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Blog: First World War and Gold Cases

First published: 10 March 2020, last updated 18 June 2024.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

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. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.

This section is about the levy of heavy import duties followed by a complete ban on imported gold watch cases during the First World War, which stimulated the production in England of gold cases to house Swiss watch movements, a practice that continued long after the war.

In December 1916 a Royal Proclamation prohibited the import into Britain of gold watches and gold watch cases for the remaining duration of the war. This revealed that gold cases made in Britain were being exported to Switzerland to have the movements fitted and then reimported as complete watches.

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

First World War and Gold Cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chester 1938 to 1939
Chester Assay Office Hallmarks for 1938 to 1939

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

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

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

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

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 June 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.