Recently, I was asked the question “Why is it that you only ever seem to review watches from Timefactors?”. A fair question given that most watches I have reviewed from that stable are on the face of it very similar. My answer was simply that those watches I have experienced from the Sheffield based operation have all had a twist if you will. There has always been something either literally or metaphorically beneath the surface which has made me want to own them. Therein lies what I believe to be the secret to the success of the internet based company. As well as adding authenticity to genres of watches by resurrecting trademarks ( e.g. Precista), Timefactors has, as already demonstrated, improved on the originals. For the wearer of such timepieces then this of course reinforces the confidence that he or she has when they are being worn for what they were intended (of note here would be the latest dive watches from Precista). The wearer knows that whilst the watch certainly looks the part, it is eminently capable of playing the part given the manner in which it has been built.
I certainly don’t buy every Timefactors piece that is introduced; some are too large and some styles (though true to originals and improved) I don’t like – however, every so often a trump card is played by the firm and a watch is developed and introduced that lights the blue touch paper so to speak and for me is a must buy. It is quite amazing that nearly nine years has passed since I wrote my first review of a Timefactors watch which had the blue touch paper effect, that being of course the PRS-1 Speedbird. Since then, four or five others have come along (amongst others not reviewed by me) and here in June 2010 comes yet another.
The title of this review will of course have given the game away to many watch aficionados, particularly if their interest lies in military watches; no doubt many readers who have visited my previous reviews will already understand why this one is being penned. Indeed, vintage watches have passed through my hands in the past and I have often wondered what it would be like to be able to own and wear a fresh, newly manufactured example. New old stock is good but it isn’t new; if one is brave enough to wear a new old stock watch then there are of course other issues – the watch should really be fully serviced and oiled before wear and on an eminently financial basis then the value of the piece will inevitably be affected as cosmetic decline ensues due to everyday use. How different the world of watches is today than it was just a decade ago; without trying to sound too dramatic or romantic then the things of watch collectors’ dreams really have happened and are continuing to do so it seems.
Thus, through a combination of passion for watches, business savvy, modern communications and access to small production run facilities, a handful of businesses are making it possible for us to wipe out any doubts we may have about (God forbid) actually wearing a vintage or new old stock watch that could be damaged by one clumsy move. We have a choice of chronographs, dive watches and pilot watches which haven’t been available in new or near new form for decades. In many ways were are stepping back in time although of course monetary inflation has taken its toll.
In the case of the watch reviewed herein, Timefactors is allowing us to step back to the late 1960s and purchase a watch which was both supplied to the British Armed Forces and interestingly was available on the open market to civilians; this of course is the Smiths with which military watch collectors will no doubt be familiar. Smiths had supplied the armed forces with timepieces since the early stages of the Second World War, some examples of which are now extremely rare. The Smiths catalogue of 1968 describes and illustrates the watch which most people associate with Smiths and military applications. This was the model GS.4701. Forty two years later and by virtue of the combination referred to in the previous paragraph, the classic Smiths military watch is once again available to purchase brand new, both to within a hair’s breadth of its original form and also in a dimensionally updated form.
I grew up in Gloucestershire; in fact for many years I lived less than a mile from the Smiths Industries factory in Bishop’s Cleeve, Cheltenham. As a child, many of my friends’ fathers were employed at the factory working on various projects about which I heard snippets and which meant something to me given my interest in aviation. The head up display for the Hawker Harrier and the Automatic Landing System for the Hawker Siddeley Trident immediately spring to mind as two such projects. Whilst of course these systems were at the cutting edge of electronic flight systems at the time, Smiths were busy manufacturing what they had done so for many years in the form of aircraft instruments with cogs and springs! It is a strange but I believe common phenomenon that if something is one one’s doorstep then one seems to be indifferent to it; as a young man the influence that the Smiths factory had on the local area was so pervading that for me it seemed the norm – I didn’t really take that much notice or interest in what was manufactured at the large site which I passed every day.
Little did I know that I lived within a community that as well as including highly skilled electronics engineers, included watchmakers and a large workforce dedicated to the production of some of the last truly British wristwatches.
Indeed, when my interest in watches began I was of course mainly interested in the Rolexes and Omegas of this world, as well as the hi tech offerings from Japan in the form of early Seiko digitals. During these very years, the last of Smiths watches were being produced in Wales and perhaps more pertinent, I was living in a village where ex-Smiths employees had started their own watch repair businesses and had large stocks of spares for the finest calibres produced in Bishop’s Cleeve. If I am truly honest, Smiths watches meant little to me at the time, after all, there were Rolex GMT Masters et al to strive for, Seiko were introducing sophisticated LCDs at a fast trot – what worth were watches produced just down the road? So as a youngster I had travelled many thousands of miles on airliners equipped with Smiths instrumentation and systems, lived near the factory where such were produced and the pervasiveness of the manufacturer extended to the instruments in my first car, a Triumph Spitfire!
By the mid 1990s I had owned the first of various military watches which would come my way and the era of machining military markings from the back of cases to enhance value was starting to wane. I recall buying my first Smiths military watch or Smiths W10 near Leeds; I selected the watch from a polystyrene tray which I seem to recall contained around twenty examples. In addition to the Smiths were Hamilton W10s and Hamilton 6Bs amongst many CWC W10 mechanicals. Nowadays of course, those polystyrene trays are most likely to contain an abundance of quartz CWC from the late 1980s onward with the earlier watches becoming increasingly hard to obtain and of course when available, at a price to match the rarity factor. At some point my Smiths example was traded and another came along but rightly or wrongly, I couldn’t bring myself to wear it out of that watch collector’s fear. What attracted me to the Smiths (and it took some time coming) was the fact that it was British and aesthetically I felt one of the most pleasing of all British military watches; the long curved lugs and the dial font of note. It wasn’t until a while later that I discovered that these watches were in fact manufactured a stone’s throw from where I lived; what I discovered even later and too late as it happens was that there had existed a large cache of parts including dials and hands held by an ex-employee of the company in a small industrial unit in my village. Thus, the prospect of a reproduction of a watch which appealed to me in so many ways, with local and personal connections certainly whet my appetite and finally that appetite has been satisfied with the introduction of the Smiths military PRS-29 from Timefactors.
A Very Brief History of Smiths
Smiths, the company, can trace its roots back to 1851 and boasted a long and diverse history, the whole of which is beyond the scope of this review. Concentrating on Cheltenham itself, the original factory dates back to the latter part of 1939 with production of aviation clocks. As a slight aside, not long after I had become aware of Smiths watches early on in my interest in timepieces, I had heard more than once that ‘some of the movements were actually Le Coultre’ or ‘that movement was designed by Le Coultre’. What is certain is that literally just prior to the Second World War, Smiths acquired the dies and engineering information necessary to manufacture aviation clocks which had up until then, been supplied by Le Coultre. Thus, aviation clocks made to a design by Le Coultre were, by 1940 being manufactured in the newly built factory at Bishop’s Cleeve (factory CH1). In later decades and in the case of wristwatches however, any relationship with Le Coultre extended only to certain design aspects/influences and the fact that Smiths took on an ex Le Coultre employee as a director. The watch factory also employed ten or so Swiss nationals who were fully trained and highly skilled watchmakers. In those days, manufacture meant manufacture with, for example, hairsprings being manufactured onsite (or more precisely, by a company Smiths had set up in a converted Grange a few hundred yards to the north of the main factory). Interestingly enough, I recently met an elderly lady who was in fact in charge of the workforce at the hairspring factory at the Grange for a time; though we didn’t have the opportunity to talk in detail about her days with ‘British Precision Springs’, I could tell from what she was saying that she looked back on that era with great affection.
As the factory site was developed and expanded during the Second World War, then production of 8 day aircraft clocks was undertaken in the second factory (CH2) along with watches. Mainstream sales to the civilian market commenced around 1947. What of course we mustn’t forget is that the product offerings from Smiths covered an increasingly wide spectrum as time progressed. Thus, we can include automatic pilot units, RPM Indicators, Air Speed Indicators, fuel gauges, head up displays, autoland systems amongst others. Most of the aforementioned were produced at the same time as a wide range of wristwatches for public consumption and from the same (ever expanding) site at Bishop’s Cleeve. In the past, I had only ever considered Revue Thommen as a company which produced wristwatches as well as aircraft instrumentation; however, on my doorstep was factory which between 1947 and 1971 produced a wide range of wristwatches, some of them of a very high quality.
In terms of wristwatches, then from 1947 onwards Smiths produced catalogues on a yearly basis and the highest grades of the range were produced at the Cheltenham factory. A small range of gents and ladies calibres were produced onsite with a varying jewel count; one series of automatic was available by the late 1950s with heavy design influences from IWC. Small seconds, indirect centre seconds and date options were available. Smiths themselves were not averse to the type of advertising that became very prevalent in later years in terms of product association –
I must admit that I take great pleasure in the fact that such watches were indeed utilised in the adventures of the 1950s; yes, Rolex have a claim to the Explorer being used on the Everest Expedition and this review is not intended to debate such; for me however, I can garner a warmer feeling from the knowledge that the factory I know and have lived so close to played a part. If I could find good examples of models Everest and Antarctic I would snap them up in an instant – truly historic and romantic association! Smiths watches (from Bishop’s Cleeve) of the period were labelled De Luxe; prior to 1952 the dial simply stated Smiths. Later designations were Imperial and Astral and it is interesting to note that although a range of ‘Everest’ watches was introduced in 1954, the name didn’t appear on dials until ten years after the Expedition itself. The Antarctic range, whilst promoted within illustrated catalogues never had the name adorned on dials. I personally find the advertisements of the era wonderful reading in their innocence, simplicity and period phraseology.
The Horological Journal of September 1965 contains an article describing the watch manufacturing operation at Bishop’s Cleeve. In addition to mentioning the manufacturing tolerances adhered to, reference is made to the timing of movements; I find it fascinating that the Smiths movements of the mid 1960s were as a matter of course timed and adjusted for either 8 or 12 days in three positions. I would not know which other mainstream manufacturers undertook such timing for all its production. It is stated also that the automatic calibre was assembled totally by hand, likewise stopwatch calibres. Even then, the handwind calibres were assembled in the main by hand with final positioning of sub assemblies assisted by vacuum fixtures and air tools. The overall picture is of a local workforce involved in the careful manufacture of a high quality product with quality control taking place at all stages. If I had known such a long time ago I would most certainly have held Smiths in higher esteem than perhaps I did. All after sales service was carried out at Bishop’s Cleeve too; repaired movements being timed for six days in three positions.
Micro History and background – Smiths Military Watches
Smiths or S.Smith & Sons (London) Ltd supplied the military with stopwatches during the Second World War and indeed into the years post-war. Perhaps more interestingly for our purposes, pocket watches and apparently some wristwatches were supplied during the conflict; I have personally however yet to see a World War Two issued Smiths wristwatch. Certainly, the Horological Journal reported in early 1947 that Smiths had made available to the public a ‘…few 13-ligne Smith watches…’ which represented ‘…the end of a Government contract…’ The Government had obviously therefore awarded at least one contract to Smiths for military supply.
Things become a little clearer in the 1950s. A Smiths De Luxe model with the 27.CS calibre would appear to have been issued as a General Service watch for the RAF in the late 1950s/early 1960s – this watch is now rare and sought after. It appears to have been issued with both ‘thin’ and ‘fat’ versions of the military Broad Arrow present on the dials and was not restricted to the UK with Australian issue watches coming to light. Versions exist dating at least to 1956.
Sometime during 1966 (possibly the latter part), Smiths won a contract to supply the British Military with a General Service watch. This watch would be supplied between 1967 and 1970 and the mainstay of production was destined for the Army with relatively few examples procured for the Royal Air Force. Manufactured in Bishop’s Cleeve to the highest standards (and as mentioned earlier) model number GS.4701 is the one that military watch enthusiasts are most familiar with. Housing a variant of the ‘Astral’ series calibre (the 60466E), this watch was manufactured to meet DEF 3-B issued September 1966 and subsequently DEF STAN 66-4 (Part 4)/Issue 1, issued July 1969.
British military issue Smiths watches will have seen service therefore in post Second World War theatres ranging from Cyprus in the late 1950s, Suez, Aden, Dhofar and Northern Ireland. It has been reported that the Smiths W10 was still in use during the Falklands conflict and even as recently as the first Gulf War; all in all a testament to the inherent quality of the timepieces.
So to 2010 and the Smiths site at Bishop’s Cleeve is now part of the GE group and many of the old buildings have disappeared. It has been forty or so years since one could purchase the Smiths military watch in brand new form, available examples are now very expensive if close to mint condition. The trademark ‘Smiths’ was allowed to lapse it seems and Timefactors acquired such presumably at the earliest opportunity without causing any infringement. As per usual with Timefactors, things have been done properly. The Smiths name as applied to wristwatches deserves some respect in my opinion; what better way to show such than to produce a watch that is so very close to the quintessential Smiths watch – a watch that was made in Britain by British people for the British Armed Forces. Of course, it would be extremely difficult to undertake to achieve a totally made in Britain watch – ‘difficult’ would translate to ‘hugely expensive’ in this case. However, what can be achieved in terms of specification and performance is improvement. This has already been seen with Timefactors and the Precista brand. Military specification, is it seems, a good starting point from which to build a functional wristwatch. Taking such military specification and improving upon it is of course the speciality of Timefactors and the subject of previous reviews. Getting as close as possible visually is (in my opinion) just as important; fashions do change however and on occasion such change must be bowed to. I however am something of a purist, particularly in the case of military watches.
Luckily for me, Timefactors have introduced the PRS-29 in two forms – one for the likes of me and one for those who prefer the concept to be modified slightly to cater for current trends. Thus, we have the ‘A’ version and the ‘B’ version. Both have taken the military specification and improved upon it. One, (the A) is as mentioned earlier, within a hair’s breadth of the original and the other (the B) has been enlarged slightly and a sapphire crystal added. This review considers both watches.
In many ways repetition is unavoidable when talking about packaging. Having waited a long time for the re-introduction of a watch such as the Smiths military, I decided to make particular note of my very first reaction on opening the package which arrived from Timefactors. I have mentioned in other reviews the ‘wow’ factor when seeing a particular watch for the first time. In this case, I think I can safely say that no other watch that I have purchased from Timefactors has had the same effect – this would include my favourite, the PRS-53.
The watches arrived in the lovely, padded Banda two compartment zippered case which Timefactors seems to use as standard nowadays. I won’t allude to the outer packaging in this case, only to reiterate that Fort Knox comes to mind when considering such. An envelope within the packaging contained a dedicated leaflet for the PRS-29 with care instructions, the original drawings for the watch, specifications and a watch glossary. In my case, both compartments of the Banda case were utilised with each watch protected by the nicely padded central divider. I do particularly like the light coloured suede material used on the interior of the rugged little travel case. As well as looking of a good quality, it smells nice! Whilst the supplied case is eminently useful, I wouldn’t have minded had the watches been supplied in small brown cardboard boxes, adding further to the authenticity experience about to happen.
On unzipping the case, I removed the standard Timefactors Guarantee cards, business cards and soft polishing cloths (these seem to be an updated version) and also out popped no less than four leather straps (more of which later). Folding the central flap back revealed the first of the two watches within and fate should have it that the first of the two I saw was the PRS-29A, the ‘original’!
I remember seeing the PRS-1 Speedbird for the first time, I remember seeing the PRS-53 for the first time but this experience was quite something else. Here in front of me, held in securely by its elastic retainer was a watch that really had been the stuff of dreams. Yes I had followed the development progress on the Timefactors forum, indeed I had seen photographs of the pre-production example; but here in front of me was a watch that quite obviously showed all the respect to the original that I mentioned earlier and then some. There on the dial was the name: Smiths, there was that slightly unique dial font. Immediately I knew that this one was ‘right’ – this is not a large watch but sat there looking at me from the case, it literally seemed larger than life! Of course, I have local connections to the factory and maybe this contributed to the jaw dropping effect that took place, but it just seemed that something had been brought back to life after so long.
Now, all this may seem somewhat dramatic; I love wristwatches however so I reserve the right to wax lyrical of the excitement that took place that morning! Another curious feeling took place at the same time which many watch collectors would possibly understand: I didn’t want to remove the watch from the case. It seemed to be too good to touch; possibly, I subconsciously found it hard to believe what I was looking at: a brand new Smiths military watch. The watch had what I refer to as the ‘NATO strap effect’ on me, I (strangely) have a habit of collecting NATO watch straps, I have many brand new ones in a box, many of which are unlikely to be worn but I feel comfortable just having them. In the case of the Smiths I felt that it should remain safely in the case and I should get another to wear; it is not often at all that a watch has such an effect on me. I hope therefore that I have painted a pretty accurate picture of the five minutes or so that I sat staring at this new arrival.
What then of the larger, heavier (60g vs 45g) version in the other side of the case? Well, I knew all along that the ‘original’ was the one for me but nonetheless, on first seeing the PRS-29B my initial reaction was one of just how imposing, crisp and legible the watch was. Legible has to be the operative word. Everything slightly enlarged yet not stupidly so as to look farcical. Before removing the watch from the case I could tell that quality was the keyword, the cold, domed crystal being a good and telling clue. On finally removing both watches and having them in my hands then the experience really began.
The Case and Crystal
In 1971, the illustration for General Service and Navigators watches changed within the DEF STAN issued that year. Gone were the long, curved lugs of the previous watches and here were the no doubt tough but a little dumpy tonneau shaped cases that typified the CWC and Hamilton offerings of the decade until 1980. In my opinion, the tradition and beauty were gone. Yes, suitability for military use should of course come first but I have always loved the curvature of those earlier lugs; the PRS-53 from Timefactors captured the spirit of the early watches, I feel that the PRS-29 does so to a slightly greater degree. At a time when ‘retro’ is in, the case of the PRS-29 hits the mark with its dimensions and ratios taking us back almost half a century.
Before we continue, the basic differences between the two models should be established:-
The PRS-29A is of 36mm diameter with acrylic crystal and the PRS-29B is of 39mm diameter with a sapphire crystal.
The profile and curves are there and it would seem that in order to capture the important curvature alluded to, the thickness of the case band has been kept as close to the original as possible (in this case down 4.7 and 5mm respectively). The case is of course two piece, that is, the case body itself and the case back. The raised bezel forms part of the main case.
This is most certainly not an off the shelf item, proven of course by the provision by Timefactors of the original drawings drafted by the case manufacturer:
Case drawings showing inner construction detail
The above serve to illustrate why the beauty of the Smiths military is more than skin deep. Not content with providing us with a beautifully reproduced watch in terms of looks and aesthetics then we are seeing attention to detail which is often lost when focus is concentrated on what we can only see. Thus, look carefully and as well as a metal movement holder we can see an inner movement cover. There for a reason which will no doubt become apparent in the specifications. What also appears to be evident from the drawings would be the use of screws to secure the movement. Such attention to detail and building in of below the skin functionality has endeared me to the Smiths even more so as I have handled and studied the watch in greater depth. It would seem at this early stage that the watch is not a quick ‘homage’ item at all but a carefully planned and executed piece befitting of the Smiths name.
The drawings below show the watch in plan and profile form and give us some idea of the proportions and ratios.
Case drawings showing inner construction detail
Purists may note that the above drawing of the 36mm shows drilled lugs; this is not actually the case and this version of the watch features brazed, fixed bars of 1.8mm thickness; the original military specification for these bars called for a 1.6mm thickness. The 39mm does indeed feature drilled lugs and does not ‘need’ to adhere to the specification of the original in my opinion. The larger watch is scaled up from the 36mm version and proportionally looks correct; what does take a little getting used to is the simple fact that issue watches were around 36mm at most; again, this is me being a purist – for those who were considering the 39mm as a watch in its own right the case size would be considered by many to be optimum; neither too small (by today’s standards) nor too large. Indeed, I would suggest that the 39mm PRS-29B wears slightly larger than its size would suggest; more like a comfortable 40mm which should satisfy those who think that 39mm might not be enough. Presumably this is down to the narrow bezel and large dial area.
What ‘makes’ this case are the long lugs; lug to lug length on the 36mm is 47mm – this is generous for the diameter and allows that all important curvature to follow all the way through. The 39mm boasts a 51mm dimension in this regard, which may seem excessive to some but rest assured that even someone with wrists as challenged as mine (6 ¼ inches!) can wear it comfortably – it does not feel nor look out of place – I’m not entirely sure why this should be the case as normally, 50mm lug to lug and I have problems. On the subject of the lugs, the ends of such are flattened off just slightly, which is the way things were on the original.
What of the accuracy of cut and finish of the case? Both examples feature a fully brushed finish. I have come to expect a high level of finishing from Timefactors and in no way do these cases disappoint. The brushing to the case sides is mesmerizingly beautiful; very fine finishing which is obviously brushed yet seems to almost glow like a frosted finish in strong light. The brushing is straight, uniform and even – I fear a tearful experience when the first scratch appears! The lug tops are of course brushed too and this finish is ever so slightly more coarse than the case sides. Once again, accurate and uniform and most pleasing to the eye; likewise the bezel, although there is so little of the bezel that it is difficult to pick up the finish easily.
Various views showing the beauty of the case
In terms of cut, these cases have obviously come from machines allowing pinpoint accuracy. Where angles should be sharpish, they are, where a degree of smoothness should exist, it does. Great care has obviously gone into getting the lug cuts and so on correct. In short, the case of the PRS-29 smacks of quality. The quality of finishing referred to in the previous paragraph extends for example to the inner lugs and case ends. Areas we don’t normally see are given attention should we decide to have a look! Turn to the underside of the lugs and once again, cuts are crisp and brushing very well executed.
What may stand out from the above figures are the anti-magnetic properties of the watch and the water resistance rating. In the case of the former, this is achieved through the use of a full cage: thus, the movement holder, the movement cover and the dial of the watch combine to protect the movement from magnetic influence to the degree specified. The original MOD specification was for a rating to 12,000 A/m and once again Timefactors have surpassed this with much room to spare.
Regarding water resistance, original MOD specifications were less than harsh to say the least with a rating of 6.1 meters required. With a 100 meters rating, the PRS-29 brings the watch into the realms of ‘wear at any time’.
Given that this is a manually wound watch then this is no mean feat but I would venture that it would be worthwhile to have seals checked on a relatively regular basis to ensure such watertight properties are maintained. I do not doubt however that everyday exposure to water will be taken in its stride by this watch.
Before literally turning to the back of the watch comment should be made on the winding crown. Well done Timefactors! I have always felt that the winder is as important as any other part of a watch, possibly more so in the case of a military. The chamfered crown is just as it should be and in terms of diameter is perfectly matched. The slightly larger crown of the 39mm version makes winding the watch a real pleasure and of course the diameter itself means that slightly fewer turns are required to give the watch a full wind. That being said, the 6mm crown of the 36mm performs its task just as admirably and suits the watch perfectly. In terms of finish, the crown teeth are cut sharply and are very easy to grip. The end of the crown is the only highly polished part of the case aside from the inner tension ring (in the case of the 36mm) and in that vein is polished to perfection. No more comment is necessary – the winding crowns of both watches are perfect.
The case backs of the duo afford us a lot of information. Firstly however, the engine turned finish: well executed as per the rest of the case with the turning itself being even and fine enough to allow the interesting play of light that occurs when the watch is tilted back and forth. Six case opening slots are present with the crescent shape which can be associated with the original issue Smiths.
Of more interest of course are the case back markings themselves. As a matter of course, Timefactors has applied for NATO stock numbers for these watches – in addition to being ‘real’ numbers, they are the icing on the cake for ensuring that the Smiths name in this incarnation is in the right place on the dials of these timepieces.
The PRS-29A: 6645-99-515-2365
The PRS-29B: 6645-99-300-1595
The NATO stock numbers (as engraved on the case backs) for the original Smiths military were W10/6645-99-961-4045 for Army issue and 6B/9614045 in the case of RAF issued watches.
Design wise, the case backs have an outer track within which we are informed of the model number, anti-magnetic properties, movement type and water resistancy. Centrally we see the Smiths name and of course the NATO stock number; in addition each watch has a serial number in the spirit of military issue number with the unique number followed by the year of manufacture, e.g. 007/10 (the number of my PRS-29A).
I particularly like the use of the outer track which encapsulates the text; it is very 1960s/1970s, I feel it suits the watch well and is totally in keeping with the period from which the original emanates. Despite the costs involved, Timefactors has specified that all markings on the case backs be engraved as opposed to laser etched. Again, authentic for the time and the depth attained will ensure that the watches can be worn for many years before the markings start to rub significantly.
Moving to the top of the watch then this is where the main structural difference between the two watches on offer is evident. In the case of the 36mm which is of course so close to the original thus far, then a domed acrylic crystal is fittingly used with a thickness of 1.5mm. No doubt a sapphire was possible for this version but much to my delight, Timefactors have elected to remain true to the GS.4701. The crystal is retained by a polished tension ring. Any damage in the form of scratches can of course be rectified with Polywatch or toothpaste and the crystal can be made to look as good as new. Readers of my reviews will know that I like acrylic crystals – had the 36mm been fitted with sapphire then I am not certain I would have fallen in love with it to the extent that I have done.
The 39mm version of the watch has been fitted with a double domed sapphire crystal. Firstly, I would venture that a sapphire is the best choice given the acreage of dial which it has to cover; something perhaps more crack resistant than acrylic. The keywords are of course double domed; a flat sapphire would have instantly robbed the watch of much of its character. What we see is in effect the same as a large domed acrylic but with the scratch resistant qualities that many wearers demand. The double domed sapphire is in itself an expensive item to produce and other manufacturers charge quite a hefty premium for fitting of such (often in the hundreds of GB Pounds). Given the size of the PRS-29B, then the sapphire adds nicely to the overall heft and feeling of solidity of the watch. There are no nasty distortions which we would associate with a single dome and of course, not forgetting that sapphire crystals can be quite reflective, Timefactors have specified an anti-reflective coating on the underside. For all intents and purposes therefore, the sapphire as fitted to the PRS-29B would appear to have the same optical properties as the acrylic of its smaller brother.
Overall, the case and crystal combinations of both versions of the PRS-29 would appear to be ideally suited to their respective sizes. At 11mm in total height, these watches are thin enough to remain within the MOD specification but more importantly for us, thin enough to enable comfortable wear on a NATO strap and under a shirt cuff to boot. I once stated that 35-36mm was too small for me to wear regularly, the PRS-29A has made me reconsider this and having had the watch on my wrist for days, I can safely say that it will be remaining there. There is nothing I can fault with the cases, nothing that I would consider changing. Each is more than fit for purpose in specification, materials, finish and aesthetics. As a new version of the GS.4701, the 36mm version is thus far more than worthy.
The Dial and Hands
Whilst MOD specifications dictated the basic design of dials (with an illustration) with which manufacturers had to conform, there was some leeway in terms of the font which was used for the Arabic numerals. Thus, not all military dials of the era are the same; indeed, this would seem to apply more so in the years from the end of World War Two to the late 1960s. For the military collector then, there is some variety available as he builds that collection. Personal preference of course, but once aware of the Smiths military in its late 1960s form, I always admired the dial; of course I like the general principle of easy to read military watch dials anyway, but the Smiths seemed a little different from the others and became one of my favourites. As a whole, I have always found British military watch dials to be less busy (and more pleasing to the eye) than those from say the USA given the fact that the UK has not specified an inner scale of 24 hour markers (i.e. 13.00 to 24.00 hrs).
The dial of the 36mm version of the new Smiths from Timefactors is extremely close to that of the original in dimensions, finish and font. Starting with the dial itself, construction is from soft iron which combined with the movement holder and its cover form the anti-magnetic cage which affords both watches their 50,000 A/m rating. The dial is (obviously) black with the finish being what I would term a very fine eggshell which really translates into the Timefactors description of semi matt black. This finish is a good compromise between full matt (which can often appear a charcoal grey) and a glossy finish (which can cause distracting reflections); the dial therefore looks black enough to be black without any of the distractions which for example, the Rolex Explorer can suffer from.
Military specification of the time required the following:
DEF STAN illustration of General Service case and dial layout
Figure 1 above shows us the visual and numerical specification for the General Service timepiece of the late 1960s. What we see of course is the now classic outer railway track (which interestingly wasn’t specified for some navigators’ watches of the period) along with Arabic numerals which were a long way short of the boldness and size of later General Service timepieces such as the quartz CWC.
Smiths interpretation of the dial for the 1966-1970 watch was, as I have stated earlier, particularly attractive in terms of the font they adopted and our 2010 PRS-29s have used the same. Firstly though, the outer track has been applied very well in gloss white, printing is even with no breaks; the luminous dots, batons and triangle are all dimensioned and spaced accurately. The luminous material used is Super Luminova C3, applied thickly and evenly. Crucially important aspects of the dial are of course the numeral font and the branding; both have been executed superbly with the numerals being purely and simply classic Smiths W10. The font is very much aircraft instrument variation in its original form and I would venture to suggest that Smiths simply used one of its aircraft instrument fonts when designing its W10 dial.
Whichever font it is, the PRS-29’s application looks just as it should, no doubt a contributory factor to the effect the watch had on me when I first saw it. Likewise the ‘Smiths’ branding, just as it should be – well printed in gloss white, discrete and looking just as the original. It is a truly great experience to see the Smiths name once again adorning a brand new watch. One aspect of the dial that defers to the 21st Century is of course the ‘Circle L’ as opposed to the ‘Circle T’ under the triangle at 12. In the case of the new watch this refers to the use of (Super) Luminova for luminous purposes as opposed to Tritium for the original. Most originals are now suffering from creep of the Tritium compound – dots aren’t round anymore, batons not rectangular and so on. Of course for collectors of the originals then this is to be expected and fine; it is however quite wonderful to see ‘Smiths’ below a perfectly formed luminous triangle.
Which is which? A close call
Above the 6 we have the Broadarrow mark (denoting Crown property); British military watches from the previous decade had been adorned with ‘fat arrows’ and ‘thin arrows’, watches from the next decade often had ‘no arrows’. The Broadarrow had subtle differences between manufacturers – the arrow used for the General Service watch of the late 1960s was to be ‘distinctive’, this was a ‘thin arrow’ but in the case of Smiths, to me their arrow was slightly chubby, it also had rounded ends and seemed to be designed to actually match the dial font! The arrows used by other suppliers of the period seemed anorexic in comparison to the Smiths; it seemed that such a small detail had actually been thought about at the laboratories in Bishops Cleeve. Reproduction of the arrow is spot on with the PRS-29. Indeed, the ‘chubby arrow’ as I like to call it is present and correct and printed in gloss white just as it should be. Below the 6 ‘Great Britain’ is proudly displayed – this watch is not manufactured in Great Britain, but the original was and this version was conceived there. Those two words are the icing on the cake.
Overall then, the dial presentation of both the PRS-29A and the 29B is what I would expect from Timefactors: accurate, well executed, in this case true to the original and totally ‘Smiths’. Some consideration should be given to the scaled up nature of the PRS-29B: the whole watch has of course been scaled up and with that comes an enlargement of the dial. Purists might argue that doing so negates some of the original beauty and proportion of the smaller version. I think that there is some store in this as we are obviously left with more blank area; however, what I think purchasers should consider is that the 29B is a different watch and should be considered as such. Were Timefactors to have scaled up the font of the 39mm version then I feel that the watch might have taken on a ‘kiddie time tutor’ look. Use of the same font size as the 36mm version still works in my opinion, the dial is still attractive, eminently easy to read and just as worthy of the Smiths name at its top. It doesn’t look ‘wrong’, it is simply a different watch. This is also demonstrated by the choice of hands.
Starting with the PRS-29B with its larger dial area then Timefactors have elected to use wider hands (hours and minutes) of equal width. These themselves are very well suited to the larger dial and are in excellent proportion to each other in order that no error is made when reading the time. Both the minutes and hours hands have pointed tips with the minutes hand extending just onto the outer track – it would seem just about a perfect length. Likewise the hours hand, which is long enough to be in good proximity when passing the hour numerals yet short enough to ensure that there is no danger of it becoming confused with its busier brother. I have owned watches in the past with what seemed like too long an hours hand; it was almost an awkward feeling to try and read the time, not as enjoyable as it should be and certainly is with the PRS-29. What of course adds to this enjoyment is the fact that hands are constructed of a highly polished steel, when they catch the light the quality literally shines. There is however no danger of the hands being ‘lost’ due to the polished finish – the luminous fill is almost a full millimetre wide and this is what one sees at first glance when reading the time. At any angle the time can be read instantly. The way is should be. The seconds hand is thin and of gloss white finish; extending well into the outer track, it matches such very well as can be seen as it glides across the seconds markers.
The 36mm PRS-29A utilises different hands to those of the B version. Rightly so in my opinion as after all, getting close to the look of the original I am assuming was of great importance.
What can be said at the outset is that the hands used on the 36mm watch are not exactly as those of the original of the late 1960s. What can further be said is that they are extremely close.
Using the same highly polished steel as those of its larger stable mate, the minutes hand is narrower than that of the hours but again, reading the time at a glance is possible under all conditions given a generous fill of Super Luminova coupled with a surface finish that will catch any ambient light. Lengthwise then the situation is the same as the PRS-29B – minutes just encroaching into the territory of the outer track, hours long enough for us to see at what they are pointing and seconds (again, gloss white) making a healthy inroad into the railway line around which it must travel. The hands of the PRS-29A look right and feel right and undoubtedly capture the spirit that they should.
The dial and hands combinations of both examples of the PRS-29 are as they should be from my perspective. Quality of components equals that of the cases and reading the time during the day is a pleasure with both. What of the night? With a few minutes charge under a bright light, both the hands and dials glow with equal intensity for some hours. The glow is of course brighter to start with as is the nature of the compound employed but I find that I can still read the time many hours into the night.
So at this juncture, the Smiths military from Timefactors would appear to be all it was intended to be: a worthy successor to the GS.4701. Indeed I feel it is so thus far. This review would obviously be lacking should it not remove the case back, remove the anti magnetic cover and give some attention to what brings the watch to life.
There were Le Coultre design influences within some of the original calibres manufactured by Smiths. Some of the design features are nowadays found only on the more upmarket wristwatches. One such is the Breguet overcoil. The movement which powered the GS.4701 as supplied to the British Military was of course the 60466E as mentioned previously. In many respects this was a beautiful movement, not without its faults but well specified and the last of a long line of high quality calibres from Bishops Cleeve. To recreate such a movement for use in a modern reincarnation of a watch would be impossible without huge financial outlay. To find any new old stock Smiths movements for even small production runs would in all probability be just as difficult. Even period manual wind new old stock movements in decent quantities would be hard and it would be unlikely that they would have much, if any visual resemblance to the 60466E.
Thus a manual wind, hacking centre seconds movement with a power reserve in excess of 30 hours (DEF STAN 66-4 (Part 4)/Issue 1) is required to at least bring the watch to life in the way that the original was. In this case, this has been attained through the use of the ETA 2801-2 from Switzerland which is fairly ubiquitous, having been around now for some 28 years. Capable of great accuracy and with an ample power reserve it would seem the obvious choice; rugged, reliable and of course available.
Technically, one perhaps more desirable aspect of the ETA is the direct seconds arrangement and for the purists, one less desirable aspect is the high beat rate of 28,800 beats per hour.
The latter point is quite possibly functionally more desirable of course.
There is little to argue with over this choice of movement; certainly I feel comfortable in the fact that it is a mainstream calibre for which spares and repairs will be available for a long time to come.
One point to note is that in terms of diameters, then the Smiths calibre 60466E measured in at 27 mm with the ETA used today being 25.6, one aspect where the two movements are very close.
Specifications in brief:
Plates: Nickel plated brass
Mainspring: Nivaflex NO
Balance Wheel: Nickel gilt
Hairspring: Nivarox 2
Shock Resistance: Incabloc
Hacking (seconds stop)
Power Reserve: 42 hours (current spec)
Performance wise, both the PRS-29s that I have in my possession at this time are reaching the 42 hour power reserve, in fact both seem to run for around 44 hours before stopping. In terms of accuracy then the PRS-29A is showing an average daily gain of 5 seconds and the PRS-29B 6 seconds; both are operating within chronometer specifications and I am more than impressed with this – these watches have undergone no timing since they left the ETA factory. The mean daily rate required by the MOD in 1969 for General Service wristwatches was -10 to +20 seconds per day. I can say with confidence that the new Smiths military exceeds that requirement with considerable ease it seems!
What strap belongs on the PRS-29 or what strap does the PRS-29 belong on? For me, this is a particularly easy question to answer. For me, it can only be a NATO strap. I might go as far as changing to a different colour once in a while but it is doubtful that my watch will be worn on anything but. There is available a ‘perlon’ type tropical strap which is extremely similar to that which was supplied by Smiths when the GS.4701 was available commercially to the general public. The watch suits this very well and given that this type is one piece without the extra layer of material present with the MOD specified strap then the watch does sit slightly lower on the wrist. In the case of the PRS-29A of course, we are dealing with fixed lug bars which limits the choice of what can be fitted to the watch anyway. However, Timefactors has taken this into account to a degree in terms of what is supplied at the time of purchase.
The PRS-29 comes as standard on a Timefactors grey NATO strap with a slightly darker hue than normally supplied from its online strap selection. In terms of this colour then to me it looks the colour of a standard issue grey NATO which has been worn and washed for a few months. The hardware is bead blasted stainless steel with the whole item being of excellent quality as demonstrated by pin hole finishing and strap welds.
In addition to the NATO, each watch (both sizes) is supplied with both black and brown French leather straps. In the case of the 36mm watch, these straps are clip on which negates any issue with the fixed lugs; the clip mechanism is strong and secure and there is little, if any chance of things going awry. The 20mm versions of this strap for the PRS-29B are constructed as normal (with the drilled lugs of the watch aiding removal of the spring bars considerably as they are of the shoulderless variety as standard). The leather is reasonably soft and pliable (more so the 18mm) with a medium padding to the strap, the back of which is lined with neutral leather. An admirable demonstration of the attention to detail is the fact that these leather straps are branded ‘Smiths’ on the lining. The topside of the straps is very different dependent on which width one is dealing with:
The 18mm strap is very traditional save for a decorative stitch to the lug end. Stitching colour is neutral. In the case of the 20mm strap however, the construction is based on a slightly wider leather base which extends all the way under the polished steel buckle. On top of this is another layer of leather with contrast (neutral) stitching which is padded to its centre and with the padded section’s perimeter marked by matching coloured stitching. Finally we have a flap of leather that folds round at the lug end and over the whole sandwich of leather – this also features a combination of contrast and matching stitching. It sounds rather complicated but the overall effect matches the larger proportions of the PRS-29B.
A Few Strap Options
I am sure that there will be purchasers who will prefer these watches on some form of leather strap. For me however, predictably perhaps, my watch will remain on a NATO. Within my cache of NATO straps exist black, green, grey and ‘Bond’ and I look forward to wearing the 36mm on each!
The watches are wound, dressed with their straps and keeping accurate time (elegantly). How then to conclude?
It seems that there is nothing about the PRSs 29A and 29B that should preclude them from wearing the Smiths name. Indeed, nothing that would have prevented Smiths Clocks and Watches themselves from being proud to supply them either to the public or to the military. The new Smiths military is a fine wristwatch in its own right, from specification through to execution. As a watch, I cannot recommend it highly enough. That is the basic conclusion. However, read on.
This review has been relatively lengthy and for a reason. Way back in 2001 when I reviewed the PRS-1 Speedbird, I was excited by the watch, when I reviewed the PRS-53 in 2005 the same thing happened and the latter became my favourite Timefactors creation. Of course others have been visited and reviewed accordingly, the reasons for which were outlined in the introduction. I can however safely say that no other watch that Timefactors has produced, indeed, that anyone has produced has stirred such excitement and contentment of wearing as has the PRS-29; in my case the 29A is the choice, for others then the 29B may be better and justifiably so. I have enjoyed writing thousands of words about this watch and its roots because it thoroughly deserves such. It is not just the watch, it is the whole story, the associations (for me of course very personal), the aura.
How can an object such as this have such an effect? A watch is a very personal item to start with, a watch with British roots better, a watch with local roots, a watch with a name adorning the dial that means something…well.
I had opportunity to speak with Eddie Platts of Timefactors during the writing of this review. Perchance he asked me if I was wearing the Smiths, to which I replied “no, it’s on the desk and I am looking at it and handling it as I write”. On asking me how long I would wear it for once I’d finished writing, without hesitation I simply said “in perpetuity Edward”, knowing that I’d found the watch.
One thing that I failed to say to Eddie Platts that evening and now which I take the opportunity of doing so is quite simply:
Available exclusively from TIMEFACTORS (www.timefactors.com)
The PRS-29 is priced at £280.00 and £390.00 for the A and B versions respectively.
A huge thanks goes to those who have allowed me to keep my camera in the cupboard and given me permission to use their excellent images:
Jon Murgatroyd, Steve Gurevitz, Eddie Platts, Bestak from France and Hans from Hong Kong. Thanks also to Mike Bundock for permission to reproduce Smiths catalogue images.