Who Made My Watch?Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved.
The question I am most often asked is some variation of "Who made my watch?"
This question usually occurs because the watch has no visible name or brand, and the answer is not quite as straightforward as you might think. There are various reasons why an old watch does not carry a maker's name. It has not always been the case that everything carried a name, or that a watch with no name was made by a well-known company who have hidden their name out of sight for some mysterious reason.
A few top makers have always put their names onto the small number of exquisitely made, and exquisitely expensive, items they made; people like Tompion, Lépine, Breguet and Patek Philippe. The Swiss call such outfits a "manufacture", and there are very few of them. Manufacturers or assemblers of less exalted watches didn't put a name on; before mass media and advertising there was no point in doing so. When mass media and advertising came along it became worthwhile to advertise and build up a brand name in the public's minds. This started out with beer and soap, but eventually spread to mass produced watches. In Britain this was fiercely resisted by retailers. If there was any name put on a watch they wanted it to be their own, not someone else's.
There is a distinction between the name of a maker, i.e. someone who actually made something and put their name on it, and the name a brand, which is often no more than a name on some headed notepaper, an office, and a big marketing budget to sell otherwise anonymous mass produced products. Branding of mass produced items is a relatively recent concept which started in the 1920s and only really go going after the second world war, but today people are so used to seeing brand names on everything, especially watches, that they expect to see one, and are puzzled if there is no obvious name.
For watches made before World War 2, English and Swiss watches sold in Britain most often carry the name of the retailer, American made watches usually carry the name of the manufacturer, and Swiss watches often carry no name at all, or just simply "Swiss Made", see The Origin of "Swiss made" for how a British Act of Parliament forced the Swiss to develop this national brand.
There was also a trade of importing "bare", i.e. uncased, Swiss movements into Britain and America and putting them in to locally made gold cases. This was because of high import duties that affected watches in gold cases more than those in cases made from other metals because gold cases are so much more expensive. See The Great War and Gold Cases for more detail about this in Britain.
Of course this is rather a broad generalisation, because some English and Swiss watches, usually the best quality, did carry the manufacturer's name. And before the middle of the nineteenth century, some Swiss watches, usually of the worst quality, carried fake names pretending that they were of English or American manufacture. These are sometimes called "Dutch forgeries" or "Dutch fakes", because in the eighteenth century they were imported into Britain from the low countries and it was assumed that they were made there, but in fact they were made in Switzerland. They were given false names, "Tarts, London" being a common one, and exported all over the world, exploiting the reputation of English watch makers. See Dutch Fakes or Dutch Forgeries for more on this. The large scale faking of Swiss watches in the far east is an ironic modern twist on this story.
The reasons for these differences came from the way that the watch manufacturing industries in each country arose and developed. In the three sections of this page devoted to English, American and Swiss watches I discuss why this was for each country. In the final section I discuss what the numbers often found on watch movements and cases mean, and whether you can use them to discover who made a watch.
If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact Me page.
Most English watches of the nineteenth century and earlier do not carry the name of their ‘maker’; instead the name of the retailer who ordered the watch and sold it in his shop was engraved on the movement, and sometimes enamelled onto the dia. The exceptions to this rule are a few well-known makers whose reputation for high quality work added to the value of the watch. These are easily identified. If a watch carries an unknonwn name, one that is not associated with a well known watchmaker, then the name will be that of the retailer.
To begin with the name of the retailer was engraved onto the movement top plate. Later it was put onto a removable plate fixed to the top plate over the barrel. This plate was originally introduced to make it easy to remove the mainspring barrel without dismantling the whole movement so that a broken spring could be replaced, but it soon became the usual place to engrave the retailer's name because that could easily be done at a late stage in the making of the watch.
If the engraving was not done at the time the watch was being made, it was sent out with the barrel plate blank so that the retailer could add his own name, or his customer's name later. Sometimes it is obvious that this has been done because the engraving cuts through the gilding, or the plate has been re-gilded and is a different colour to the rest of the movement. Sometimes the plate was left blank and the watch carries no name.
It is very rare to find on an English watch the name of the person who actually ‘made’ it. One of the reasons for this is the way that English watches were made, which meant that there was no one maker in the traditionally understood meaning of the word; it was more of a team effort.
English watches were almost all made entirely using craft methods, hand tools and simple hand powered machines, and the system of "putting out". Each part was made or finished by an individual craftsman working in his own home or small workshop, often working for several different customers.
By the nineteenth century the movements usually began as "frames", consisting of the plates and a few parts of the mechanism such as the spring barrel, fusee and train wheels on their arbors. These frames were made at Prescot in Lancashire, many by John Wycherley, an English pioneer of mass production, until Coventry started to make frames in the late nineteenth century.
The frames were sent from Prescot to the traditional watchmaking centres of London, Coventry and Birmingham to be "finished" into working movements and then fitted with dials, hands and cases. Sometimes this was done by someone who directly employed journeymen and apprentices to do the finishing, but many watches were made by the process of "putting out" - sending the part finished watch to various specialists working in their own homes or small workshops to have each stage of the work completed. This person might have considered themself to be the manufacturer, even though their role was organising the work rather than actually making any of the parts.
Most often the name of the retailer, the shop keeper who had ordered the watch to be made, was engraved as if they were the manufacturer. In the days before mass advertising, a local retailer was someone well known and trusted by customers in the local area, whereas they would never have heard of the. The name was usually engraved on the barrel bar, a small plate above the mainspring barrel that could be easily removed for this work. Often watches were sent out with the barrel bar blank so that a retailer could have his, or his customer's, name engraved on it.
Most English watches have a serial number on the top plate. It is not possible to work backwards from the serial number to discover who was the manufacturer. Unless you know who made the watch, and have access to the factory records (which is unlikely), you cannot discover anything from the serial number alone.
Mr R. E. Tucker, 1933
Some of the best known London makers did establish a sufficient reputation for their name to be valuable and be put onto the movement or dial, but many of the hundreds, or even thousands, of small "makers" are unknown. Even the best English makers did not always put their name on their work, the retailers preferring that if any name appeared it should be theirs. Appearing in 1887 before a Select Committee considering amendments to the 1862 Merchandise Marks Act, Mr Joseph Usher, of the very renowned London watchmaking company Usher and Cole, said that ... it is very seldom that our names appear on the watches that we make. Speaking in an interview in 1933, Mr R. E. Tucker, who had worked at Williamsons, attributed this to the attitude of British retailers, who wanted to put their own name on the watches that they sold.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century a few English watch manufacturers, the best known being Rotherhams of Coventry, introduced mechanical methods of manufacture and produced enough watches to be known by name, but their production quantities were small compared to the American factories, and they suffered from too little investment too late, being unable to keep up with changing fashions and finally swept away by Swiss imports and the wristwatch.
This makes it all rather difficult if you decide you want to collect English watches and pursue a theme to the collection — say if you wanted to make a collection of Rotherhams watches to see how the styles and technology changed over the years. Unless the vendor recognises the movement as being made by Rotherhams, they will list the watch under the retailers name. Sometimes a search on ebay for "Rotherham" can have surprising results, such as a watch listed as "Mint Silver Fusee Rotherham Massey 1 Pocket Watch 1828" which turned out to be signed "William Farnill Rotherham" who turned out to be a retailer in Rotherham. In "Reminiscences of Rotherham", Alderman George Gummer, J.P., records that on the High Street in Rotherham was "... the shop of an eccentric old man named William Farnill, who carried on a mixed business, dealing in confectionery, toys, watches and jewellery - a curious combination. This shop, always popular with the younger generation, had in it a proprietor who was a greater curiosity than his wares." Needless to say, this watch has nothing to do with Rotherhams the Coventry watch manufacturer, and neither was it "made" by William Farnill, whose name was engraved on it by the anonymous finisher.
When English watches were exported to America, the name of the eventual retailer was not known so fictitious names were made up. In an article in Antiquarian Horology June 2009, Alan Treherne wrote about George Clerke, a London manufacturer who supplied watches to provincial watchmakers and jewellers and also exported many watches to America. Clerke gave evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in 1817 about the practice of putting fictitious names on clocks and watches. Clerke used fictitious names such as Fairplay, Fondling and Hicks on watches he exported to America - an invoice to Demilts of New York USA was reproduced in the article showing these names on watches supplied by Clerke. English made cases were expensive and so many "bare" movements, that is they were without a case, were sent to America and cased there.
So collecting English watches looks a bit like pot-luck. But you can improve your chances of getting what you want by leaning the characteristics of the watches you are after, the layout of the top plates and the sponsor's marks of the watch case makers for silver and gold cases. But even then, finding something specific is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.
So Who Did Make my English Watch?
If you have an English watch that does have a name on the dial or engraved on the plates and it is not the name of one of the small number of well known English watchmakers that can be easily researched, then it is most likely to be the name of the retailer who ordered the watch to be made and sold it in their shop, or sometimes the name of the customer who bought the watch. This is the case for the vast majority of English made watches.
Many retailers called themselves "watchmakers" although they were not watch manufacturers and did not actually ‘make’ the watches that they sold. The term watchmaker undoubtedly originally meant someone who made watches, but by the eighteenth century the trade of watchmaking had been divided into many separate branches and no one person made a whole watch, although someone who had completed an apprenticeship should, in theory, have been capable of making all the parts of a watch. People who made parts for or repaired watches started called themselves watchmakers, and then also those who only serviced watches, and finally jewellers who simply ordered watches from the manufacturers started calling themselves watchmakers.
Sometimes it is possible to discover who made the "frame" or rough movement by looking for initials on the bottom or pillar plate, the plate underneath the dial. An example of these are the initials JW for John Wycherley of Prescot, an English pioneer of mass produced frames. Click this link to see a watch with a Wycherley frame. If you have the watch serviced, which you certainly should do if you intend to use it, then ask your watchmaker to take a photograph of the plate for you.
If there is no name on the dial or engraved on the movement, then the watch was "made" by one of the small "makers" whose name was not sufficiently well known or celebrated to be worth the expense of engraving it onto the plate, and the retailer didn't have his name engraved, probably for reasons of cost.
If there is a serial number on the watch, that will almost always be a number put on by the watch "maker" rather than by the retailer.
Who Made the Watch Case
It is often easy to find out who was responsible for making the watch case, because for hallmarking purposes a sponsor's mark had to entered at the assay office and each case punched with this mark before it was submitted for hallmarking. Sometimes this can lead to the name of the watch manufacturer if they were large enough to have a case making department, such as Rotherhams of Coventry. But often it only gives you the name of an independent watch case maker, working on his own account for anyone who cared to place an order with him.
The term "maker" is loaded with misunderstanding. Watch case making had its own specialists and a case maker would employ many journeyman workers: the case maker who made the basic structure of the case, soldering together the band and case back, the joint maker who made the "joints" (hinges of the case), the springer, the pendant maker, the polisher, and the "boxer in". So each case was the result of a team of specialists rather than the product of a single "maker", and the owner of the enterprise probably never laid his hands on a case day to day. The use of the term "maker's mark" in the context of hallmarking has contributed to this misunderstanding over many years, which is why the term "sponsor's mark" is preferred.
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America had no traditional craft watchmaking industry, where watches were manufactured largely by hand using simple tools and craft methods. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there may have been a few individual American watchmakers who worked in this way, but very few of their watches survive. They would have imported at least some specialist tools and parts, such as the springs and dials, from England or Switzerland, but probably most watches were imported complete, or at least complete movements that were cased in America, which the American watchmakers then put their names on.
Watches began to be manufactured in large numbers in America in the 1850s in large integrated factories by companies following the model of the first such factory, set up by Aaron Dennison, Edward Howard and David Davis that became the American Watch Company of Waltham, often called simply the Waltham Watch Co. Spin-offs and rivals were set up in competition such as Elgin, Howard, Hampden and the Springfield Illinois Watch Company.
The American factories used what became known as the "American system" of watch manufacture, or the "gauged and interchangeable" principle. Aaron Dennison recorded that he had been inspired by a visit to the Springfield Armory where rifles were made with interchangeable parts to conceive that watches could be made this way; from interchangeable parts mass produced on purpose made machinery, assembled by mainly semi-skilled labour. Each factory produced watches by their thousands, and the names of the factories stamped onto the movements became well known in the trade and to customers. The factory name became a powerful marketing tool.
There are good records for most of the American factories' production data and you can find out when a watch was made from its manufacturer and serial number. A great resource for this is Nathan Moore's Pocket Watch Database.
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The watches most frequently encountered with no name on them are usually Swiss from before the 1930s, but why was this?
Watchmaking in Switzerland was an important national industry and Switzerland made more watches than any other country, and carried on making them in greater and greater numbers after first the English and then American watchmaking industries faded away. Some Swiss watches carry the names of their makers, but many do not. Today people expect to see a brand name on everything, and recognising that the older Swiss watches that do carry names tend to be the top end and most expensive, are keen to find out who made their watch.
But many Swiss watches were assembled in small workshops from individual components that were sourced from separate specialist suppliers. Before branding was created by clever marketing people in order to get customers to pay more than an item was intrinsically worth, it didn't occur to these assemblers to put their name on the watches they "made". This is rather ironic when today a "brand" can be created without the brand owners having any manufacturing capability at all.
There was also a peculiarity in the British market where retailers did not like to see any name on the dial other than their own, which subdued the development of branding until the idea was imported from America. This meant that even those Swiss manufacturers who did wish to put their name onto the watches they made were prevented from doing so on watches that were for export to Britain and her colonies; which before the Great War were a large and important market. It was Hans Wilsdorf of Rolex who broke this system. When he launched the Rolex Oyster in 1927 he took out a huge advertising campaign which led to people asking for Rolex watches by name. This forced British retailers to stock Rolex branded watches, and other Swiss manufacturers soon caught on.
If the movement has no visible name on it, sometimes the trademark of the maker of the ébauche can be found on the bottom plate under the dial, such as FHF for Fabrique d'horlogerie de Fontainemelon or AS for A. Schild. This generally applies to watches made in the twentieth century, and these trademarks were put there so that spare parts for the movement could be ordered easily, they do not identify the "maker" of the watch, only the manufacturer of the ébauche.
The worldwide supply of spare parts by the Swiss watch industry really only got going after the second world war, and books that identify movements, such as the Official Catalogue of Swiss Watch Repair Parts and after market catalogues such as "Bestfit" and Swartchilds, only cover watches made in the preceding decade or so, i.e. from the 1930s. Earlier ébauches can sometimes be identified, see Movement Identification.
To understand this in more detail one needs to go back to the origins of the Swiss watch industry. To begin with, from the sixteenth century watches were made in Geneva by small concerns, perhaps one master and a few journeymen and apprentices, that made all of the parts of the watch "in-house". These became called a "manufacture". Note: not a "manufacturer", which carries connotations of factory mass production. No, the Swiss term "manufacture" is rooted in the Latin manu factum; literally "hand made". Later, watch making began in the Jura mountains, which eventually became the dominant area of Swiss watch making. This industry was begun in the seventeenth century by Daniel Jeanrichard and provided occupation for farmers during the long winter. Farmers specialised in a making individual components of a watch, and these would be brought together and assembled into a complete watch by an établisseur.
The Geneva watch makers, some of whom could trace their roots back to the middle ages and the beginning of watchmaking, often did put their names onto the watches they made, but in Neuchâtel, and the Jura mountains, in places such as Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Vallée de Joux, where the vast majority of Swiss watch were made in the nineteenth and twentieth century, although almost everyone was involved in some way in watchmaking in some way, no one actually made in one single workshop all the separate parts and assembled them into a complete watch. The whole area was devoted to watchmaking, with thousands of small workshops making parts of watches. This is why watches from this region were rarely marked with an individual maker's name; they were the product of a collaborative effort involving many individual companies and specialists rather than a single individual "maker".
In the middle of the nineteenth century, when the American watch industry got going, American watches gained a better reputation than Swiss imports, so some unscrupulous manufacturers started to put American sounding names onto watches destined for the USA.
The Swiss Watch Industry
Old-established companies in Geneva, such as Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe, were (and these two companies still are) "manufactures", began by making most or all of the parts of their watches in-house. As time passed they started to use machines to make movement parts, and to buy in some special components from outside specialists, such as cases, dials and hands. In fact, the Stern family who eventually took over Patek Philippe began their relationship with the company as a supplier of dials. But the essential element of "manufacture" was still carried on — each part was exquisitely finished by hand by a skilled craftsman. These manufactures established reputations and put their name clearly on the finished watch. Patek-Philippe's reputation was helped along when Prince Albert famously purchased Patek Philippe watches for himself and Queen Victoria at London's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, no doubt to the annoyance of English watchmakers.
However, the "haute horology" (high, or top end, "manufactures") became a minority of Swiss watch makers after the creation of the mass production watch industry in the Jura region in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, after Daniel Jean-Richard showed farmers in the Jura mountains how to supplement their income by making watch parts during the long winter months when they were snowed in and work in the fields was impossible. After that revolution most Swiss watches were made by a style of manufacturing called établissage. Material was provided to workers operating in their own homes or small workshops, and then the finished components were collected and assembled into complete watches in a workshop or small factory établissement". The man in charge of the whole process was called the établisseur.
An early Stauffer movement. Very typical pattern nineteenth century bar movement with cylinder escapement. Such movements are usually anonymous. Click image to enlarge.
There were of course exceptions. One of the most notable was Longines, who set up an integrated factory in the 1860s to produce complete watches, another was Stauffer, Son & Co., and there was IWC, the International Watch Company in Schaffhausen, in the German speaking part of Switzerland.
The movement in the photograph here is a very typical nineteenth century Swiss bar movement with a cylinder escapement. This particular movement was made by Stauffer, Son & Co. and carries their name and trademark, but movements of this pattern all looking very similar were made in their millions in the nineteenth century so you cannot assume a maker just from seeing this layout.
This particular movement is nicely made and finished with jewel bearings for the train wheels and blued screws, but watches with movements like this usually carry no maker's name or trademark, and are often less well finished with no train jewels. They are serviceable but very basic watches.
I have never seen a watch with the name Stauffer, Son & Co. on the dial, although their movements are clearly marked. This was because they concentrated on the British market where, until the 1920s, retailers did not allow manufacturers to put their name on the dial; If any name appeared it was that of the retailer. Longines and IWC put their names on the dials of some of their watches, but these were destined for the Swiss home market or to be exported to countries other than Britain. These were exceptions, many watches in the Neuchâtel and Jura regions, in and around Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds, were assembled from components by small établisseurs who, before the age of marketing and brands never even though of putting a name on the dials of the watches they assembled.
When Swiss exports to America fell off dramatically in the 1870s as the Americans factories ramped up production, the Swiss reacted and mechanised, but in the main they didn't integrate into single factories making complete watches. Makers of bare movements or ébauches set up in larger factories, but many small specialist companies continued to thrive in the centres of watchmaking in the Jura; La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle and the areas around. Dial were made by specialist dial makers, hands by hand makers, cases by case maker, and so on, preserving the division of specialisation in these areas that allowed the Swiss to overcome the challenge from America.
Although the basic movement, the ébauche, looks like such a complicated and delicate thing that it must be very difficult to make, the Americans showed in the 1850s that the individual parts could be turned out very cheaply in their thousands by purpose built machinery. The Swiss had adopted this method of manufacturing and henceforth most Swiss ébauches were made by huge producers such as the Fabrique d'horlogerie de Fontainemelon, the first Swiss ébauche factory, which was set up at Fontainemelon between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchâtel, or the big factories in Grenchen such as A. Schild, and Schild Frères that became Eterna which spun off its movement department as ETA, who supplied them to the many hundreds, or even thousands, of établisseurs, who combined them with cases, dials and hands into complete watches.
Although the ébauches made by these big factories are often unnamed on the visible parts, there is frequently a trademark somewhere on them, so that spare parts could be correctly ordered. These trademarks are often on the bottom or pillar plate, underneath the dial and can only be seen when the dial is removed. Sometimes they are on the top of the pillar plate under the barrel bridge or one of the fingers and can only be seen when the movement is dismantled. The difficulty of identifying movements from just the parts that are visible when the movement is in the watch case is compounded by the huge number of different movements that were produced by the Swiss watch industry, and the habit of the manufacturers altering bridge shapes for different customers. The shape of the fingers (cocks) and bridges is more of an aesthetic consideration; so long as all the pivot holes and screw holes are in exactly the same places, then bridges of very different shapes can be freely interchanged. Some manufacturers produced many different movements with the same layout and train components but different fingers and bridges. There are some otherwise unidentified movements on my movement identification page.
Usually no one put their name onto such watches, and at the time the retailers didn't want somebody else's name on the dial, especially not if it was a Swiss watch to be sold in Britain. English made watches enjoyed a high reputation with the public, and retailers felt that having an unknown foreign sounding name on the watch would make it more difficult to sell. So they ordered watches with plain dials and had their own name put on it; e.g. Harrods and Asprey in London, Hamilton and Inches in Edinburgh, and the name of the jeweller in every city and town in between. Customers trusted their local jeweller and were happy to buy a watch with their name on the dial, and their reputation standing behind it.
To a large extent, the Swiss watch industry, the major part that was outside Geneva, in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century was one giant enterprise, the end product being "Swiss" watches. Many towns in the Jura mountains were almost entirely dedicated to the production of watch parts and the assembly of these into finished watches. In Das Kapital, first published in 1867, Karl Marx described the very high division of labour in the Swiss watch industry and said that La Chaux-de-Fonds was a "huge factory-town" such was the extent that it seemed every part of the town was involved in the industry of making watches. Individual companies competed against each other to produce parts of the watch better or cheaper, producing economies of production due to specialisation and division of labour. These individual parts were assembled into complete watches; watches that didn't have a "maker" as such, which is why there is no visible maker's name on these watches.
When a watch has been assembled from parts bought from several different companies; the movement from an ébauche factory, the case from a watch case factory, the dial from a dial maker, the hands from a factory making watch hands, and assembled in a factory that made none of the parts, one has to ask; what exactly would be meant by "maker"? Often no one though of themselves as the "maker" of the watch in terms that people think of today, which is really more about branding than actually making anything, and so no one put their name on these watches.
The Rise of "Brands"
Brand names were created in the nineteenth century to enable people to identify products that they could trust. These products were usually foodstuffs such as flour and jam, and the brand name gave customers confidence that the contents were wholesome and not adulterated, as many cheap commodities had been in earlier years. This use of brand names gradually spread to other commodities such as cigars, gunpowder and beer. When the British Trademark Registration Act 1875 was introduced the distinctive red triangle of the Bass brewery in Burton upon Trent was the first trademark to be registered.
When American watch factories such as Waltham and Elgin started mass producing good quality movements that were marked with the company name, Swiss manufacturers started to put American sounding names onto their watches. But this was not really branding as such, there was little or no marketing carried out in conjunction, the names were simply intended to sound familiar to American customers.
The British 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 initially resulted in many Swiss watches being confiscated by the British Customs authorities because they carried English words, even just "Fast" and "Slow" upon the regulator with no other words or marks to indicated the place of origin resulted in goods being seized. To avoid this a discreet "Swiss made" was placed at the bottom of the dials of watches exported to Britain, with the unintended consequence that a British trade Act caused the Swiss to create a powerful national brand: "Swiss made".
For many years, from 1888 until the 1920s, most Swiss manufacturers were happy to export watches to Britain carrying this marking, and the reputation of Swiss watches as a genus gradually rose to a very high level. You can read more about this at The brand "Swiss made".
Hans Wilsdorf was one of the first people to recognise the power of a brand in selling watches and created the Rolex name in 1908, but it wasn't until the mid-1920s that Wilsdorf succeeded in persuading English retailers to accept watches with the Rolex name instead of their own on the dial. (Ironically Rolex weren't a manufacture, they bought their watches from various makers, including a firm called Aegler who they eventually took over - there is more about this on my Rolex page.)
Where Rolex led others followed and watch brands were created or promoted, gradually at first with a brand still meaning something: that the watch had been at least conceived, assembled and tested by the named company. But as the twentieth century progressed the cult of the "brand", created by advertising agencies, meant that everything had to have a "Name" associated with it, and by the 1970s brands were being created from thin air and watches were produced with a brand name on them by anonymous Swiss, or even far-East, assemblers, far away from the advertising office that maintains the "brand identity". (You can perhaps tell that I am not a fan of the "cult of the brand name", although I do think it is interesting to know about the history and origins of a watch.)
However, often quite a lot about the history of a vintage watch can often be discovered from marks on the case and movement, especially if it has a silver or gold case and was imported and sold in the UK, because then by law it should be assayed and hallmarked, although this law was only consistently applied after June 1907. For help reading the hallmarks in watch cases, see my Case marks page.
Sometimes the maker of the ébauche can be identified from the shape of the parts of the movement or a trademark, which is often concealed under the dial. The makers of ébauches also wanted to be able to sell movements to as many different établisseurs as possible, who each wouldn't want the same movements in their watches as anyone else. To this end, ébauche makers even made exactly the same movement with different shaped plates so that they looked different. If there is a manufacturers trademark it is often on the bottom plate under the dial where only a watch repairer sees it so that he can order spare parts; these were not meant for the customers to see. So identifying the maker of an é bauche it not the same thing as identifying a brand name, or in Swiss terms a named "manufacture". For help with identifying some unnamed watch movements, refer to my Movements page.
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Numbers on Movements and Cases
Numbers appear on watch movements and cases in two forms.
Stamped or Neatly Engraved Numbers
Numbers stamped or neatly engraved into a watch case or on a movement are most often the manufacturer's serial numbers, but in some cases they are references to a patent or registered design which can tell us something about the watch. References to patents or registered designs usually have some text in addition to the number, and the numbers are fairly short, six or seven digits. Long strings of numbers on their own are usually serial numbers.
Hand Scratched Numbers
Quite often there are small scratched marks inside the back of a watch case that have obviously been made by hand. These are watch repairer's marks from when the watch has been serviced over the years. Mechanical watches, especially older ones with cases that are not fully water or dust proof, need servicing every few years, so a watch that had been in use for twenty or thirty years before it was put in a drawer and forgotten may have been serviced five or six times; possibly by a different watch repairer each time. The marks scratched by the watch repairer help them to identify their own work if a customer brings a watch back later with a problem. This is by far the easiest way for a watch repairer to verify that he worked on the watch. Sometimes the marks include a date, which shows when the watch was serviced, but others are coded and to find out exactly what they meant you would need to ask the person who made the mark.
Electa movement serial number
Borgel case serial number
Watch movements and cases often have a long number like the 60749 on the barrel bridge of the fine 17 jewel Electa movement from 1915, or 3130633 in the silver Borgel watch case shown here. These are the watch manufacturer's numbers. Note that the serial number in the watch case was applied by the watch manufacturer, not the watch case maker. Sometimes the movement serial number is applied to the pillar or bottom plate, the main plate under the dial, and so is not visible until the dial is removed.
Serial numbers were usually allocated in sequence, incremented in ones, and were used to keep track of production. This was useful when a watch repairer needed a spare part, allowing the correct item to be supplied, or in case some faulty components or material were used in a batch or items which later needed to be recalled.
Sometimes the serial number of the movement is repeated in the watch case, which can be a useful check to confirm that the movement and case started life together, but many watch manufacturers used different numbers on movement and case so you need to be careful not to make a false deduction if the numbers are different.
Serial numbers don't in themselves contain any information and are only useful if you can identify first the watch manufacturer and the serial numbers they used are documented, or if the manufacturer is still in existence they still have access to their old records.
Some manufacturers movement serial numbers are known and published in reference works or on the web. In general:
- American watch company movement serial numbers, such as Waltham's, are well documented
- A small number of Swiss watch manufacturers serial numbers are documented. Most are not.
- English watch company serial numbers are very poorly documented.
A small number of Swiss companies have archives and can tell you a lot about a watch. These include Longines, IWC and Omega. Most Swiss companies can't do this. If the company name is still in existence, then often that is all that is still in existence, old records having been destroyed or lost many years ago.
If there is a serial number on an English watch, that will almost always be a number put on by the watch "maker" so that if the watch comes back from the retailer with a fault he could look through his records and identify the workman responsible for the faulty part, and no doubt get him to remake it for free. Data for some of the larger English watch factories, such as The Lancashire Watch Company, The English Watch Company, and Rotherham and Sons, is available, but for the smaller craft manufacturers virtually nothing survives.
Note that numbers stamped in the back of a watch case are rarely useful for identifying when the watch was made, the serial number on the movement is far more useful and is the number that is usually tabulated, if at all.
Using a Serial Number to Identify the Manufacturer
It is not possible to identify the maker of a watch or watch case from just the serial numbers stamped on the movement or case. Serial numbers are just what the name says they are; numbers used in series, often starting from 1 or some other base such as 1,000 or 1,000,000. Because of this, every manufacturer could have used the same number at different times. You shouldn't even assume that it is possible to infer anything from the magnitude of a number, for instance a newly formed company might like to give the impression that they had made a lot of watches, so they might arbitrarily started their numbering at, say, 700,000, implying that they had made this number of watches when in fact watch number 700,001 might be the first one they made.
For instance, take a completely random number such as 1,234,567 - one million, two hundred and thirty four thousand, five hundred and sixty seven. Longines made a watch with exactly this serial number in 1900, and IWC made a watch movement with exactly the same serial number in 1951.
There is nothing spooky about this numerical "coincidence", it just shows that by the year 1900 Longines had already made over a million watches, whereas it took IWC until 1938 to make their first million watches, and until 1951 to make movement number 1,234,567, by which time Longines were in the eight millions.
So you can see that knowing just the movement or case serial number on its own doesn't help to identify the manufacturer.
Poinçons de Maître
In the 1920s a system of Poinçon de Maître (literally "Punch of the Master" but usually translated in this context as Collective Responsibility Mark) was introduced for Swiss watch case makers, to provide traceability back to the actual maker of the watch case. This required all precious metal watch cases made in Switzerland to carry a mark to identify the case maker.
Poinçons de Maître
Watchmakers didn't usually want the name of the case maker, which was normally a separate company, appearing in the back of their watches, so a system of marks and code numbers was devised by the Swiss watch case manufacturers, with different symbols representing the different case making regions of Switzerland. The six types of marks are shown in the picture. These are called collective responsibility marks because each one was used by more than one member of the association. When stamped the XXX shown in the marks are replaced with a number that indicates the maker of the case.
These marks are usually seen in gold, platinum or palladium cases. Although there was provision made by the case makers association for silver cases to be marked, these are rarely if ever seen.
You can read more about this system and how to interpret the marks at Swiss Poinçons de Maître.
Patents and Registered Designs
There are broadly two methods of protecting ideas and inventions, patents and registered designs.
A patent protects the idea of a new way of doing something, the exact form of the embodiment of the idea is not important. For example, a patent granted in the sixteenth century was for the idea of "Raising Water by the Impellant Force of Fire", granted to Thomas Savery. This patent was so broad that when Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine in around 1710, he had to go into partnership with Savery even though his steam engine was completely different from anything that Savery had built. Later patents were not allowed to be so wide in scope, but still protected a principle rather than an embodiment.
A registered design protects the embodiment of an idea. They were first created to allow wallpaper designers to register their designs to prevent other wallpaper manufacturers from copying them, but the idea soon spread to other areas. For example, a design of teapot could be registered to prevent anyone else from making a teapot exactly the same shape. But it was not possible to protect the idea of making tea, or of making a teapot of a different shape.
Manufacturers soon jumped onto these schemes, because it sounds impressive in advertising to talk about patents and inventions, and if a patent could not be obtained, then a registered design was the next best thing. Patents had existed in Britain for hundreds of years and were quite tightly controlled. The Swiss came to the idea of patents and registered designs quite late, the first Swiss patent was granted to Paul Perret in 1888. In the early years, the Swiss system of examining applications for patents was not so rigorous as in Britain and many things that were not really inventions were granted Swiss patents. For example, thousands of different types of keyless mechanisms were granted patents, but it was only possible to invent keyless winding once so most of the ideas that followed were simply variations on the idea, which does not qualify for a patent. But this is useful to watch collectors today, because often a patent number is the only thing that identifies who made a watch.
Numbers referring to patents or registered designs are usually shorter than serial numbers, and have something in addition to the numbers, e.g. patents may have the word patent or its abbreviation pat. An example is the wording "U.S. Pat. 24 May 1904" seen on otherwise unidentified movements, which is a reference to a patent granted to Henri Sandoz of Tavannes/Cyma for a negative set stem winding and setting mechanism (keyless work).
In Swiss/French "brevet d'invention" means the same as patent, this is often abbreviated to simply brevet or brev. The Swiss Federal Cross symbol also usually indicates a Swiss patent.
A Registered Design may be indicated by the English abbreviation "RD" or the Swiss/French "Modèle deposé". Modèle means design, deposé means to file, lodge or deposit. Sometimes these are accompanied with "demandé", which means requested.
One modèle deposé reference that occurs frequently in the cases of early Swiss wristwatches with fixed wire lugs, like the one shown in the picture here, and in the picture of the watch case above where it can be seen next to the trademark of François Borgel is No. 9845. You can read about this at Modèle deposé 9845.
- On its own usually signifies that a Patent has been granted, a number indicates the patent number.
- Brevet Deposé
- Registered Patent - perhaps meaning that an application for a patent has been registered.
- Brevet Demandé
- Patent Requested. Sometimes abbreviated to Brevet Dem. or just Br. Dem.
- Modèle Déposé
- Registered Design. Sometimes abbreviated to Mod. Dep. or Déposé.
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 does, but it forms an official record of who first produced the design and can be used in cases of copyright dispute.
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.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved. This page updated November 2017. W3CMVS.