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Deep Dive: Here’s How the UK Influenced Watchmaking History

And the new brands that are carrying on the legacy.

A team of workers cleaning the clock face of Big BenAbseiling workmen on the clockface of St Stephen's Tower, Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London, Britain Tolga Akmen/Shutterstock

If the 1982 Academy Awards ceremony is remembered for anything, it is for Colin Welland’s acceptance speech. Welland had written the screenplay for Chariots of Fire, the era-defining film of floppy haircuts and slow-motion running, in time to the electronic soundtrack of Vangelis. As his name was announced, the tubby Liverpool-born actor and writer rose to his feet and hoicked up his trousers, fastened his dinner jacket and mounted the stage. His words of thanks, delivered in an ee-by-gum Lancastrian accent, were restrained, correct and understated—until the end, when he gave what he called a “word of warning,” and then quoted Paul Revere’s famous line, “The British are coming.”

As it happens, his words proved prophetic. Using the bridgehead established by Welland and his lean-muscled athletes, British talent has poured across the Atlantic: Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, Kenneth Branagh, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Steve McQueen, Keira Knightley, Danny Boyle, among others.

The line has stuck in my mind ever since, and then this summer I had a Colin Welland moment.

In July, Sotheby’s sold a watch for £3.6 million, or about $4.5 million. Not quite enough to break into the top 10 list of auction sales but strong money nonetheless: the sort of sum you might expect an esoteric Rolex Daytona or an exceptional Patek 2499 to command. Maybe the price was assisted by a bit of helpful Hollywood provenance, or perhaps it had once been worn by one of the great robber barons of Gilded Age America.

The Space Traveller I Daniels made in 1982 to commemorate the 1969 American moon landing

The Space Traveller I Daniels made in 1982 to commemorate the 1969 American moon landing.  Getty

However, it was none of the above. Instead of coming from one of the celebrated Swiss maisons, it was made in a workshop on the grounds of a house on the Isle of Man, a small island between Ireland and England best known for its benevolent tax regime and its murderous motorcycle race. A watch made in what amounts to a garden shed forcing its way into the front row of haute horlogerie is a story worthy of the Welland treatment, who said that his writing tended to “champion the individual against the system.”

I have a feeling that Welland and George Daniels, the man in the “shed,” would have got on famously. Before his death in 2011, Daniels was the ultimate Bentley-driving, tweed-jacketed British individualist. The watch he made that sold for this vast sum dated from 1982 and was named the Space Traveller I. Although expertly accurate, it looked more stagecoach than space age: a large pocket watch displaying moon phase, sidereal time, equation of time, mean solar time, etc. It was, said Daniels, “the kind of watch you would need on your package tour to Mars.”

This watch is important on all sorts of levels. It is a cracking piece of craftsmanship; it is unique; it was made by the man many regard as the finest watchmaker of the last century; and it was exquisitely constructed at a time when the mechanical wristwatch, let alone a pocket watch with abstruse astronomical functions, seemed to be an anachronism. Even James Bond had moved with the times: During the 1970s and early ’80s, Her Majesty’s most famous secret agent was sporting fine quartz timepieces from Japan with liquid-crystal displays.

Watchmaker George Daniels at work in 1995

Watchmaker George Daniels at work in 1995.  Michael Armstrong/Shutterstock

But Daniels thrived on being an individual. Beginning working life repairing and restoring watches, he emerged as the leading Breguet scholar of his generation, doing much to preserve interest in the great French watchmaker. In his own work he rewound watchmaking 200 years to the time of the total watchmaker, when one man made the whole watch: movement, dial, case and all. (To be precise, Daniels mastered 32 of the 34 required skills, farming out the springs and the glass.) As such, he rejected two centuries of accepted wisdom of the inevitability of industrialization and a drift toward series production: watchmaking being segmented into a series of discrete tasks with precision manufacturing methods that permit the interchangeability of components.

At the time, it might have seemed Canute-like, but Daniels lived long enough to see himself lauded by the industry and elevated to the pantheon of horological greatness, where he joined his forebears from the British Isles, which had once led the world in mechanical timekeeping.

Indeed, the man who established Britain as a pioneer in the field was, like Daniels, a strong character. Richard of Wallingford became abbot of St. Albans in the 1320s and used abbey funds to construct a giant timepiece that unified the functions of astronomical instruments and the newly invented mechanical clock. As well as the hour of the day, it showed the positions of heavenly bodies in real time, predicted when lunar eclipses would take place and showed the time of high and low tide.

The drawings and tools used by Daniels in his workshop on the Isle of Man

The drawings and tools used by Daniels in his workshop on the Isle of Man.  Alamy

His brother clerics complained to each other about the cost of what some appear to have seen as a vanity project when the church was in need of repair. Even King Edward III questioned the expense when he came to the monastery. But Richard had a ready answer for the royal rebuke. As a chronicler of his abbacy recounts, Richard “replied, with due respect, that enough abbots would succeed him who would find workmen for the fabric of the monastery, but that there would be no successor, after his death, who could finish the work that had been begun.” As it happens, it was finally finished decades after his death and remained a source of wonder until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

In the great age of the great minds who gathered around the court of King Charles II, Robert Hooke would have been the most famous natural philosopher of his age had Isaac Newton never been born. As it was, the irascible Hooke seems to have spent much of his life defending his reputation. He believed himself to have come up with the concept of gravity before Newton and the watch balance spring before the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens. During the 1660s he had presented watches to the newly founded Royal Society (of which he was curator of experiments and Huygens a fellow) and spoken of the use of springs. However, it appears that he did not have a working prototype by 1675, when Huygens unveiled his clock.

Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith  Frederic Aranda

Whoever first devised the balance spring, it was an invention that would improve the accuracy of the portable timepiece from around plus or minus an hour a day to a mere four or five minutes. Still used on modern mechanical watches, the balance spring was an immense leap forward, akin to the jump from the first mainframe computers to the smartphone. By the end of the century, the balance spring was so widely used and accepted that watchmaker Daniel Quare, another Brit, added the hitherto unnecessary refinement of minute markers to a watch.

The next great advance in precision timekeeping was John Harrison’s marine chronometer, the story of which Dava Sobel tells so well in her book Longitude, pitting the individualist autodidact Harrison against the scientific elite in his use of ultra-accurate timepieces to assist navigation, ensuring the British navy’s imperial domination of the seas. And during the 19th century, Big Ben, as the Great Clock in the Houses of Parliament is commonly known, became the horological symbol of the world’s mightiest empire, a monumental industrial and technical feat, its strikework accurate to one second every hour.

Roger Smith Series IV watch

Roger Smith Series 4 watch  Ian Pilbeam

Of course it would be patriotic to the point of idiocy to ignore the great horological advances being made in France and Switzerland. But by the early 20th century, Britain remained enough of a center of the horological world for a young German named Hans Wilsdorf to establish his fledgling “wristlet” watch company in London; while traveling on a London omnibus, he came up with the name Rolex. Across the Atlantic, the famously acquisitive, pineapple-nosed Napoleon of Wall Street, J. P. Morgan, favored complicated timepieces by the English maker Frodsham. When he commissioned three identical Rolls-Royces built during 1911 and 1912, each featured a Frodsham clock (and electric cigar lighters), and new partners at his bank could expect to be presented with a handsome Frodsham open-faced tourbillon with minute repeater and split-second chronograph.

But by the early 1970s, when George Daniels was making his first watches, British watchmaking had more or less disappeared, with even the great Smiths, maker of watches and instruments for car dash panels, ceasing domestic production by 1979. But the end of large-scale mechanical watchmaking did not mean that British horology was dead—it had just gone highbrow. For instance, it was at about this time that Anthony Randall, a real watchmaker’s watchmaker, emerged as one of the leading horological scholars. A physicist as well as a watchmaker, he is known for researching the constant-force escapement and cataloging the important marine chronometers at the British Museum.

M12E40 Roger Smith watch photographed on a background

Roger Smith M12E40 watch  Alamy

Like Randall, Daniels was more than a master craftsman and a maker of a handful of exquisite timepieces; he was an inventor capable of reimagining the fundamentals of horology with his coaxial escapement, which in true British-maverick fashion was viewed skeptically by the industry until the visionary Nicolas Hayek of the Swatch Group decided to back it. Today it finds itself at the figurative and horological heart of the newly resurgent Omega brand.

By the beginning of the current century, Daniels had become a revered figure and his “shed” on the Isle of Man a place of pilgrimage, visited by those who wished to genuflect at the altar of world-class British watchmaking. Daniels’s work was influential well beyond the UK, inspiring a new generation of watchmakers for whom Daniels represented an alternative to the increasingly corporate industry. Notable among his disciples was F. P. Journe, eponym of the highly regarded Geneva-based niche brand now partly owned by Chanel. In 2010, the year before Daniels’s death, Journe presided at a London dinner honoring the grand old man of British watchmaking.

Daniels had also acquired a British acolyte: the talented young watchmaker Roger W. Smith, who in 1998 had gone to live on the Isle of Man to work with Daniels on the Millennium series. Although nowhere nearly as complicated as Daniels’s solo masterpieces, this series is arguably more significant, first because the notoriously demanding Daniels had found someone with whom he felt he could collaborate and, second, because rather than a collector’s item or museum piece, it was a wristwatch made in series. It has since gone on to become a trophy for discriminating collectors: One sold last September at Sotheby’s for £200,000, or about $250,000.

 The customizable Kingsley MKII

The customizable Kingsley MKII  Jonny Wilson

Two decades later, Roger Smith OBE is a maker of exquisite watches with an evolved aesthetic that owes a debt to Daniels, and he is also a superb ambassador for the horological renaissance taking place on the British Isles. I have the honor of serving with him on the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, where his scholarly and good-humored observations are always listened to with respect and interest.

Whereas Daniels was an anchorite-like prophet preaching in what at the time must have seemed like a horological desert, the 49-year-old Smith is the high priest of British high watchmaking, a cult that is gaining new adherents every day.

Daniels and Smith wristwatches have now been joined by a wristwatch from Charles Frodsham, the British marque so esteemed by J. P. Morgan more than a century ago. Founded by its eponym in 1834, Frodsham was one of the few British makers not to go out of business. Now owned by Richard Stenning and Philip Whyte, it has entered the connoisseur’s wristwatch market with the Double Impulse Chronometer, a typically British timepiece as restrained on its exterior as it is adventurous in its mechanism. It succeeds in miniaturizing the legendary double-wheel escapement invented by Daniels until it fits inside a wristwatch. The benefit of the escapement is that it functions without oil and thus without the deleterious effects on chronometric performance over time as lubricants degrade. No more than a dozen of these watches are made each year, and the rest of the time the Frodsham workshop concentrates on restoration work, carriage clocks and the construction of replicas of Harrison’s historic longitude timekeepers.

The Carter pocket watch from Struthers

The Carter pocket watch from Struthers.  Jonny Wilson

Restoration was also the route that took husband and wife Craig and Rebecca Struthers to signing watches of their own manufacture. “It was not some grand plan to be an independent watchmaker,” explains Rebecca. “We decided to set up a boutique restoration studio, and a lot of our work is on things that have been taken to watchmakers and deemed impossible.”

It was only when the Strutherses spotted a design competition, entered a design for a watch and won that they found themselves making a watch. “We had to make it in 10 weeks.” With what they learned from this exercise, they embarked on a collaboration with sports-car brand Morgan to make timepieces inspired by the World War I era and built around re-commissioned Omega calibers. Subsequently, they extended this approach to a made-to-order program focused on core designs, along the same lines as Breguet’s subscription system. “Everything we do is made to order. That started out as a necessity, as we could not afford to finance our work. It also keeps it interesting and fresh, as when you are handmaking something you get bored of doing the same thing.”

As their business has flourished, they have begun work on their own proprietary movement. “The only thing we have outsourced is jewels, hairspring and mainspring,” Rebecca says. “We are reverse-engineering a movement from our favorite period in watchmaking, the 1890s, and have used as our base the first fully machine-made movement made in the UK with an English lever escapement by Coventry maker Thomas Hill.”

Rebecca Struthers making watch dials on a 19th-century jeweler’s fly press

Rebecca Struthers making watch dials on a 19th-century jeweler’s fly press.  Andy Pilsbury

The beauty of the resurgence in British watchmaking is that it appears to have staying power.

Bremont is the great success story of 21st-century British watchmaking, having released its first watch in 2007 and now running a facility that employs 150 people in the picturesque Thames Valley. Founded by Nick and Giles English, Bremont is a pioneer at the industrial rather than rarefied end of the market. Whereas a highly specialized workshop may build a dozen or so watches in a year, Bremont makes 12,000 pieces, with capacity for many more. It was known for novelty watches such as those including bits of famous ships, vehicles and aircraft (the Wright Flyer and the Concorde among them), but these days such watches are in the minority, and the brand has opened it own stores in London, Hong Kong, Melbourne and New York.

And although Bremont was the victim of a misunderstanding five years ago when it over-enthusiastically announced an “in-house” movement when less ambitious language would have been appropriate—the movement was in fact the result of a collaboration with La Joux-Perret, a specialist supplier to many brands—it remains determined to bring out its own caliber, which it’s developing in the UK and for which it has hired movement designer and former watchmaking teacher Stephen McDonnell, luring him from Switzerland.

Bremont H-4 Hercules Limited Edition

Bremont H-4 Hercules Limited Edition  Courtesy of Bremont

“We are all passionate about bringing watchmaking back here. Otherwise we would not be building this factory and making this movement,” says Nick English. “If in 20 years Giles and I can look back and say that Bremont played a part in the re-introduction of watchmaking, I feel we will have achieved something.” Of their ultimate plans to make 40,000 movements a year, he says that operations on such a scale “will not have been seen since the days of Smiths,” which closed almost half a century ago. Who knows? Maybe Bremont will be able to sell its British-made movements to other brands, perhaps one day even a Swiss brand.

One British company is already working with some of the best-known brands in the very heart of Switzerland. In 2003 George Bamford, scion of the JCB construction-vehicle dynasty, made his first black watch by using a DLC coating to transform a Rolex GMT-Master. He soon moved on to other brands, and these blackened watches became a trend with which the Bamford Watch Department achieved global fame. These early aftermarket interventions have since become sought-after by collectors of contemporary and modern sports watches.

Indeed, such was the success of these that Bamford attracted the attention of the watch companies, most of which took a dim view of what they saw as “pimping” their timepieces. One powerful industry leader, however, had a different attitude. Far-sighted maverick Jean-Claude Biver, who had scored notable successes with his relaunch of Blancpain and turnaround of Hublot, believed he could work with Bamford to bring his personalization expertise to official customers of TAG Heuer and Zenith, which Biver had taken over. But there was a gentleman’s agreement: Bamford would no longer undertake unofficial aftermarket customization. He leapt at the chance and two years ago also took the opportunity to produce watches under his own brand name; the distinctively styled Bamford GMT launched in 2018.

Bremont’s headquarters in Henley-on-Thames

Bremont’s headquarters in Henley-on-Thames.  Courtesy of Bremont

But it was the endorsement by Biver that really put Bamford on the official horological map. “We first met in 2015. He came to the office and said we should work together,” Bamford recalls. “It blew me sideways—the godfather of the Swiss watch industry had come to my office. It was an unbelievable moment. A year later we announced that BWD would be the official personalization partner for Zenith and then TAG Heuer. At the Basel fair of 2018, we presented our first limited edition together, a carbon Monaco in edition of 500, which sold out well before the end of the fair.”

In the words of Colin Welland, the British are coming.

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