Smiths is an iconic English watch brand. The earliest Smiths watches are pocket watches from the 19th Century, either made in England or Switzerland and cased here or abroad. Most of the watches are signed S.Smith on the dial or movement or potentially both. Smiths vintage watches occupy a distinct area of collecting, they are of particular interest to collectors of English timepieces. The price of vintage Smiths watches is defined more by market trends on vintage watches in general, rather than specifically English products.

History

Samuel Smith had a jewellery shop at 12 Newington Causeway in south east London in 1851. In 1875, Samuel Smith died at the age of 49. During his time in control of the firm, it had experienced a rapid rate of growth. During 1872, it relocated the centre of its operations to 85 The Strand, next door to the premises of Charles Frodsham. In 1885, a large business operating as diamond merchants emerged, based at 6 Grand Hotel Buildings, Trafalgar Square, and from 1895 at 68 Piccadilly. They were not watchmakers as such, rather retailers. They had the watches made and branded with their name. Smiths watches were typically manufactured by Nicole Nielsen of Soho Square. In the early 20th century Smiths branched out into manufacturing automobile accessories, this was to become the largest part of its business.

World War 2

In the late 1930s, with war looming, the British government was keen to establish British manufacture of soon to be unobtainable escapements, primarily for aircraft instruments. After signing some Ministry of Defence contracts, Smiths contributed to the war effort by opening a factory at Cheltenham where they produced pocket watches and wristwatches for the military.

Post War

After the war, the demand for military watches dropped considerably and the government contracts dwindled. However, Smiths continued to produce high quality wristwatches for the domestic market out of their Cheltenham factory. In a partnership with the London-based arm of the Ingersoll watch company, Smiths opened a new factory in Ystradgynlais, Wales. The new factory was established with government assistance to rebuild the British horological industry. The Ystradgynlais factory produced a range of budget, low-jewel, Ingersoll and Smiths ‘Empire’ watches and clocks.

Vintage Smiths Deluxe watch.
Vintage Smiths De Luxe watch.

Those watches manufactured in the Cheltenham factory had “Made in England” printed on the dial. Those manufactured in the Ystradgynlais factory had “Made in GT Britain” printed on the dial. Both the S Services and the Smiths Empire pocket watches were made in Wales. They are likely to have pin-pallet movements and a chrome plated brass case. They were robust watches that would have been affordable by the average man on the street. In the final years of watch production, Smiths started using Swiss and Japanese made movements.

Fine watch making at Cheltenham ceased in 1971. Watchmaking in the Ystradgynlais factory continued from 1946/7 until 1979, at which point the company stopped producing all timepieces. The company still exists today as Smiths Industries.

‘Ystradgynlais’ is pronounced: [IST] + [RAD] + [GIN] + [LYS]

Collecting Smiths watches

Smiths vintage watches are quite common, especially around the Cheltenham area and so crop up in antique shops, charity shops and at auction. There are three types of Smiths vintage watches, Made In England, Made in Britain and those that are Swiss or Japanese made. All serious collectors of vintage Smiths watches focus on the Made in England watches. That isn’t to say that the other makes can’t hold sentimental value as family heirlooms. Original boxes and paperwork add to the value of any vintage watch.

Vintage Smiths watch with box and papers.
Vintage Smiths watch with box and papers.

Popular makes

The Smiths De Luxe. In its water-resistant case, this was the watch said to be carried by Sir Edmund Hillary on his Everest ascent. Even if the case back states that a watch is waterproof but, as with any vintage watch, it should be kept away from water and moisture.

The Smiths Astral. Perfect as a dress watch, with its central seconds, 34.5mm case and thin bezel.

The Smiths Everest. These watches were produced using various sized cases and movements. The most user-friendly are the later ones with hand-wound 0104 movements and 35mm cases. This watch can also be found badged as Imperial.

Condition

As in all vintage watches, condition is everything for serious collectors. Post-war austerity meant that solid cases were expensive. A work around was the use of metal plating. Always check the condition of the gold plating. Solid metal is obviously better wearing, but more expensive. Movements are less of a problem as parts are still freely available. However, always make sure the movement is free of corrosion or pitting as this could be the vintage watch has been exposed to moisture.  

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