The Case for Gold Cases: Part 2

Read Part 1 here

Evan revisits the subject of gold watches with a review of his vintage Smiths DeLuxe

For some time I have been interested in solid gold-cased wristwatches. It wasn’t until this year, however, that I was able to add a couple to the collection. I find most of what appear to be the best deals on vintage gold watches on eBay, and it was on that site one evening that I was perusing the new listings. One caught my eye- a seller from the UK, offering a vintage 9k gold-cased Smiths watch.

I admit the low karat value of the case almost made me skip it, but the dial stopped me and made me take a second look. The pictures were a bit blurry (as always, for some reason), but as best as I could tell it was a really beautiful aged golden salmon color, with brilliant blued steel hands.

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I thought for a minute, looked at the pictures, thought some more, tried to unblur them by staring hard, and then placed a fairly low max bid with my preferred sniping service (I don’t like it any more than you do but it’s the way that site is run, my friend), and left it for a few days.
Well, to make a short story shorter, I won the auction, much to my surprise. I hadn’t actually intended to buy another watch, much less a gold one, but the price was excellent and it had an air of the unusual and exciting about it, so I paid and waited.

When it arrived from across the Atlantic, the caseback had popped slightly off but was still held in place by the packing. Noting that and looking it over carefully, I wound it up (a very pleasing clicking winding action with a very positive stop when fully wound) and let it run for 24 hours. About 3 minutes fast. Slightly concerning.

I left good feedback nonetheless, and have held onto the watch in that state. A service will be due shortly, but it maintains a very respectable 36-40 hour power reserve and everything else seems to be functioning well. It’s off the awful gold-tone stretch bracelet it came on, and has been living on a royal blue perlon strap.

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This watch had already made a long journey from the United Kingdom to the American midwest, but I was due for a long journey too, as I began reading and learning about the history of Smiths Clocks & Watches. I’ll give you the travel guide version here, but if you’re inclined to make the full trip there’s actually a decent amount of information out there.

Smiths was originally established as S. Smith and Son by one Samuel Smith, a watchmaker, in London in 1851. Their business met with good success and by the 1890’s they were producing Royal Observatory-certified pocketwatches and clocks.

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Photo courtesy of Christie’s

In 1900 the burgeoning automotive industry needed odometers and speedometers, and Smiths branched out of watchmaking and began producing and supplying both- the first of their kind made in the UK.

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Advertisement for automotive accessories, 1916
photo courtesy of aviationancestry.co.uk

Smiths’ businesses continued to grow with the automotive instrumentation arm under the original Samuel Smith’s grandson. In 1928 the watch and clock branch opened a factory for the manufacture of escapements. Their designs and manufacturing process proved a great success and they were able to cease importing escapements from Switzerland.

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S. Smith & Son advertisement from 1917
photo courtesy of aviationancestry.co.uk

In 1938 S. Smith and Son founded yet another sub-company, British Precision Springs, Ltd., dedicated to the production of the small, precise springs used in their watches and in their growing instrumentation business. This allowed Smiths to stop importing hairsprings and mainsprings from Germany, which proved a fortuitous move in the imminent years of World War II.

Smiths’ production exploded during the war years; by 1947 they employed 17,000 people, 2,000 of whom worked at the Cheltenham watch factory. Smiths became crucial to the British war effort, as the RAF relied on them to produce and repair aircraft instrumentation, as well as wristwatches for pilots and other members of the military. As such, the factories were hidden from German air raids by being moved into low, single-story buildings with turf roofs.

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Smiths aircraft clock with trip timer
photo courtesy of Denhams Auctioneers

The company resumed normal watch and instrument production after the war, and produced several solid lines of watches. Smiths watches were famously worn by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at the summit of Mount Everest in 1953 and were a source of national pride.

Smiths’ watch production, while fairly strong through the 1950s and early 1960s, slowly petered out as focus shifted to their cheaper, inferior Empire line, and pressure began to mount from the quartz revolution.

By 1980 Smiths Industries was a huge industrial power. Their success in many industries, and the fact that the watch and clock business had not been profitable for some time led them to close it down for good, and the doors were shut.

I would be remiss not to mention that the name and logo for Smiths watches have been purchased by a microbrand owner operating in the UK. He and his company (Timefactors) produce modern watches legally using the Smiths name. Various reports circulate about the customer service and quality of this brand. I would strongly advise careful research before contemplating a purchase. Certainly this modern “Smiths” bears no actual connection to the Smiths discussed in this article.

All this said, history class is dismissed and we are back to the subject at hand; my early 60s era manual-wind gold Smiths watch.

Per the dial text this watch is part of Smiths’ DeLuxe line, their highest-quality line of watches. The DeLuxe models have in-house 15- to 19-jewel movements, with gilt parts and polished escapements.

Most 9k gold DeLuxe models are housed in Dennison cases (also made in the UK), and these are well regarded for their sturdiness and secure screw-down casebacks.

Smiths also produced a series of watches within the DeLuxe line specifically for presentation gifts, cased in in-house-produced 9k gold SCW (Smiths Clocks & Watches) cases. A few corners were cut to make the presentation watches more affordable; the cases tend to be a bit thinner, no screw-down caseback, and the movements, while still excellent quality and produced in-house, were the 15-jewel versions commonly used in their Astral lineup. An easy way to tell these apart is that the presentation watches have drilled lugs, and the regular line do not. My watch is one of these presentation models, and has the 15 jewel, manual-wind movement.

The gold case comes in at 31mm in diameter, 38mm lug-to-lug, and is fittingly slim at 9.7mm. A lot of people balk at that small of a case size. I get it; amongst today’s watches it’s very diminutive. As always with watch case sizes, the dial and bezel sizes (in addition to lug-to-lug length) are really the specs that tell you how it wears. An all-dial watch like this one wears that 31mm size quite respectably. It does indeed appear small, but I feel it wears well on my 7” wrist.

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A tip for any watch that wears small is to wear it on a single-pass strap or (if it works) on a NATO-style strap. They bulk up a watch’s appearance considerably compared with two-piece straps. This watch’s lug width is 16mm, so finding straps is not a problem, although it is of course an oddball size in most collections.

As with so many watches, especially vintage, the biggest appeal of this watch to me is the dial. These began their life pure white, as this photo of a rare new old stock version shows:

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It was certainly a beautiful watch when new, but I personally think it looks even better in its aged form

Every dial ages differently depending on the environment in which it’s worn or stored. Some develop spots or blotches. This watch has managed to age quite gracefully in my eyes, and honestly I love the dial in its current form so much more than if it were just white. That rich, golden salmon-pink color contrasts with the deep blued steel hands so perfectly.

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The markers are applied; some sort of gilded base metal, by the slight tarnishing, and the small seconds hand is blued steel like the hour and minute hands. The crystal is of course acrylic. At the bottom of the dial is the text Made in England, and this part is important. This watch was constructed and assembled entirely in England; the large majority at the factory in Cheltenham. It is one of the very few brands and models of wristwatches of which that can be said.

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The market has not exploded for Smiths like it has for many other vintage watches. As a whole they’re currently undervalued, and are often available for good prices. There’s a bit of a gamble, of course, as with any vintage watch, on the movements. They’re 50, 60, even 70 years old, and that’s a long time for a tiny machine to keep running. Thankfully parts availability does not seem to be a big issue for these as many were made and the quality of the movement is quite good.

Smiths have all the horological pedigree you could ask for: in-house designed and produced movements, a rare mass produced watch manufactured in the United Kingdom, and a long history of watchmaking excellence, including royal warrants. They’ve been worn by many notable and daring people throughout history. RAF pilots used Smiths watches in addition to Smiths instruments in their airplanes. Despite Rolex’s shady marketing of the story, it is generally accepted fact that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay wore Smiths watches on their ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. All of this makes Smiths a fantastic opportunity for any vintage watch collector.

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This particular watch wasn’t worn on Mount Everest; at least I’d be very surprised to learn that it was. It very likely wasn’t involved in any particularly noteworthy achievement of the type the watch world loves to talk about, operating fast cars or boats, diving, climbing, or acting in movies.

Instead this watch was presented, likely with a small, tasteful ceremony, to one (perhaps unfortunately named) S. S. Dicker, by his employer, British Railways, in recognition of his 45 years of employment with the company. Judging from the general condition of the watch, I surmise that Mr. Dicker wore it sparingly before his death and the inevitable dispersion of his belongings by his survivors. No telling where any other of his possessions are, if they indeed still exist, but his watch at least has found a good home, far across the ocean.

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I don’t know anything about S. S. Dicker. A not-very-hopeful Google search for BR employees of that name revealed nothing. It’s not unlikely that besides those who read this article or see a picture of this watch, his name and life are never read or spoken of.

Do we idolize the actors, the racecar drivers, the divers and climbers a little too much in the watch world? Is too much time spent repeating and polishing gilded narratives about famous people wearing watches, perhaps to distract ourselves from our own sometimes banal existence?

Maybe, maybe not. But better, perhaps, and more meaningful, to salute an unknown man whose lifetime of labor is summarized by this watch.
To the anonymous collectors who have made headlines at auctions in recent years; your Paul Newman Daytonas and Marlon Brando Rolexes are impressive, but I’m quite satisfied with my workingman’s Smiths.

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