A Thoroughly British Obsession: Interview with Watch(Smiths) James Merrens

It’s 1953. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, is about to be crowned (she’s already launched the new royal yacht Britannia earlier in the year). Sugar and sweet rationing comes to a sticky-fingered end. And Edmund Hillary is about to conquer Everest along with his Smiths De Luxe wristwatch.

There’s enough controversy about which watch Hillary actually wore (rather than carried) to the summit to keep watch historians and the rumor mills busy for years. But there’s little doubt that Hillary took a Smiths with him on his defining expedition. After all, the watch featured in several ad campaigns after he’d made his successful ascent.

Smiths was a giant of British watch and instrument manufacture. They’d been watchmakers to the Admiralty, made speedometers and gauges for cars, aircraft (even the de Havilland Comet) and motorcycles. For a while, in the early twentieth century, they even made carburetors. They had a watch workshop in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire producing high-quality watches. And in the West Oxfordshire town of Witney, Smiths was a significant-enough local employer to build its own housing estate to provide accommodation for its workers, just a few yards from what was the Witney Aerodrome. Clearly more interested in engineering than being poetic, they christened it “Smiths Estate,” a name it still bears.

“Made in England” Smiths designed by Richard Good and Peter Amis in London and built in Cheltenham. Photo credit: SmithsWatches.

But what of Smiths today? The original watchmaking arm of Smiths has been largely defunct since about 1979 or 1980 (though the rights to the name have been purchased by Eddie Platts of Timefactors, who sells Smiths-branded watches through his online store). Those that remain of this bygone era, however, have been kept ticking by a loyal band of enthusiasts. One of these is James Merrens, the owner of the website SmithsWatches.

The website is the virtual shop window for James’ passion for collecting, selling, repairing and writing about Smiths. Talk to him even for a few moments and his depth of detailed knowledge for the maker becomes absolutely clear.

He began back in the 1970s with a small collection and a market stall. Then, as the ‘70s merged into the ‘80s, James began to specialize in Smiths. Perhaps the decision wasn’t entirely surprising.

“I remember seeing my first Smiths in a jeweler’s window in Blackpool, but I also inherited one from my father. He was an ex-RAF Coastguard who’d served in Hong Kong.”

James explains that Smiths has something of an image problem by comparison with Swiss-made watches.

“The basic problem is that Smiths have become associated with some of the cheaper watches in the market. And to some extent, that’s fair; some were even cheaper than Ingersoll and made in Wales. But the watches that came from the workshops in Cheltenham were good–all properly English and hand-finished.”

The reason for the hand-finishing wasn’t simply decoration or a marketing gimmick; according to James, it was a necessity.

“The watches that came out of Cheltenham had to be hand-finished. You see, they didn’t replace the factory’s machines and tooling as often as the Swiss did, so there were lots of little variations in tolerances that had to be ironed out.”

J.W. Benson with a Smiths dial design similiar to the dial on the watch Hillary carried up Everest. Photo credit: SmithsWatches.
An upgraded Smiths De Luxe movement; 16 jewels and frosted gilt. Photo credit: SmithsWatches.

Suggest to him that this was a little like the “fettling” that went on in the British motorcycle industry (although that more usually involved use of the MkI hammer) and he sets you right quickly.

“No–good grief! It was never anything that bad! These watches were British engineering at its best. And they’re vastly under-priced against Swiss watches of similar quality even today.”

They may not have emulated the Swiss dedication to replacing and developing machinery, but Smiths was certainly influenced by Swiss makers. The connection with JLC is well-documented and James outlines the link with some early Smiths wristwatches.

“If you take a look at the early watches–say from 1947 or 1948–you’ll see Geneva striping on the movements and two screws holding the balance cock. They’d basically copied an early Reverso movement from the late 1930s.”

This is where James’ depth of background and knowledge becomes clear, because, despite the connection, he’s able to debunk the myth that some movements were actually made by JLC.

“Just because some of the 27c movements had a “J” engraved on them doesn’t make them Jaegers!”

Circa 1952 – Early Smiths watch in a Dennison Aquatite case. These would be the springboard for the eventual Everest watch. Photo credit: SmithsWatches.

But Smiths are probably best known for their military watches.  Here, again, James is eager to dispel the myths that have grown up around the maker.

“Smiths supplied to the RAF after the end of WWII in 1947. You can often find some with engravings on the rear of a few examples with earlier dates, but these are retrospective. The civilian wrist and pocket watches labelled at the bottom of the dial Made in England were post-war.”

After the first run came the 1955 De Luxe (often confusingly dated 1956), then the 1960-1961 Australian RAAF W10 issued watches. Some of the British geographical surveys were issued with Smiths, often the Astral, and both the British army and navy took deliveries, too.

In fact, these naval Smiths are exceptionally rare. James explains:

“The Army ones are the most common, followed by the rare RAF issue. I’ve only ever seen one Naval model. The issued watches were supplied fitted with specially accurized movements, with a special caliber number under the dial. Rather unhelpfully, some are signed “Deluxe,” but some aren’t! All of them were center seconds, hack-set and seventeen-jewel movements with the larger shock setting.”

Smiths W10. Photo credit: Analog Shift.

Smiths also supplied a stream of highly-finished presentation watches to the trade. Back in the days when people stayed in jobs for years–sometimes even a lifetime–ten, twenty, thirty and even fifty year long service awards were common. The reward for long service was often a suitably engraved Smiths watch.

“I’ve got watches here in the workshop that were presentation watches. Some have hardly been worn–proper high days and holidays watches. They’re engraved by de Havilland, Rolls Royce, Vickers, Bristol–t’s like a roll call of all the greats of British engineering and manufacturing.”

Smiths De Luxe presentation watch for British Railways. Photo credit: SmithsWatches.

As someone who’s been involved with Smiths for more than thirty years, James is a fine source of collecting tips. Ask him which models to choose and he’s happy to explain the options.

“You can choose between something you can wear everyday–like an Imperial or an Everest with a 19 jewel movement–or something more collectable in its own right. I can make a ‘61 with a clip-on back properly waterproof, so it’s easy to wear whenever you like. A new tension ring, crystal, crown seal and an original case back seal and it will be fine.”

The most underrated model?

“That’s easy. The 6B version of the ‘66 second run RAF watch. There are far fewer of the air watches than the ones Smiths made for the army. They’ve pretty much doubled in value though.”

He lists the more collectable models as the prototypes, particularly the Football Referee model with its calibrated chrome bezel, and the short run of rolled gold, display-back automatics. His advice to collectors (rather than wearers) is simple.

“Buy one that’s boxed and as near mint as you can get it. The papers will often be blank, but that’s OK. Wear it once, perhaps twice, then put it away.”

Smiths Astral – Smiths’ take on the Swiss diver. Photo credit: SmithsWatches.

As you can imagine, James’ south of England workshop has become a mecca for Smiths owners and collectors. It’s almost wall-to-wall with watches and equipment. And it’s been a long-term obsession. He admits to having plenty of movements he bought in the 1980s that are still awaiting preparation.

His view on the relevance of Smiths today is unequivocal.

“Wearing an English watch like a vintage Smiths is a statement. But it’s not shouty, on the contrary it’s really understated. £450 gets you something well worth wearing. And they’re just quietly and beautifully well-made watches that deserve a wider audience.”

And, thanks to James, it’s likely they’ll keep on getting it, too.

A big thank you goes out to James Merrens for opening up his treasure trove of images for our use. To see more of the great watches he has available, visit SmithsWatches

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Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
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