Does a British watch have to be made in Britain? James Dowling enters the fiercest horological talking point in years
BY JAMES DOWLING
At the end of last year, Isle of Man-based watchmaker Roger Smith wrote an open letter to the world of horology, first published on Hodinkee.com, the website founded by Telegraph Time columnist Ben Clymer. Smith’s missive instigated a fierce debate on the state of British watchmaking today, summed up in this extract:
“For the last 25 years, I have absorbed myself in designing and making complete and original pieces of horology in keeping with our great history of British watchmaking. My reputation and methods are entirely founded on being a British watchmaker in the truest sense of the claim; by making watches in their entirety in our studio including, most importantly, the movements. Today I am encouraged that much is happening with investment and job creation in watchmaking, as well as renewed interest in our rich horological heritage.
“But I am dismayed by the current direction and ethos (or lack of it). Since my studio only produces around 10 pieces per year, they are clearly available to only the most determined of collectors. The field therefore remains open for the first volume-produced ‘true’ British watch, which will of course include a British movement, designed and made in its entirety within our shores. To date, this has not been achieved by any current British watchmaker. So where, in fact, are we?”
Roger Smith is in a unique position to comment on this as the only protégé of George Daniels, regarded as the greatest watchmaker of the 20th century. Daniels, in many ways, was following Abraham-Louis Breguet who, in the 19th century, was outstanding because he was the finest watch and clock maker in France at a time when English watches and clocks were thought to be the world’s finest. Breguet sent his son to London to be apprenticed to John Arnold, England’s greatest watchmaker, because Breguet recognised the innovation and creativity in his work. Arnold devised the first series-produced marine chronometer, which enabled the Royal Navy to gain control of the seas in the decades following his death.
The St Albans firm of Thomas Mercer & Sons carried on the tradition of making chronometers for the Navy and then for the rest of the world. Founded in 1858, the company, now based in Richmond upon Thames, still makes chronometers and a member of the Mercer family sits on the board.
Currently only Roger Smith and Mercer & Sons make their timepieces as they were done in the 19th century, with every part made by themselves; but one of Mercer’s chronometers will cost at least £100,000 and a Roger Smith wristwatch will not be far off that sum. For these two firms there is no argument as to their right to call themselves British, but what right do the other firms named here have to the label? Some have their say above but I think they have every right, as all of their watches are designed in Britain and it is design that defines a watch.
Consider the Dyson vacuum cleaner – we assume it is British made, yet it is assembled in Malaysia. It is just the same with the watches of Uniform Wares, Schofield or Valour. British design has always been adventurous; look at Sir Richard Rogers (who started on the route to making buildings where the mechanisms were visible after being given an Accutron Spaceview watch by his mother).
If we are to deny these other British-based watch firms the right to call themselves British just because they buy their movements elsewhere, then where does that leave Swiss watchmaking? The majority of watches made in Switzerland do not use movements they made themselves, rather they will use good Swiss suppliers, such as Soprod, ETA and Vaucher, or Miyota, which is Japanese.
Go to Omega’s website and read about its Co-Axial escapement. It was invented and developed by George Daniels from the Isle of Man. The brand’s president, Stephen Urquhart, has said that he believes Omega would not be what it is today were it not for Co-Axial. Innovation and high-quality engineering are great British traits. Take Formula 1: the teams bear the names of Germany’s Mercedes- Benz, Austria’s Red Bull or Japan’s Honda, but the cars are designed, built and tested in Britain.
So, in many ways, the future of the British watch industry could not be brighter; it ranges from companies such as Uniform Wares, whose “less is more” design credo has made its watches an international hit. Then there is Bremont, which now manufactures all its cases in the UK and produces many of the movement parts in its Henley-on-Thames facility. Plans are under way to produce all the movement components and to assemble them in-house.
Meanwhile, another British firm, Christopher Ward, has purchased a Swiss movement firm, Synergies Horlogères, and commissioned it to produce a brand-new movement. Or look at Robert Loomes, which takes British wristwatch movements from the Sixties and Seventies, when Britain last had an indigenous watch industry, and totally remanufactures them; Loomes also makes the cases and dials, thereby creating 70 jobs in the UK.
So, for me, what makes a watch British is where the inspiration of the watch comes from — and for all the watches mentioned here, that place is Great Britain.