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The Smiths Watch Company traces its history all the way back to 1851, the year that its founder, Samuel Smith, Sr., opened his watch and clock shop on Newington Causeway in London. Like other horological concerns in the late 19th Century, the family firm, originally dubbed S. Smith & Sons, specialized in pocket watches. It was quite successful, eventually moving its headquarters to a larger venue on London’s bustling Strand and opening shops in the fashionable Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square marketplaces.
By the early 20th Century, S. Smith & Sons had staked out a substantial spot in British watchmaking history, producing in 1900 the groundbreaking “mileometer,” a device that combined a speedometer and an odometer; and becoming a trusted purveyor of timepieces and other instruments to the Royal Family in 1904, when King Edward VII commissioned a speedometer from the firm for his personal Mercedes motorcar. It was the rise of the automobile, in fact, that brought Smiths much of its expansion in the coming decades. Another company, Smiths Motor Accessories, opened up in 1914, run by Samuel Smith Sr.’s grandson Allan Gordon Smith, which produced carburetors, speedometers, and other accessories for the growing automotive industry. With the onset of the First World War, the company also started making onboard instruments for aircraft and fuses for bombs.
The Smiths added another offshoot company, devoted to making English clocks, in 1931, and acquired, among other firms during this era of growth and diversification, a maker of marine gauges and other instruments for the British Navy. The Smiths Group of companies became the leading provider of instruments to the British motorcar and motorcycle industries, and continued to thrive in the postwar years, despite its main instrument repair factory in the Cricklewood area of London being bombed to rubble in 1940. After World War II, Smiths began making wristwatches, but by the 1970s the group, now collectively called Smiths Industries, was collecting only a tiny portion of its revenue from watchmaking and accordingly focused its attention primarily on the markets that it still serves today, i.e., automotive, aerospace, medical, and industrial clients.
Sometime before Smiths phased out its watch business, however, a Smiths wristwatch found its way into the history books — even though the history itself may have been somewhat rewritten or even, in some quarters, glossed over. The year 1953 was a significant annum for the United Kingdom, as it ushered in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a historical epoch that would last into the third decade of the 21st Century. The coronation, which took place on June 2 of that year, was a day of pride and celebration for Great Britain. Adding to the festive national atmosphere was the feat that New Zealand-born explorer Edmund Hillary and his partner, Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, had accomplished on behalf of the British government just a few days before, on May 29: the first climb to the summit of Mount Everest, Earth’s highest mountain peak above sea level.
If you’re knowledgeable about watches and watch history, this is the point in the story where you’d expect the usual segue into the role played by Rolex — and specifically the Rolex Explorer, the rugged tool watch developed that same year — in that milestone expedition. And that would be reasonable to expect, as Rolex undeniably provided prototype watches, namely the Ref. 6098 “pre-Explorers,” for Hillary, Norgay, team leader Colonel John Hunt, and others, and those watches did accompany the mountaineers on the mission. (You can read much more about the Rolex Explorer and its history here.) But there were other watches on that Everest mission — Smiths watches — and some sources suggest that it was a Smiths watch that Hillary was actually wearing when he reached the summit.
Smiths was still well known as a watchmaker in the early 1950s, one of the few left that still made watches in its native Britain in the mid-20th Century, and the opportunity to take part in such a patriotic enterprise as the Everest expedition, by simply handing out complimentary watches to the team members, undoubtedly proved too tempting for the proudly British company to resist. Both Rolex (which, let’s not forget, was founded in London many years before it moved to Switzerland and likely felt a national kinship of its own) and Smiths had provided timepieces to the expedition that preceded Hillary and Norgay’s, led by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon. This attempt failed before reaching the summit due to a breakdown of the oxygen systems caused by ice; photographs taken on the mountain at the time clearly show Evans wearing a Rolex Ref. 6098. Had this expedition reached the summit, Rolex would likely have an indisputable claim to making the first watch worn at the top of Mount Everest.
The successful expedition that followed, however, leaves a bit of room for doubt. Hillary, Norgay and their team reached the summit at 7:00 AM London time on the 29th, but did not contact base camp until five hours later. Shortly thereafter, a message (with no photographs) was dispatched to the British Embassy, with the climbers identified via elaborate codes by the London Times correspondent assigned to cover the mission and the watches worn on the peak (if any) not identified or referred to at all. This lack of specifics did not stop Rolex from running a full-page advertisement in the Times on the morning of June 2 — yes, perfectly timed for Coronation Day — that proclaimed that a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch had finally made it to the top of Everest. Smiths ran its own ad (below) the next day, with a headline blaring that the British-made watch brand was now “On Top of the World!”
Most of us know The Rest of the Story: Rolex, in keeping with its founder Hans Wilsdorf’s legendary penchant for marketing and promotion, jumped on the opportunity to tout its Explorer watch in advertisements as the watch worn on Mount Everest even though no clear photographic evidence exists that anyone who actually ascended to the summit was wearing one at the time. As detailed above, Smiths went in the other direction, quietly folding its watch subsidiary in the 1970s and embracing its modern role as an engineering conglomerate. Hillary afterward became an official Rolex "testimonee" (aka compensated brand ambassador), but never definitively identified which watch he was wearing during the historic moment at the summit. At various points on the expedition, photographs indicate that some team members were actually wearing two watches, and to further confuse the issue, Norgay was once widely believed to have been wearing not an Explorer but a gold Rolex Datejust on the expedition — even though the watch on his wrist in contemporary photographs, now archived at the Royal Geographic Society of London, appears to be a steel watch, and one that looks far more like a Smiths than a Rolex.
What do we know about the Smiths watches that accompanied Hillary, Norgay, and a bunch of Rolex pre-Explorers on that history-making mountaineering adventure? The actual model now on display at the Science Museum in London, donated and presumably worn by Hillary, gives us a clue. It’s a 33.4mm steel “Smiths Deluxe” watch that uses the waterproof “Aquatite” case of the company’s A404 models, made by famed British casemaker Dennison. It was outfitted with a 15-jewel Caliber 400’1215’ movement and sported a customized dial configuration with subsidiary seconds and shaded Arabic hour numerals; this final element differentiates these mountain-worn Smiths watches, which are dubbed A409, from the standard A404 models. Like the Explorer, it was designed to be worn in the type of challenging conditions that one would encounter on a mountain. (The Rolex gifted to Hillary for the mission, incidentally, is also preserved for posterity, at the Beyer Watch and Clock Museum in Zurich.)
Perhaps to ensure that the Smiths Deluxe A409 was not lost to history, buried by Rolex’s multigenerational marketing juggernaut, British watchmaker Eddie Platts, founder and owner of Timefactors.com, decided to pay it an unusual kind of tribute in 2022. The Smiths Everest watch currently produced by Timefactors.com, an online dealer that specializes in affordable revivals of classic, out-of-production vintage watch models, looks nothing like the A409 from 1953; in fact, it looks almost identical to a Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016, a popular model that hit the market long after the Everest expedition. (It’s a reference that goes for insanely high prices on the secondary market, which may well have been the motivation for doing an homage piece; the Smith’s Everest from Timefactors sells for 345 British pounds, or around $450). Like the Rolex that inspired it, the watch measures a modest and period-appropriate 36mm in steel, with a black dial distinguished by the familiar Mercedes handset and 3-6-9 hour marker configuration with the inverted triangle at 12 o’clock. The sapphire crystal over the dial is domed and the movement inside is an automatic, Japanese-made Miyota 9039.
In an odd, meta kind of way, those lucky enough to get their hands on a modern Smiths Everest model (production and accessibility are quite limited) might be paying the purest homage to the watches that ascended Everest. With a Smiths logo on a classical Rolex Explorer dial, you could consider both your historical bases — or is that basecamps? — covered.
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