Serial numbers on English watches - meaning?

Discussion in 'European & Other Pocket Watches' started by rstl99, Sep 10, 2017.

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  1. rstl99

    rstl99 Registered User

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    This may have been discussed here before, but I haven't found any threads so thought to ask this question.

    Most if not all English watch movements have a serial number engraved on the plate. In most cases, the retailer or watchmaker who finished and/or simply sold the watch also has his (or her) name inscribed, and location.

    Obviously, most of the movements were not actually made by the person whose name appears on the watch, but rather by the unidentified movement makers in Prescott Lancashire, Coventry, Liverpool, etc.

    In some cases, it seems that the watchmaker/retailer has a sequential serial number that reflects his history of operation, with a 3-4 digit sequence that appears to coincide with a plausible sales volume by that watchmaker shop over its existence.

    In other cases, the watches seem to have an arbitrary 5 digit serial number that I suspect is not indicative of the sales volumes of that shop, but may in fact reflect the production sequence in the movement makers' shops in Prescott, Coventry, etc.

    SO: how does one determine whether the number is specific to an individual watchmaker/retailer, or is more associated with the movement maker? And in the case of the latter, does the number give an indication of when an individual movement may have been produced, and by which movement maker, regardless of the name of the watchmaker/retailer inscribed on the plate (if a name in fact appears there)? If so, this could provide clues to buyers of watch movements with no cases, who try to date their new acquisitions. Or help determine if the case that comes with a watch is in fact the original one.

    Perhaps this is all explained in Weiss's book but I don't own a copy yet.

    I look forward to your thoughts on this.
     
  2. rstl99

    rstl99 Registered User

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    In fact, this site which I hadn't consulted in a while, offers some of the answer elements to my question above.

    http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/englishwatchmaking.php

    Namely:
    "It is very rare to find on an English watch the name of the person who actually "made" it. The reason for this is the way that English watches were made."
    "Most English watches have a serial number on the top plate. It is not possible to work backwards from the serial number to discover who was the manufacturer. Unless you know who made the watch, and have access to the factory records (which is unlikely), you cannot discover anything from the serial number alone."
    "If there is a serial number on the watch, that will almost always be a number put on by the watch "maker" rather than by the retailer."

    Any other thoughts on this issue?
     
  3. novicetimekeeper

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    That sums up the problem, but there is a bit more to serial numbers, I think the problem is that for most watches we don't know what it means.

    Look at the Roskell thread and you will see dating information from serial numbers. That happens with some bigger names, however there is something with even the small ones but we don't know what.

    I have an 18th century watch signed and numbered with a relatively unknown and enrico found another just fifty numbers different.
     
  4. novicetimekeeper

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  5. gmorse

    gmorse Registered User
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    Hi Robert,

    David Boettcher has it right I think. The key to understanding a serial number sequence with any certainty is the existence of work ledgers kept by the maker. These documents unfortunately have rarely survived, and even when they have, their interpretation isn't always straightforward; just ask Paul Audemars for his experience with his family records. The fall-back position is usually deriving dates from hallmarked cases and then interpolating the uncased movements in between. The work involved in researching this type of study is mostly done for the well-known and higher quality makers, but the vast majority of watches, many of good quality, aren't considered worth this effort.

    A quick scan through Weiss doesn't reveal any information on serial numbers, although it is well worth reading for all the other aspects it covers.

    Regards,

    Graham
     
  6. rstl99

    rstl99 Registered User

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    Thanks Nick and Graham for your thoughts on this. And thanks Graham for thumbing through Weiss for me, hopefully I'll own that book some day soon as I'm sure it will answer many questions I have about the world of English watch making during that era.

    I would think that the numbers have to be some kind of chronological-sequential serial number from the movement maker. Perhaps so that if the watchmaker-retailer has a problem with it and needs to ship it back to the maker for replacement, they could look it up in their records to see who had a hand in making what part of it? Maybe that's putting too much record-keeping practices into these movement maker shops.

    I read somewhere (maybe on another NAWCC thread) someone writing with great confidence that he had looked at hundreds of verge watches and concluded that the "serial number" was really a code for the year of manufacture (i.e. "xx89" meant made in 1789 for ex). I'm not sure I'd be so categoric, but who knows.

    From my limited experience, I think that in some cases the "serial numbers" were really watchmaker-retailer specific. Especially when the retailer was a solid watchmaker and may have had more of a hand in the watch than just what the movement maker supplied. A case in point are three watch movements that I own by Joseph Banister of Colchester, which I've talked about in another thread:

    https://mb.nawcc.org/showthread.php?140415-Banister-watches-from-Colchester-reunited-(sort-of)

    Banister initially partnered with Nathaniel Hedge (the IV), who was an old watchmaker at the time. When Hedge retired in 1818, Banister took over the business and ran his own shop for several decades until his own retirement in 1853. I found a picture of a Nathaniel Hedge watch on the internet dated from 1780 with the serial number 3463. In Bernard Mason's "Clock and Watch Making in Colchester", he features a photo of a Banister watch dating around 1814 with the serial number 7109 0r 7199 (hard to make out in the photo).

    Here then are the 5 serial numbers for Hedge-Banister watches that I know of:

    Hedge watch (1780): number 3463 (internet)
    Hedge-Banister watch (ca. 1807?): number 6813 (in my collection)
    Banister watch (1814): number 7109 or 7199 (Mason book)
    Banister watch (ca. 1813-15): number 7166 (in my collection)
    Banister watch (ca. 1830?): number 8287 (in my collection)

    [​IMG]

    I'm guessing on the date of my later Banister watch, based on the later design elements.

    You can see a rather noticeable chronological progression of numbers from the Hedge, Hedge-Banister, and Banister examples. I would infer from this that these two watchmakers put their own serial numbers of the watches they sold, and that Banister probably continued the sequence after he took over Hedge's business in 1818. Those numbers look possibly reflective of a realistic production and sales volume by watchmakers like Hedge and Banister, who I presume cornered a good share of the market in and around Colchester.

    Now I don't believe that either Nathaniel Hedge or Joseph Banister were particularly well known watchmakers elsewhere in England, they plied their trade in "provincial" Colchester. But obviously in their case, the serial numbers are closely associated with their own production, and evidently not linked with movement makers' production numbers over such a timeframe (4-5 decades).

    Perhaps there are other examples of this kind of watchmaker-specific serial numbering.

    I hope some of you find this subject interesting, as I do.
     
  7. gmorse

    gmorse Registered User
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    Hi Robert,

    A retailer or local watchmaker could order anything they wished to be engraved on a movement, and it's pretty clear that in Bannister's case they chose to have their own serial numbers on the watches rather than the job numbers from the manufacturing workshops. Some retailers on the other hand chose the latter, (perhaps this was the default choice), and we see watches signed with five figure numbers for shops in small towns or villages which couldn't possibly represent their own output. Perhaps they wanted to imply that they were larger than they actually were. I must say I've never found any correlation between serial numbers and dates in provincial watches, although there are some London makers who used codes which may be dates. Vulliamy is a case in point with their letter codes, although their meanings are still largely a mystery.

    If you're looking for the Weiss book, it's possible to find used copies for between £35 and £40 online. Some of the extracts in Weiss are from the Clocks Watches and Chronometers section of Rees's Cyclopedia, which is another useful source of information on English watchmaking in the early years of the 19th century.

    Regards,

    Graham
     
  8. Audemars

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    #8 Audemars, Sep 11, 2017
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2017
    - complete b----y chaos.

    I first came into possession of the Audemars ledgers in about 2004.
    Thirteen years later - despite all sorts of theories advanced by enthusiasts - I am no closer to perceiving any kind of overall logic in the numbering - or even an overall guiding sequence.
    Originally I assumed - as many do - there was a chronological element. No way. Then I tried to relate some of it to the three known LA quality levels. Then a combination of both. I have given up.
    Apart from one "register of superior watches" (about 500 pieces) where the pieces are listed chronologically in the 1870s, I can't get a handle on it.

    It is complicated - as others have said in this thread and elsewhere - by retailers' (and maybe wholesalers'?) requirements. For example if they were making something for Tiffany they had to play a game of hide and seek to get their own references tucked away inside a movement. Same thing with their supplies to other major customers, and they often didn't bother at all.

    Of course there was no kind of central register of serial numbers, either national or international, (is there today?) and duplications between manufacturers were infinite.

    Very recently I was chasing down a serial number for a correspondent whose watch was most certainly a complicated LA product. The only identical number in my records referred to a simple, cheap, silver-cased watch "sourced" directly (I think from Courvoisier) by the LA London depot.

    This thread is about English watches and I apologise for the digression. But I see no reason why the same level of chaos should not apply.
    Sorry if that is depressing.

    Paul
    www.audemars.co.uk
     
  9. rstl99

    rstl99 Registered User

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    Thanks Graham for your insights (and the note about Weiss and Rees). Indeed, it looks like Hedge and Banister saw a benefit in inscribing (or having inscribed) their own numbering schemes on the watches they sold. For one thing, this would have made it easier for them to know what work had been done to what watch at what time, since I assume their collective shops would have seen those watches come in for service several times over the decades, and given what I know of Banister, he would have been the kind of man who would have kept good records to manage his business. Evidently many many other retailers/local watchmakers did not have the same concern for meaningful unique numbering of the watches that passed through their hands.

    It's a small detail, but at some point I'll look more carefully at the numbers on my 3 Banister watches, to see if the style of inscription matches the one for the name and location of the watchmaker. I'm thinking (perhaps erroneously) that the watchmaker could have inscribed his name himself (or had it done locally) as opposed to specify to the movement maker to do it, with the possibility of mis-spellings, inconsistent abbreviations, etc. In this case, the watchmaker could have chosen to inscribe the serial number himself, since it only had meaning for him and his business.

    Having meaningful serial numbers obviously allows deriving some understanding about the production of a given watchmaker. In the case of Hedge-Banister (and assuming my guess is somewhat accurate for the last movement), the numbers indicate roughly 5000 watches produced/sold in roughly a 50 year period, which means roughly 2 watches sold each week. That seems reasonable to me in a provincial town like Colchester, and Hedge/Banister were not the only watchmakers plying their trade there.

    Paul, that sounds like quite the ornery puzzle of numbers you've inherited with the Audemars ledgers. How unfortunate that such a firm would not have a more simple and readily understandable means of identifying their products. Yes I can see how terribly frustrating it must be for you to try to derive meaning from all this. Maybe some "fuzzy logic" or "chaos theory" techniques would help (just kidding!).

    Oddly enough, the earlier (clock)watchmakers in France and England (18th century) seemed to have a pretty good handle on serial numbering, and the numbers on their various timepieces seem to well reflect the timeframe of their production. Obviously, these watchmakers probably had more of a hand in making the timepiece, which was produced more wholly in their shop/atelier, so made sure to put on each one a unique number that was meaningful. I think I read that Julien LeRoy was possibly the first french watchmaker to start that numbering practice. Breguet had some interesting but meaningful numbering schemes of his own, and I seem to recall that Arnold also had a numbering scheme that needed analysing to figure out. Once the practice, in England in particular, went more to having frames and movements manufactured in the provinces, numbering associated with individual watchmakers/retailers (with the exception of people like Hedge and Banister) seemed to go out the window.

    Anyway, something else for enthusiasts and small-time collectors like me to have "fun" trying to figure out.
     
  10. Dr. Jon

    Dr. Jon Registered User
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    I believe that prior to factory production and the befginning of manufacturer provide spare parts serial numbering was for and by the book keeper and the way their ledger was set up. All the ledger extracts I have seen have pre-printed serial numbers or partial serial numbers on the pages. When teh book keepers bought a new ledger a new set of serial numbers began.

    Until factories began providing spare parts the erail number was for the benefit of the book keeper. Since ehse record wha did what and when teh ledgers are also of interest to those of us interested in how these watches were made.

    I have an example of a Nardin watch what got a first class certificate and the entry for the cost of engraving that on the cuvette.

    I have seen similar information in the english watches for which I have serial number extracts. For example I have a half hunter that was originally a full hunter but waS converted. The cost of this was very low so I suspect the goldsmith kept the gold taken out as partial and nearly full payment.

    The ledgers also show the dates sold so they are very interesting. for small retailers, the serial numbers are likely sequential but larger operations they probably had several ledgers and several sequences.

    A few such as Barraud and Barraud and Lund used fractional sequences so they probably ordered custom printed ledgers but for the most part, I believe the serial numbering was controlled by the stock of the stationer who supplied the retailer.
     
  11. John Matthews

    John Matthews Registered User

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    In much the same way as each collector will organise his or her collection in a different way, and indeed may organise different parts in different ways, so I believe it was with each watch manufacturer. It is not possible to generalise. Only by having a very detailed knowledge of an individual maker, is it possible to start to understand the order, or chaos, of the numbering systems that were used. So my feeling is that whatever system is described in a posting like this, it will be possible to to find an example of a maker who adopted that approach.

    To offer a couple of additional approaches. Some watches may have both the number of the movement maker and that of the finisher or retailer - just to make it a little more complicated. Some of the low output makers' work books that have survived were hand written ledgers - I attach an example.

    John
     
  12. Omexa

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    Hi John, the example of data for 1555 is very interesting: it reminds me of when I was an Optical Mechanic many years ago, all costs pertaining to an item were recorded in a complicated code in the retail shop. Regards Ray
     
  13. John Matthews

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    Hi Ray - you could try to crack the code if you are feeling up to it ... otherwise I recommend here ... 'The Business Records of Turner and Birch…' by Alan C Davies, Antiquarian Horology, Autumn 1988, Vol 17, page 478 - see attached

    John
     
  14. Tom McIntyre

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    It may be worthwhile remarking that Tompion was the first watchmaker to produce enough watches to make serial numbers meaningful. Prior to that watches were known by the owner's name and, of course, the maker. Graham continues Tompion's numbering. Jeremy Evans has written fairly extensively on this topic with respect to Tompion and Graham.
     
  15. Audemars

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    FWIW, I see in my earliest book - 1840 - my ancestors were listing ebauches and complete movements (together with half-completed wheel trains &c), without any numbers at all. At that time they were not supplying complete cased watches. I suppose they thought it didn't matter.
    By the late 1840s they had started to number the movements.
    P
     
  16. rstl99

    rstl99 Registered User

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    Thanks for sharing those documents and insights, John. I'll look forward to looking at these (was out of town for a couple of days).
    Tom, interesting about Tompion being perhaps the first English watchmaker to number his timepieces. I'll look up Jeremy Evan's writing that you alluded to.
    It's also interesting that Tompion (1639-1713) and Julien LeRoy's (1686-1759) lives overlap, since the latter is regarded as being the first French watchmaker to number his timepieces. Maybe Tompion influenced LeRoy in this regard...
    Dr Jon: interesting insights you shared.

    I suppose another advantage of numbering a watch was that it allowed a stolen or lost watch to more easily find its way back to the original owner (same way serial numbers on vintage guitars make similar restitution possible).
     
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