Friday, 6 July 2012

Alas Smith and (Mr) Jones : Watch Revival (Number 4)

The watch for this months revival is a Smiths De Luxe dating from the early 60s.

Smiths watches were the last English watchmaker of note, they made wristwatches from around the end of the second world war, up until the 1970s. The clock and watch division of the company was broken up, but Smiths continues today, it now produces automated flight systems for aircraft. Smiths as a company have a history stretching back to the mid 19th century when they made pocket watches, later branching out into car clocks and later aircraft instrumentation: The Smiths Group, more corporate info is here

The English watch industry made some of the highest quality watches in the world during the 19th century, but was ultimately superseded by the American's (who automated the production process and created much more reliable watches) and the Swiss (who undercut the English pricing). Effectively the English watch industry ended at the point where wristwatches became popular - the early years of the 20th century. Smiths is therefore something of an anomaly, as effectively English watch production had ended some 40 years earlier. My understanding (and this may be somewhat incorrect!) is that they were subsidised by the British government as part of the war effort to produce mechanical timers for bombs and later wristwatches (with an order from the army) and they carried this into the post war period. Post war there was a strong governmental push towards manufacturing and exporting in order to pay off the war debts. 

Confusingly Smiths had two parallel branches of watch factory: one in Cheltenham that made high quality watches (these are all marked "Made in England" on the dial) and another factory in Wales that also produced 'Smiths' watches, but of a much inferior grade (these are all marked "Made in Gt Britain" on the dial). Why they did this I have no idea - it would surely have made more sense to use a different brand name for the lower price point watches (like Rolex did with the Tudor brand).

The wristwatches that Smiths ('England') made were high quality items. Although they were not really in the craft based traditions of English watchmaking they kept some of the elements of this - such as the gilding to the movements (rather than the Swiss tradition of adding damasking to decorate the plates of a watch movement). The watch movement is beautifully finished and it all fits together very well (generally the test of the quality of the manufacture - it shows how good the tolerances were for production). 

This watch is a fairly mature product from the Smiths lineup - it has 17 jewels. It's very nicely designed with a centre seconds hand. One slight oversight is the absence of shock proofing on the balance jewel (meaning that the watch is very susceptible to damage from sudden impacts). 

I like the watch as it feels very of it's time - it's a bit flashy and hints at some of the postwar confidence returning, this is in marked contrast to the earlier Smiths watches that look as if they were designed by a particularly dour accountant...

In terms of a restoration it was really very straightforward - the mechanism was not damaged, it just needed cleaning to get the watch running to time. The only real problem I experienced was with getting the correct screws for the correct holes: there are three sets of paired screws (for the balance cock, the palette lever bridge and the centre seconds plate); these screws are all the same thread, but all slightly different lengths. I believe I tried every possible combination of screws + holes before I figured out which belonged where!

The gold plating on the case is rubbing through in places, but the case cleaned up very well in the ultrasonic cleaner. The dial is in good to ok condition (it has a number of scratches on the surface), but I resisted the temptation to try to improve it. The dial had lost one of it's feet, but apparently this is quite a common problem with Smiths watches. All in all I was very pleased with this watch and it's running well and keeping good time.

You can see a lot of information about Smiths watches and their movements here

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