Saturday, 1 November 2014

Vintage Watches: Smiths Deluxe - made in England & as worn on Mount Everest

I recently bought an old Smiths Deluxe. Approximately as old as I am, it too has the scars of age, but, like its new owner, still ticks away strongly. These watches have a fascinating history.

My Smiths Deluxe A404 from around 1955

Edmund Hillary wore a Smiths Deluxe watch when he climbed Everest in 1953. Later claims that he wore a Rolex originated from the fact that Rolex also sponsored the expedition, Hillary owned a Rolex and (and far as I can ascertain) a Rolex was worn by Tenzing Norgay, who stepped onto the summit before Hillary, so validating the claim that Rolex was first to the top.

Hillary's Smiths watch seems to have been a prototype model A409 which, as far as I know, wasn't put into production in exactly the same form. The advertisement below shows the models (including my A404) which were nearest to Hillary's watch in terms of construction and 15-jewel movement.

Image courtesy of Ollie Harrison

These watches were made near Cheltenham in England where all the parts were manufactured: there's nothing Swiss about this timepiece. Stylish and well-proportioned watches like this can be found for £150 to £300, depending on condition. I think that's good value for an example of British horological history.

They are, of course, vintage watches, so will show signs of their age and will need looking after. Prices are beginning to climb as people realise Smiths' part in British manufacturing history, but they will hold their value.

Hillary's original watch (bottom right), expedition watches invoice & later Smiths 'Everest' advertisement

The movement and all parts were made in England. Image courtesy of Ollie Harrison

The information in this post is a distillation of much conflicting evidence which I found online. Please check it before relying on it or repeating it; and if anything is inaccurate, let me know.


Ollie Harrison said...

Great stuff David! May I ask where you got the picture of Sir Ed's watch?


Grey Fox said...

Hello Ollie; I'll e-mail you.


Dr Geoff Bond said...

Interesting post> I have my original Smiths Empire 5 jewel watch which was bought for me when I started grammar school in 1949. I would be interested to hear whether you are aware of anywhere where this watch could be repaired.
As far as I can gather Smiths Empire watches were made by the Anglo-Celtic watch company in Ystradgynlais, Wales; a joint venture between Smiths and Ingersoll. The factory was in operation from 1948 until 1980. The Smiths Empire brand was used until the mid 1950s, after which the watches were simply called 'Smiths'. Smiths also had their own factory in England that made much higher grade watches.

Grey Fox said...

Thank you Dr Bond. I also have one of the 5 jewel Empire watches. I know a watch repairer who might be able to help. He's done good work for me, but whether he could work on this type of movement I don't know. If you email me I'd be happy to send contact details.

Geoff Bond said...

Many thanks I would appreciate watch repairers details.
What is your e-mail address? GB

Peter Byford said...

Neither Hilary or Tensing have divulged who actually stood first on the summit of agreement between the two. One can only speculate then, but as Tensing had the camera & took the famous image of Hilary standing on the summit, I think I know who my money would be on lol ! Hilary's actual Smith's Deluxe is on loan from his family, & on permanent display in a museum on Threadneedle Street in London. His letter to Smith's attesting to how well the watch performed in the Smith's vault. The Rolex worn by the expedition members were all precision bubblebacks, not Explorer 1 as Rolex would like everyone to think. I had the 1972 Rolex insert booklet that came with my Rolex bought in Geneva that year. It shows Hilary's image on Everest with an image of said Explorer 1 at an oblique angle over the image. Explorer 1 didn't come to market till 1954 so the image alluded to an impossibility. Smiths carried forward the line under the name of 'Everest' for obvious reasons.

Peter Byford said...

Further to my last comment, I'd like to make further observations

1. To suggest that it MUST have been a Rolex worn by Hilary 0r Tensing on the summit because Rolex sponsored the expedition is totally erroneous. Many reading that would assume Rolex PAID for the expedition. The expedition was in fact undeniably organised & financed by the Joint Himalayan Commitee. One could suggest that as Smiths supplied both travel alarm clocks AND watches, whereas Rolex supplied just watches, that they, not Rolex are more qualified to make the claim based on sponsorship grounds ( note I didn't say Smiths sponsored the expedition as this article alluded to Rolex doing so ) But they didn't as it would too be an erroneous claim.

2. Many articles say the Rolex on the expedition were early 'Explorer' models. Again alluding to Rolex wishing people to envisage Explorer 1 of later years. Not true, as I've said, they were precision bubblebacks. Rolex had hoped for the 1952 expedition to be successful, which it wasn't, & myth has it they would have used 'Everest' as a model name in 1953. That honour fell to Smiths, again, much to the chagrin of Rolex. They had a rethink & the Explorer 1 was the result in 1954. This too is questionable as it appears 'Everest' appears on the dials of 1930's-40's Rolex. But certainly the Rolex marketing machine would have made more of the 1953 Everest success if they could make a sweeping claim to the exclusion of others, including Smiths.

3 The letter to Smiths from Hilary now in the Smiths vault has caused some pedantic nitpicking as suits Rolexfans........" I carried your watch TO THE SUMMIT of Everest. It worked perfectly"

As Rolexfans say, there is a difference between 'carrying' & 'wearing'. There is, but unless you have experienced very low sub zero temperatures with wind chill factors, you wouldn't understand why a metal wristwatch might on occasion be carried in a warm pocket , not worn on the wrist where it may freeze to the skin. That's why pilots wore/carried watches on a leather strap ( later known as 'Nato' style ) Some say that for that reason, Hilary didn't actually WEAR either watches on the final push to the summit lol !

Grey Fox said...

Thanks Peter - this is great stuff and you've worked hard to summarise the evidence - thank you.


Peter Byford said...

Hi Grey Fox !

Thanks for that comment. I don't want anyone to think I suddenly decided to read up on this never-ending story lol ! I've owned 4 Rolex since a college buddy hitch-hiked ( students did in the 70's ) to Geneva to buy 2 steel chronometers for us. So I'm not anti Rolex, but I don't own, carry, wear ( forgive that little dig ) Rolex nowadays, for socio reasons....' The wrong people wear them & for the wrong reasons'....but that's only my opinion lol !

I do find it a little odd that the Smiths watches made in Cheltenham have 'Made in England' on the dial, but the ones made in Ystradgynlais, WALES, have 'Made in Great Britain' on the dial lol !

John said...

I recently purchased on of these and like the band on the one that you have. Where did you find that particular watch band?

Biffo said...

I'm sure you'll get a definitive answer, but to my eyes although the watch has removable lug pins to take normal straps, I'm pretty sure the strap is a canvas Nato strap which passes through one pin, then over the case back, & out through the other pin. Just search ebay for....Nato watch straps.....

Grey Fox said...

Thanks John and Biffo, I bought the watch with the strap which is indeed a canvas NATO-type strap. I don't know its origin but eBay is the place to look.

Good luck in your search.


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