Smith's Watches

December 22, 2020

An introduction to British watchmaking history

Although you may have heard the saying that Great Britain is the mother of Parliaments, you might be less aware that the UK is also often seen as the mother of modern watchmaking.

From the invention of the balance spring by Robert Hook in 1664, the lever escapement devised by Thomas Mudge in 1755, to John Harwood's even-winding innovation in 1924, Britain has a legitimate claim as the home of the modern mechanical watch.

As with many things in life, throughout the years, the British horological industry has moved in a cyclical pattern. During the 17th and 18th centuries, British clock and pocket watch production and innovation dominated the global market, much like that of Switzerland and Japan today. But by the late 19th century, although Britain still produced many high-quality timekeeping instruments, the glory days were slipping into the past. A failure to adapt to modern methods of mass production saw the mastery of watch and clock-making gradually leave British shores, moving instead to Switzerland and America.

The British watch industry peaked in 1800 when it represented roughly 50% of the global market and created approximately 200,000 timepieces per year. However, by 1900, despite rapidly growing market demand, UK watch and clock production dipped, with the creation of around 100,000 pieces. Further declines were to follow into the 20th century, with only small specialist watchmakers surviving by the 1930s.

In the aftermath of WWII, however, the cycle of British watch production changed once more. The well-established British industrial conglomerate, Smiths, burst onto the booming post-war consumer market in 1947. Founded in 1851, Samuel Smith opened his first watch and clock shop in London and began a long pedigree of watchmaking. But in the aftermath of WWI, the explosion in automobile and aircraft production led Smiths to move away from horology and specialise in the production of parts for the growing British car and aviation industry.

The roots of Smiths watches

The roots of Smiths principle high-grade watch factory trace back to a 1939 meeting between the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the chairman of Smiths. With the storm clouds of WWII on the horizon, the Ministry was beginning its attempts to bolster British defences by coordinating efforts with the nation's manufacturing industry.

Smith & Sons' London-based factory in Cricklewood had already started to make vital parts for British aircraft and, therefore, the Ministry was concerned that it would be vulnerable to enemy attacks. Any destruction to the factory would severely impact crucial production for the RAF and drastically weaken the security of the British people. Accordingly, the Ministry requested that Smiths develop a shadow factory outwith the city, to mitigate against this risk and to allow ongoing production of vital aircraft components in the event of an attack.

The firm chose a rural site in Bishops Cleeve, Cheltenham to build their factory. In 1939, Smiths purchased 300-acres of land, known as Kaytes Farm, for £25,000 and construction of their first factory, CH1, commenced almost immediately. Work finished in May 1940, just five months before the Battle of Britain, and development and completion of their second shadow factory, CH2, followed swiftly after. Due to Smiths essential contributions to the war effort, the government installed huge wire nets suspended from telegraph poles to camouflage the factories and protect them from enemy attacks.

The Smiths factories mainly produced aviation clocks. Previously imported from Switzerland and the USA, these clocks now had to be made on British soil, due to the strengthening Nazi grip over the continental and transatlantic trading networks. As well as aviation clocks, the factories also produced pocket watches, stopwatches and even a centre seconds watch for the RAF.

WWII Smiths Military issued clock. Likely to have spent the war sitting on the mantlepiece of a military or government office.

Post War economic readjustment and a trip to Wales

As the war came to an end, Smiths had to acknowledge that they were about to lose their biggest customer - the British government. Having manufactured a vast amount of high-quality, military-grade timepieces, now that the war was over, the government would no longer require Smiths in anywhere near the same capacity. However, after two world wars which had demonstrated the crucial role of domestic production, the government was keen to support the continuation of commissioning UK-based industrial production.

The need to rebuild the British economy and refashion it towards civilian functionality led the government to arrange a series of meetings between American watch company Ingersoll, British engineering conglomerate, Vickers Armstrongs, and Smiths. Together, they would discuss the possibility of setting up a British watchmaking consortium, sort of like a 1940s British Swatch group! Ultimately, these meetings resulted in the development of the Anglo-Celtic Watch Company.

A large factory was built at Ystradgynlais in Wales for the production of euphemistically called popular grade wrist and pocket watches. Whilst perfectly competent, it is safe to say that the product reflected the price. These were entry-level timepieces that were affordable to the average man, woman and boy. Accordingly, they generally consisted of chrome-plated brass cases and pin-pallet escapements, keeping in line with market competitors from Switzerland and the USA.

However, this is not to say that they were not good watches. It is impressive how many of them continue to function to this day, with little or no servicing since their production over half a century ago. A modern-day comparison might be between a Seiko 5 costing £50 and a Grand Seiko costing thousands. These are both great watches, but with very different quality standards, reflecting the old you get what you pay for maxim.

For the intrigued enthusiasts out there, there is an easy way to tell the difference between a high-grade Smiths watch from the Cheltenham factory in England and an entry-level one made in Wales. A Smiths watch produced in Cheltenham has Made in England printed at the bottom of the dial, while a Ystradgynlais watch features “Made in Great Britain.”

Early Smiths watch in stainless steel case illustrating the “Made in England” at the bottom of the dial, indicating that this watch was made at the Cheltenham factory in England, as opposed to the Welsh factory ones that said, “Made in Great Britain.”

Another early Smiths watch produced at the Cheltenham factory. You can just make out the “Made in England” at the bottom of the dial. This one has a chrome-plated case showing a lot of wear, consistent with the fact that this would have been an expensive item for the average person, costing around two weeks wages at 1947 prices.

Early post-War Cheltenham factory Smiths watch production

This article is primarily concerned with early Smiths watches, produced at the Cheltenham factory from 1947-1951. They are relatively easy to distinguish from later Smiths watches, by merit of the dials simply stating “Smiths”, in contrast to the post-1951 dials that state “Smith DeLuxe.”

An early 9ct gold Smith watch. Note the Lollipop hour hand, so-called as it looks like a Lollipop!

Employees of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) received early Smiths timepieces as presentation watches, but these have often led to some confusion amongst collectors. Although dials of these watches feature a 1945 print, the hallmarks present on their Sterling silver cases confirm that the actual year of production was in 1947. Smiths workers who had completed periods of long company service during the war received the 1945-printed presentation watches in recognition of their efforts. As time in the military counted towards company service, employees who had reached their long service point with Smiths while away at war would have had the commemorative year engraved on the back (e.g. 1945), not the year of presentation (e.g. 1947).

The back of an early Smith ICI silver presentation watch for long service – engraved 1945 but made in 1947. The recipient was likely on war service when he reached his long service point.

Front of the same ICI presentation watch. Note the cushion style case made out of sterling silver. These watches seemingly were not sold to the general public. Instead, they appear to have been the subject of a bulk purchase by ICI as long service awards for their employees.

The movements of these early watches were developed and made entirely in-house, and, these days, this is a prestigious marketing point, with brands who choose to do so known as manufactures. Due to the prior employment of one of Smith’s principle watchmakers at Jaeger LeCoultre (JLC), there is a persistent myth that the luxury brand supported the development of the movement for Smiths watches, but this is not true. There are, however, several design similarities between the Smith movement and JLC Reverso movements of the 1930s.

Early gilt Smiths 12-15 movement; 12 is the ligne or size of the movement, while 15 stands for the number of jewels. You can see several of these small ruby bearings in the photo. Also note the case back made by Dennison in England, with Birmingham 9ct gold 1946/47 hallmark.

The first movement that Smiths created, the 12-15, is also one of their most widely produced. While the 12 refers to the ligne, or size, of the movement, the 15 represents the number of jewels used to reduce friction between parts and increase longevity. The very earliest of these movements were silver in colour and most likely nickel-plated, while later versions are all gilt.

When Smiths watches were made available to the public in 1947, they came in stainless steel, chrome-plated brass and 9-carat gold. They ranged in price from £11 (about £440 today) for a steel model to £25 (about £1000 today ) for a 9-carat gold version. Given the average annual UK wage in 1947 was about £278, or £10,000 today with inflation, these were not cheap and cost between two weeks and one month's salary for the average person in the UK.

Another early 9ct gold Smiths watch. Note the unusual lugs, known as Horn lugs due to their resemblance to cow horns – not unlike the ones you would see sticking out of Desperate Dan’s cow pie!

Although the movements in Smiths watches were high quality and capable of impressive accuracy, it would be difficult to say that they were ever cutting edge. For example, another popular Swiss movement of the time, the 1942 Felsa 690 bidynator, had an automatic winding mechanism - something Smiths would not achieve until the late 1950s. However, what they lacked in pioneering technology, they made up for in reliability. A letter to Smiths from Sir Edmund Hillary, following his successful ascent of Everest in 1953 demonstrates this, with the mountaineer famously declaring, "I carried your watch to the summit. It worked

Conclusions and the cycle of (British watchmaking) life

For a modern audience more used to large, bling-encrusted timepieces, there is something refreshingly timeless in the simplicity of early Smiths watches. The effortless clarity of the dials, with a subdial for the seconds, speaks of a simpler time when form followed function.

However, that is not to say that these watches were not stylish, as evidenced by their lollipop hands and horn lug cases!

Whilst Smiths watches have long been a niche area for collectors, their recent year-on-year rise in price indicates that an increasing number of people are beginning to recognise the exceptional quality of these British timepieces.

The 1970s saw the cycle of British watchmaking wane, with the quartz crisis and changes in consumer taste leading to the closure of Smiths factories. However, 50 years on, this cycle is shifting again. Recent years have seen a resurgence in British watchmaking with the emergence of several high-quality companies onto the scene.

Whilst Britain has a proud and rich horological history for these new companies to reflect upon, it is clear that they are focusing on the future. The combination of British craftsmanship and design has led to the production of several high-quality watches that meet the ever-growing international consumer demands.

With the recent growth of the British watchmaking industry, it seems the future will be as bright as its past.