Last updated on April 19, 2021
If you are interested in antique watches, especially those made of precious metals, such as gold or silver, you need to be familiar with the British hallmarking system. At first, it looks complicated and bewildering. There are hundreds of different symbols, which extrapolates into millions of different combinations. However, I soon discovered that it is not that difficult to decipher these hallmarks and to determine the age of your antique timepiece. I am very particular about my antique watches. I am only interested in timepieces that are at least 100 years old. Therefore, understanding hallmarking is important to me.
Note that only items that are entirely made of solid precious metal are hallmarked. Items that have a layer of precious metal over a base metal core such as gold-filled, rolled gold, plated gold, etc. are not included and cannot be legally hallmarked.
What are hallmarks?
Precious metals are typically not used in their purest form. They tend to be alloyed with other metals to improve durability and workability. For instance, pure gold is a malleable and relatively soft metal, that will mark and wear with normal use. It is usually alloyed with base metals to increase its hardness and durability. It is impossible to tell by look or feel, whether or not the precious metal you are looking at is pure or an alloy. Hallmarks are symbols applied to precious metals to indicate the amount of pure metal in the alloy. Traditionally, hallmarks are applied by striking with a metal punch.
- Consists of a series of symbols applied to articles made from the precious metals platinum, gold, palladium and silver.
- Means that the article has been independently tested.
- Guarantees that it conforms to all legal standards of purity (fineness).
- Guarantees provenance by telling us, as a minimum legal requirement, where the piece was hallmarked, what the article is made from, and who sent the article for hallmarking.
In 1300 King Edward I of England enacted a statute requiring that all silver articles must meet the sterling silver standard (92.5% pure silver). This standard was to be tested (assayed) and confirmed by marking the item with a leopard’s head. This was an early form on consumer protectionism. In 1327 King Edward III of England granted a charter to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, marking the beginning of the company’s formal existence as the Assay office for England. Hallmarks evolved over time with additional marks being added to the leopard’s head.
A British hallmark on silver or gold must have at least the first four specific separate marks listed below. Sometimes there are additional marks to do with excise duty or a monarch’s jubilee. These hallmarks apply to items made in Britain or those that have been imported. All four of these marks must be not present to be a legal British hallmark.
Sponsor’s or Maker’s Mark:
This is the first mark to be struck on an item and shows under whose registered name and details it was submitted to the Assay office for assaying. Every punch used to strike the sponsor’s mark was individually recorded at the Assay office. Strictly speaking, this is more correctly known as the Sponsor’s mark. There was no requirement for the manufacturer to submit an item for testing and frequently assay agents were used to submitting items on the maker’s behalf. This is particularly the case for items that were produced abroad and imported to Britain.
This shows the location of the Assay office that the item was tested at and hallmarked. Note this does not necessarily indicate the place of manufacture, just where it was tested and hallmarked. Typically, for English made watch cases, this is usually either a leopard’s head (London), an anchor (Birmingham), or an upright sword between three wheat sheaves (Chester).
This shows the legal standard of purity of the metal. For sterling silver, this is the ‘lion passant’. For gold, it is either a crown and the carat fineness, e.g. a crown and 18 for 18-carat gold or, for the lower standards, the carat and decimal fineness e.g. 9 and ·375 for 9-carat gold. The mark does not show the specific results of the assay of an item. However, it does confirm that it is at least as fine as the standard marked.
This shows the year when the item was hallmarked. It is important to note that each Assay office had its own unique range of date letters. You must use be able to identify the Town Mark to be able to correctly date an item. The date letter was no longer a requirement from 1999, which won’t affect current collectors of antique watches, but may in about eighty years. In the two examples below, the lion indicates sterling silver, the leopard’s head is for London and the date letters R for 1896 and L for 1906.
In Britain gold or silver watch cases, regardless of the country of manufacture, should always have been assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. However, hallmarking of imported watch cases was not strictly enforced by Customs before 1907. A small number of foreign watches were stamped with an ‘F’ to indicate they were made abroad. However, the vast majority of foreign watch cases were imported into Britain either without hallmarks at all, or with hallmarks from their country of origin.
The local British watch case makers, were no doubt, attempting to defend ‘their’ brand and argued for the marking of foreign-made cases. In contrast, the foreign watch cases makers did not want to have the risk of their product seeming inferior. Therefore many bypassed the British assay offices. British practice changed in 1907 when the hallmarking of foreign-made cases was strictly enforced by Customs. The hallmarks used by the assay offices on the foreign watch cases were clearly different from those used on watch cases made in the UK. For example, the London Assay Office town mark for watch cases made in Britain was a leopard’s head. The town mark used on imported watches became the zodiac symbol, Leo, on a crossed background in an oval shield.
The new town marks were used from 1 June 1907 on imported watch cases to distinguish them from watch cases made in Britain. Another indication, for foreign-made silver cases, is that the silver standard is marked as 925 in an oval shield rather than by the traditional lion passant mark for sterling silver made in Britain.
The image below has been taken from my J W Benson silver fusee pocket watch, 1883. I apologise for the quality of the image, but I am not a photographer. There was a considerable amount of zoom required to get the hallmarks visible. To accurately read hallmarks you really need a good light source and some magnification, such as a jeweller’s loupe. The heavy scratching in the photograph is actually very faint to the naked eye.
We can see that this case has the lion passant, which confirms it is sterling silver. The leopard’s head tells us that this was assayed in London. This then allows us to consult the date marks for London to determine that the year was 1883. Finally, the sponsor’s mark for J.W Benson is at the bottom.
I have recently added a post on Swiss hallmarks.
A list of additional posts regarding antique watches can be found on the Guides page.