SMITHS English Wristwatches

Samuel Smith & Son has a long and interesting history, becoming one of London’s premier clock and watch retailers by the beginning of the 20th century. They sold a wide variety of English and Swiss made pocket watches though retailed only Swiss made wristwatches at this time. On acquiring the Coventry based firm of H Williamson Ltd, in 1934, Smiths started to manufacture their own clocks, but undertaking the manufacture of watches and watch type instrumentation presented a much more difficult problem.

In 1939, part of Smiths Cheltenham factory was apportioned for the work necessary to produce watches for the war that was looking increasingly likely and special machinery was ordered from Switzerland. Much of the new equipment was never delivered and Smiths found themselves forced to design and manufacture many of their own machines. By the end of 1939 Smiths were making 8,000 jewelled lever escapements a week. Within three years, they were able to supply the military with a pocket watch and, even more impressively, they designed a chronograph (a pocket watch with a stop/start/return to zero function) that was put into production in just 12 months.

The development that took place during the war led to production of a cheap range of ‘pin-pallet’ watches (marketed as Smiths ‘Empire’ range) but manufacture of a wristwatch with the quality to rival the Swiss was the objective. Smiths undertook this work at their Bishops Cleeve factory in Cheltenham. Among the many individuals who contributed to the enormous effort needed to make a success of the venture was Robert Lenoir, a Swiss trained watchmaker of French birth who had settled in England after the First World War. Lenoir provided the impetus behind Smiths improvement in the design and finish of their work and which finally led to production of a high-grade wristwatch in 1946 (some say 1945). Prior to moving to Smiths, Lenoir had been in charge of the Jaeger Instrument company in the UK, leading to the oft-repeated misconception that Jaeger-LeCoultre were somehow involved in the design of Smiths best wristwatches. They were not.

The first wristwatches to be produced by Smiths had nickel-finished plates, following Swiss and American practise. However, by 1951 Smiths had changed over to typically English looking frosted and gilded plates. They designated the new movement their ‘12.15’ calibre - 12 ligne in size (approximately 26 millimetres in diameter) and 15 jewels. This movement proved a great success for the firm and, marketed as their ‘De Luxe’ model from 1951, these watches became the standard by which Smiths later products were judged. Smiths gained much needed publicity when Sir Edmund Hillary wore a De Luxe watch on his historic ascent of Everest in 1953, a fact that became a staple part of future advertising campaigns.

Strong and easy to service, these watches were liked by both the consumer and the trade, and came in a wide variety of case and dial designs. Smiths most expensive gold cased examples were sold with their own silk lined box complete with certificate. The 12.15 movement was also adapted to have centre-seconds work which was designated as Smiths 27.CS calibre. The added plate for the centre seconds work has two extra jewels, making 17 in total.

At the same time Smiths produced a smaller 8 3/4 ligne movement with 15 jewels allowing production of a high grade ladies watch, though it is thought that the tooling for this particular calibre may have been purchased complete from Switzerland. This movement also allowed Smiths to offer a now rarely seen smaller men’s size of De Luxe watch – as well as it being a suitable larger sized ladies model.

By 1955 Smiths had also developed a new 17 jewel, 8 3/4 by 5 1/4 ligne, rectangular ladies size movement, designated as their Calibre 200. When first announced to the trade in the Horological Journal it was hailed as the smallest British watch then in production. This report was written by R A (Andrew) Fell who was later employed as a consultant at Smiths in order to oversee development of a new range of wristwatches.

Housed in Clerkenwell, the traditional centre of English watchmaking, the group developed two new calibres, the designs for which were completed by 1959. The first, designated calibre 0104, was marketed by Smiths as their ‘Imperial’ model. A manually wound calibre with 19 jewels, it could also be adapted to be a 25 jewel self-winding movement. This automatic model became Smiths most expensive watch.

The development of the 0104 calibre coincided with new names used by Smiths to market their watches. As well as the new Imperial model, they also used the name ‘Everest’, not unexpectedly, for their most expensive automatic watch and the name ‘Astral’, a name first used by H Williamson Ltd, started to be used for those with an updated 12.15 movement. A variation of the Astral name on the dial sometimes seen is the addition of either ‘National 17’ or ‘National 15’ in red, depending on whether it is a 17 (centre-seconds) or 15 jewel movement - the National name coming from a Smiths advertising campaign of the period. However, Smiths naming of their different models becomes increasingly haphazard throughout the 1960s. The De Luxe line of watches continued to be sold along with the Astral models, and the name Everest was also used on non-automatic watches.

In 1960, with the release of the new calibre, all seemed to be going well. Production and confidence were high and, as the number of different designs grew, so did sales. Also, in 1969, the Astral centre-seconds calibre, modified to have a ‘hacking’ facility that allowed accurate setting of the seconds hand, was accepted for use by the armed forces.

Production was now at its highest and gold, gold plated, chrome plated and a few rare all stainless-steel models were produced, many in Dennison cases with ‘Aquatite’ waterproof screw backs. Both offset and centre-seconds models continued to be offered, with an increasingly wide variety of dial designs. Smiths also introduced an Astral model with date, and movements with the ‘hacking’ facility appeared in their domestic line.

Smiths also made watches specifically for other retailers, of which those supplied to J W Benson are the most numerous. The London firm of Benson used Smiths better movements which also had a top jewel on the centre wheel pivot, changing the 12.15 effectively into a 12.16 calibre. The famous London firms of Asprey and Garrard also retailed Smiths English watches under their own names, the latter choosing to sell only Smiths very best work - 12-15 movements upgraded to 18 jewels, with hairsprings having an Arnold/Breguet overcoil.

Smiths’ English watches had, by the middle of the 1960's, carved out a steady and seemingly dedicated home market and many surviving watches have retirement or presentation engravings by English firms who no doubt preferred to 'buy-British.' Despite all this, and certainly coming as a complete surprise to the 400 or so men and women employed in their Cheltenham factory (some employed in developing a new electronic movement), Smiths suddenly stopped all production of watches in 1970 and reverted to buying in Swiss movements!

It is now nearly forty years since this great dream foundered. Given the quality of the watches, this last vestige of the British watch industry really deserves to be remembered. Luckily some Smiths watches have survived in good condition (most have not) and are rightly becoming increasingly appreciated by discerning collectors, as well as by those who prefer to wear an English made watch - as do I.

David Penney - Copyright 2011