VintageWatchstraps Logo

Vintage Watchstraps

Straps for Vintage Fixed Wire Lug Trench Watches or Officer's Wristwatches



Numbers and Letters

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.
Borgel case serial number and other marks
Borgel case serial number and other marks: Click image to enlarge

Numbers appear on watch movements and cases in two forms; punched or stamped numbers, and hand engraved or scratched numbers. The Borgel case in the photo here shows some of these.

In addition to the Borgel trademark and the hallmarks, there is a long string of numbers across the middle of the case, which is a serial number. There is also a number 40 in the lower part of the case, which is thought to be an assembly mark, and a reference to a licence to use the design on the wire lugs, DÉPOSÉ No 9846

Serial Numbers

Long strings of Punched or stamped numbers are most often serial numbers; manufacturers gave watches serial numbers for their records, so every movement has a serial number (although sometimes it is somewhere not visible).

Watch cases were supplied blank by the case manufacturer; the watch manufacturer usually stamped a serial number into the watch case when the movement was inserted, again for the purpose of keeping records. Sometimes the number in the case is the same as that on the movement, sometimes it is different. If there is more than one long number in a case, one of them usually designates the design, model or type of case.

Sometimes there are other numbers stamped on the movement or watch case, such as references to patents or registered designs, which can also point to a manufacturer or inventor. Swiss patents are usually indicated by the Swiss Federal Cross Swiss Federal Cross or the word “Brevet”.

Assembly Marks

There are also often short sequences of numbers or letters, such as the number 40 near the lower edge of the Borgel case.

These marks appear to have been stamped into the case to aid with assembly of the watch. A short, two or three digit number, or a letter or two, cannot record much information. Possibly they were used to record variations in cases if the layout of a movement was changed slightly. This might be e.g. a reduction in the depth of a movement that would allow a slimmer case to be used.

If the movement and case serial number are not the same, sometimes the last two or three digits of the movement serial number are marked in the case, as they often also are on separate parts of the movement, so that the parts of each watch can be kept together. This would be useful if a box holding parts of several movements or watches, in separate compartments, got knocked or dropped and the parts became mixed up.

As far as is known, these marks are not recorded in the archives of the few manufacturer's that have surviving archives, unlike case and movement serial numbers. It appears that the use of these marks was transient and they were probably not recorded even at the time the watch was being assembled, being only used as assembly aids whose use was over once the watch was assembled.

Sometimes in jointed cases there is a mark near to the joint identifying the joint maker. Making the joints, the hinges between the middle part of the case and the bezel and backs, was a highly skilled job. The joints were also the only only part of a case that was likely to fail, because the solder beds for the joint knuckles are very small. Joint maker's were paid by the piece, that is, for the number of cases they jointed. If a joint failed because the solder hadn't taken properly, they would have to remake it in their own time, which is the joint maker was identified by a mark in the case.

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.

Serial Numbers in More Detail

Electa movement serial number 60749
Electa movement serial number 60749: Click image to enlarge

Watch movements and cases often have a long number like the 60749 on the barrel bridge of the 17 jewel Electa movement from 1915, or 3130633 in the silver Borgel watch case shown earlier. These are the watch manufacturer's numbers.

Note that the serial number in the watch case was applied by the watch manufacturer, not the case maker. Sometimes the serial number of the movement 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 intrinsically contain any information. A serial number is only useful if the maker who applied it is known, and if their records still exist, which in many cases they do not.

Some manufacturers movement serial numbers are known and published in reference works or on the web. In general:

A small number of Swiss companies have archives and can tell you when a watch was made and which company or agent it was sold to (but not the retail customer who eventually bought it). These include Longines, IWC and to some extent Omega. Most Swiss companies can't do this. If a company name is still in existence from before the quartz crisis, then often the name is the only part of the old company that still exists, the 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 the one that was recorded. If the case serial number is different, that may or may not have also been recorded.

Can a Serial Number 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.

Collective Responsibilty Marks
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 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.

Tavannes patent

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.

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 Swiss Federal Cross also usually indicates a Swiss patent.


DÉPOSÉ 9846

A Registered Design may be indicated by the English abbreviation "RD" or the Swiss/French "Modèle déposé". Modèle means design, déposé means to file, lodge or deposit. Sometimes these are accompanied with "demandé", which means requested.

One modèle déposé 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 déposé 9845.

Brevet
On its own usually signifies that a Patent has been granted, a number indicates the patent number.
Brevet Déposé
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 Déposé 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 Déposé perhaps 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.

There are more Swiss terms and marks, and some lesser known Swiss trademarks, on the page Swiss Terms and Marks.

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


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