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Blog: Bears Galore! Three Bears and 0·935 Silver

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

First published: December 2013, last updated 13 February 2024.

I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable, so I decided to create this blog section to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that I have either changed or added to significantly.

This section is from my page about Swiss hallmarking that can be found at Swiss Hallmarks.

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

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 after 1887.

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 stipulated that there were to be no words on the watch movement or case that might imply that the watch had been made in Britain.

For foreign watch cases that were sent to a British assay office to be hallmarked, the Act defined new, and quite objectionable, foreign hallmarks, which Swiss manufacturers, quite understandably didn't want.

935 Sterling
Sterling Silver 0·935

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. They would also not allow the import of watches with cases marked “Fine Silver” or “Sterling Silver”, or even with “Fast” and “Slow” marked on the regulator, because those English language terms might be taken as meaning that the watch was made in England.

A Swiss Federal Decree of 1881 had allowed silver watch cases of 0.935 fineness marked “sterling silver” to be assayed and hallmarked in a Swiss bureau de contrôle, but watches bearing such marks could no longer be imported after the 1887 Merchandise Marks Act came into force on 1 January 1888.

It is not clear why sterling silver was thought to be 0.935 or 93.5% fine. The decimal fineness of sterling silver was not marked by English assay offices, which stamped the mark of a lion passant instead. It may be that a piece of silver marked with a lion passant was tested and found to be 0.935 fine, which would not be too surprising because silversmiths would use a finer alloy than strictly required to give a margin for inhomogeneity in the alloy and errors in the assay. Also, Swiss assays allowed an error or tolerance of 5 thousand parts or 0·5% for silver, which English assay offices did not allow. Taken together, these two factors probably explain why sterling silver was thought to be 0.935 fine.

The effects of the British Merchandise Marks Act were discussed at a Swiss Federal Council meeting on 24 December 1887. It was decreed that silver watch cases destined for England of 0·935 fineness would henceforth be hallmarked with three bears. It was not explained why such a mark was necessary when Swiss law already allowed 935 fineness silver to be hallmarked with a single bear. Perhaps the three bears were intended to stand instead of the term sterling silver, which had been used before 1888 but was now prohibited.

Three bears
Silver 0·935 Watch Case with Three Bears with office mark for Bienne. Click image to enlarge.
silver hallmark bears
Bow with Two Bears, and Pendant with One Bear

At the Federal Council meeting it was decided that to confirm that 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 surround 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!

Sterling 935 with One Bear: Click image to enlarge

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 all watch cases marked 0·935 would be hallmarked with 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. The mark “Sterling” suggests that this watch was destined for the USA since the British 1887 Merchandise Marks Act discouraged the use of English words on imported foreign products.

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

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