February 12, 2015
The Schofield founder and design aficionado on fountain pens, being frozen out at Baselworld, and why he won’t mind at all if you scratch one of his new watches on day one…
QP: Your new watch is a bit of a departure from the Signalman and Blacklamp watches – tell us what the idea is behind it.
Giles Ellis: It’s called the Beater. A beater watch is one you wear all the time, on the chance that you might be doing some DIY or emptying the shed, without having to go inside and change your watch. It is something you’re happy to scratch and mark. This helps you get past the bubble of anxiety that comes with any luxury purchase, before you scratch it for the first time. When you go on watch forums, it’s how people refer to it, as their ‘beater’ watch.
QP: A rough-and-ready watch doesn’t sound very “Schofield” – the Signalman and Blacklamp were designed to within an inch of their lives. Is this simplicity, Giles Ellis-style?
GE: It’s simplicity, but making sure that I’m happy with it. Everything I set out to do with the Beater, I did, which was unusual. There were no deviations from the original design brief.
We’ve done an enamel dial, which I’ve always wanted to do. Enamel is normally delicate. We found someone who could do it differently for us; the finish looks like the stove enamel on an Aga. It’s slightly ripply, we’re not going for the super-smooth finish you’d normally associate with enamel. They’re coming in very “Farrow and Ball” colours, all printed in the UK.
There are three different case materials; bronze, titanium and steel. They’re all finished in-house – we’ve invested in a lot of finishing kit. The bronze cases are bead-blasted and force-patinated twice over. The titanium is heat-treated, and the steel is finely bead-blasted and brushed. It’s what in the knife industry is called “hand-rubbed”. It’s very finely scratched in a non-uniform way. Almost satinated. The titanium comes out a very dark slate blue, it’s wonderful.
The first few watches will be the SalonQP batch. That may only be the first 15-20 of each material, and then the finishing recipe will change slightly, especially for the bronze.
QP: Most people’s “beater” watches are something cheap and cheerful, that will be replaced; this is designed to last. Is it better to think of it as a “luxury beater”?
GE: It is a very luxurious beater, and it costs us an enormous amount of money to make. We could have marketed it at a higher price, but it suits our business model, very patiently, to put it out there at a cheaper price. It would be a tougher sell at a higher price, but when you see it, there is quite a lot of watch for your money – I get carried away, and add value at every step. It will cost £2,800 inc. VAT in the UK, with the titanium version being £100 or so dearer, just down to the material costs.
I think we’ll sell more than before. I think there are a lot of people who would like to subscribe to Schofield watches who just can’t afford to. The Beater should fulfill that. The Blacklamp is super-cool, but it’s an expensive watch. The Signalman DLC was the same – we still receive enquiries for them although we’re not making them any more. The best we can do is facilitate the odd “pre-loved” sale, which only happens occasionally.
QP: If it’s such a rugged watch, why give it a sapphire display caseback?
GE: We didn’t have to have an exhibition caseback, but I like it. With two windows into the watch you have to be more careful over your quality control. The sapphire we used is a custom design; extra thick and slightly bevelled
The new-old stock ETA movements we’re using are marked Synchrom in gold. Synchrom was an old watch manufacture, and they were bought out later by Doxa. We decided they look so great that we didn’t want to badge over it, change it, or hide it with a closed caseback. It adds exclusivity to any watches we make – there are only so many, and when they’re gone, we have other movements we use in their place. They all have different charm, and history. You could end up with a one-off in terms of movement and case patination.
QP: Your watches have become known for some of their stylistic flourishes, like the “slash zero” at 12 o’clock. Can we expect similar touches on the Beater?
GE: I’m very proud of the crown on the Beater. It actually cost more than the Blacklamp crown – which had a luminous tritium gas insert embedded in it. It’s a bead-blasted stainless steel crown, with lots of concentric circles like the Fresnel lens [a key design trope that harks back to the Signalman’s lighthouse motif, something that became almost an unofficial Schofield logo] engraved on the front, then paint-filled. We had to do it so that you don’t get a groove where the engraving was, but the lines are very fine, so it’s very hard to do. They’re real little beauties.
Then there are the straps. We’re using English leather, which comes very cracked. We call them the Tiger Loaf because that’s exactly how they look. There’s a black, a dark brown and a tan.
QP: Tell us about the motto: “Sussex and England”, which appears on the Beater and elsewhere:
GE: We’ve gone for Sussex and England on the dial. It has become the brand’s strapline – it comes from old cricket bats. Players used to play for Sussex and England, so the bats had that written on them. I love the quirkiness of the language. People often query it, but it’s very pertinent to how we do business – so much of it is right here in Sussex, and a lot of the rest is in England.
I wanted more of it to be made in England than the Blacklamp, but only if it could be creative and original. We don’t use one-stop-shop suppliers for our accessories at all. Every component in the box, even the paper that wraps the chamois leather, comes from a separate supplier.
QP: You launched the watch at SalonQP, where you launched the brand four years ago, and where you have made all of your watch launches so far. What is it about the show that appeals to you?
GE: It’s no exaggeration to say that we gear our entire year around SalonQP. We chase our suppliers all year to get everything ready. I’m raring to go by the time it comes round. I’ve been every year that it’s been held in the Saatchi Gallery – I feel like a vet’ now, even though we’re only four years old. I think it was the first year, I said that with James [Gurney]’s help, we had a wonderful synergy going. I’m not going to try and be like everyone else, and try and launch products at Baselworld. I get lost in the noise, I’m too small. It’s degrading and depressing – not something I ever want to pay for! I’m not interested in Basel, so I stay at SalonQP. Being that it’s an English watch fair, it’s the obvious choice for us as an English watch company.
QP: You’ve been making watches as Schofield for several years now. What have you learnt about the business?
GE: The biggest challenge of all isn’t launching a product that people will like, it’s staying in business. This is a very difficult business to stay in. You see people launch watches, and they don’t really sell, it fails and goes under. One of the things I’m most proud of is that I’m still in business. There have been dramas and politics, and all sorts. There’s a lot of regret and wasted money in watchmaking.
QP: Where exactly do you find the time? It seems like there’s nothing produced by Schofield that hasn’t been thought through to the tiniest detail.
GE: People do often ask me where I find the time. I really don’t know. I do work long hours. I live and breathe Schofield – I do a lot of thought before I sit down on a job. Design for me is mostly quite intuitive. It’s not what takes the time, unless it’s something tricky like the torch for the Blacklamp.
QP: Between making watches, you’ve also put your name to a fountain pen. What was the thinking behind that?
GE: It’s a bit of a game really. Many watch companies launch a fountain pen and go completely mad, making something that could never be written with, it’s so heavy, ornate and overly-engraved.
I collect fountain pens, and I appreciate that you want a pen that isn’t so flash that you’re self-conscious on the train, or that you’re worried about dropping it. So it wasn’t going to be unbalanced or overly gilded. I wanted it to have all the integrity of any large-production fountain pen – Onoto, Caran d’Ache, you name it.
I naturally gravitate towards Japanese pens – they’re very big on fountain pens in Japan. They often have tapering bodies, with no pen clip; I melded Japanese and English aesthetics. They’re hand-made on lathes in the UK and put together by Onoto. We’re using Onoto nibs as well – a nib is one thing I think we would struggle to make properly.
QP: There are obviously design nods to the watches…
GE: Yes – the clip looks like the Blacklamp hands, which we’re also using on the Beater. It’s quite sartorial; they look like a necktie as well. The lid has an onyx cabochon, which we were very pleased with.
Someone tweeted that it’s twice the price of a Montblanc – well, it has thrice the amount of silver in it, all hallmarked in Birmingham. And of course, the pen isn’t just a pen. It comes with a writing kit, and the box is the most elaborate box we’ve ever made. We even made our own ink to go with it.
For more information: schofieldwatchcompany.com