curly pointed base for the surrounds of Birmingham date letters in the cycle from 1900 to 1924. This suggests that the Birmingham Assay Office, in common with other assay offices, used different shaped surrounds for date letters on imported watch cases.

The sponsor's mark JR in cameo within a diamond was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office under the name of John Rotherham of Rotherham & Sons. These hallmarks are in the Borgel case of an Electa wristwatch.

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

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated July 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.