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Thread: Sir Edmund Hillary's "Everest" Smiths -- and mine

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    Default Sir Edmund Hillary's "Everest" Smiths -- and mine

    Two caveats or disclaimers: 1.) I'm averse to hubris (never one to count my chickens etc.) and this watch is still winging its way to me (I've paid and it's in the post) but I wanted to share this little gem. 2.) it's not a mil watch per se, more of an expeditionary model.



    OK, so why is it so special?

    First, a little background: it's generally accepted that Sir Edmund Hillary was supplied by Smiths with 15 watches. The paperwork says these were were the "De Luxe" model A.409 which like all Smiths watches of that time used their own in-house "12.15" movement (so called because it is 12 linge and 15 jewels).

    Here's Sir Edmund's actual watch, now at the Science Museum in London:





    But it isn't an A409. In fact, it's not like any model that was available to the general public. For a start, Smiths put special low-temperature lubricants in it. Also, the A409 that was retailed was a completely different dial design to Hillary's: it had raised gilt Arabic numbers and luminous dots; also recessed subseconds and the magic "Made In England" script outside of (i.e. under) the minute track.

    Here's an A409



    (Picture from smithswatches.com )

    The A404 is generally reckoned to be the definitive Smiths expedition watch: a 1215 movement in a Dennison Aquatite case (stainless steel screwback on a chrome-plated base metal monobloc body) with a clear, easy-to-read dial (luminous arabic numerals and hands). That model was pretty much the staple of Smiths' stable for many years (c.1952 - 64; although n.b. that after about c. 1959 they say "Shockproof" -- more clutter on the dial! -- and later still the lug width went down from 18mm to 16mm and I'm not even sure that by that point they are still housed in Dennison cases or using something cheaper.)

    The A404 looked like this (note the large, recessed and circled subseconds and the stepped dial)



    (Picture from smithswatches.com )

    So Hillary's watch is unique? Not quite.

    Many early Smiths models did indeed have the same "maxi dial" as Hillary's but with unlumed hands and numbers:



    (Picture from smithswatches.com )

    And Smiths did do a lumed version of the maxi dial but only for J. W. Benson (badged for and retailed by the famous London jewellers), like so:



    (Picture from smithswatches.com )

    These Bensons also have an extra jewel (making them "12.16"). I have often wondered whether Hillary's watch was one of these higher-spec movements badged-up on the dial as a "Smiths De Luxe" (which, after all, is what it was and this was a marketing exercise for Smiths). The dates are right: Smiths made watches for Benson between about 1952 or 3 up to maybe '55. It may even be that instead of Hillary getting a Benson watch, Benson got the up-specced movement and simplified dial layout designed for Hillary. Either way, these Bensons are very handsome watches: the plain, flat dial has a brushed silver ("butler") finish with honey-coloured lume. Very simple and stylish.

    (For what it's worth my guess is that Smiths were so keen to make sure Hillary got the very best -- hence the special lubricant -- that they supplied his team with the 16 jewel watches they made for J. W. Benson. At that point this was their finest movement. It was then presumably a simple matter to print the dials with the usual three line script of crown logo + Smiths + De Luxe. The museum catalogue claims that Sir Edmund's watch has 15 jewels but ene day I'll get myself down to South Kensington, break into the display cabinet, whip the back off the case and check it myself. This would explain why the paperwork says A409: presumably Smith didn't have a stock code for the Benson model and/or had an exclusive contract to supply those 16j watches to JWB; so someone at Smiths just randomly assigned an existing model number -- A409, not a bad choice but not right either -- to the 15 Bensons sent to Hillary's team.)

    But I have never seen a Hillary-style "maxi" dial that also carries the Smiths name. Hence my excitement at finding this watch.

    More pics:







    A couple of things to note: this watch has the early iteration of the “Smiths” logo (which appears up to 1951 but by the 1952 catalogue had been replaced with the later version – including the coronet device and the addition of “De Luxe”). It also has the early movement cover dustcap (rather than the later cruciform one which came into service c. 1952). The finish on the dial is not as yellow as the pics suggest but the brushed ("butlered") silver as per the Benson. Also, it seems to still have its original shoulderless springbars as issued by Smiths when new.

    Now, hurry up Mr Postman!
    Last edited by ianp; 01-25-2016 at 10:05.
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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    I hate to dampen Revo's infectious enthusiasm for the Smiths, for they are indeed an excellent watch, but the 15 A409s were presented to the team after the event - he and Tensing successfully climbed the summit in May. I doubt Smiths would have sent 15 watches if they had failed!

    A quite different faced watch was used in Smith's advertising material to capitalise from the climb but while the watch on BHI display is said to have been Hillary's we still don't know if a Smiths or a cheap and cheerful Rolex was the first to reach the summit. The use of 'Everest' branded/range models came much later, initially water-proof models, later as their 'high-end' range - many not waterproof, includin gladies models! There are many variations in style which don't feature in Smiths' catalogues as watches were often assembled, just as today, by dealers to meet consumer demand and many 'expedition' watches were made - and capitalised on after the event.

    I would guess Hillary was using this specially prepared watch for about a year before the final climb - it wouldn't have been one off-the-shelf... and as Oliver rightly summises, it was probably on the lines of the Benson 'Tropical' and 'Expedition' watches (it was long standing practise for manufacturers to tropicalise or climatise their products for overseas/Commonwealth markets... so Hillary's watch is not 'that' unique). (See The Golden Years').

    Now has anyone got a cheap DeLuxe WD going for a song? It is Christmas.... :-)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Brenellic2000 View Post
    the 15 A409s were presented to the team after the event - he and Tensing successfully climbed the summit in May. I doubt Smiths would have sent 15 watches if they had failed!
    Why would they have given them the watches after the expedition? But then that does fit with the date on the invoice / receipt, so maybe. In that case perhaps those 15 watches really were A409s.

    Quote Originally Posted by Brenellic2000 View Post
    A quite different faced watch was used in Smith's advertising material to capitalise from the climb but while the watch on BHI display is said to have been Hillary's we still don't know if a Smiths or a cheap and cheerful Rolex was the first to reach the summit.
    Yes, the one in the advert is a lovely gold dress watch. Not ideal for Everest . . . . We do know (insofar we know anything) that Hilary took the Smiths up the hill because he said so: "I carried your watch to the summit and it worked perfectly."

    I believe Tenzing had a Rolex from a previous, earlier expedition which he then also wore on the Hilary climb. Interestingly, Rolex have never explicitly claimed to have had their watches on the conquest of Everest (because, officially, they weren't) although they have implied it from time to time. Which, frankly, is typical of them. You can bet that if Rolex had supplied watches for the successful ascent of Everest it would be all over their advertising campaigns and we'd still be hearing about it (like Omega and the moon . . . .)

    Quote Originally Posted by Brenellic2000 View Post
    I would guess Hillary was using this specially prepared watch for about a year before the final climb - it wouldn't have been one off-the-shelf... and as Oliver rightly summises, it was probably on the lines of the Benson 'Tropical' and 'Expedition' watches (it was long standing practise for manufacturers to tropicalise or climatise their products for overseas/Commonwealth markets... so Hillary's watch is not 'that' unique).
    Yes, that seems quite likely. Although it's unique in the sense that I've never seen another like it: basically a Benson with "Smiths" on the dial. If you can find and show me another, I'll eat my hat.
    Last edited by Revo; 12-05-2015 at 06:58.
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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    The 15 watches were common or garden, lesser spotted presentation watches (like retirement watches) to recognise the event/achievement - they were not specially prepared. Hillary's own (dress) watch (possibly from this set?) came up on e-Bay some years ago, it caused much controversy as it was mistakingly (innocently or otherwise) 'thought' to be the one which went to the top... which it clearly wasn't! I have 12 Smiths... I wonder how many he had?!

    KW (Kamera Werkstatten of Dresden) made much of their Pocket Etui folding camera specially prepared for the 1920s British Everest attempts. At least their successors' cameras went into outer space - something Smiths' watches never managed, 'Astral' or not!!

    I don't know if Hillary's watch was 16J - I don't see a need for that extra jewel but I'm sure there will be several 16J or 18J Aquatite 'presentation' watches with the Smiths' signature - after all the Garrard Benson and others were only contract-made watches - almost certainly cased up elsewhere. In the recent Dennison history book, the wording implies - but it may be semantics - that Dennison cased up watches with movements for others. As I say, there is still an awful lot we don't know about Smiths ... and the mainspring is rapidly winding down.

    Keep up the good work!
    TTFN
    Barry

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    Hi Revo 1st I must say yours is a lovely watch but does yours differ from the early post war Smith 12-15 pictured by the vintage Smith people (Merrens)in the early model section of their catalogue(unfortunately all sold out).Regards, Bob.

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    Quote Originally Posted by robert gordon View Post
    Hi Revo 1st I must say yours is a lovely watch but does yours differ from the early post war Smith 12-15 pictured by the vintage Smith people (Merrens)in the early model section of their catalogue(unfortunately all sold out).Regards, Bob.
    Hi Bob, a lot of the very early Smiths (1947-50) had 30mm three-piece snap-back cases (often clearly signed Dennison, sometimes not) that are wear a lot smaller and feel a lot "tinnier" than the two-piece screwback Aquatite from c.1951 onwards. Also the dial layout is less "maxi", having a circled subseconds. If you want a Smiths to wear and also to be of a reasonable size and robustness then I'd go for one from their golden years (anything from, say, 1951 - 1961). The Benson ones are lovely, as is the A404 (except the very late ones with 16mm lugs). Otherwise a W10 is a very wearable size and shape with a very legible face. Fixed bars though so strap options are limited. Hope this helps.
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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    Currently, I am the proud possessor of an early A404 and the ANTARCTIC model which is on my wrist as I write this. The Benson "look alike" has wetted my appetite much to my wife's chagrin.

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    Here's a JW Benson that used to be mine



    Lovely thing.
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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    I think my wife will have some harsh words for me

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    Quote Originally Posted by Revo View Post





    I believe Tenzing had a Rolex from a previous, earlier expedition which he then also wore on the Hilary climb. Interestingly, Rolex have never explicitly claimed to have had their watches on the conquest of Everest (because, officially, they weren't)
    In Appendix IX of Brigadier Sir John Hunt's book 'The Ascent of Everest' (I have my dad's Companion Book Club copy) under the heading Acknowlegements of Assistance in Launching the Expedition, Rolex Watch Company is listed with the simple word 'watches'. Smiths Clocks, however, is listed for 'alarm clocks, watches'. So, without Smiths Clocks, Sir Edmund and Tenzing might have overslept and never made it to the top!

    A few other interesting entries are
    Agfa - Photographic material
    W. Bill - Shetland pullovers
    Courtaulds - Rayon string vests
    Société DEOM France - Butane Gas Cookers
    Dunlop - Microcellular boot soles, tent floors
    Frankenstein and Sons - Double layer air mattresses
    Indian army - 2" mortar bombs
    Imperial Tobacco (Ogden branch) - Tobacco (there are 6 cigarette companies mentioned)
    Lillywhites - Goggles
    The chocolate was Rowntree and the tea was Typhoo

    In fact, as far as I understand, Rolex delivered 13 watches for the 1953 expedition. Tenzing Norgay wore the datejust he had received as part of Raymond Lambert's Swiss team which made an assault in 1952.

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    Simon, that's interesting. My understanding is that Rolex had used the "Everest" name on the dials of their watches since the 1930s and had sponsored (i.e. supplied watches for) several unsuccessful attempts on the summit. It must have galled them to have missed out on the actual ascent to the summit.

    My reading of the history is that Hilary did indeed have a Rolex by the time he went up the hill (Spring 1953) but never made any claim to having taken a Rolex to the summit of Everest. That accolade rests with Smiths alone ("I carried your watch to the summit" -- claim he never made for Rolex, although he did say he took a Rolex up as high as 22,000 feet -- which in itself is a pretty telling detail as it is somewhat short of Everest's 29,000).

    Tenzing, who did go to the top along with Hilary, seems (from several photos) to have worn TWO watches: presumably the Rolex he already had and the Smiths he was given specially for this trip. So, yes, quite possibly a Rolex did go all the way to the summit of Everest but Tenzing was the second man there (after Hilary) and he was wearing two watches, only one of which -- the Smiths -- was officially gifted or issued to the Expedition. So it was more by chance rather than design that a Rolex happened to get there (if indeed it did -- i.e. assuming that Tenzing's second watch was his Rolex.)

    Maybe Rolex did indeed indeed supply some watches to the Hunt (Hilary) expedition but not one of them (i.e none of the officially supplied ones) went to the top.

    I'm not a Rolex hater (I love mine) but I wear a Smiths far more than I wear a Swiss.

    More info here:

    http://rolexblog.blogspot.co.uk/1998...ring_9473.html

    http://rolexblog.blogspot.co.uk/1998...onquering.html

    P.S. / N.B. you have to read the Rolex adverts / PR in these links very, very carefully -- almost forensically. They imply that a Rolex went to the summit but they always stop short of saying it outright. Also, the blogger, Jake, is clearly a Rolex fanboy and "sees" Rolexes to suit and support his case, e.g. here: "When I was doing research for the original story, I watched a tremendous amount of film footage and I kept looking for a Rolex Explorer on an Oyster band with a black dial, but I saw nothing that even resembled one. Instead, I kept seeing members of the Everest expedition including Hillary wearing watches on leather straps with white dial and this confused me terribly." Hmm, those blurry shots of silver or white faced watches on dark leather straps? A Smiths fan might say that the Hilary "De Luxe" fits that bill rather well, too.
    Last edited by Revo; 12-05-2015 at 12:03.
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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    Quote Originally Posted by simonk View Post
    Rayon string vests, Ogden's Tobacco, Typhoo tea, Rowntree's chocs and and half a dozen brands of fags?
    Brilliant! Erasmic shaving soap in the morning and Ovaltine at bedtime as well I hope?
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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    No mention of shaving, but Ovosport blocks are, which I think are like solid blocks of Ovaltine. Bovril supplied Pemmican, Crawfords supplied biscuits, Heinz supplied self-heating soup (?), Oxo supplied cubes (naturally), Quaker supplied oats, Ready Mixes Co. supplied scone mix (presumably for afternoon tea at base camp), the Société d'Alimentation de Provence supplied saucissons and rum came from the Indian Army.

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    And Romney's supplied

    Order of the Invisible Ethereal Electron with Crossed Wizard's Wands

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    Moderator Revo's Avatar
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    Now that's what I call an expedition!

    After pith helmets and brass telescopes but before GPS and Goretex.
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Revo View Post
    Now that's what I call an expedition!

    After pith helmets and brass telescopes.
    Sounds like a ripping yarn ...

    https://youtu.be/xr79AlyX1YU
    Order of the Invisible Ethereal Electron with Crossed Wizard's Wands

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    While we're off-topic, Smiths supplied modified in-cab diesel-fuel (Webasto) heating and blown-air demisters for the later Antarctic expeditions... so the crew could sup their warm Ovaltine as they pondered the next crevass ...

    We need to be a bit wary of all advertising claims proir to the Trades Descriptions Acts. I doubt Smiths set out to intentionally exploit a Smiths vs Rolex Everest contest!

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    My understanding of the expedition is that Sir Edmund and the members of his expedition were given IWC Mk. 11 for navigational purposes. I have a newspaper article from the period indicating this (somewhere on my computer). I rang him one day and had a chat to him about it. The only watch he could recall was a Rolex.
    Following his death there was a dispute with in the family regarding several of his watches. It went to court. I do not recall the outcome.

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    As we're talking about advertising, here's a couple I have






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    here's one from 1945 -- when Smiths were busy churning out the Mk X wristwatch by the thousand (hundred? score? dozen? a few? OK, at least three.)

    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5. Recently their price seems to have risen to £8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

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