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Swiss Hallmarks

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Swiss Executive Order 17 May 1881
Implementing regulations 17 May 1881: Click image to enlarge

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Laws and 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. These hallmarks were required by individual Swiss cantons on dishes, plates, bowls, candlesticks, etc, but there was Swiss federal law requiring watch cases be hallmarked.

Precious Metals Act 1880

In 1880, the Swiss Federal Precious Metals Control Act introduced Swiss federal legal standards for the fineness of gold or silver used for watch cases. This law came into force on 1 January 1882. Before this, Swiss gold watch cases were usually stamped by their manufacturer with the gold fineness, usually 14 or 18 carats, popular standards on the continent, and silver watch cases were often marked “Fine Silver”, a standard of fineness with no legal definition.

A mark stamped by a manufacturer is not a hallmark. Hallmarking means that items made of precious metals are sent by the manufacturer to an assay office or “hall” to be independently tested for fineness, and those that meet a legally defined standard are stamped with legally defined hallmarks.

When the Precious Metals Control Act came into force, all the previous cantonal laws about precious metals were revoked. From 1882 onwards, only watch cases in gold or silver, of foreign or local manufacture, sold in Switzerland, were subject to compulsory assay and hallmarking. Jewellery could be hallmarked, but this was not compulsory. Hallmarks for Platinum watch cases were added in 1914.

In the Swiss hallmarking system, the manufacturer marks a fineness on precious metal items and then submits them to a Federal Bureau de Contrôle to be independently tested and hallmarked. Because the system is run by the Federal Government, 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 when an item was hallmarked.

Government run Bureaux de Contrôle (Swiss assay offices) were established and authorised to assay watch cases made of gold and silver, and to hallmark them if they were of at least the legal fineness. The hallmarks to be used for the different finenesses of gold and silver were defined in implementing regulations of 17 May 1881, the figure showing the hallmarks to be used for the four legal standards is reproduced above.

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 was adopted 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.

Standards for gold were expressed in carats and thousandths parts (millièmes) fine gold, standards for silver in thousandths parts of fine silver. There were four legal standards that could be hallmarked with the marks shown in the figure:

Note that the legend above the marks for 18 carat gold and 875 fineness silver says “et au-dessus”, meaning “and above”, although this does not appear above the 14 carat gold and 800 thousandths silver marks. The “et au-dessus” above the higher standards was a recognition that some countries had higher legal standards of fineness and allowed for these also to be hallmarked. It should not be taken to mean that 14 carat gold and 800 fineness silver had to be exactly those finenesses.

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.

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 usually marked “Cuivre” (copper) or simply “Metal”. In a gold case, the cuvette might be silver gilt, marked “argent” to identify the metal below the gold plate.

Swiss hallmarking after 1933 is rather outside the scope of this page, but some of the changes made in 1933 are mentioned.

Federal Council Decree 1881

In recognition that Swiss watch manufacturers exported to countries where customers expected to see different standard marks on gold carats, and some countries had higher legal standards of silver fineness, a Swiss Federal Council decree in December 1881 permitted some additional marks to be placed in watch cases, and defined what marks were allowed and how they would be hallmarked.

The only indications in foreign languages or numbers which were permitted for the hallmarking of gold and silver items were:

The use of “fine gold” and “fine silver” was a bad idea, since (in Britain at least) fine gold and fine silver are the terms for the pure metals, at least 99.9% or 999 fine, used for bullion ingots for trading and investment.

The numbers 56, 58 or 72 permitted on gold, and the 84, on silver are Russian “zolotnik number” fineness marks. There were 96 zolotos to a pound weight, and the “zolotnik number” is a ratio of this like carats, e.g. 56 zolotniks = 56/96 = 0.583, the fineness of 14 carat gold. Similarly, 72 zolotniks = 72/96 = 0·750, the fineness of 18 carat gold. A fineness of 58 zolotniks was popular in Russia, corresponding to a decimal fineness of 0.604 or 14½ carats. A silver fineness of 84 zolotniks = 84/96 = 0.875.

The “silver T 13” and “silver T 14” refer to fineness based on ounces in the avoirdupois pound, where pure silver would be 16 ounces to a pound. A fineness of 13 ounces of to the pound would be a fineness of 0.813, or approximately 0.800, 14 ounces of fine silver to the pound would be a fineness of 0.875.

Items marked “first gold” or “fine gold”, or with the zolotnik number “72”, had to be made of at least 18 carat gold and also marked 18 carat or 750. If this was confirmed by assay, they would receive the Helvétia hallmark.

Sterling Silver 0·935
Sterling Silver 0·935: Click image to enlarge Revue Contemporaine 1866
Revue Contemporaine 1866: Click image to enlarge Manuel de Métallurgie Générale 1840
Manuel de Métallurgie Générale 1840: Click image to enlarge

The 1881 decree stipulated that Gold items marked “56” or “58” had to be at least 14 carats and also marked 14 carat or 583. If this was confirmed by assay, they would receive the squirrel hallmark. The zolotnik number 58 is actually 58/96 = 0.604 or 604 thousandths fine, which corresponds to about 14½ carats. Swiss bureaux de contrôle were instructed in March 1882 to only hallmark watch cases marked 58 if they assayed at this fineness.

Items marked “first silver”, “silver T 14” or “84” had to be at least 875 thousandths silver and also marked with the number 875. Items marked “coin silver” or “fine silver” had to be 900 thousandths silver and also marked with the number 900. Items marked “sterling silver” had to be 935 thousandths silver and also marked with the number 935. If the correct fineness of any item marked like this was confirmed by assay, the item would receive the bear hallmark.

Why Sterling 935?

The reason for adopting a fineness of 0·935 for sterling silver is not known. There are two potential reasons for this; a tolerance allowed on the assay, or a misunderstanding of the exact composition of sterling silver.

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 0·925. An item that assayed at 0·920 but was stamped 0·925 would not be legal in Britain. Why did the Swiss authorities then settle on 0·935 as the standard for sterling silver? Possibly a margin for error was allowed.

However, sterling silver had long been equated on the continent with a fineness of 935 thousandths. The section from the Revue Contemporaine published in Paris in 1866 reproduced here clearly shows that English sterling silver was thought to be “935 millièmes de fin”, that is 935 thousandths fine.

At the time, the only indication stamped by English assay offices on sterling silver was the lion passant, there was no mention of 925. It would have been difficult for a foreigner to discover exactly what this meant; the definition of sterling silver as 11 ounces and two pennyweights of fine silver in a troy pound was found in ancient Acts of Parliament, which would not be easy to access at the time, and the Goldsmiths' Company would be unlikely to reveal exactly what they required before hallmarking an item with the lion passant.

Under those circumstances, perhaps someone simply assayed a piece of sterling silver that was marked with the lion passant and found that it was 935 thousandths fine. Certainly, the book Manuel de Métallurgie Générale by G. A. Lampadius, published in Paris in 1840, contains the analysis of English refining in a reverberatory furnace shown here, with the result of a proportion of silver of 0.935.

Silver items marked “T 13” had to be at least 800 thousandths silver and marked 800. If this was confirmed by assay, they would receive the grouse hallmark.

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Tolerances

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 and allows the goldsmith or silversmith to use an alloy of the nominal fineness which is not penalised by errors in the assay. An alternative approach used in Britain was to require that the assay results always showed that the alloy was of at least the required standard, which required the use of a finer alloy to ensure that it passed assay even with the possible error inherent in the assay process.

The Swiss statute of 1880 allowed 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, three parts below the nominal standard of 750 parts per thousand, could legally be stamped with the head of Helvetis and the finess marks 18ct / 750, and silver that assayed at 870 parts silver could be stamped with a rampant bear and the fineness mark 875.

The tolerance allowed by the Swiss statue caused problems with exports to countries that did not allow any tolerance, such as Britain and Germany. In the case of exports of silver items to Britain, a nominal fineness of 0.935 was used to ensure that they would pass assay as sterling silver. After 1887, this was signified by a hallmark of Three Bears. For exports of gold items to Germany, a standard of 0.585 was introduced in 1886 to comply with German Law.

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. In particular, silver watch cases were required to assay by the method of cuppellation at the sterling standard of 0.925 with no tolerance allowed. These cases were stamped with 0.925 and hallmarked with a single bear. The purpose of this was an Anglo-Swiss agreement that British assay offices could hallmark cases so marked without performing an assay.

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Bureau de Contrôle Marks

Bureaux de ContrôleDate
Basel *
Berne +
Bienne BNov 1881
Chaux-de-Fonds C1775
Delemont D
Fleurier F1867
Geneva G1869
Grenchen g
Locle L1775
Madretsch LOct 1882
Neuchâtel N1866
Noirmont nJan 1884
Porrentruy P
St. Imier IJan 1882
Schaffhouse SFeb 1882
Tramelan TJan 1882
Zurich ZNov 1883
Swiss official hallmarks for watch cases from 1880 to 1933
Swiss hallmarks for watch cases from 1882 to 1933: Click image to enlarge Three bears
Silver 0·935 Watch Case with Three Bears with office mark for Bienne. Click image to enlarge.

Assay and marking of watch cases was performed by Swiss federal bureaux de contrôle in various town and cities. The government run bureaux de contrôle assay offices or “halls” were completely separate from the watch case manufacturers and provided an independent guarantee of the fineness of precious metal watch cases in the same way as the assay offices of Britain and France.

The watch case manufacturer stamped the fineness mark, but could only stamp a mark of one of the legal standards, e.g. 800 or 875 for silver. The bureaux de contrôle assayed the metal and, if it was at least of the fineness indicated, endorsed or counter stamped the fineness mark applied by the manufacturer with the appropriate hallmark.

Note that legal fineness standards are always minimums, not the exact composition of an alloy. A watch case stamped with a fineness mark of 800 could be made of an alloy that assayed at 800 or higher. If it assayed at, for example, 850 or 860, then, since it was below 875, it would have to be stamped 800, the manufacturer was not allowed to stamp it with the actual fineness, which can never be exactly determined due to the impossibility of perfect mixing of the alloying elements and inherent inaccuracies in the assay. Swiss hallmarking law allowed certain tolerances on the assay to allow for these factors so that a watch case that assayed at slightly below the standard could still be hallmarked.

The drawing here shows the large and small punch hallmarks that were used. The figure reproduced here uses the symbol ‰, which means “per mille” or parts per thousand 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.

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 assayed (tested) and, providing it met the legal requirement for fineness, was hallmarked. 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.

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Buckles and Bracelets

Patek Philippe 18 Carat Gold Bracelet
Patek Philippe 18 Carat Gold Bracelet: Click image to enlarge
Swiss Hallmark on Bracelet Clasp
Swiss Hallmark on Bracelet Clasp: Click image to enlarge

The 1880 Federal law made hallmarking compulsory for gold and silver watch cases. For all other items made of gold or silver, hallmarking was optional.

One image here shows an 18 carat gold bracelet from a Patek Philippe watch. The trademark JPE within an oval was registered by Jean Paul Ecoffey of Geneva in May 1946. The fineness mark is the 750 stamped to the right; there are no hallmarks.

There are some more Swiss buckle and bracelet makers trademarks on the page about Swiss Terms and Marks.

Another image here shows a bracelet clasp that does have the Swiss hallmark of the head of Helvetia for 18 carat gold and a Poinçon de Maître of the hammer head with registration number 12. Unfortunately, that registration is not contained in the 1934 list so the registrant must have gone out of business before 1934.

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Additional Standards

The Federal Council decree of 1881 introduced standards for gold and silver that could be endorsed by hallmarks in watch cases destined for export. However, some countries had slightly differing standards for gold and silver, and some dispensations were later introduced to accommodate these. Two such cases were caused by the German “Act on the Fine Content of Gold and Silver Goods” of 1884 and the British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887.

The German Act did not allow any tolerance on the assay of gold and silver, and the definition of the minimum fineness of 14 carat gold as 585‰, slightly finer than the Swiss legal definition, caused a change in Swiss hallmarking of watch cases destined to be exported to Germany. This is discussed in more detail in the section Exports to Germany.

The British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 introduced new requirements for markings on imported watch cases. This resulted in the use of a hallmark of three bears for 935 silver and the creation of the Swiss national trademark of “Swiss Made” and is discussed in more detail in the section Merchandise Marks Act.

Nine and 12 Carat Gold

The Swiss Act of 1880 defined 14 carat gold as the lowest legal standard. 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, and for those with a little more to spend there was 12 carat gold, but these were not legal standards 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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Case Maker's Marks

Swiss Fineness Marks from 30 June 1885
Swiss Fineness Marks from 30 June 1885: Click image to enlarge Swiss Fineness Marks to 30 June 1885
Swiss Fineness Marks to 30 June 1885: Click image to enlarge
900 silver
Pine Cones Trademark

Watch case manufacturers stamped the fineness mark before submitting the cases to a bureaux de contrôle to be assayed and hallmarked. Although the law was specific about what words and numbers were allowed, the contents of a decree in 1885 suggests that manufacturer's were being too creative with the way that they stamped the fineness mark. The figures here show the styles of fineness mark that would continue to be accepted (“tolerated”) until 30 June 1885, and the more restricted versions that would be accepted from then onwards.

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 counter stamped it with the capercaillie hallmark after it had passed assay.

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 trademarks of pine cones or cones, I have not been able to identify this mark. If you know whose trademark it is, please let me know.

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.

Swiss Case Maker's Initials
Case Maker's Initials: Click image to enlarge.

Some Swiss case makers were sufficiently prominent to insist that their cases carried their trademarks, 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 assay office stamps the standard mark as part of the hallmark after an item has 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 counter stamped 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.

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Poinçons de Maître

Collective Responsibilty Marks

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

German Halbmond und Reichskrone mark
Halbmond und Reichskrone (Half Moon and Imperial Crown): Silver ≥ 800‰ fine
German Halbmond und Reichskrone mark
Sonne und Reichskrone (Sun and Imperial Crown): Gold ≥ 585‰ fine

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 of 585‰ for gold and 800‰ for silver, 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 of fineness lay with the manufacturer, not the German federal government.

Who Stamped the Marks?

There were no official independent German assay offices, so the 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.

Swiss Reaction: Two Squirrels!

Swiss Federal Decree 1886
Swiss Federal Decree 1886: Click image to enlarge

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, which was clearly lower than the German 0.585 minimum standard, liable 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 (au dessus) and a small squirrel below (au dessous).

Note that the decree says that the item must assay at 0.585 (l'indication du titre 0'585). This meant that the tolerance of three parts per thousand normally allowed on Swiss assay of gold items was not applicable to items that received the 0.585 hallmark. So an items that was hallmarked 0.583, the Swiss decimal fineness for 14 carat gold, could assay at only 0.580, whereas an item hallmarked 0.585 had to assay at 0.585 or better.

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
0·585 and Two Squirrels on Case for Export to Germany
Image © Bernd R.

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.

Swiss Case Maker's Initials
Case Maker's Initials: Click image to enlarge.

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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Merchandise Marks Act

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;

Birmingham Assay Office Foreign Hallmark
Birmingham Assay Office "Foreign" Hallmark. Click image to enlarge.

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;

  1. Neither of the two Swiss legal standards for silver, 0.800 and 0.875, met the minimum legal British standard of sterling.
  2. The Swiss authorities were not exactly sure what the British fineness standards were for sterling silver or 18 carat gold.
  3. Swiss law did not allow nine carat gold to be hallmarked.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Swiss watch case manufacturers started to mark nine carat gold cases with pseudo hallmarks, discussed in the section below Swiss Nine Carat Gold Marks.
  4. 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 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.

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Three Heads of Helvetia: 18 carat 0.755 gold

Swiss 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 surround.

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 surrounds 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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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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1907: British Law Changes

Swiss Announcement 31 May 1907
Swiss Announcement 31 May 1907: Click image to enlarge
Imported silver
British Import fineness mark for Sterling Silver

From 1 June 1907, under the British Assay of Imported Watch-Cases Act, all imported watch cases 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 of sterling silver was not used on imported watch cases, which received a 925 mark instead, the decimal fineness equivalent of sterling silver, shown in the photograph here.

Although the court case that ultimately gave rise to this Act had been rumbling through the courts for several years, the Act appears to have caught the Swiss completely off guard. Their initial reaction was to tell, on 31 May 1907, Swiss watch manufacturers that they had to send watch cases to Britain.

In February 1908, the Swiss Federal Council authorised that from 1 March 1908, silver watch cases intended for England or other countries could be hallmarked with the mark “0.925” instead of the indication “0.935”, and that single imprints of a small punch wherever the imprint of three hallmarks, bears or heads of Helvetia, was previously required. However, this didn't change things. British law required that imported watch cases had to be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office, so these changes had no effect; Swiss manufacturers still had to send their watch cases to Britain to be hallmarked.

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 originally intended for another market had already been hallmarked in Switzerland and then an urgent order caused it to be sent to Britain.

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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 not sampled and assayed but were simply stamped with British import hallmarks, which caused little damage compared with drawing required to take samples of material for assay and could be rectified by polishing.

Gold Cases

Decree 18 December 1914 for gold cases
Decree 18 December 1914 for gold cases: Click image to enlarge

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 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.

Silver Cases

After the Swiss 1880 hallmarking Act was passed, Swiss legal standards for hallmarked silver, 0.800 and 0.875, were of lesser fineness than sterling silver. The British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 banned the import of silver watch cases of lesser fineness than sterling silver (0.925) from 1 January 1888. Because of this, 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.

The Swiss assay process allowed a tolerance of 0.5% on silver, which the British assay did not allow. To ensure that a Swiss watch case marked with the three bears hallmark would pass a British assay as sterling, the nominal fineness required for Swiss silver watch cases was increased to 0.935.

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 realistically 0.93 to two decimal places) 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.

Consequences

My grandfather's Rolex wristwatch case
My Grandfather's Wristwatch: Click on image to enlarge.

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. 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 Swiss 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 cuppellation assay at 0.925 with no tolerance, the Bureaux de Contrôle would hallmark it.

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1924 Export Hallmark for 9 carat gold

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 applied only to 9 and 12 carat gold watch cases destined for Britain.


Case Marked 9C with the Swiss Federal Cross

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 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 before submitting the case for hallmarking, 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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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
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.

Gold

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.

Silver

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 with no tolerance, 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 was discontinued. The fineness of ·935 and the hallmark of three bears for silver had been discontinued in 1914.

The capercaillie continued as before to signify silver of ·800, which could not be commercially imported and retailed in Britain. However, someone who purchased a watch abroad was entitled to carry it into the country as a personal possession.

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 ·925 is 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, whereas the ·935 allowed a tolerance of 5‰ resulting in a minimum guaranteed purity of ·930. In each case the third decimal place almost certainly exceeds the accuracy of the assay, but each standard ensures that the fineness of silver is at least sterling or better, which is defined as 11 ounces and 2 pennyweight of pure silver in the pound troy.

Platinum

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. If you are to be an expert on dating Swiss hallmarks on platinum, you need to be able to tell an ibex from a chamois: they both look like goats to me . . .

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Swiss Federal Cross

Swiss Federal Cross
Swiss Federal Cross

The Swiss Federal Cross is often seen in cases and on movements. This may seem natural for something made in Switzerland, but often the cross is a reference to a patent, and if it is followed by a number, then that is the patent number.

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 by a patent. Sometimes this was just sheer bluff.

Terms used on Swiss watches

In Swiss/French, "brevet d'invention" means patent, this is often abbreviated to simply brevet. "modèle" means design, "déposé" 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.

Swiss Federal CrossThe 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 Swiss Federal Cross this usually signifies that a Patent has been granted, if there is a number then that indicates the patent number.
Brevet Déposé 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 DemandéPatent Requested. Sometimes abbreviated to Brevet Dem., Brevet Swiss Federal Cross 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. Swiss Federal Cross Dep. on its own or with the Swiss Federal Cross usually means Modèle Déposé as above.

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 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

AguillesThe 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.
AncreA lever escapement, from the shape of the lever and pallet fork carrying the pallets which resembles a ship's anchor.
Ancre Ligne DroitStraight 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.
ArgentSilver. Silver gilt (gold plated silver) was stamped Argent so that it was not mistaken for gold.
Balancier compenséCompensation 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 chronomètreMeans 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.
CuivreThis 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.
CylindreThe movement has a cylinder escapement.
Double PlateauDouble 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.
EschappementEscapement - usually either “cylindre” (see) or lever.
GalonnéSilver 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 VisiblesA 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.
MetalSeen on the inner cover or cuvette inside the case back to indicate that it is made of base metal: see cuivre above.
Plaqué orPlaqué 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.
RemontoirStem 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 RubisThe 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.
SpiralBalance spring.
Spiral BréguetBreguet 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.
TrousLiterally “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

Coullery Frères 1885
Coullery Frères 1885: Click image to enlarge

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.

This trademark was registered by Coullery Frères of Fontenais, Switzerland, in 1885 for watches. 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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Knight's Helmet

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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Radiant Sun


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


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

Courvoisier Frères 1888
Courvoisier Frères 1888: Click image to enlarge

The heart and diamond trademark was registered in 1888 by 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 their 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

Bourquin & Kenel 1890
Bourquin & Kenel 1890: Click image to enlarge

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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TR: A Schild

TR: A Schild
TR: A Schild: Click image to enlarge

In November 1927, A. Shild S.A. registered two versions of the TR mark shown in the image here, one as shown and one with an identical TR mark surrounded by a shield.

The significance of the initials TR to A. Schild is not obvious; if you know why this mark was chosen, please let me know.

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G. Pf. & Cie: G. Pfund & Cie

Case marked G. Pf. & Cie
Case marked G. Pf. & Cie: Click image to enlarge

The case back in the photograph here was advertised as part of an incomplete lady's Rolex wristwatch. Thanks to Gerhard for bringing it to my attention and for identifying G. Pfund & Cie as the case maker.

The watch movement is a 15 jewel Aegler Rebberg, with Rolex on the ratchet wheel with a single star, which is usually found only on 7 jewel movements; 15 jewel movements usually have 15 Jewels alongside Rolex on the ratchet wheel.

The case has fixed wire lugs. The watch probably dates to between about 1910 and 1920.

The case back is marked for 0.800 fineness silver and has the Swiss capercaillie hallmark for this standard.

The incuse mark G. Pf. & Cie within a rectangular surround was registered by G. Pfund & Cie, a watch case maker in Madretsch, which in 1920 became part of Biel/Bienne.

There is also an incuse capital letter A within a circle. This is usually recognised as a trademark of Alpina. It began as the mark of Alliance Horlogere, which was first registered in 1910 for small watches and cases. So it appears that G. Pfund & Cie. was a member of the Alliance Horlogere when the watch case was made.

It is unusual for a Swiss watch case maker to be identified in this way, by a trademark in the case back.

G. Pfund & Cie were one of the first watch case manufacturers to advertise chromium plated watch cases in 1928.

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JPE: Jean Pierre Ecoffey

JPE: Jean Pierre Ecoffey
JPE: Jean Pierre Ecoffey: Click image to enlarge

This JPE mark is a trademark seen on gold watch buckles. It was registered by Jean Pierre Ecoffey in June 1946.

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GRG: Roland-Gilbert Gaschen

GRG: Roland-Gilbert Gaschen
GRG: Roland-Gilbert Gaschen: Click image to enlarge

This GRG mark is a trademark seen on gold watch buckles. It was registered by Roland-Gilbert Gaschen in November 1956.

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Ateliers Réunis S.A.

Metalia Geneve trademark 1955
Metalia Geneve trademark 1955: Click image to enlarge Orflex trademark 1959
Orflex trademark 1959: Click image to enlarge

On 26 June 1963, the company Marcel Pugin S.A. was renamed as Ateliers Réunis S.A. (“united workshops”) and acquired the assets and liabilities of the companies Orflex and Metalia S.A. (formerly «Metalia Genève» Brunner & Pugin), which as a consequence were dissolved. Ateliers Réunis S.A. is sometimes referred to as “ARSA”.

Metalia Genève and Orflex

Before they were taken over by Marcel Pugin S.A., Metalia Genève had registered the “MG” trademark shown here in 1955, and Orflex had registered in 1959 the “sun” trademark shown here. Both of these marks are seen on gold pin buckles.

The Metalia Genève trademark was transferred to Metalia S.A. in 1956 and struck off the register of trademarks in March 1964. In May 1964 the Orflex trademark was transferred to Ateliers Réunis.

In 1965, a company called Boucledor (“gold buckles”) that specialised in gold pin buckles was spun out of Ateliers Réunis as a separate company.

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Werthanor

Werthanor
Werthanor: Click image to enlarge

This mark that looks like two triangles is a trademark seen on high quality watch buckles used by brands such as Blancpain, Corum and Audemars Piguet.

The mark is evidently intended to look like a “W”. It was registered by Werthanor S.A. of Le Locle in August 1990.

Werthanor is an independent maker of watch cases, bracelets, buckles and clasp. The company was founded in Le Locle on 31 August 1989.

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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.