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Reviving the English watchmaking tradition
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Reviving the English watchmaking tradition

Tuesday, 14 September 2010
By Meehna Goldsmith
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Meehna Goldsmith

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5 min read

What has got collectors in a particular whirl is the recent announcement of the collaboration between Roger Smith and his former mentor, George Daniels. The two are creating a series of 35 Anniversary watches to commemorate Daniels’s invention of the Co-axial escapement.

Roger Smith’s path has been quite different from most watchmakers. He has never worked for a brand nor known the processes of mass production. He graduated from the British Horologic Institute and shortly thereafter went to work for the esteemed George Daniels on the Omega Millennium project.

When he established his own workshop, Smith continued in the tradition of crafting his own watches by hand. For inspiration, he draws upon makers from the Golden Age of English watchmaking, such as Mudge, Graham, Barraud and Lund. As he verbally winds down the historic roads of watchmaking, Smith reminds that the wristwatch was always conceived of as a mass-produced item. With advanced technology and the rise of the machine to the level of 21st century sophistication, watch parts can come out perfectly formed every time—born from the repeatable identity of a programmed computer. Smith finds these watches don’t have the soul of a truly handmade piece.

With a watch completely constructed by a person, there are inevitably signs of the imperfect human hand left behind. In fact, these are actually the telltale marks of an authentic handmade watch. “In my watches,” Smith says, “the mistakes and flaws make it individual, giving them character and life.” Coming from the tradition of pocket watches, where you can see the mechanics with the naked eye, Smith wanted to translate that same experience into a wristwatch. Therefore, you don’t need a loupe to appreciate Smith’s workmanship.

The modern horology lacks of cohesion

In the practice of more modern horology, Smith finds a lack of cohesion. For many companies pressing for the bragging rights of achieving world firsts, the movement is the primary focus. In contrast, Smith starts with the dial and case, deeming them the most important. It takes him two weeks to create just one dial!

Over the years, Smith has defined a personal style. For the dials, he uses pieces of solid silver that are hand turned on a rose engine and hand engraved, while all hands are sculpted from pieces of 18k gold or steel. Hallmarks on the movement include jewels in gold chatons, a raised barrel bridge and ¾ plate. They also feature the individual bluing of every screw over a flame. “In this way, the colors that I achieve are a mixture of purple and blue hues,” Smith remarks. “I enjoy the richness that this gives, especially when sitting within the gilded and frosted plates.”

Smith produces only 10 watches a year and plans to increase to a maximum of 30. With the amount of time and energy he puts into creating each piece, it’s just not possible to go faster. He’s tried. In addition to the Series 2 production wristwatches that Smith has been making since 2004, he also takes on commissions and unique pieces, and has revealed that a Series 3 rectangular-shaped movement is on the way.

What has got collectors in a particular whirl is the recent announcement of the collaboration between Smith and his former mentor, Daniels. The two are creating a series of 35 Anniversary watches to commemorate Daniels’s invention of the Co-axial escapement. Smith says that Daniels has always held the desire to create his own English made calibre, but it hadn’t been possible because there wasn’t a watchmaking industry left in the United Kingdom. “George has always kept a close eye on what we were up to in my workshop,” Smith says. “I believe that he thought that it was the right time and felt confident that we could turn his vision into reality.”

R. W. Smith Grand Date Flying Tourbillon © R. W. Smith Watches
R. W. Smith Grand Date Flying Tourbillon © R. W. Smith Watches
Improve the co-axial escapement

The Anniversary watch will represent a bookend to Daniels’s extensive catalogue of work. George Daniels is now in his 80’s, and while he is involved in the design phase and will be supervising and signing off on the work, it is Smith who is responsible for making the watches. It is a significant moment when the mentor passes on the baton to his apprentice.

Perhaps even more exciting for Smith is the inclusion of the refinement he made to the Co-axial escapement in the Anniversary watch. “George is very keen to promote the Isle of Man as a center for horological excellence and what better way than to release a new watch that houses the very latest in escapement technology,” says Smith. After working 12 years on the escapement both for Daniels and in his own workshop for the Series 2, Smith discovered a way to improve performance of the mechanism. By combining the upper and lower wheels into one by adding raised teeth onto the lower wheel, the Co-axial escape wheel can now be made in one single operation, removing the potential for error by getting rid of a pivot point.

Though Daniels doesn’t anymore have the steady hand to sit for hours at the workbench, his mind is as sharp as ever. He still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Smith relays that in the Anniversary watch there will be another very interesting feature that Daniels developed in several of his pocket watches. To Smith’s knowledge it has never been used in a wristwatch. However, we will just have to wait until further testing is completed in order for the secret to be revealed.

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