Overlooked 50s/60s Gems: Brit Watches, Swiss Movements

A little look back at some beautifully made British watches from past:

The decade after WW2 was a time of grim austerity. Food, fuel, chocolate…almost everything worth having was rationed and those things that weren’t rationed, like say cars or motorcycles, cost a fortune, as the government encouraged every manufacturer to export the best stuff, or else mysteriously run out of aluminium on Thursday afternoons. Your choice chum.

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This scarcity of quality items included wristwatches and once the returning UK servicemen had flogged off the German watches, looted from the corpses of Waffen SS members, or bought for two Woodbines from destitute citizens in the ruined Fatherland, anyone who wanted a decent watch in the late 1940s/early 50s was faced with paying a hefty price to own anything decent. True, the British government had agreed a plan to kickstart watch and clockmaking in the UK, with generous grants to Smiths-Ingersoll and Timex, but from a collectors point of view many of these British watches were – and remain – fairly basic, built to an austerity budget.

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The English Caste System of The 1950s

In typically British fashion, gents watches from the 50s and 60s are divided according to the class system. Gold cased Garrards, Smiths Everest/Astral or perhaps a 9ct Vertex Revue for the local bank manager. Maybe a gold plated Bentima Star or Smiths for a teacher, or middle ranking civil servant. At the bottom end, a pin lever movement Timex, or a new `slim-line’ Ingersoll would do the job for a factory worker, or perhaps a `Services’ watch for those unfortunate enough to be conscripted in hellish Imperialist adventures like Korea or Suez in the 1950s.

The Vertex and Garrard watches are extremely well made, and worth collecting. They lack the weakness that many of the Smiths wristwatches have of the era, namely the weak nib on the setting lever. This is prone to wear, or breaking off, which means you cannot set the hands properly on the watch. As they ain’t making spare setting levers for Smiths watches these days, that means finding a mint, working Smiths and cannibalising it for one spare part. Expensive.

Collectors Tips: You Need to Think Big

When we say big, we are talking case sizes of 33mm or above, which include watches like the Smiths Astral/Everest models, the slim style Ingersolls or a nice gold/gold plated Accurist. Smaller watches, especially those with 9ct gold cases, can fetch decent money (£200-£300) but many collectors look at something like a 33mm case Bentima for example and think `girl’s watch mate.’

So search out the bigger dial models and if there’s a date window then make sure it clicks over nice and smooth at midnight or thereabouts. Check the winding crown very carefully, as it’s common to find a replacement crown and stem, which isn’t the correct one, has been bodged in at some point over the last 50 years.

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The humble Smiths-Ingersoll-Triumph pocket watches aren’t super collectable, but the `Animatronic’ models, featuring footballers, Dan Dare or Hopalong Cassidy are fetching really good money now. There’s also a special 1953 Coronation pocket watch, with the Queen on the dial and an engraved case which is a rare model.

At the posher end, the Bentima Star series used Swiss ETA movements and many Bentimas still keep reasonably good time today – very well made watch.

Another quality choice for watch collectors are JW Benson wristwatches from the post-war era, which often feature Swiss Revue (sometimes called Vertex Revue) movements. Typically found in a presentation 9ct case, a Benson/Revue is a like a miniature pocket watch inside, with two retaining screws holding the movement in and a sub-second dial just above the 6 o’clock position. The JW Benson `Tropical’ is another collectible model, featuring a unique inner dust cover, with a unique cross-shaped viewing cut-out section – make sure this inner movement cover isn’t missing by insisting the Tropical is opened up before you buy it.

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Accurist 21 jewel movement watches from the 50s and 60s have a definite classy feel about them and if you can find one with a well looked after case, it’s a fantastic buy for £50-£70 or so. Featuring an ETA Swiss movement, a slimline Accurist from the 50s gives you the `Mad Men’ look for Skagen money. Unlike a quartz Skagen however, your Accurist mechanical will still be running in 25 years time.

If you’re starting a watch collection on a tight budget, then a British watch with a basic Swiss movement inside it can be picked up at antique/watch fairs – running – from as little as £20. They aren’t anything special and often have a jewellers shop name on the dial, but offer a lot of watch, for very little money…

There’s a slogan in there somewhere.

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