Tuesday May 19, 2015
The origin of Roger Smith’s watchmaking career is well known. He studied at the Manchester School of Horology and while there George Daniels visited his school – an experience which considerably shaped Smith’s life. He graduated in 1989 and won the British Horological Institute’s Bronze medal for the most outstanding student in his final year. Upon graduating, armed with Daniels’ book “Watchmaking” as his guide, Smith set out to build a watch by himself. After two years of hard work, Smith had created a handmade pocket watch with a tourbillon and a detent escapement. He visited Daniels to show him the watch with the hope that he could become Daniels’ apprentice. Daniels called it a good first attempt, but not good enough. Smith returned to his watch bench and spent the next five years on his second attempt (this time adding a perpetual calendar). Smith refined and refined until he felt he could find no way to improve the watch. He visited Daniels again, but this time his watch was good enough to win over the master watchmaker and thus Smith became George Daniels’ one and only apprentice.
Instead of retelling this familiar territory, our interview begins with this point in Smith’s career.
Smith had done restoration work for a dealer in London, and this dealer had a customer looking for a bespoke pocket watch. The customer heard about Smith and decided to give Smith his first commission. This pocket watch, Smith’s third, was therefore his first sale.
So your third pocket watch had a 15-second remontoir
, Peto cross detent escapement
, and an up/down mechanism. What is the Peto cross detent escapement? You can see it in Chamberlain’s book It’s About Time. It is, if you like, a “purist’s detent escapement” because the purist would say that as the classic spring (which traditionally sits on the side of the detent) flicks back, it could potentially destabilize the detent. So you have the classic spring on the opposite side of the detent. The detent then comes into the center; the classic spring comes into the center, and it does all the work, but doesn’t influence the detent. So it’s a real purist’s escapement.
And it’s described as having an up/down mechanism…do you mean a power reserve
You studied using Daniels’ book Watchmaking, and there are multiple editions, so did the later editions evolve as a result of Daniels and you working together?
No. No involvement. I think he just updated it with a few more photographs and that’s all really. He also put the Millennium wristwatch in there, which we were making.
The Millennium series was made using the first Omega movements off the production line. So, what did you guys do to them?
We made the cases, dials
, and the automatic rotor… and the calendar mechanism. George designed a calendar
function for it, because it had the [date] window at 3 o’clock, so he designed a very simple but very clever little system to operate the hand.So [the date] changed from a window to a hand?
Yes, I mean it was brilliant really. So simple! Only George could come up with an idea like that. We ended up finishing the movements, frosting it, putting some shape, literally just with a file, into some of the plates. The watch was really just created to celebrate George’s amazing achievement; that he had managed to get this escapement industrialized.
You were involved in making two unique wristwatches called “Blue” and “White” that are rectangular-cased tourbillon wristwatches fitted with the Daniels Co-axial escapement and a calendar complication, designed by Dr. George Daniels and signed Daniels London. Are these Daniels watches or yours? Or did you help him make them as his apprentice?
Well I think George got these orders six months or a year before I was due to leave him. I think he did it to help me on my way really. He found the clients, he designed the watch, and it helped me on the way as I was starting my Series 1. It just softened the blow [of transitioning] to working on my own again.
Your Series 1 was a series of twelve rectangular watches, correct? Can you talk about that watch? What was the movement, etc.?
We only ever made nine in the end. At that time I had very limited equipment. I was still using George’s workshop for the jig boring and so on. I bought in a train of wheels, escapement, balance wheel, and hand set mechanism. And then I built the plates, designed the retrograde calendar mechanism, and made the dials, hands, case, and created a watch around those components. Basically it was a way in for me, because I didn’t have the expertise then to create a full watch, nor the equipment.
I was struggling with the decision – do I just buy a movement, put my name on it and sell it? Many people said I should just do that. But I was wrestling with that, and I wasn’t really happy with that idea. So this was, for me, a nice entry point.
For your Series 1, I read that there were supposed to be three pieces made for the Onely Collection [in collaboration with designer Theo Fennell]. Were those the three that weren’t made?
No, they were made.
Okay, so of the nine, three were for the Onely Collection, and six were “normal.”
So, looking at the timeline from your website, in 2006 it mentions you completed Unique Commission #3, a tourbillon wristwatch. Is this called #3 because Blue and White were #1 and #2?
No, I got some orders early on. I got orders to make three tourbillons. In those early days I was growing the business by the seat of my pants, trying to keep money coming in. I got three orders. The first was a grande date, which is [Unique Commission] #1.
It says 2009 on [the timeline for] that one.
Yes, it took a long time to finish, because I was struggling with the mechanism.
Number 3 was a simpler one and that ended up being produced first. And number 2 I will be finishing in about two weeks time. There were issues with the technical specifications that the client wanted, which we have debated for a number of years. There’s also a 4th commission [produced in 2010].
So you’ve only produced four bespokes?
In 2004, you launched Series 2. Which escapement do they use?
They’re all co-axial.
Did you switch from the “Daniels Co-axial” to your improved “Smith Co-axial”?
The Millenniums were the slimline version. So I had experience with that escapement, and I felt that George’s original (the traditional pinion with two co-axial wheels) was better. So I went with that version for the Series 2. But I’ve now evolved that escapement so now we’ve got a single wheel and so on.
I started using just a very traditional Daniels Co-axial. So it’s a small traditional pinion and then two co-axial wheels, but they were separate at that point. And they went into the first Series 2. And I think I produced the single wheel in about 2010.
So all the ones from 2010 onwards were single wheel?
And even today? If someone ordered one today, that would be a single wheel?
Throughout the movie [“The Watchmaker’s Apprentice”], it mentions that Daniels mastered 32 of the 34 trades involved in watchmaking – so which two were missing?
Balance spring making and engraving.
Do you currently do all 32 trades in your watchmaking?
Yes, we do actually, yes! We rarely have to make jewels. We buy stock jewels and so on. But, for example, this tourbillon that I’m just working on, I had to use a special jewel for that.
So you typically buy jewels, mainspring, balance spring, sapphires, and straps. But that’s it?
Do you make some of the screws?
We do have to make case screws and things like that. Some of the odd-scaled ones.
How many of those 32 would you say that you’ve mastered?
Gosh, you know we do a very good job now. We are highly professional in what we do. I’m very proud that we’re running a really, really tight workshop. Years ago, we all had our own skill set, and we’d pass one watch from one watchmaker to another. The watches were very, very good, but I knew that there was room for improvement. So about three years ago I started a very intensive training, teaching everyone how to make dials, hands, cases and all other aspects of the movement that they weren’t doing. So now everyone is doing brilliant work, they really are. Fantastic work.
So pretty much there with all 32?
Yes, without a doubt.
Again, in the movie it’s mentioned that Daniels believed that you should not see the hand of the maker in a watch? Is that accurate, did he really believe that?
Yes, without a doubt.
Do you have the same philosophy?
Yes. But then you can look at the engraving. The engraving of the mechanisms is all hand done, and each dial is completely different because of that. So each watch still tells its story. You can still see the handwork. The beveling will be different on every single watch. Sometimes it will be deeper on some than others and so on. It varies.
You produce watches without the use of repetitive or automatic tools, is that correct?
We use CNC, which I guess is automatic.
So it’s basically CNC plus hand operated machines and tools.
What would you describe as your signature aesthetic elements? One that stands out are your scalloped arrow hands, which are beautiful. Would you say that you have other ones?
I suppose really the hands are the key feature. The English-finished movements anybody could do and it would be great if they did.
About the 35th Anniversary Daniels watch. To get down to it, you basically made the 35th Anniversary watch completely yourself. You designed it, obviously based off his aesthetic. But you designed it and built it all.
Yes, George was there to look at designs and tell me if it was right or wrong, so it’s very much a Daniels. By then I’d known George for several years so it was becoming second nature anyway. What I did struggle with was when I had to make my next watch, I forget which it was, I struggled a bit to get back to my own designs because I had become “Daniels-ified.” It was quite a funny period really.
So your production of ten watches per year is currently, and for a while now has been, a mix of yours (Series 2) and 35th Anniversary pieces?
So obviously at a certain point, Daniels got to the point where his hands weren’t steady enough to make watches anymore. Was that around the Blue and White time?
It was just before then. When I was building the Millenniums with him, I was on my own for the last year and a half, almost two years. By then he was in his mid-70s.
Is the co-axial still patented, or has the patent run out?
Yes, it has run out. It ran out before Omega got interested actually.
Why don’t more people use it then? Do you know who uses it?
Myself and Omega.
I think it is because it’s difficult to make, and more importantly it’s down to marketing.
Can you imagine this situation if Rolex said “okay, we’re going to shift over to the co-axial.” Suddenly it would be like saying, “Omega is better than us.” It’s never going to happen. It’s a shame because really it’s stifling horology. It’s stifling progression.
It’s a shame because really it’s stifling horology. It’s stifling progression.
– Roger Smith on the lack of widespread adoption of the coaxial escapement.
Do you feel like if a small maker, a similar watchmaker to you making say 10 pieces a year, said “You know, that is a better escapement. I’m going to start using it” you would be fine with that?
Great, yes. In any case, I can’t stop them!
But would you feel like it would be like ripping off your scalloped hands or something?
No, not at all. It’s there to be used by everyone. It would be brilliant, in fact!
You talked about some of your improvements to the co-axial. Do you want to go into more detail because there was a series of them essentially?
There were a few different types. In 2010 there was the single wheel.
Which combined the two wheels into one piece with two levels.
That’s right. It had a great benefit because suddenly you’re removing all the inaccuracies that you’ll get by having two wheels pushed onto the same arbor and trying to orient them properly. And it improved performance quite drastically.
Then the light one came…the current one.
That was 2012? The second generation with a lighter design?
I was just again trying to improve it, to improve performance. A dramatic response. And we were able to drop the mainspring, which is good – it prolongs the life of the mechanism. It takes away the wear.
By “drop the mainspring,” you mean?
In terms of power. You can use a weaker mainspring. Less wear on the mechanism. Just better all around.
How did you make it lighter? Was it reducing material? Changing metal?
The first one had two rims. And what I did on the second was to make very long teeth for the outside teeth and it worked very well.
The GREAT Britain watch is a unique piece. Has it been sold?
Will it be for sale at some point?
I don’t know actually. It was an honor to make The GREAT Britain and right now, it is traveling the world representing the best of British creativity and innovation. Also, I don’t actually have a watch and in fact I never have a piece to show people, so I think I would like to retain it!
Movement-wise, is it essentially the same as your Series 2?
Yes. Stripped of the up/down mechanism.
Ballpark how many Series 2 pieces have you made?
Maybe about 60 pieces over a 10 year period – or almost 10 years.
Do you want to talk at all about future watches coming out? What teaser do you want to give us?
I have another development of the co-axial over and above what we already have. So I’m redesigning the series 2 around the new co-axial and bringing out a small series of pieces. I see it as a bit of a rebirth really. That’s the idea of it. New escapement, new movement. I’ve learned a hell of a lot over the past 10 years. My ideas of movements have changed and how to design them. But what has not changed is my commitment to producing the same number of pieces. Keeping to 10 pieces a year.
Almost everybody wants to have a legacy. Would you say that you hope one of your legacies, other than your great watches, would be to establish the Isle of Man as a center of watchmaking excellence?
It’s great to be able to carry on George’s work. What I’m also keen to do is to show that watches can be made again in Britain. There’s this idea that it has died and gone away, but from my first watch, the Series 1, the idea behind that was just to say we still can make watches in Britain.
How many people currently work in your workshop, and what do they do?
There are eight of us. One is Caroline, my wife, who does accounts and emails and keeps me on the straight and narrow. We have another guy, an engineer, who uses the CNC to supply the watchmakers with a good proportion of the parts. And the rest is made up of watchmakers and we are all responsible for building watches.
I’d like to thank Roger Smith very much for taking the time to speak with me. It was a very enjoyable chat and I hope you enjoyed reading it!