FAIR TRADE IN WATCHES
During his recent visit to Liverpool, Mr. Chamberlain received a deputation on one of the minor questions with which, it may be hoped, Parliament will some day be enabled to deal. Most of us buy one or two watches in the course of our lives, and there appears to be some anxiety in the watch trade that these transactions should be free from imposition. The anxiety is very laudable, but it would be less provocative of scrutiny were it shared by consumers as well as producers. The public are, however, singularly indifferent in the matter, and, but for the alertness of the representatives of British industry, would be totally unaware of the wiles practised on them by the insidious foreigner. It seems, in fact, that we are suffering from unfair trade in watches. No complaint is made of the importation of foreign watches to this country, but they must not be sold as if they were English work. The demand is intelligible; but it is not easy to see how, according to modern notions, it can be realized. Englishmen have got accustomed to the idea that every trade should take care of itself, and adopt all needful precautions against competition, whether fair or unfair. There is, indeed, no industry in which tales could not be unfolded of the unscrupulousness of rivals and the injury thus inflicted on honest enterprise. It is, however, a different question whether the Legislature ought to preside over any manufacture to guarantee to the public full measure of good quality, and to protect the manufacturer against all competition that does not conform to a certain routine.
This was the issue raised before Mr. Chamberlain, and if it were merely suggestive of something yet to be, it would not be worth discussion But the principle just stated is to a great extent covered by existing legislation affecting both the watch and silver trades, and in some quarters there appears to be no unwillingness to increase its stringency. Everybody is familiar with the Hall marks on silver plate; they certify that the metal is of a certain standard. The fact is not so well known that nothing below that standard can in this country be legally sold. There is an open market for electroplate ; but if a manufacturer send to Goldsmiths’ Hall an article for which, upon examination, the Hall marks cannot be claimed, it is —returned to him? Nothing of the sort: the workmanship may be rare and costly, but it will never more gratify the eye—the Goldsmiths’ Company will carefully break it up and return the owner the pieces. It is unnecessary to say that this fine old custom has a very high antiquity, and that there are people who would be sorry to part with it. The position of the English Silversmith presents a study in trade survivals ; he is regulated in the present day as all other tradesmen used to be regulated centuries ago, and the quality of their wares guaranteed by a paternal Government. He cannot sell goods of varying standards of purity under the same responsibilities as other tradesmen: his work is specially taxed, and cannot be dealt in without a special licence. In the watch trade similar restrictions prevail. An English watch manufacturer must not sell a watch that has not been Hall-marked. On the other hand, his Swiss competitor may and does sell in this country thousands of watches that have no such guarantee. The Swiss and the Americans also sell watches that have been Hall-marked, and with which English buyers appear to be satisfied. At all events they make no complaint, and it is left to the English trade to complain for them. It is not pretended that there is any difference between an English and a foreign watch-case bearing the impress of the Goldsmiths' Hall, or that the investigation there made is concerned with anything but the exterior of the watch. The grievance alleged is that foreign movements are put in English marked cases and sold as English watches. To remedy this it is proposed to refuse the Hall mark to all foreign goods, and thus to compel them to be sold for what they really are. The Hall mark, it is contended, although originally designed to certify only the purity of the metals, has come to be regarded as a certificate of origin—as in fact an English trade mark. The English buyer, it is said, knows this, and while he is looking for the Hall marks he is thinking of the watch as a whole, and of the superiority of English workmanship. It is not surprising that the account given of the mental process in such transactions should be somewhat coloured by class egotism. To the English watchmaker English watches are necessarily the subject of constant cogitation ; but watch buyers have little worlds of their own, and are heedless of some considerations which he very properly regards as important. The whole subject of Hall-marking, as affecting both the watch and silver trades, was exhaustively investigated by a Select Committee three years ago, and there is a good deal of evidence to show that watch-buyers are not so much the victims of foreign deception as has been represented. People who give several pounds for a watch expect it to be Hall-marked as a matter of course, but there is very considerable testimony against the assumption that the Hall mark is taken as evidence either of the British origin of the case or of the movement. The movement, it is obvious, is the more important part of the watch, and this is sold under the responsibility and with the guarantee of the vendor. “ The Hall mark is a mere nothing in comparison with the name of an English watchmaker on the back of the watch or case”—this is the burden of much evidence from experienced manufacturers and dealers. Nor does it appear that it is an easy matter to draw the line between an English and a foreign watch movement. There is a very considerable importation into this country of foreign watch movements which are worked up into English watches in various ways, and in varying proportions. Some gentlemen from the provinces who were examined by the Select Committee were not afraid to suggest that the Hall mark should not only be withheld from foreign watches, but that it should be made a punishable offence to use foreign movements for Hallmarked cases, whether English or foreign. The same zeal was not shown for the protection of the public against an artifice by which watches emanating from Liverpool and Coventry were, for their more ready sale, passed off as London watches. It was philosophically suggested that nobody but an expert could tell the difference, and it need not be doubted that general ignorance on this point adds to the sum of human happiness.
No impartial student of the Report and Proceedings of the Select Committee can doubt that the grievance set up by a certain portion of the watch trade is of the protectionist order. Of course protection is disclaimed, but where in these times is the protectionist who will frankly own that he wants protection? He wants something which perverse opponents will persist in calling protection, but with whose true character he is best acquainted. As regards both the watch and silver trades what they stand in need of is freedom, not restriction. Hall-marking has its value; but it is obviously a regulation in restraint of trade. There is a strong feeling in its favour among certain manufacturers, and there is no reason why it should not be gratified. But there is equally good reason why the Hall mark should not continue to be compulsory either for plate or watches ; it is a relic of public functions which in far different times embraced all kinds of industry, and which only a superstitious regard for the "precious metals" has preserved in its now limited sphere of operation. There is much contempt among English watchmakers for "cheap foreign rubbish," but it is certain there is a great home demand for it, and there is qualified opinion to support the. suggestion that the English trade would do well to be less indifferent to the wants of humble buyers. English watches have their merits, but they have not the merit of being cheap, and, as Mr. Edward Rigg has hinted in his recently published Cantor Lectures, it may be questioned whether the average English watch is so much superior to the average foreign watch as to justify the marked difference in their prices. But for the necessity of Hall-marking, we may believe that English makers would long ago have entered into a more thorough competition with their foreign rivals; and Hall-marking must be made voluntary before the competition can be equal. Doubtless there are English watchmakers who hug their chains, and who think it a great advantage to be prevented by law from selling anything but a gold or silver watch. It is from such quarters that the cry against unfair foreign competition proceeds. The competition of the foreigner may not indeed be fair; but the foreigner has something to say for himself, and it cannot be denied that he has watches to sell which the English public persist in buying. It is for English watchmakers to consider whether it would not be better to fight him in the open market, rather than by fresh legal restrictions for which Parliament will be appealed to in vain.
Source: Pall Mall Budget - 11th November 1881