Swiss Hallmarks Other Case MarksCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2022 all rights reserved.
On 23 December 1880 Switzerland introduced a law requiring the hallmarking of gold and silver watch cases. Hallmarking means that items made of precious metals are independently tested for fineness, and those that meet a legally defined standard are hallmarked. In the Swiss system, the manufacturer marks the quality and then submits the items to a federal Bureau de Contrôle to be tested and hallmarked.
Swiss hallmarks do not carry a specific indication of the date when an item was hallmarked, but changes in the hallmarks over the years can give an idea of the period.
Standards for precious metals in Switzerland originated in Geneva in the 15th century, the first recorded regulation concerning the fineness and marking of silver was enacted by Bishop John of Brogny in the year 1424. Regulations were later introduced in the cantons of Neuchâtel and Schaffhausen, each having its own standards for gold and silver, its own system of testing and hallmarking, and its own unique set of marks. To begin with the standards and marking were controlled by the local Guilds. Markham's "Handbook to Foreign Hallmarks" says that an Assay Office was established in Geneva on 22 September 1815, and one in Neuchâtel in 1839. These assay offices were established by law, superseding the medieval Guild system of regulation.
These hallmarks were required by individual Swiss cantons on dishes, plates, bowls, candlesticks etc. They were not used on watch cases, although the canton of Neuchâtel could hallmark watch cases. There were no Swiss national legal standards for the fineness of gold or silver used for watch cases until the Precious Metals Control Act of 1880. Before this, Swiss gold watch cases were usually stamped by their manufacturer with the gold fineness, usually 14 carats, a popular standard on the continent, and silver watch cases were often simply marked "Fine Silver" or "Argent Fin", an unspecified standard of fineness with no legal definition but most likely 0·800. A mark stamped by a manufacturer is not a hallmark.
With the passing of the 1880 Federal Act, the Bureaux de Contrôle, the Swiss assay offices, were established and authorised to assay watch cases made of gold and silver, and to hallmark them if they were of the required fineness. Standards for gold were expressed in carats and parts per thousand fine gold, standards for silver in parts per thousand fine silver. Watch cases made of gold could be either 18 carats / 750 thousand parts and above, or 14 carats / 583 thousand parts. Silver cases could be 875 thousand parts and above or 800 parts. Hallmarks for Platinum watch cases were added in 1914.
It was permissible in Switzerland to use base metal for the cuvette of a watch case, the inner back cover that protects the movement when a key is being used to wind it. When it was made of copper and silver plated it was marked “Cuivre” (copper) or simply “Metal”. In a gold case the cover might be silver gilt, marked “argent”. This was not permitted for British made watches, the cuvette or “dome” had to be made of the same material as the rest of the case or the case would not be hallmarked.
The bow, the ring on the pendant from which the watch can be suspended, had to be made from the same material as the outer case. If you have a gold or silver case and the bow is not of the same standard as the case, then it is a replacement. This is very common because the clip that was used to attach an Albert chain to the watch wore through the relatively soft gold or silver of the bow quite quickly.
Although the Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 1880 defined standards for gold and silver watch cases, the British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 caused several changes in Swiss hallmarking, in particular the two Swiss standards for silver were not legal in Britain which forced the adoption of a higher standard of 935 fineness for watch cases destined for Britain, designated by stamping three bears. This British Act also inadvertently caused the Swiss to create their own national brand or trade mark "Swiss made".
Swiss hallmarking after 1933 is rather outside the scope of this page, but I mention some of the changes made in 1933.
Precious Metals Control Act 1880
The Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 23 December 1880 and a subsequent executive order dated 17 May 1881 introduced a uniform system of hallmarking for watch cases to be used throughout Switzerland with the marks shown in the picture here. These hallmarks marks are seen on the vast majority of Swiss watches with silver or gold cases imported to the UK between 1880 and 1907 before assay and hallmarking of the cases of imported watches in a British assay office became compulsory.
Swiss hallmarks do not indicate dates. Items marked with the symbols introduced in May 1881 were obviously marked after that date. These hallmarks are seen on Swiss watches with silver or gold cases imported to the UK between 1881 and 1907.
From 1 June 1907 Swiss hallmarks are seen less frequently on imported watch cases; British import hallmarks appear instead, sometimes alongside Swiss hallmarks. British import hallmarks, like all British hallmarks since 1478, do include a date letter.
The "standard" is the legal minimum fineness. This means the minimum proportion of precious metal (gold, silver, etc.) in the alloy. It is expressed as a proportion by weight, e.g. 18 carat gold is sometimes expressed as 0.75. This means that 0.75, three quarters, of the weight is gold, the rest is base metal. The alloy must assay at this standard in order to qualify to be hallmarked. To ensure that items pass assay, the alloy used by the goldsmith will be slightly finer than the absolute minimum standard. This is not shown by the hallmark, which records only that the item passed assay and was therefore of at least the required fineness.
|Bureaux de Contrôle|
The figure reproduced here uses the “per mille” or parts per thousand symbol ‰ for the fineness standard. This is like a percentage sign %, but with two zeros below the line indicating that the ratio is per thousand rather than per hundred used for percentages.
Different expressions of the same number are often seen, e.g. the fineness of 18 carat gold might be shown as 0·75 (since 18 / 24 = 0·75), ·750, 750 (without the decimal point), 75% or 750‰, meaning 750 parts per thousand.
Assay Office Marks
The small "x" shown in the drawing of each mark is replaced by the identifier of the Swiss assay office or “bureau de contrôle” where the item was tested and marked. This is usually the first letter of the town name in capital, except where two towns would have the same letter. The principal offices are listed in the table here.
These assay office marks are very small and, if the case is worn or has been well polished, are difficult to make out. So much so that I was quite surprised when I looked at the photograph of a case reproduced here and saw the “B” of Bienne for the first time; I had not noticed them before even though I have owned the watch for several years! They are still quite difficult to make out by eye, even with a loupe.
Note that the Swiss/French word “contrôle” means to examine something, which is different to the meaning of the similar English language word. This led to some confusion during the Brexit referendum about what was meant by control of/at the borders.
Swiss hallmarks do not have date letters or any other way of indicating the date when an item was hallmarked, but changes in the hallmarks over the years can give an idea of the period.
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The 1880 Swiss Act introduced legal standards for gold used in watch cases in Switzerland. However, some other countries had slightly differing standards for gold and so some modifications were later introduced to accommodate these.
Since the Swiss basic legal requirements were not altered by these “additional” standards, which were all in some way higher than the fundamental Swiss standards, they were all introduced to meet the requirements of foreign countries and can therefore be regarded as signs of export trade.
Eighteen Carat Gold
The Swiss hallmark for 18 carat gold was and is the head of Helvetia, the female national personification of Switzerland, which is also called the Confederation Helvetica (CH) or Swiss Confederation. The name is derived from the name of the ancient people of Switzerland prior to the Roman conquest, the Helvetii. The female figure of Helvetia appeared during the development of a Swiss national identity in the nineteenth century, and Helvetia appeared on coins and stamps after the foundation of the federal state of Switzerland in 1848.
in 1887, for watch cases of 18 carat gold marked 0.750 that were to be exported to Germany, Swiss bureaux de contrôle were instructed to hallmark two heads of Helvetia, one large and one small. These were to be marked symmetrically above and below or on opposite sides of the decimal fineness mark.
When the British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 came into force, the Swiss authorities introduced a new higher standard of 755‰ for 18 carat gold watch cases that were to be exported to the UK. Swiss bureaux de contrôle were instructed to hallmark watch cases with three heads of Helvetia, two large and one small This is discussed below at Three heads: 18 ct gold.
Fourteen Carat Gold
The second standard of gold for watch cases recognised by the 1880 Swiss Act was 14 carat. This was a standard of gold that had been used on the continent for many years and was very popular. The Swiss legal decimal fineness standard for 14K was 583‰ as shown in the illustration of the marks, which was confirmed by the hallmark of a single squirrel.
The German definition of the minimum fineness of gold as 585‰, which is slightly finer than 14 carat gold, caused a change in Swiss hallmarking of watch cases destined to be exported to Germany.
Nine and 12 Carat Gold
The Swiss Act of 1880 recognised only 18 and 14 carat gold as legal standards in Switzerland. This presented Swiss case makers with a problem. Nine carat gold was very popular in Britain because it was the cheapest alloy that could legally be called gold, but it was not a legal standard of fineness in Switzerland. Swiss watchmakers didn't want to miss out on this lucrative market so watch cases were stamped by the case makers with nine carat marks. Until 1914 these cases never went anywhere near an Swiss government Bureau de Contrôle because they could not be officially called "gold" or hallmarked in Switzerland.
From 18 December 1914, the Swiss Federal Government allowed the Bureaux de Contrôle to stamp an official mark of the Swiss cross on nine and 12 carat gold watch cases that were to be exported to Britain. In 1924 this was expanded to allow gold watch cases of any fineness greater than 8 carat to be hallmarked, provided that they were to be exported to a country where the fineness was legal. For more details see Nine and 12 Carat Gold.
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Between 1880 and 1933 the legal Swiss hallmarks for silver were either a “bear rampant”, a bear standing on its hind legs, for the higher standard, and a capercaillie or wood grouse for the lower standard. The requirements of foreign countries meant that some additional grades and standards were introduced for export markets, but the single capercaillie and single bear remained the basic Swiss standards for silver until 1933.
Curiously, although the minimum German silver standard was the same as the Swiss, at 0.800 or 80% fine silver, from 1877 Swiss watch cases that were destined for export to Germany were marked with double hallmarks; two bears or two capercaillie.
The Swiss hallmark of a rampant bear indicates that the alloy contains at least 0.875, 87.5% or 800‰ (800 parts per thousand) pure silver, the balance being an alloying element, usually copper, that gave the alloy greater strength and wearing ability. This remained the Swiss “higher standard” for items to be sold in Switzerland until 1933.
0.800 silver: capercaillie
Pine Cones Trademark
The Swiss hallmark for the lower standard of silver, 0.800 or 800‰ (80%) fine silver, was a capercaillie.
The image here shows a 0.800 fineness mark surmounted by two pine cones. The pine cones were the case maker's trademark; the case maker stamped the 0.800 fineness mark and the Bureau de Contrôle counterstamped it with the capercaillie hallmark after it had passed assay at at least 0.795 - a tolerance of 0.05 was allowed on silver assays in Switzerland.
Watch manufacturers didn't allow case maker's names to appear, but discreet trademarks like this were sometimes allowed. Unfortunately, although I could find quite a few pine cones or cones, I have not been able to identify this mark. If you know whose trademark it is, please let me know.
Additional Silver Grades
The Swiss precious metals act of 1880 specified a 0.875 as the higher of two standards for silver. The standard is always a minimum fineness; there was nothing to stop manufacturers making watch cases from higher grades if the intended market required. The requirements of some export markets led to the adoption of some higher grades; 0.900 and 0.935, and eventually a change to the Swiss '“higher standard” from 0.875 to 0.925.
Swiss 900 silver
Sometimes a standard mark of fineness of 900‰ or 0.900 is seen. This was never introduced into Swiss law as a standard, but 0.900 fineness silver was a popular grade in a number of European and other countries because it was a standard of coin silver. Watch cases that were to exported to a country where 0.900 was the standard were stamped by the manufacturer “0.900” as shown in the picture here, and submitted for assay and hallmarking as normal.
The '“rampant bear” hallmark was stamped by Swiss Bureau de Contrôle on silver that was at least 875‰, so the bear mark was applied to the item as shown in the picture – the faint mark above the 900 is the bear. The bear did not guarantee that the item was 900‰, only that it was at least 875‰.
0·935 Silver: Bears Galore!
The British 1887 Merchandise Marks Act allowed the British Customs to accept silver items hallmarked in their country of origin, so long as they were at least of sterling standard fineness. The Swiss Act of 1880 recognised only 0.800 and 0.875 silver as legal standards in Switzerland, and these were the only standards that could be hallmarked in Switzerland. This presented Swiss case makers with a problem, because neither of these was legal in Britain.
This lead to the legalisation in Switzerland in December 1887 of a fineness 0·935 (93.5% fine silver) for hallmarking of silver watch cases destined to be exported to Britain. The apparently increased fineness of 0.935 over the minimum of 0.925 required for sterling was because of the tolerance allowed on Swiss assays, which was not allowed on British assays, giving a margin to ensure that a Swiss watch case marked 0.935 would pass a British assay as sterling.
The Swiss Bureaux de Contrôle were authorised to mark three rampant bears, one small and two large, on silver items that assayed 0·935 fineness.
In 1890 the use of three bears was made optional for watch cases of 0·935 fineness. Such cases could then be stamped with either three bears or a single large bear at the manufacturer's request. Sometimes cases of 0·935 fineness which also have the German crown and half moon hallmark are seen with two bears, one large and one small. This was probably so that they were consistent with the two squirrels marked on 14 carat gold cases with the German crown and sun hallmark.
The standard of 0·935 was introduced to comply with the British legal standard of sterling silver, signified by the “lion passant”. For more about this see the section below about 935 Silver and the Three Bears.
In 1933, a Swiss Act made 0.925 the legal single higher fineness for silver, signified by a hallmark of a duck. The previous 875 and 935 grades and the bear hallmark were abolished. This meant that case makers had only to keep one grade of silver bullion in stock, which made life easier. However, moves to recognise the 0.925 standard had begun earlier.
Items are seen stamped with a 925 and a single bear, which shows they were marked before the 1933 Swiss Act. My grandfather's silver Rolex has 0·935 and a single bear, and London Assay Office import hallmarks for 1918 to 1919.
In December 1914, due to transport restrictions caused by the war, a Swiss Federal Decree brought several aspects of Swiss hallmarking of gold and silver watch cases destined for Britain into line with British practice, in particular the use of 0.925 as a fineness stamp and the use of a single bear hallmark instead of three bears.
The Act stipulated that, in line with British custom, the assay was to be made by cupellation and that no tolerance on fineness was allowed; an item stamped 0.925 had to be 0.925 or better.
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A single standard for platinum of 950‰ or 95% was introduced in 1914, signified by the head of a chamois goat. From 1933 the standard remained the same at 950‰ but the symbol was changed to an ibex goat. Goodness knows why; perhaps Swiss people find it easier to identify an ibex than a chamois: they both look like goats to me . . .
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The Swiss hallmarking law of 1880 allowed certain tolerances, sometimes called “remedy“, on the assay results. The assay process cannot be absolutely accurate so the tolerance effectively recognises the limit of accuracy of an assay.
An error limit of 3 thousand parts for gold, that is 0·003 or 3‰, and 5 thousand parts for silver was permitted. This meant that gold which assayed at 747 parts gold could be stamped with the head of Helvetis and 18ct / 750, and silver that assayed at 870 parts silver could be stamped with a rampant bear and 875.
Case Maker's Initials
Unlike British hallmarking, Swiss hallmarking did not require that a sponsor's mark (a responsibility mark, often misleadingly called a maker's mark) be applied to an item before it was hallmarked. Since watchmakers generally did not want someone else's name or mark on their cases most Swiss made watch cases are anonymous, whereas in Britain the sponsor's mark was a legal requirement that could not be avoided. The British system gave us lists of sponsor's marks which the Swiss system did not before the mid-1920s when the Swiss system of Poinçons de Maître was introduced.
Some Swiss case makers were sufficiently prominent to insist that their cases carried their marks, François Borgel being the best known, but many did not have the strength of Borgel and had to be more or less anonymous. Some less well known case makers used more subtle ways to make their mark on their watch cases.
When a Swiss gold and silver watch case was to be hallmarked, the manufacturer stamped the “standard” mark, showing the fineness that he claimed for the gold or silver, e.g. 0·800 or 0·875 for silver, and sent the case in to a Bureau de Contrôle for assay and hallmarking. If the assay agreed with the fineness shown by the standard mark, then the Bureau de Contrôle “counterstamped” the hallmark as an official endorsement that the manufacturer's mark was correct. This is quite different from British hallmarking practice, where the Hall stamps the standard mark as part of the hallmark after an item had passed assay.
The image here of a 0·800 standard mark with hollow ends to the enclosure, with the official hallmarks of the small and large capercaillie either side, illustrates this. The letters “E” and “C” either side of the concave ends of the standard mark are the initial letters manufacturer's company name.
Unfortunately, marks like this from the time are poorly documented and I haven't managed to identify this one yet. The Bureau de Contrôle has counterstamped the fineness mark with two capercaillie hallmarks, one large to the right and a smaller one to the left. The use of two capercaillie, one large and one small, shows that this watch case was intended to be exported.
These marks with the case manufacturer's company initial letters might have specifically to comply with the German law that required the fineness marks be stamped by the manufacturer accompanied by a trademark identifying the company or business which stamped the mark and guaranteed the fineness.
Poinçons de Maître
In Switzerland in the 1920s a system of responsibility marks called “poinçons de maître” was introduced for watch cases. Poinçon is pronounced with a soft c like "pwan-son" and means punch, so a poinçon de maître is literally a “punch of the master”. This system was introduced to provide traceability back to the case manufacturer for precious metal cases. It is always seen on gold and platinum watch cases after that date, but rarely on silver cases.
To make the marks relatively inconspicuous a system of the symbols shown here and registration numbers was used. When one of the symbols shown in the picture was stamped in a watch case, the XX or XXX was replaced by the registration number indicating the maker of the watch case.
There is a full description of this system and tables of the marks at Poinçons de Maître: Case Maker's Marks.
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Exports to Germany
Halbmond und Reichskrone (Half Moon and Imperial Crown): used on silver
Sonne und Reichskrone (Sun and Imperial Crown): used on gold
Before 1871, German states were independent and Sovereign and framed their own laws. Each state, city state or city had their own stamps, or “Feingehaltstempel”, for gold and silver. After the unification of the 39 sovereign German states into the German Empire in 1871, universal laws affecting all states began to be introduced. In 1884 the "Gesetz über den Feingehalt der Gold und Silberwaren" or "Act on the Fine Content of Gold and Silver Goods" was passed.
The Act specified minimum standards of 585‰ (585 mil) for gold and 800‰ (800 mil or 80% fine) for silver. The imperial crown, the Reichskrone, within a circle representing the sun ( Reichskrone und Sonne) was to be stamped on gold, and a crescent or half moon with the imperial crown (Halbmond und Reichskrone) was stamped on silver. The fineness of the metal was to be expressed numerically, with section 2 of the Act explicitly stating that "The fineness may only be given as 585 or more parts per thousand on gold, and only as 800 parts per thousand or more on silver." A trademark identifying the company or business which stamped the mark and guaranteed the fineness also must be stamped. A tolerance of 5 thousandths for gold and 8 thousandths for silver below the stated fineness was allowed for the whole item, including solder.
There were no other specified tiers of fineness such as 18 carat for gold or sterling for silver; so long as an item was of at least the minimum standard fineness, it was legal. A manufacturer was at liberty to stamp 0.750 for 18 carat gold along with the Sun and Imperial Crown; the guarantee lay with the manufacturer, not the German federal government.
There were no official independent German assay offices, so these marks were applied by the manufacturer of an item rather than in an independent assay office. They are therefore not hallmarks, a term that originated in 1478 when London craftsmen were first required to take their work to Goldsmiths' Hall to be assayed and marked. A hallmark means that an item has been assayed and stamped (hallmarked) by someone independent of the manufacturer.
Because the German law required that manufacturers stamp their own products with the specified gold and silver marks, this meant that Swiss watch case manufacturers stamped the marks of the German sun or moon with the imperial crown on gold and silver on watch cases that might be exported to Germany. However, the presence of one of these German marks in a Swiss watch case does not prove that the item has ever actually been in Germany. It is possible that the item, although at one time intended to be exported to Germany, could have been directed to a different market and never actually passed into or through Germany at all.
The German imperial law of 16 July 1884 specified the minimum legal fineness of gold as 585 thousandths (585‰) or greater, which caused a change in Swiss hallmarking of watch cases destined to be exported to Germany. At first this applied only to 14 carat gold cases, but it was later expanded to include all standards of gold and silver.
On 2 November 1886, the Swiss federal council met to consider that German law allowed only fineness marks on works of gold (with the exception of jewellery) of 585 thousandths or greater. This corresponded broadly to 14 carat, which in decimal numbers is 14/24 = 0.5833333... or 583‰. The Swiss federal law specified a fineness mark for 14 carat gold of 0.583 with the hallmark of a squirrel (écureuil). This left Swiss 14 carat gold cases stamped with the 0.583 fineness mark or a squirrel hallmark open to confiscation by the German customs authorities.
In order to comply with the German law, the Swiss federal council issued the decree (arrête) summarised in the image here. With immediate effect, gold watch cases that were destined for Germany and marked by the manufacturer with a fineness mark of 0.585, and passed assay at a bureau de contrôle at this fineness, would be hallmarked with two squirrels symmetrically placed about the fineness mark, a large squirrel above, a small squirrel below.
This resolved the immediate problem, but no doubt German customers were left wondering why Swiss 18 carat (0.750) gold cases, and silver cases of 0.800 and 0.875 fineness, were hallmarked with only a single Helvetia, capercaillie or bear, when 14 carat gold cases carried two squirrels.
To overcome this, the Swiss Federal Council issued a decree dated 1 April 1887 that watch cases that were presented for hallmarking with a declaration that they were for export to Germany would be hallmarked as follows:
0·585 and Two Squirrels on Case for Export to Germany
Image © Bernd R.
- Gold 0.585: large squirrel above and small squirrel below the fineness mark
- Gold 0.750: large Helvetia above and small Helvetia below the fineness mark
- Silver 0.800: large capercaillie above and small capercaillie below the fineness mark
- Silver 0.875: large bear above and small bear below the fineness mark
It was permissible to strike the hallmarks to the right and left of the fineness mark, according to the space available, which has been done on the case shown in the image here.
German law required that the fineness marks stamped by the manufacturer be accompanied by a trademark identifying the company or business which stamped the mark and guaranteed the fineness. This is reasonable when only the manufacturer is responsible for marking items.
Some Swiss watch cases with German marks are seen with initials either side of, or above and below, the fineness mark, which is sometimes a fancy shape as shown in the image here in a 0.800 silver case with two capercaillie either side of the fineness mark.
The shape of the mark and the initials are presumably a reference to the case manufacturer, possibly to comply with the German law. But they are not very clear or documented. Swiss watch cases had to be hallmarked in a government run bureau de contrôle, the equivalent of a British assay office, so if any dispute arose about the fineness of the case, the Swiss government could be held liable, which rendered the manufacturer's trademark unnecessary and use of fineness marks with the manufacturer's initials appears to have ceased quite quickly.
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British Merchandise Marks Act 1887
The British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 stipulated that from 1 January 1888 foreign made watches with gold or silver cases would only be allowed into the country by the customs authorities if they complied with one of the following requirements;
- They were wholly unmarked.
- They were hallmarked in Britain with Foreign hallmarks.
- They carried a foreign country's hallmark.
- They carried British hallmarks and an equally conspicuous statement that the watch was of foreign make.
Between 1874 and 1887 a small number of Swiss watch cases were sent to Britain to be hallmarked, returned to Switzerland to be fitted with movements, and then exported to Britain. The hallmarks were exactly the same as were applied to British made watch cases, there being no provision in British law for marking foreign made watch cases with different hallmarks.
The Merchandise Marks Act effectively stopped this practice by creating new hallmarks for watch cases with the word "Foreign" prominently across the middle, as shown in the image here, which understandably was not desired by Swiss watch importers. Examples of this style of hallmark are extremely rare; three examples are shown here: Foreign Hallmark.
Although in principle the British Act did not present a problem for Swiss manufacturers, because gold and silver watch cases had been hallmarked in Switzerland since 1880 and Swiss hallmarks would be acceptable to the British customs authorities for import purposes, the Act did present several practical problems;
- Neither of the two Swiss legal standards for silver, 0.800 and 0.875, met the minimum legal British standard of sterling.
- The Swiss authorities were not exactly sure what the British fineness standards were for sterling silver or 18 carat gold.
- Swiss law did not allow nine carat gold to be hallmarked.
- Watches that did not have a place of origin clearly identified were liable to seizure by the British customs.
A letter in the "Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith" in March 1888 from a Swiss national working in an English Customs house reported that Swiss watches that would previously have been admitted were now being confiscated. Watches bearing the mark "Warranted 0.800 silver" were confiscated on two grounds, the first naturally that 0.800 silver was below the sterling standard, but also under a provision of the Merchandise Marks Act that the use of English words without a clear statement of place of origin would be deemed to fraudulently indicate that a watch was made in England. The English words Warranted Silver without any other mark showing the place of origin were sufficient for a watch to be seized by the Customs. The words Patent Chronograph, or even simply Fast and Slow on the regulator, without a stated place of origin similarly condemned an imported watch.
These problems were resolved as follows:
- Swiss assay offices were authorised to hallmark a new silver standard of 0.935, discussed in the section below 935 silver and the three bears.
- Swiss assay offices were authorised to hallmark a new gold standard of 0.755, discussed in the section below 755 gold and three heads of Helvetia.
- Swiss watch case manufacturers started to mark nine carat gold cases with pseudo hallmarks, discussed in the section below Swiss Nine Carat Gold Marks.
- A new national "brand" for Switzerland was marked on watch movements and dials, discussed in the section below The national brand "Swiss made".
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Sterling Silver: 0·935 and Three Bears
A fineness mark of 0.935 accompanied by a Swiss hallmark comprising three bears, one small bear above two large bears, shows that the case was hallmarked in Switzerland between 1888 and 1914.
In 1887 the British Merchandise Marks Act introduced new requirements for imported gold and silver watch cases. From 1 January 1888 they all had to be carry no marks at all, or be hallmarked either in a British assay office or in their country of origin. The Act also defined new, and quite objectionable, foreign hallmarks to be struck by British assay offices on imported gold and silver watches, which Swiss manufacturers, quite understandably didn't want. As a result of this Act, from 1 January 1888 the British customs would not allow the import of watches with silver cases marked with either of the legal Swiss standards of silver, 0·800 or 0·875, because these were below the British legal standard of sterling.
Sterling Silver 0·935
This situation was discussed at a Swiss Federal Council meeting on 24 December 1887. It was decreed that a standard for silver of “0·935 Sterling” be allowed to comply with the British law. Watch cases are seen marked 935 Sterling as shown here. The reason for the adoption of the 0·935 standard of fineness rather than the British definition of sterling silver, which is 0·925, is not explained in the minutes.
The reason for adopting a fineness of 0·935 for Swiss sterling silver is that the Swiss hallmarking law of 1880 allowed certain tolerances, sometimes called “remedy“, on the assay results. An error limit of 5 thousand parts for silver was permitted, which meant that silver that assayed at 870 parts could be stamped with a bear and 875. However, in Britain no tolerance was allowed; the minimum fineness allowed was 11 ounces and two pennyweights of fine silver in a troy pound, which equates to 0·925.
The Swiss tolerance effectively recognises a limit on the accuracy of an assay of +/-5‰ and allowed a silver item that assayed at 0·920 to be stamped 0·925, which would not be legal in Britain. Why did the Swiss authorities then settle on 0·935 as their standard for sterling silver? Since the assay process cannot be absolutely accurate the results of an assay in Britain might be slightly different from one performed in Switzerland and therefore a margin for error was allowed.
Bow with Two Bears, and Pendant with One Bear
At the Federal Council meeting it was decreed that silver watch cases destined for Britain made of 0·935 silver could be assayed and counterstamped by Swiss Bureaux de Contrôle (assay offices). To confirm that a watch case had assayed at 0·935 a distinguishing hallmark was needed. It was decreed that this should be the set of marks shown here; the standard mark of the number 0·935 in a rectangular shield indicating the fineness and three bears, one small bear above two large bears.
The minutes of the meeting of the Federal Council are beautifully handwritten in German “Sütterlin” script and state für den Feingehalt Silber 0,935 durch zwei Abdrücke des Stempels „großer Bär“ und einen Abdruck des Stempels „kleiner Bär“ (for the fineness of silver 0·935 by two impressions of the stamp “big bear” and one of “little bear”).
The bows of pocket watches were to be stamped with two bears, as shown by the red arrows in the second picture. Another bear was stamped on the head of the pendant as shown by the single third arrow. Because of the way the rampant bears are struck almost horizontally on the bow, and the small size of the marks, people sometimes mistake theses marks for lions passant.
The British customs authorities were not bothered about the number of bears; so long as silver watch cases had some official looking Swiss hallmarks, whether one bear or three, they were happy to let the goods pass – after import duty had been paid of course.
Three Bears for Angleterre!
The use of 0·935 silver and the three bears marks was discussed in La Fédération Horlogère Suisse in October 1890, after a suggestion by the authorities that the practice should be discontinued and that watch cases could be marked with 0·935 and a single bear. The watch manufacturers were strongly of the view that it was necessary to continue with it for watches that were to be exported to England, because English customers had come to recognise and appreciate the mark of the three bears. The mark of the three bears therefore continued to be an available option as before.
The mark of the three bears was not universally appreciated. It was said that customers in the United States preferred to see a single bear. Because of this, watch cases of 0·935 silver that were submitted to the Bureaux de Contrôle (assay offices) in packets marked “Destinée à l'Angleterre” (destined for England) were stamped with three bears; without this identification they were stamped with a single bear.
Manufacturers could therefore choose whether to have three bears or just one bear stamped on 0·935 silver watch cases by marking the packets “Destinée à l'Angleterre” if they wanted three bears, or omitting this if they wanted just a single bear. The image here of the case back of a Tavannes watch shows just such a mark, 0·935 and a single bear.
1907: British Law Changes
British Import Hallmark for Sterling Silver
From 1 June 1907 all imported Swiss watches had to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office and marked with the new import hallmarks. The hallmarks were made different from the usual British hallmarks; for example, the lion passant was not used on imported sterling silver, which received the
After this date imported Swiss watches rarely also have Swiss hallmarks; there was little point in getting them assayed and hallmarked twice, although there was not a sharp cut off and watches are sometimes seen with both Swiss hallmarks and British import hallmarks. There was no legal reason why a watch could not be hallmarked in both Switzerland and Britain, and no doubt sometimes this was expedient, say if a watch had already been hallmarked in Switzerland originally intended for another market and then an urgent order caused it to be sent to Britain.
1914: One Bear and 0.925
In December 1914 a Swiss Federal Decree, discussed in more detail at 1914 Decree, brought several aspects of Swiss hallmarking into line with British practice. As a consequence it was recommended that Swiss watch case manufacturers use the mark “0,925” rather than 0,935, the former corresponding to the English fineness of Sterling 0·925, and that a single punch of the bear hallmark be used instead of the three bears hallmark.
In 1933 a silver standard of 0·925, the same as British sterling, was introduced in Switzerland, identified by a symbol of a duck. This was presumably subject to the same tolerance of 5 parts per thousand, so was not exactly the same standard as British sterling where no tolerance was allowed. However, since items imported into Britain had to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office this was of no consequence because the cases had to be fine enough to pass British assay without tolerance.
The Swiss 0·875 standard with the rampant bear hallmark was discontinued, as was the semi-official standard of 0·935 and the three bears. The capercaillie continued as before to signify for silver of 0·800, which could not be imported into the UK until this lower standard was allowed by the 1973 hallmarking Act. The traditional standard mark of the lion passant continued to be used on British manufactured items; it is still used today although it is no longer a legal requirement.
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Three Heads of Helvetia: 18 carat 0.755 gold
Swiss 18 Carat 0.755 Gold with Three Heads of Helvetia Thanks to David MacP. for the image
The Swiss Federal Council of December 1887 that introduced the three bears mark for 0·935 silver also defined a new mark of three heads of Helvetia, two large and one small, for items of 18 carat gold that were to be exported to England.
The reason for this new hallmark was that the fineness standard was increased from the Swiss legal minimum for 18 carat gold of 0.750 or 750‰. For eighteen carat gold watch cases that were to exported to Britain, a new standard of 0.755 or 755‰ was introduced. The additional 0·05 part of fine gold was to allow for the tolerance allowed by Swiss law on assay of gold, which was not allowed in Britain.
The fineness stamp for the higher standard could be either one stamp of 18C or 0.755, or two stamps of 18C and 0.755. Each fineness stamp was incuse and surrounded by an incuse rectangular shield.
The image here shows the full set of hallmarks in the back of a watch case that was made to be exported to Britain: 18C and 0.755 within rectangular shields and three heads of Helvetia, two large below one small. The marks in the gold are indistinct so I have added the marks with the white backgrounds and red lines to show how they would have looked originally.
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Nine and 12 Carat Gold
Nine, 12 and 15 carat gold were made legal standards in Britain 1854. These lower standards of gold quickly became very popular because items made from them could legally be called “gold” but they were cheaper than the only previous legal standards of 22 and 18 carats, 9 carat gold in particular was much cheaper.
Note that it is only legal to call items gold that are made from one of the legal standards. It is illegal to refer to gold plated, rolled gold or gold filled items as simply gold although it is frequently done by amateur sellers who don't know that the full description must be used,; caveat emptor.
Nine carat gold contains 9 / 24 = 0.375 or 37.5% gold by weight, the rest is varying amounts of silver, copper and other elements to give different colours. The standards of 12 and 15 carat gold were replaced in 1932 by a 14 carat standard.
Before 1880, a small proportion of 18 carat gold Swiss watch cases were sent to England to be marked with British hallmarks before 1888. On the continent, 14 carat was a popular standard for gold, but 14 carat gold cases couldn't be hallmarked in Britain because it was not a legal British standard of fineness. The Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 1880 specified two legal standards of fineness for gold, 18 and 14 carat. Swiss watches with 18 or 14 carat gold cases imported into Britain after 1880 carry Swiss hallmarks.
Mark in nine carat gold Swiss watch case
The lack of official Swiss legal recognition for nine and twelve carat gold meant that nine carat gold cases could not be assayed or hallmarked in a Swiss Bureau de Contrôle. This did not stop Swiss watch manufacturers from wanting a share of the large and growing market for watches with cheaper gold cases in Britain, and there was nothing to stop them making cases from one of these standards of gold, but the lack of an official Swiss hallmark was a problem.
Until 1888, nine and twelve carat gold Swiss watch cases could be hallmarked in a British assay office with traditional British hallmarks. This was entirely voluntary and most Swiss watch manufacturers didn't bother. But some did. English watch manufacturers objected to this, so from 1888 onwards new British hallmarks for imported watches with the word "Foreign" across the middle were specified. This effectively put a stop to the practice of getting any gold or silver Swiss watch cases assayed and hallmarked in Britain until 1907. This is discussed further on my page British hallmarking.
This left a problem for Swiss watch manufacturers. The British Merchandise Marks Act which introduced the new hallmarks for foreign watch cases, also banned the import of gold and silver watch cases that were not hallmarked. Watch cases of 18 and 14 carat gold could be hallmarked in Switzerland, and these Swiss hallmarks were allowed by the British Customs authorities. But 9 and 12 carat gold cases could not be hallmarked in Switzerland, so from 1888 Swiss watch case manufacturers simply applied their own official looking marks to 9 and 12 carat gold watch cases.
The picture here shows a crown stamp on the inside case back of a Swiss ladies' cocktail watch. The case has stamped on the underside of both the fixed lugs a "9" on its side followed by "375", so it is clearly 9 carat gold. The crown mark in the image is stamped twice inside the case back. These are not official British or Swiss hallmarks, they are marks that the case maker put onto the case that look sufficiently official that British customs and customers in Britain would be convinced that the case was in fact 9 carat gold.
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1914 Decree: 12 and 9 carat gold, 0.925 silver
In December 1914 a Swiss Federal Decree brought several aspects of Swiss hallmarking of gold and silver watch cases destined for Britain into line with British practice.
This change came about because of an agreement between the Swiss Legation in London and the Goldsmiths' Company that, for the duration of the war, the punching of hallmarks on watch cases would be done in such a way that the damage caused could be repaired in England, rather than having to send the cases back to Switzerland. It was agreed that instead of drawing samples from the cases for assay, which caused considerable damage, British assay offices would accept the validity of Swiss hallmarks and simply counter stamp the cases with British import hallmarks.
To facilitate the agreement, Swiss exporting watch case manufacturers were required to present their watch cases in an unfinished state to a Swiss Bureau de Contrôle to be marked with official Swiss hallmarks. The documentation accompanying the cases had to declare that they were to be exported to Britain. The cases would be drawn to take samples to be assayed, the marks of which were subsequently removed when the case was finished. The finished cases were then sent to Britain where they were stamped with British import hallmarks, which caused little damage compared with drawing and could be rectified by polishing.
Decree 18 December 1914 for gold cases
Gold watch cases of 18 carat fineness continued to be hallmarked with the head of Helvetia as before. Watch cases marked with the British legal fineness of 15 carats were hallmarked with a squirrel. This was legal because 15 carats is finer than the 14 carat usually signified by the squirrel, but cases submitted for hallmarking that were marked with a fineness of 15 carats were assayed to confirm that they really were of 15 carat fineness before the squirrel hallmark was applied.
It was also necessary that the Swiss bureaux de contrôle be empowered to test and mark cases made of nine and 12 carat gold, which were below Swiss legal fineness. The decree allowed gold watch cases (bôtes d'or) of 9 and 12 carat fineness to be tested in Swiss bureaux de contrôle and hallmarked with an official counter stamp of the Swiss Federal Cross , the « croix fédérale » mentioned in the extract shown here. The Decree says that the fineness of 9 or 12 carat are to be marked by the manufacturer, but it did not specify the form of these marks.
The excerpt from the decree reproduced here stipulates that the hallmark would be stamped on the middle part of the case, in the case back and bezel, as well as on the bow of a pocket watch and one of the “anses” (handles) of wristwatches, the Swiss term for the fixed wire lugs of early wristwatches.
The Act stipulated that, in line with British custom, the assay was to be made by cupellation and that, in contrast to the usual Swiss practice, no tolerance on fineness was allowed. This had no significance for gold cases of 12 and 9 carat fineness because they had not previously been hallmarked in Switzerland, but it did have an effect on the hallmarking of silver cases.
To comply with the British 1887 Merchandise Marks Act, a new hallmark had been introduced in Switzerland specifically for silver watch cases destined to be exported to Britain. Because the Swiss standards for hallmarked silver were of lower fineness than sterling silver, which was the legal requirement for import into Britain from 1 January 1888, a new Swiss hallmark of three bears was defined. To be given this hallmark, a silver watch case had to be of at least sterling silver fineness, which is 0.925 or 92.5% fine silver.
Because the Swiss assay process allowed a tolerance of 0.5% on silver, the nominal fineness required for Swiss silver watch cases was specified as 0.935 to ensure that a Swiss watch case marked with the three bears hallmark would pass a British assay, when no tolerance was allowed, as sterling. There was no significant difference in the actual fineness of silver marked with the British lion passant, which signified at least 0.925 with no tolerance, or the Swiss 0.935, which was allowed a 5‰ tolerance; it was simply a difference in assay practice that required these apparently different fineness marks.
The requirement of the Swiss 1914 Decree that watch cases destined to be exported to Britain must be assayed by cuppellation with no tolerance allowed meant that the Swiss assay process became the same as the British. There was then no need to use the 0.935 fineness mark since silver watch cases had to assay at 0.925 or better.
The 1914 Decree specified that for “les boîtes d'argent à «0,925» avec le poinçon «ours»” (silver cases at "0.925" must be stamped with the "bear" hallmark). It was therefore recommended that for silver watch cases, Swiss watch case manufacturers use the fineness mark 0,925 rather than 0,935, corresponding to the British fineness of Sterling 0·925, and that a single bear hallmark be used instead of the three bears used until that date.
The cases of watches exported from Switzerland and hallmarked in Britain during the war under this agreement would bear two sets of hallmarks, Swiss and British. However, these are not seen very often, suggesting that Swiss manufacturers didn't take advantage of the agreement. Although it might have made life easier for watch case manufacturers, it was most likely the watch manufacturers who objected.
The agreement meant that either watches would be exported complete, with their movements being removed in Britain so that the cases could be hallmarked, or that cases and movements were exported separately and brought together in Britain after the cases were hallmarked. However, watch manufacturers liked to put watches on final test for a number of days after they were cased before they were released, so would not have liked the idea of the movements being fitted or refitted in Britain.
The Swiss hallmarks in the case of my grandfather's wristwatch, shown here, are a mixture of the 0.935 fineness mark and the single bear. It is evident that although the Swiss Bureaux de Contrôle quickly discontinued the three bears hallmark after 1914, Swiss watch case manufacturers took a while to catch up. The fact that tolerance was not allowed on the assay of watch cases destined for Britain most likely made it necessary to continue using nominal 0.935 standard stock to ensure that it passed assay, and there was no legal requirement to change a 0.935 punch for a 0.925 punch - in fact the higher number looked better to prospective customers, and so long as the case passed assay at 0.925, the Bureaux de Contrôle would hallmark it.
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Export Hallmark 1924
In 1924 the Swiss Federal Council received to a request by the Association of Swiss Gold Watch Case Manufacturers to permit gold watch cases of below 14 carat to be assayed and hallmarked if they were to be exported to countries where such standards were legal. This was effectively a request to generalise, and extend to other countries, the provisions of the 1914 decree, which only applied to 9 and 12 carat gold watch cases destined for Britain.
1924 Eidgenössisches Kreuz Hallmark
It was noted in the request that in several countries in addition to Great Britain where gold fineness levels below 14 carats were legal and could be hallmarked. It was remarked that “Watches with cases in these gold fineness find considerable sales in England.”
In response to this request, on 31 March 1924, the Federal Council decreed that from 1 May 1924, any gold watch case of below the legal fineness of 14 carats, but not less than 8 carats, could be assayed and hallmarked with the “Eidgenössisches Kreuz” or Swiss Federal Cross in an official Swiss Bureau de Contrôle (assay office) as a guarantee of the stated fineness at the request of the producer.
This Decree didn't alter the legal standards of fineness for gold in Switzerland, but it meant that the Swiss Bureaux de Contrôle could test and hallmark items of below 14 carat fineness, but not less than 8 carats, providing that they were to be exported.
It was decreed that the fineness should be marked either in parts per thousand such as 0.375 or carats such as "9 C". The case manufacturer stamped the fineness mark and the Bureau de Contrôle counter stamped the Federal cross after confirming the fineness by assay.
Borgel 9 carat gold watchcase
Image courtesy of and © Bill Whiteley
The photograph here shows a nine carat gold Borgel watch case with an example of these Swiss hallmarks.
One interesting feature of this case is the little dot right in the centre of the case that looks like a punch mark. This has been made by the watch movement centre pivot. The cost of gold compared to other metals was, and still is, very high, the average gold/silver price ratio during the 20th century was 47:1 meaning that gold was nearly 50 times as expensive as silver. Because of this, gold cases were made as thin as possible, thinner than silver cases, to keep the cost down. This watch case has been made so thin that the back of the case can flex inwards and press onto the end of the centre pivot, which has left the mark in the case. Needless to say, this is not ideal for good timekeeping!
Bill Whiteley kindly measured the thickness of his 9 carat gold Borgel case for me, the back of the case is 0.28mm thick. This corresponds very well with the definition of Poinçon de Maître No. 5, the Key of Geneva, which was used on gold and platinum watch cases of minimum thickness 0.3mm made in Geneva. I am sure that a bit of polishing over the years could have reduced it by .02mm. For comparison I measured a couple of sterling silver Borgel cases of similar age and they were 0.58 and 0.56mm thick; this thickness makes a much more substantial case, but in gold would push up the cost considerably.
This is one of the points that English watchmakers and watchcase makers raised with the Select Committee on hallmarking in 1878, that English watchcases had to be made thick enough to withstand the British hallmark punches, whereas Swiss watch cases that were not required to be hallmarked could be made thinner, and therefore cheaper. I haven't yet measured a 9 carat gold Swiss case with British import hallmarks to see if that was made thicker to withstand British hallmarking, but I suspect that they weren't and that the assay offices were simply more careful in their application of the punches.
The Swiss authorities officially recognised nine carat gold as a legal standard in Switzerland in the Precious Metals Control Act of 1933, but only for watch cases. The hallmark for nine carat gold was a "morgenstern", which literally means morning start but is a medieval weapon like a mace consisting of a baton with a spiked metal ball on the end.
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The Origin of "Swiss made"
The Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 was intended to prevent the importation into Britain of foreign goods carrying names or marks implying that they were of British manufacture. It had the unintended consequence of causing the Swiss to adopt "Swiss made" as a national brand.
English watchmakers had long complained that some foreign watch manufacturers, particularly Swiss, sent watch cases to Britain to receive British hallmarks. These cases were returned to be made into complete watches that were then imported and sold in Britain. This was actually what the British law required, gold and silver watch cases being assayed and hallmarked before being sold, but the English watchmakers complained that the public believed that watches with British hallmarks were made in Britain, and they were thus being misled to their cost and to the detriment of the British watch trade.
There was probably an element of protectionism in the English watchmakers protestations, but it is also fair to say that a watch with a British hallmark upon its case and no other indication of where it was made would be easier to pass off onto a member of the public as English made than if it was marked with its place of origin. Whether this was detrimental is a moot point; if it was a good watch, then the customer would suffer no real harm, but the door was open to unscrupulous traders to pass off poor quality watches as English made, although the English also made their fair share of poor quality watches.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the watchmakers arguments, a significant proportion of the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act was taken up with ensuring that foreign watches could not be mistaken for English watches.
One of the provision was that foreign watches that were hallmarked in a British assay office would be stamped with marks that were different to the ones applied to British made items. From 1 January 1888 these new import marks took the form of a combined mark, where all the assay office marks, the town mark, standard mark and date letter, were engraved onto a single punch with the word "Foreign" predominant across the centre. It might as well have said "Foreign muck", which was perhaps what the English watchmakers would have liked to see, and the effect on foreign manufacturers was predictable and instant: no more foreign watch cases were sent to British assay offices.
Another requirement of the Act was that there were no words that implied, or could be taken to imply, British manufacture. The exact wording of the Act in section 7 was:
7. Where a watch case has thereon any words or marks which constitute, or are by common repute considered as constituting, a description of the country in which the watch was made, and the watch bears no description of the country where it was made, those words or marks shall primâ, facie be deemed to be a description of that country within the meaning of this Act.
A footnote made it clear that this was mainly concerned with hallmarks being taken as marks of origin, but it had wider consequences.
A letter published in the Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith journal in March 1888 by a Swiss national working at the time in an English custom house explained how the new law was being put into effect. He reported how watches bearing a mark "Warranted 0.800 silver" had been confiscated for two reasons; firstly, the alloy 0.800 was not of sterling silver, and secondly, "Warranted Silver" are two English words and, as there was nothing else upon the watch indicates its place of origin, the mere fact that the words were in English was deemed to falsely indicate that the watch had been made in England. Other watches without any place of origin but marked "Patent Chronograph", or with only "Fast" and "Slow" upon the regulator and no other words or marks, were also seized for the same reason.
However, it is clear that some Swiss manufacturers were aware of the Merchandise Marks Act and had already taken action. An article in the Swiss watch trade journal La Fédération Horlogère Suisse on 3 March 1888 reported that the Swiss Consulate General in London had requested that the British customs allow watches bearing the inscription "Swiss Make" to be imported. The British customs agreed to this request, but only until the beginning of April and on the condition that for each shipment a prior declaration was sent to the central customs in London so that it could give orders to the customs of the respective port.
The report does not state why watches marked "Swiss make" were being seized, but the fact that a declaration had to be sent to the central authority prior to each of the shipments so that orders could be issued to the ports implies that it was local port officers who had concluded that "Swiss make" was not acceptable. The reason for this almost certainly lies in a General Order in regard to watches issued on 18 January 1888 by the Commissioner of Customs. The order stated that watches could be imported if they had a foreign assay mark and no wording ... indicating make or produce in the United Kingdom, and it may be that keen eyed customs officers had picked up on the word "make" in this awkwardly worded phrase, or they had decided that "Swiss make" did not constitute a ... definite indication of the place or country in which the watches were made. Whatever the reason, it is clear that watches bearing "Swiss make" were not going to be allowed in after the first of April 1888.
La Fédération Horlogère Suisse, March 1888
The article concludes with the paragraph shown here, which says We add that from the beginning of April, the brand "Swiss make" will not be accepted and it should be replaced with "Manufactured in Switzerland", "Swiss Made" or simply "Swiss", subject to the decision to be taken by the British government as a recognition of the official Swiss control punching as sufficient indication of origin..
The final sentence about "poinçonnement officiel suisse de contrôle", the Swiss term for government regulated hallmarking, suggests that the British government might accept Swiss hallmarks as as sufficient indication of origin. But these were only placed on gold and silver watch cases, not steel, nickel, plated cases, or watch movements themselves, so there was no chance this would be accepted as adequate.
Of the three possible choices of mark suggested, "Manufactured in Switzerland" would meet the requirements but was too long to fit comfortably on a watch dial or movement, and simply "Swiss" was probably considered insufficiently specific to meet the British requirements.
As we now know, the wording chosen by the Swiss in the spring of 1888 was the simple yet precise "Swiss Made". Virtually every Swiss watch made since then has carried this proud legend, which became known worldwide and created a strong and unified identity for the Swiss watch industry, all thanks to a British Act of Parliament!
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Plaqué Or - Gold Plated
The phrase "plaqué or" means gold plated; rather confusingly for English speakers, the Swiss/French word for gold is "or".
"Plaque or", or "plaqué or", usually means the item was made from material plated with thin sheets of gold mechanically bonded or welded to a base metal core, rather than plated by electro-deposition. This is often accompanied by a guarantee such as "garanti x ans", which means "guaranteed to wear for x years", usually 10, 20 or 30 years, before the base metal shows through.
The extract from La Fédération Horlogère Suisse from May 1926 shown above says that the Bureau of Control are responsible for the guarantee of duration of the plate - la duree du plaque - that is marked, as well as any other indications that are marked.
When Plaqué is used on its own without the additional "or" it usually means gold plated by electroplating. A thin layer of gold is deposited onto the finished item by putting it into a solution of gold salts and passing an electric current through the solution and the item, which deposits an extremely thin layer of pure gold onto the item. This is cheap because the quantity of gold deposited is very small, usually far to small to weigh. A guarantee of wear cannot be made for electroplated gold because it is so thin that it wears through very quickly.
For more about the different types of plating see metal plating.
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Precious Metals Control Act 1933
Swiss Official hallmarks for watch cases from 1933
Some changes to Swiss hallmarks were made by the Precious Metals Control Act of 20 June 1933. These are summarised in the figure here.
From 1880 to 1933 there were two Swiss standards for gold, 18 carat signified by the female head of Helvetia, and 14 carat signified by a squirrel. The standard for 18 carat gold remained at ·750 but the standard for 14 carat gold was raised slightly from ·583 to ·585, in order to come into line with other European countries.
In addition to the higher standards for gold, which continued after 1933 with the same marks, a new legal standard of 9 carats was introduced, only for watch cases as the footnote in the figure states. This superseded the 1924 law which allowed 9 carat gold watch cases to be stamped with a federal cross, but did not make 9 carat a legal standard in Switzerland. The hallmark was a morgenstern (which translates literally as “morning star” but was actually the name of a rather evil looking medieval spiked club or mace) was added for 375‰, i.e. 9 carat, gold – but only for watch cases as the note in the figure shows.
In 1887 the Swiss authorities introduced a standard for silver of ·935, which was was equivalent to sterling silver when the tolerance allowed under Swiss law was taken into account. In 1933 a silver standard of ·925, the same as British sterling, was introduced, identified by a symbol of a duck. The previous higher Swiss legal standard of ·875 silver, signified by a rampant bear, and the hallmark of three bears for ·935 silver, were both discontinued.
The capercaillie continued as before to signify silver of ·800, which could not be imported into the UK.
It is possible in watch cases made before 1933 to see both the Swiss ·935 and the UK hallmark ·925 stamped in the same case. There is no conflict between the ·925 and .935, because they are both the standard or guaranteed minimum purity of the metal, not its actual purity, which is always made a little higher than the standard to ensure that the assay test is passed.
A single standard for platinum of 950‰ or 95% had been introduced in 1914, signified by the head of a chamois goat. From 1933 the standard remained the same at 950‰ but the symbol was changed to an ibex goat. If you are to be an expert on Swiss platinum, you need to be able to tell an ibex from a chamois: they both look like goats to me . . .
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Other Marks on Swiss watches
Swiss Federal Cross
Swiss Federal Cross
The Swiss Federal Cross is often seen in cases and on movements. It is usually a reference to a patent, and if it is followed by a number, then that is almost invariably the number of the patent.
Sometimes a patent number isn't given. There are various reasons for this, which revolve around whether a patent has actually been granted, and whether it is actually relevant. Manufacturers liked to allude to patents in order to give the idea that their design included some clever feature, or that it was protected from copying by a patent. Sometimes this was just sheer bluff.
Brevet Dem., Mod. Dep., etc.
In Swiss/French "brevet d'invention" means patent, this is often abbreviated to simply brevet. "Modèle" means design, "deposé"means to file, lodge or deposit, and "demandé" means requested. Combinations of these words, often together with the Swiss Federal Cross symbol, are often found in the backs of watch cases.
|The Swiss Federal Cross usually signifies that a Patent has been granted. If there is a number it indicates the patent number, often no number is quoted.|
|Brevet||On its own or together with the Swiss Federal Cross this usually signifies that a Patent has been granted, if there is a number then that indicates the patent number.|
|Brevet Deposé||Sometimes abbreviated to "Brevet Dep." This seems to mean "Registered Patent" - perhaps that an application for a patent has been registered but the patent not yet granted, the same as Brevet Demandé.|
|Brevet Demandé||Patent Requested. Sometimes abbreviated to Brevet Dem., Brevet Dem, or just Br. Dem. Since this refers to an application for a patent that has not yet been granted there cannot be a patent number.|
|Modèle Déposé||Registered Design. Sometimes abbreviated to Mod. Dep., Déposé or just Dep.|
|Dep. or Dep.||Dep. on its own or with the Swiss Federal Cross usually means Modèle Déposé as above.|
Brevet Deposé and Brevet Demandé both mean essentially the same thing, that a patent has been applied for, but of course there is no guarantee that an application will result in the grant of a patent and neither are official terms. Brevet Deposé sounds more convincing, like the rather presumptive "Patent Pending", which also has no official status.
Modèle Déposé does actually mean something, the design has been officially recorded and "registered", the same as a British "Registered Design". This doesn't convey protection in the same way that a patent protects an invention, but it forms an official record of who first produced the design and can be used in cases of copyright dispute.
Swiss/French Watch terms
|Aguilles||The hands which indicate time on the dial. This word is often engraved on an inner cuvette inside the back of a watch next to a hole, showing where to put the key to set the hands to time.|
|Ancre||A lever escapement, from the shape of the lever and pallet fork carrying the pallets which resembles a ship's anchor.|
|Ancre Ligne Droit||Straight line lever escapement. In a Swiss straight line lever escapement the pivots of the balance staff, lever and escape wheel are in a straight line, as opposed to the English lever where the pivot of the escape wheel is at a right angle to that of the lever. In French, straight ahead or in a straight line (and also correct, legal, moral, etc.) is droit; the direction to the right (as opposed to gauche for left) is droite.|
|Argent||Silver. Silver gilt (gold plated silver) was stamped Argent so that it was not mistaken for gold.|
|Balancier compensé||Compensation balance, a balance that compensates for the effect of temperature changes. Usually a "cut bimetallic balance" that changes its radius of gyration with temperature to compensate for changes in the strength of the balance spring.|
|Balancier chronomètre||Means literally chronometer balance, but has no specific meaning. In older watches and box chronometers it is a compensation balance, in newer watches it is often just a fancy term for a balance.|
|Cuivre||This is the Swiss/French word for "copper". It is often seen on the inner cover or cuvette inside the outer watch case back to indicate that it is made of base metal. These inner cuvettes are usually gold or silver plated and without this word stamped on them could be mistaken for being gold or solid silver.|
|Cylindre||The movement has a cylinder escapement.|
|Double Plateau||Double roller. The roller is a boss or collet that is mounted on the balance staff. It carries the impulse pin, which unlocks and receives impulse from the lever, and it also functions as a safety device. A notch in the roller allows a guard pin mounted on the lever to pass only during the action of unlocking an impulse. At other times, if the watch is subjected to a shock, the guard pin hits the edge of the roller which prevents the lever from moving out of place. A double roller lever escapement has separate impulse and safety rollers, the safety roller being made smaller to reduce friction when the guard pin hits it, which reduces the effect of a shock on timekeeping. Older lever escapements had a single roller.|
|Eschappement||Escapement - usually either “cylindre” (see) or lever.|
|Galonné||Silver that was mechanically gold plated, as opposed to electroplated. Gold leaf was hot rolled onto silver in a process similar to making Sheffield plate. Because the gold leaf was very thin, the gold plating wore off fairly easily. The gold leaf was much thinner than the silver plating used to make Sheffield silver, or the layer of gold of rolled gold or gold filled items. It was similar in thickness to electroplate.|
|Levées Visibles||A lever escapement with visible pallets. Earlier pallet stones were set into the steel body of the pallet fork so that their top and bottom faces were covered. It was found that pallet stones were sufficiently well retained by shellac that they could be set into simple slots in the pallet fork, leaving their top and bottom faces visible. It is not obvious why this was worth a song and dance, but there you go.|
|Metal||Seen on the inner cover or cuvette inside the case back to indicate that it is made of base metal: see cuivre above.|
|Plaqué or||Plaqué means plated; rather confusingly for English speakers the Swiss/French word for gold is “or”, so “plaqué or” means gold plated. Usually “plaqué or” means gold filled or rolled gold, whereas “plaqué” alone without the “or” usually means electroplated.|
|P.O.G||“Plaqué Or Galvanique” means electroplated with gold.|
|Remontoir||Stem winding with a crown, instead of being wound with a separate loose key. (Remontoire (with an "e" on the end) means a spring in the train designed to even out the torque from the mainspring, which was used by Harrison and Breguet but is otherwise rare.)|
|XX Rubis||The number of jewel bearings. A watch with 15 jewels, 15 rubis, is said to be “fully jewelled”. Originally made from natural ruby gem stones, which were superseded when the French chemist Auguste Verneuil found a way to make synthetic sapphire. Sapphire and ruby are variations of aluminium oxide, the different colours produced by traces of other elements.|
|Spiral Bréguet||Breguet balance spring, a balance spring with a Breguet overcoil. The overcoil was invented by Breguet to make the balance spring expand and contract more evenly as the balance swings backwards and forwards and the balance spring winds and unwinds. This improves isochronism, and balance springs with overcoils are called Breguet balance springs in his honour.|
|Trous||Literally “holes”. In this context it refers to hole in the plates or bridges that are bearings for the arbors. These are often set with jewels to reduce friction and wear, e.g. "Huit trous en Rubis" means eight jewel holes of rubies - real gem stones.|
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Helmsman Trademark: Coullery Freres
One trademark that I get regularly asked about is the ships helmsman or sailor with a ship's wheel shown in the images here, sometimes also called the ship's skipper or pilot.
The entry from Kochmann's "Trademarks of European Origins" shows that the helmsman image was registered by Coullery Freres of Fontenais, Switzerland, in 1885 for watches and watch cases. The watches carrying this mark are usually standard Swiss bar movements with cylinder escapements.
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Saturn Trademark with EV: Etienne Varin
Another trademark that crops up fairly often is a ringed planet that looks like Saturn with the initials EV on the lower part of the planet. This trademark was registered in 1887 by Etienne Varin of Fontenais, Switzerland, a watch case maker.
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This rather splendid knight's helmet, with open visor and apparently empty, crops up in Swiss watch cases. Unfortunately I have so far been unable to identify who the trademark belonged to.
The three bears (a small one above and just touching the visor, and two larger below the helmet) and 0·935 fineness stamp show that this case was definitely hallmarked after 1 January 1888, and most likely before 1 June 1907.
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Mark on Movement
Mark in Caseback
The two radiant sun marks here both come from the same pocket watch. The watch is Swiss, with an 18 carat gold case carrying the Swiss hallmark for 18 carat gold, the head of Helvetia. This shows that it was hallmarked after the Swiss Precious Metals Control Act of 23 December 1880 introduced a uniform system of hallmarking for watch cases to be used throughout Switzerland.
As might be expected for a watch with such a valuable case, it has well finished and fully jewelled (15 jewel) Swiss lever movement. Unfortunately I have been unable to identify the owner of the radiant sun trademark. The sun was used by a lot of different people, I found 222 entries involving sun symbology, but none was exactly the same.
The mark is similar to the Phoebus Town Mark introduced in 1887 for the London Assay Office to use on imported watch cases, but it is not part of a hallmark and is not the same, so this is just a curious coincidence.
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Dove with Olive Branch
La Centrale Dove Trademark
La Centrale Dove Trademark Registration
This trademark of a dove with olive branch was fist registered by the watch case company “Fabrique de Boites La Centrale” of Bienne on 24 April 1922.
The registration drawing with No. 154 shows that this existing mark was entered into the central register in 1934 when the Swiss systems of Poinçons de Maître was centralised in 1934.
La Centrale was founded by the Brandt brothers in a factory building that they had initially rented and then purchased from Schneider & Perret-Gentil in 1880 as their first factory in Bienne. La Centrale was set up in this factory in 1896 to make watch cases for Omega.
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Heart with Diamond
The shield containing a heart and diamond is a trademark of Courvoisier Frères of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
This company could trace its roots back to 1842, founded by Henri-Louis Courvoisier and his brother Philippe Auguste Courvoisier out of the father's firm Courvoisier & Cie, but after a split between the two brothers the company was reconstituted in 1852, which it subsequently used as its founding date.
In 1880 the company registered its name and trademark as Courvoisier Frères.
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B&K: Bourquin & Kenel
The B&Q trademark with stars and arrows was registered by Bourquin & Kenel of La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1890 for watch movements and cases. The company was founded in 1849 and, according to Kathleen H. Pritchard “Swiss Timepiece Makers, 1775-1975” said that it specialised in exports to Germany, Scandinavia and Russia, and made "levers and cylinders", 10 to 24 lignes, in gold and silver cases. The company registered its name in 1894, 1897 and 1898 for making cases, cuvettes, dials, movements and watch boxes, in 1906 for making watches, watch parts and boxes, and in 1910 for small watches. The company might have made these things, but it seems more likely that they bought in movements from one of the ébauche manufacturers, and possibly also bought in cases, dials, etc. and assembled watches. The company became D Kenel-Bourquin in 1922.
The Bourquin name appears quite a lot in Swiss watchmaking; Pritchard list over 40 occurrences of the name over 6 pages, although many of these are single line entries and appear to be trading entities rather than manufactures. However, one has more details; Ferdinand Bourquin, founded in 1841, subsequently owned by several generations of the same family including Julien Bourquin, clearly was #a watch movement manufacturer. In 1892 this company was granted Swiss patent 4900 for a counter mechanism for chronographs, which was sold in 1895 to Alfred Lugrin.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2022 all rights reserved. This page updated May 2022. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.