The Smiths Antarctic Deluxe - A Small Piece of English Watchmaking

The Smiths Antarctic Deluxe - A Small Piece of English Watchmaking

5 min read
Gary Norton
Gary Norton

Discover the charm these small English Smiths watches can bring to your collection today...

My love affair with wristwatches began as a five-year-old boy when I was gifted a little Timex with a charming red and blue dial, the red side denoted ‘to’ and the blue side ‘past’. Sadly, I no longer have it in my possession. Like my old Timex, the absolute favourite timepiece in my collection also has that nostalgic feel – a vintage Smiths Deluxe watch from the late 1950s.

Made in England, Smiths watches have a truly fascinating history. Sir Edmund Hillary had a Smiths when he climbed Mount Everest in 1953. And when Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary led the Trans-Antarctic Expedition across Antarctica in 1958, the entire team also had Smiths Deluxe watches strapped to their wrists (the A454). My vintage Smiths watch is the A460, or the Smiths Antarctic as it’s also known. This replaced the A454 (although they are identical in every way, except that my watch is shock-proofed).

In fact, an old Smiths advertisement seems to indicate that the A460 was worn to the top of Everest AND across the Antarctic. But that's clever marketing for you. This is what the advert states next to the A460 Antarctic model heading:

"The official choice of the Expedition led by Dr. Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary was also the official choice of the successful British Mount Everest Expedition and in consequence was the first watch to be taken to the summit of the world. 17 jewel, anti-magnetic, shock-proof, and weather-proof it sells for as little as £10.19.6 with strap and £11.19.6 with expanding bracelet."

I love that my watch can be mentioned in the same breath as legendary explorers and their tales of derring-do. Especially when they also sported such glorious knitwear.

The Smiths Antarctic Deluxe On Wrist - Image credit: Gary "Norty" Norton

An online purchase

I picked up this little beauty from Messrs E & Bay. I’d been stalking the listings for absolutely yonks, trying to snag a bargain. Thankfully for me, I don’t think the seller knew what they had on their hands (or should that be wrist?).

When it arrived, it was really quite filthy, the crystal had a nasty crack and I soon discovered it was running 50 minutes slow over a 24 hour period. Ahh, the joys of buying a watch that was pushing the big 6-0. However, I bought it with my eyes wide open so was still pleased with my purchase. The watch fellow kept me informed and within a week or so, my Smiths was returned to me looking good as new.

When the Smiths originally arrived, it came on the original expanding bracelet, which I quite liked for added retro appeal. However, I felt a tan leather strap would set it off nicely so splashed out once again.

With some new shoes on its feet, the Smiths Antarctic had been returned to its former glory. As an example of English watchmaking history and British exploration and endeavour, it really was the least I could do, don’t you think?

A complete joy to wear with a tweed jacket, I seem to fall more in love with it every time I wear it.

On the wrist

Now the Smiths Antarctic has pride of place in my watch collection. I would never part with it. In fact, I would absolutely love to add a Smiths A404, the closest model to the Smiths watch that old Hilly carried up Mount Everest.

The Smiths Antarctic Deluxe On Wrist - Image credit: Gary "Norty" Norton

As it’s a vintage watch, the Smiths Antarctic isn’t some huge hulking monster. It’s a very modest 33mm, with 16mm lugs. I’m a sucker for a red sweep seconds hand and I could admire the domed crystal all day long. The syringe hands are another feature to add to the charm list.

If you're keen to get yourself a vintage watch, you could do a lot worse than a Smiths Deluxe. They're very handsome; they were made entirely in England (in Cheltenham to be precise); and despite prices rapidly increasing, there are still bargains to be had.

In addition to their high-end models - Deluxe, Astral, Everest and Imperial - Smiths also manufactured a line of low-cost Empire model watches, in a factory in Wales.

As well as the names, it’s easy to spot which is which as the watches are adorned with either ‘Made in England’ or ‘Great Britain’, usually along the bottom edge of the dial. While I’d always recommend the made in England watches ahead of their Welsh counterparts as you’re getting a much better timepiece, the 5 or 7 jewel budget range do have some rather fetching designs. And let’s face it, you’re still getting a British made watch.

Province of my little Smiths

The Smiths Antarctic Deluxe Engraved Caseback - Image Credit: Gary ''Norty'' Norton

Smiths watches seem to have been popular as retirement gifts – scouring eBay you’ll notice a lot have an engraving on them noting ‘in gratitude for 40 years of service from British Rail’ or the like. Turning my own Smiths over, the following words are etched on the case back, ‘Presented to W.M. Stewart by the East Midlands Gas Board on completion of 25 years service in the gas industry’.

If you're a fan of classic cars (or like me, have watched Goldfinger more times than is healthy), you may be aware that Smiths graced the dashboards of many a vintage motorcar including the Triumph Spitfire (my father had a Dolomite), an MG midget or as I hinted at earlier, the James Bond Aston Martin DB5. It pleases me to know that such classics all carried the sacred Smiths name.

With one of these mid-century beauties on your wrist, you'll be transported to a time where Queen Elizabeth's shift as monarch has only just started, Edmund Hillary has reached the highest point on Earth and perhaps a nice English motorcar is looking resplendent on your driveway. What's more, you'll only have a few years to wait until the England football team win the World Cup. Marvellous.

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Gary Norton

About the Author: Gary Norton

I'm an aspiring gentleman, menswear enthusiast, James Bond obsessive and lover of old things. I also drink tea the colour of Bakelite. If you like my ramblings, you can find more on my blog, Norton of Morton.

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