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Roger Smith: The Very Best Watches Take Time

I landed at a small regional airport and was then whisked across a beautiful, well-manicured rural landscape dotted with small communities.   We skirted a low mountain passing small farms on the well-kept roads; the skies were clear as there is no heavy industry.  There was obviously a healthy, expanding economy here together with a surprising number of substantial houses, whilst a renewal programme of older local authority houses was widespread despite looking really quite serviceable.  Eventually we arrived at a spruce long, low building where arguably the best and most innovative watchmaker works.  It used also to be his house but as the team grew too big, he had to find alternative accommodation. With his team of ten they make ten watches a year for collectors from all over the world.        

Amazingly this was not Switzerland but there are more similarities; the government’s finances are Moody’s ‘AAA’ rated – no government debt permitted.  There is a low tax regime, effectively full employment and the well-educated workforce concentrating on the professions and hi-tech industries.  The lifestyle on the Isle of Man is the envy of many of us.

Just under thirty years ago, George Daniels, reputedly the greatest watchmaker since Abraham Louis Breguet (1747-1823), moved to the Isle of Man.  He had established his name much earlier in London for handmade watches which approached perfection.  It was in 1976 that he unveiled his innovative co-axial movement; it was acclaimed to be the most significant advance since 1754.  This achievement was in greatly reducing sliding friction thus virtually eliminating the need for lubrication, the nemesis for watchmakers.  

Daniels went on to build a total of 25 watches on his own and 50 Millennium watches with Roger before he died in October 2011 at the age of eighty-five.  The auction of his collection a year later raised over £8 million, the most expensive item was his 'Space Traveller's Watch' which sold for £1,329,250.  His car collection was sold by Bonhams for a total of almost £10m.  The net proceeds were donated to the George Daniels Educational Trust.

I had come to see Roger Smith who had moved to the Isle of Man to follow his mentor,  George Daniels, who gave an inspiring lecture when Roger was studying horology at college.   During the course Roger won a Bronze medal from the British Horological Institute for being the most outstanding student in a given year.  The course was followed by a period of watch warranty and repair work. Over eighteen months Roger built every element of a tourbillion pocket watch which he took to Daniels for his opinion.  Praising his work but criticised for leaving tell tale marks of the making ‘too hand made’ Roger then set about building a further watch over 5 ½ years.  Needless to say  the young, ambitious and highly skilled craftsman made a watch incorporating numerous complications.  This too was taken to Daniels who was most impressed and gave much encouragement, high praise indeed from a perfectionist and doubtless hard task master.   Six months later he offered Roger a position in his workshop to assist with production of his co-axial watch that had been adopted by Omega.  After working with Daniels for three years on the Isle of Man it was suggested that Roger move there permanently in order to establish his own business, and this he did in 2001.  

Not wishing to work under the shadow of Daniels, Roger set out to produce a rectangular wrist watch, his first under his own name, a shape which presents even more difficulties in the making.  The cost in time is extraordinary in hand making components; for example it takes about four days to make a pair of hands.  Concerned about the costs, certain components were bought in to be able to offer watches at an achievable price.  However, his reputation quickly spread and in-house made components were substituted.  

There are 34 different trades used in watch making and today, only three skills are imported; straps, springs and glass.  A few minor items are bought in; some screws and the jewels.  Everything else is made in the workshop.  

The workshop resembles a doctor’s surgery, the tools used make those of surgeons and dentists look like crude butchers’ tools.  The precision is extraordinary; a tolerance of 3-5 microns depending upon the component is applied.  Just to remind the reader; a micron is one thousandth of a millimetre.   The lathe has to be adjusted to keep consistency of the tolerances during the day’s work as it expands due to marginally higher working temperatures.

I was shown the equivalent of a heavily raided box of chocolates – a few little pieces remaining.  In this case, the little pieces formed a small collection of partly made watches.  It was pointed out that this was ‘next year’s production’. The waiting list is now well over two years (five years for a complications watch).

Roger had developed a new generation of the co-axial movement thus eliminating one of the two wheels, which gives even greater accuracy even when the qualities of the lubricant deteriorate.  Watchmakers pursuit of accuracy in timekeeping has been dogged by degradation of lubricants, the answer has been sought for generations.  Daniels recognised that achievement and fully approved the innovation.  It was agreed that 35 examples of the anniversary watch be made by Roger.  I saw the prototype with the final movement in a mock-up brass case, the ‘oh so elegant’ face was labelled ‘Daniels’.  I remarked that surely two names should also feature.  Roger’s rejoinder was that the great watchmaker Daniels (he was gazetted uniquely in announcing his award of a CBE as ‘Master Watch Maker, for services to horology’), had accepted Roger’s development of the co-axial landmark in horological design and this was the greatest credit he could be given.  The series has now been completed and ‘Series 2’ has had an undiminished demand so a long wait is in prospect for collectors.

When questioned about the length of life of the watches, there was quite a pause and no definitive answer given.  Later on, whilst looking at a ‘chaton’ a gold ring jewel mount now largely omitted in production watches because of the time taken to make and fit, a clue was given.  ‘We use chatons as it avoids possible damage to the integrity of the watch in replacing jewels if they shatter, or if they have to be in renewed in a couple of hundred years’.        

When I visited the Isle of Man I had just been to arguably the world’s best yacht building yards in the Netherlands (Feadship and Royal Huisman) and had been both amazed and puzzled at their obsession in what can only be described as ‘unnecessarily high quality’.  Qualities were built way in excess of anything the real world required, most of which would be covered up behind panelling or in other hidden places.   However, once you have seen those qualities and appreciated the dedication needed to produce these large works of art, you must have it, nothing else will suffice.  On a bizarrely different scale, the same applies with these handmade watches; I will never see some highly respected watch ‘manufacture’ brands in the same rosy light again.