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George Daniels, a life less ordinary
History & Masterpieces

George Daniels, a life less ordinary

Thursday, 06 June 2013
By Louis Nardin
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Louis Nardin
Journalist and consultant

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

Georges Jacques Danton

“A quality watch is a concentration of creativity, rare technical and scientific skills, and age-old gestures. It appeals to the desire for uniqueness and distinction; it is a badge of knowledge, power and taste. A watch has many stories to tell; the details and secrets provide the relish”.

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5 min read

In George Daniels, A Master Watchmaker & His Art, Michael Clerizo paints the portrait of the self-taught English master watchmaker. A vintage-car racer, photographer, musician and writer, he lived his life as one long adventure.

What is a hero other than an individual who steadfastly pursues a goal? One whose life is quite literally an adventure? In the words of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell – a man whose admirers include George Lucas, for the Star Wars saga, and Barack Obama – a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Michael Clerizo, a contributing editor at the Wall Street Journal, relates with evident delight the adventure lived out by George Daniels, a man who escaped his humble beginnings and, brick by brick, built himself the life he dreamed of. This large-format book simultaneously plunges the reader into uncertain times when the mechanical watch teeters on the brink of extinction, were it not for men of Daniels’ ilk who continued to believe in mechanical timekeeping with every bone in their body. Not for a second did this extraordinary Englishman doubt traditional watchmaking’s ability to survive and reinvent itself. Time has proved him right.

''George Daniels, A Master Watchmaker & His Art'', Michael Clerizo, 216 pages, 240 illustrations, 29.5 x 29.5 cm
Eleven children, no money, but a watch

George Daniels was born August 19th 1926 to a working-class family in north London. The second of 11 children, he lived his early years in poverty with parents who were quick to fly off the handle. Yet even at an early age, nothing could dampen his curiosity and spirit. He soon learned to read, convinced that knowledge would be his greatest weapon. A pocket watch belonging to his father awakened in him a fascination with the magic of timepieces. At just six years of age, he succeeded in taking apart and reassembling an alarm clock. Twice. The seed was sown.

George Daniels sold firewood, worked in a mattress factory, as an electrician specialising in cinema projectors, served in the Army, and played the mouth organ and the accordion in his spare moments. At one point he considered becoming an air steward, one way to see the world. Instead, the man who claimed to “only ever have worked for myself” became a watch-repairer and, ultimately, a watchmaker in his own name. “I will never do something that doesn’t interest me,” he declared.

A question of manners

Never a social climber but trusting his intuition, George Daniels knew that his cockney accent and lack of social polish would hamper him in his projects. His time as a soldier helped him overcome this hurdle, as he frequented officers from the upper classes. George Daniels took note and forged himself a personality thanks to which he became a convincing voice for his art and one that was respected by likeminded enthusiasts.

In addition to repairing watches, Georges Daniels nurtured a lifelong passion for vintage cars, another form of mechanics, and competed in numerous races. This world of classic cars brought him to a new and fundamental stage in his existence, as it led him to make his own watches. Many classic-car enthusiasts also appreciate traditional timepieces, prompting Daniels to put repairs to one side and instead restore antique watches. He threw himself into his new activity, revelling in the work of Breguet and other famous watchmakers.

He was honoured with numerous distinctions and awards, and was made an MBE and CBE by Queen Elizabeth II.
The co-axial escapement's long road to recognition

The more he learned about watchmaking, the sharper his perception of his craft became, and the more personal and precise his approach to watchmaking. Sotheby’s hired him to photograph timepieces for its catalogues before appointing him horological consultant. His reputation grew, never to wane. He was honoured with numerous distinctions and awards, and was made an MBE and CBE by Queen Elizabeth II.

A disciple of mechanical watchmaking, George Daniels was intent on leaving his own stamp on the history of time measurement. He developed a completely new oscillating system: the co-axial escapement. It took him four years to file the patent, which was finally registered in 1984. He then spent a further nine years looking for a partner that could develop his idea on an industrial scale. This happened in 1993 when Kilian Eisenegger, a watchmaker at ETA, contacted Daniels about incorporating the escapement in a series-produced movement. The Omega 2500 calibre would be the first to use it. Today, the co-axial escapement is central to the brand’s mechanical identity. And yet Daniels had to knock on many doors. Those passages in the book that recount his frequent visits to Swiss Manufactures, among them Patek Philippe and Rolex, are especially eloquent.

To an operatic air

Alternating factual accounts with stories gleaned during his many conversations with George Daniels at his home in Ramsey, on the Isle of Man, Michael Clerizo gives us insight into the life and vision of one of the twentieth century’s greatest horologists whose work speaks for itself. Numerous large photographs of his watches, some in the course of construction, further illustrate this portrait of an artist who liked to listen to opera as he worked… another of his many passions.

In English
> George Daniels, A Master Watchmaker & His Art
Michael Clerizo, 216 pages, 240 illustrations, 29.5 x 29.5 cm, CHF 105 – EUR 93

In French:
> George Daniels, un maître horloger et son art
Michael Clerizo, 216 pages, 240 illustrations, format 29,5 x 29,5 cm, CHF 160 – EUR 140

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