Watches: The English Patience
Sitting in his small, orderly workshop on Britain’s Isle of Man, independent watchmaker Roger Smith contemplates vastly increasing his annual production—to about 30 pieces—over the course of the next few years. Currently, Smith produces, on a custom basis, only two or three scrupulously finished and sometimes complicated watches starting at about $145,000. In addition to satisfying the demands of his clients, Smith’s artisan approach, combined with his use of particular metals and finishes, serves his more ambitious goal of reviving the English watchmaking tradition. His temperament and background are well-suited to the task. “English watchmaking has always had an understated quality,” says the affable and gracious 35-year-old, “which is something I try to carry on in my work.”
Among the contemporary British watchmaking cognoscenti, Smith is known for being the protégé of George Daniels, a revered English watchmaker who spent 25 years seeking the Swiss watch industry’s acceptance of his revolutionary co-axial escapement design. The two initially met when Daniels visited Smith’s watchmaking school for a speaking engagement. The 17-year-old Smith took the opportunity to present his first finished piece to Daniels, who offered constructive criticism and suggested he try again after more study and practice. Five years later, Smith traveled to the Isle of Man to show Daniels his second piece, which precipitated a job offer working on Daniels’ Millennium Series of 50 watches. Smith fitted the collection with modified Omega movements, which have utilized the coaxial escapement since 1996.
As work from the now 79-year-old Daniels started tapering off a few years ago, Smith devoted more time to producing pieces bearing his own name. While Daniels’ influence is readily apparent in his timepieces (Smith’s Series 2 timepieces utilize Daniel’s escapement design), Smith also takes inspiration from many antique British watches. “Before it became utterly extinct 60 years ago, the British watch industry was made up of more than 30 distinct crafts,” Smith explains. “Each artisan performed his trade to the utmost of his ability, and the quality level was extremely high and distinctly different from the mass production techniques practiced in Switzerland.”
Smith has adopted many of the manufacturing techniques of his English predecessors, such as the use of gold-plated brass plates and engine-turned silver dials. Instead of the more common Swiss Geneva stripes, Smith applies a frosted, or matte, finish to the movement surfaces—a decoration used by 18th- and 19th-century English and French watchmakers, including Breguet. Smith’s silver dials, as well as those of Daniels, are reminiscent of Breguet’s, but, Smith points out, this style was prevalent on both sides of the Channel well before the French watchmaker made his mark.
By using metals such as gold-plated brass and engine-turned silver, Smith lends a vintage appearance to his watches, and, more significantly, he provides them with durability. “You can only repolish the nickel-silver finish used on most Swiss watches so many times,” explains Smith. “But someone with the right skill can add material to gold and silver finishes.”
Such longevity is an important attribute for Bill Taylor, an American collector waiting for delivery of a custom Roger Smith tourbillon with a large date. “The recent technical advancements in watchmaking are fantastic, but we don’t know how long these complex parts will be available for repairs,” he explains. “There is something wonderful in knowing your watchmaker and knowing he has made the piece to last a very long time.”