One of my favorite parts about our Market Watch(ing) series is that it puts watches I rarely think about in front of my face. It’s easy to overlook brands like Nivada, Wakmann, and others if the blogosphere is caught up on Rolex, Omega, and IWC (we’re guilty of this). Just the other week, while looking for a couple of pieces for the weekly roundup, I came across a great example of a Smiths watch. If you don’t know Smiths, that’s quite all right, because they don’t exactly exist today, and they didn’t have a huge following outside of the UK even when they did. However, they have a cool history that should be shared.
Early S. Smith & Sons pocket watch — credit to

Opening his doors for business in 1851, Samuel Smith was a skilled craftsman who specialized in clocks and instruments. He would eventually add diamonds to his business with the help of son, making it a family business known as S. Smith & Sons. Soon after, the turn of the century brought along a new business opportunity, one which was right up S. Smith & Sons’ alley: the automobile. Samuel Smith’s grandson was the one to take advantage of the opportunity by providing King Edward VII’s car with a brand new S. Smith speedometer. Knowing how fast one was traveling in the innovative mode of transportation became all the rage, especially amongst royalty, as many royal warrants of appointment streamed in to S. Smith & Sons.

As the automobile industry began to take off, so did the business of S. Smith & Sons. Almost immediately, they opened up a division specifically geared towards automotive accessories. It wouldn’t be long before S. Smith & Sons had a dominating presence in the market, finding their speedometers in the overwhelming majority of new cars. Not satisfied with only speedometers, S. Smith & Sons dabbled in other automotive parts like carburateurs and spark plugs, whether organically, or through acquisition. They truly aimed to find their products in almost all cars in the UK.
Of course, WWI forced the Smith family to help with the war effort, first with munitions, but then with aircraft instruments, an obviously familiar territory. The war launched the business to the next level, increasing their employee base by five-fold in 1916. At the same time, S. Smith products were receiving great press from their use in events like the first non-stop transatlantic flight. However, as the 1920s rolled on, S. Smith’s increasing success was met with minor turbulence in the form of a legal dispute to their “British made” claim. This forced their hand to bring all of their part manufacturing to the UK – turns out the “in-house debate” is nothing new.

While S. Smith & Sons’ automotive and aviation instrument businesses were leading the pack, it’s not fair to leave out watches and clocks. By the time WWII hit, S. Smith’s clock production accounted for roughly 50% of the UK market. Then, once again, a major war boosted production, pushing their clockmaking (among all of their other products) to what was close to a million units per year. What’s more, they stood on the leading edge of electronic clock technology.
Following WWII, S. Smith had smartly taken notes on efficient American manufacturing processes and was pumping out clocks faster than ever. Clock production was moved to a location in Scotland and supposedly making 25,000 clocks per day. If you’re doing the math, that’s over 9 million per year – no small number by 1950s standards.
Post-WWII is also the time when their wristwatch production kicked in, and it would be under the name “Smiths”. Like their other instruments, they were of good quality, and made in the UK. Now, as a point of clarification, Smiths had an offshoot watch brand that began almost a decade earlier, known as Ingersoll. This is not the American Ingersoll brand, but a company which produced watches out of Wales. They are often considered of lower quality, and can be identified by having lettering at the bottom that’s anything but “Made in England”. The latest examples — right up until Smiths ceased watch production — contained outsourced movements. For collectors, the “Made in England” Smiths watches are the most desirable.

1953 would be the year Smiths received a once-in-a-generation marketing gift: the summiting of Mt. Everest. Many know that Sir Edmund Hillary wore an early Rolex Explorer on his journey, but not quite as many know he carried Smiths instruments and also wore a Smiths De Luxe wristwatch. It’s likely we’ll never actually know which what was on his wrist at the summit, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. Smiths jumped at the chance to ride the marketing wave, and they got Hillary on board to give his seal of approval. According to the legendary explorer, his specially lubricated De Luxe worked admirably throughout the expedition. Smiths took things a step further and created an “Everest” line of watches based on the De Luxe model, not dissimilar to how Omega capitalized on the Speedmaster.
Credit to

Despite the sudden boom in popularity, Smiths watches would slow their production down over the next few decades, drawing to a close before 1980s. Changes in the market – the advent of quartz watches, cheaper production methods overseas, etc. – were the writing on the wall for Smiths. They decided to allocate their chips in a number of other industries, including medical instruments, ATMs, oil and gas, and many more. The Smiths Group, as it’s known today, is a multinational corporation operated by five distinct companies. Unfortunately for us watch lovers, watch production is nowhere in sight.
Credit to Myron from Rover Haven Straps

If you want a Smiths watch today, you’ve got a couple of options. You can scour the forums and eBay for vintage examples, or you can buy a Timefactors “Smiths” watch. The former is the only way to get a real Smiths watch, and the latter is the same in name only. As you all know by now, we love our vintage watches here, so we say the first option is best. The most desirable Smiths watches are any of their W10 military issued pieces, or the Everest/De Luxe watches. For prime examples, prices range from about $500 for a De Luxe/Everest, to about $1,000 for a W10. Vintage Smiths provide a great value proposition for an in-house vintage watch that’s totally under the radar.
Smiths Group, under a number of different official names, has been a staple in various British industries for over 150 years. Their role in the wristwatch industry is a small part of their company history, but for the types of stories we get into, it’s intriguing to learn about. From their wartime efforts, to their involvement in major expeditions, they’ve had a hand in several major 20th century events. And although they don’t get a lot of attention on the vintage watch market, for our money, they’re seriously worth a look.
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