Manual Dexterity

<< Back to Watch Collector, January 2013
  • Jonathon Keats

For all the novelty of the Grand Chronographe Régulateur and Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique, finishing techniques such as polishing with the stems of wild gentian flowers would have been familiar even to Minerva founders Hyppolite and Charles-Yvan Robert. "I think they would recognize their touch," Cabbidu says with satisfaction, "and I think that they would be proud of the qualitative and aesthetic evolution."

Roger Smith’s relationship with his horological forebear was far more immediate. Smith was the only apprentice of Sir George Daniels, recently deceased, the man who single-handedly revived British watchmaking in the 1960s and invented the coaxial escapement. Smith was a 17-year-old student at the Manchester School of Horology in the late ’80s, training to work in the quartz-run industry, when he first heard Daniels lecture. Daniels showed that mass production was not the only way, and that it was even possible for one man to make a watch entirely on his own. That evening Smith decided that making watches by hand would be his métier.

Smith spent a year and a half building a pocket watch, following the instructions in a textbook Daniels wrote, and brought his timepiece to Daniels’s Isle of Man workshop. "George told me that it shouldn’t look handmade," Smith says. Smith’s second effort took him four times as long because every time he finished a gear, he saw deficiencies in the parts he’d made before. "Watchmaking is an obsessional thing," he admits. "It really takes over your whole life."

Daniels was not so much impressed with Smith’s second watch as with his obsessiveness, which the old man rewarded with a three-year-long apprenticeship. "I learned his approach to watchmaking, in which even the very smallest component should flow naturally into its matching component, and through the whole mechanism to the case and dial and hands," says Smith. "It was also my first experience scaling down to wristwatches." Together they made a series of 50 Millennium watches, featuring Daniels’s coaxial escapement, before Smith set up his own Isle of Man workshop down the block.

Smith has since dedicated his career to handcrafting wristwatches because, he says, "wristwatches have always been mass-produced, and never made to the same exacting standards as antique pocket watches. When I’ve restored English pocket watches by masters such as Thomas Mudge, they keep time as well as when they were made because of the handcraftsmanship. I want to make a wristwatch that will still be around in 500 years."

To achieve that, Smith has had to transition from hand-finishing purchased escapements and wheel trains to making his own calibre. "The steel used by suppliers was of low quality, and the thinness of the wheels didn’t allow me to polish and bevel them as I would have liked," he says. "With my Series 2, I’ve designed a watch with the strength and rigidity needed for a long lifespan."

According to Smith, the production of his own calibre was made possible by CNC. "I’ve made a couple wristwatches completely by hand," he says. "Handcrafting parts with tolerances of two or three microns is nearly impossible, so you accommodate your errors in the mating components. But the moment you want other people to work with you, or to make more than one watch a year, you need to standardize. CNC gives me the micronicity, and the confidence to spend two days polishing a minute wheel because we know it will fit."

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