English watches that remain 'Man - made': Interviewing Roger Smith and George Daniels.

Aug 31, 2010,06:26 AM

English watches that remain 'Man - made': Interviewing Roger Smith and George Daniels.

[George Daniels and Roger Smith at work in Daniel's workshop]

At the time of the tea salons of London being the hive of business and academic endeavour, the area around Fleet Street in London resembled the watch industry that is Switzerland today. Components for watches were manufactured in separate workshops (plates, pinions, cogs, and hands) then assembled by a watchmaker. The names of Tompion, Graham, Mudge, were both held in scientific and artistic acclaim.

England produced watches that were the envy of the world. Time made you master of distance and space, and England was master of the seas that separated her from her dominions. At the same time, as new discoveries were made across the oceans, the academic minds of the day wrestled with the value of objects. Adam Smith reasoned the problem as the diamond/water paradox: why was it that water (essential for life) was almost free, but diamonds, of no use to life and survival, were so expensive. Adam Smith reasoned that the intrinsic value of a good was directly related to the amount of labour required to produce it. The watchmakers could produce better, less expensive watches because of the ability to break down the individual component parts of manufacture. The use of machines (composed of past labour) would cheapen the product still further.

In his essayed debates with Adam Smith, David Hume reasoned that the belief rather than reason governed human action. It was your belief that something does exist, would happen, can occur that makes it so; otherwise, humans are merely a mass of sensations. For Smith, reason governed; human action in self interest would lead in aggregate to the betterment of all. The problem is that self-interest leads to everyone wanting more for less; without the belief part of what is possible, there would be no reason to act out of self-interest, even if that self-interest would (at first sight) be detrimental to your best outcome.

After the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution, the English watch industry lost out to the American and then the Swiss, the mechanical watch industry lost out to the quartz; the mechanical watch industry in England reverted back to hand made pieces with minimal machine input; that were hand-made and the product of a sole watchmaker. George Daniels stood out as the one of the few watchmakers showing the world that you could survive as a sole manufacturer of mechanical watches. From his small workshop, first in London, then on the Isle of Man, he believed he could restore the mechanical watch with an ability to outlast and outperform what appeared as a superior timekeeper. Acting in self interest, he nonetheless had to believe it was possible as he was moving the wrong way to the market. He was right, he bet the right way. How could a mechanical watch become more reliable, in need of less maintenance, and yet be just as (or more) accurate?

[The escapement that Daniels built: the co-axial that was fitted to the Millenium watch]

“I had to do it; I had to make sure that the development I had laboured for, for so long, was not consigned to the footnote of history. I sold it at a loss; the development of the co-axial had cost me more than I made on it.” George Daniels, despite his 84 years is still as lucid and forthright as he had ever been. He may look a little withered and aged than the once burly and eccentric character, but the hands (that could wield hammers of different sizes), interest, and intellect were still there. George is a fighter; his idea of convalescing after one illness was to rebuild his 1957 Bentley Continental ‘fastback’ that still sits in the garage. Being shown around where he lived the conversation naturally turned to watches, and to the watch’s escapement. We were talking about the development, the first new development to the escapement in about two hundred years, and the battle scars that George carried in his fight to get it accepted were still there.

I asked him if since selling the co-axial to Omega if there had been any feedback on the movements, how often they had needed maintenance, or had needed replacing. He had no idea. On some of the pocket watch movements, where the co-axial had been fitted, the fourth wheel had some small metallic deposits building up (visible through a high powered microscope), but no one, not George or Roger, could fathom out why.

[In discussion: Roger and George discussing the new movement design]

“We are all that are left for English watch making, Roger and I; no one makes watches as we do anymore; designing the watch from scratch, developing new movements, and hand making and hand (English) finishing it from start to finish.” The quartz decimation of the Swiss watch industry did have one positive effect, as watch firms were going under, George toured Switzerland buying up the old machines and lathes and he was able to re-equip his work shop. Ironically perhaps, but the machines George and Roger use are Swiss made to make English watches.

George moved to the Isle of Man in the late 1970’s when the situation in terms of taxation and livelihood meant that he could no longer remain viable as a business in London. He moved to a large house with grounds, outbuildings that were turned into garages for his car collection, and in the garden, a small pre-fabricated building was built as his workshop. George still works in his workshop for a few hours a day and is still active. When visiting him, I found him working on a remontoire escapement for a pocket watch. As with all the English watches, each component is made by hand, and experimented with, some parts remain in place; some are consigned to the ‘graveyard’.

[George at work on another pocket watch: a remontoir]

[The 'graveyard' of parts - where parts that do not make it, for whatever reason, go to remain hidden]

It was within the workshop that a number of the later pocket watches were made, and the Daniel’s Millennium watch was produced. By default, it was where Roger served out his ‘apprenticeship’ with George as he helped with (and eventually took charge of production of) the Millennium watch. Walking around the workshop with Roger and George, Roger stopped to show me the hand-turning machines for the guilloche pattern on the dials.

[Roger demonstrating how to hand turn dials]

[The hand turned dial parts for a Series 2. Each part has been shaped and made by hand, and the pattern on the dial applied by hand]

Hand turning dials is a ridiculously time consuming way of manufacturing them, but the depth and breadth of the patterning, the quality from the watch maker in turning that dial, has no equal. Roger sat down at one of the machines to show me how the hand turning is accomplished. He had the look of a past victim coming face to face with his torturer once again. A pattern is accomplished by fixing the metal object to be patterned on the disk. Each one of the patterned dials to the left (of the seated Roger) when used in combination with the oscillating mechanism and the hand turning of the metal disk will produce a pattern. For something that looks simple, such as the squared pattern on the main part of the dial for the Series 2, requires that you do one set of lines (across the squares) going one way, switch the disk around, and then work the pattern at a 90 degree angle from where it was. There are so many possibilities for it to go wrong. One small mistake and you can start the whole dial pattern again. The other obvious fact here is that you can only pattern one dial at a time. The machine might help with the pattern regularity, but the dial is hand-made. It requires concentration, precision, and hand crafted skill to produce the dial. A wry smile from Roger: “George used to get so cross with me as I was learning to hand turn the dials. I made so many mistakes to begin with.” Roger has now the Master’s hand, as the dials of the Series 2 attest.

[George's 'alter-ego' 1920's race car driver is still there; he still drives and maintains his collection of vintage race cars]

George’s house is part museum to watch and clock making, part museum to the past glories of English motor racing history. Memories and memorabilia of a life in watch making, and as his alter-ego Tim Birkin, cover almost every surface. From models of the ‘blower’ Bentleys and the 1928 Le Mans victory dinner, to the Space traveller’s watch that lie around the house where George lives. The Space travellers watch is particularly apt; it is the watch that bound George and Roger across time and space. It is hard to imagine where George would be now without Roger, and vice versa. It was the Space travellers watch that George brought with him that day he gave a talk at Roger’s school; that Roger looked at in near disbelief that one person could assemble such a watch from scratch; and that set Roger on the path to become a watch maker in his own right. Without Roger, George could not accomplish some of his later watches (including the Millennium series); without George, Roger would not have had the (small and isolated) finishing school to attend and there would have been a lesser chance for the continuation of English watch making.

[George was recently honoured by FP Journe with the presentation of a specially engraved Souverain. George wears both watches.]

For Roger and George, the essence of the English watch is that it is made to last not just for the owner’s lifetime, but for the generations to come. The watch should be aesthetic, easy to read, pleasing to the eye. But what is more important is that the essence and philosophy of the watch remain true throughout. That each part is finished to the same exacting standards, so that even if the movement needs maintenance, the work required would be minimal and simply return the watch to its original condition. George confessed as an engineer that he was very much of the same mind as Sir Henry Royce; that “(t)he quality will remain when the price is forgotten” and "(s)trive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it doesn't exist, design it." Put succinctly it is the creation of watches that will last, that are not part of the throw away society; it is the striving for perfection in the watch at any cost.

[Daniel's Space Traveller watch; the watch that set Roger on this watchmaking path when George Daniel's gave a presentation at Roger's school]

With the Co-axial Anniversary watch coming up, Roger splits his time between his own workshop (just a few miles down the road) and George’s. They are finalizing plans for the Anniversary watch and in the coming months, production will start. This will entail making every component from scratch, by hand. The Anniversary watch will be a first for George, and a continuance of Roger’s own philosophy in terms of the watch. The same properties that George brought to his watches, and Roger has brought to the Series 2 production watch, will be wrought into the Anniversary watch. The watch is something that is robust, but exquisite in finish; individual in terms of production, but also in terms of being worn and used. It is anything but machine made in design, content, and finish; it contains the complete value of the individual watchmakers’ skill

[Already iconic - the Roger Smith Series 2. It is a production watch with all design and build characteristics of the Daniel's pocket watches]

For those around in London in November, Roger will be at the Salon QP held in a de-consecrated church designed at the eve of the age of reason, where experimentation and commercialism held forth. It is worth going along to say hello, look at the watches, and simply chat with Roger (who is very personable). You will learn a great deal about watches in general, and about English watch making in particular.

[The growing range of Roger Smith watches: a flying tourbillon grand date; bespoke engraving for the movement or dial on the Series 2]

Although confined to a small corner of the world, (the Isle of Man) English watchmaking is both distinctive and unique and its future is in good hands.

Andrew H

This message has been edited by SJX on 2010-08-31 07:11:42 This message has been edited by MTF on 2010-09-03 03:46:46

More posts: Ballon BleuFlying TourbillonGeorge DanielsGrahamRoger Smith

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 By: optionc : August 31st, 2010-07:15
I had the pleasure of meeting Roger Smith a couple of years ago in Singapore. His passion and knowledge was so apparent to me that it really sparked my interest in learning more about independent watchmakers. Sadly, I was (and sometimes continue to be) to... 

Many thanks for the kind words - a Series 2 is worth the

 By: 219 : September 2nd, 2010-07:10
wait for the reason that it is created for you. Talk to Roger, if there are changes, or differences you want incorporated, he will certainly hear you out. Even though I do not have pictures of it, there is also a Series 2 with no dial. Looks fantastic. Go... 

Bravo! Fantastic article Andrew.

 By: SJX : August 31st, 2010-07:17
A great insight into Daniels and Smith with great photography. Not enough shots with the fish eye lens though, hard to tell it's an AndrewH work without them. ;-) - SJX

Thanks SJX - tried to fit more

 By: 219 : September 2nd, 2010-07:12
photos with the fisheye in the article - but alas, it did not work. Andrew H

Thanks Alex - yes, they are dream watches in every sense. Was something

 By: 219 : September 2nd, 2010-07:17
of a dream just being there.... Andrew H

What a fantastic report...

 By: aaronm : August 31st, 2010-07:34
Thanks for taking the time to put all of this down on "paper" for us! A

Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing. [nt]

 By: VMM : August 31st, 2010-07:36
No message body

Wonderful article, fantastic photography

 By: Ophiuchus : August 31st, 2010-08:58
I deeply envy you 219, I would give a limb to meet these gentlemen and speak with them. I may someday meet Rodger, but Mr. Daniels I fear I will not. Like F.P. Journe and so many other unnamed folk, myself in the unnamed category, we poured over and learn... 

Thank you for your kind words - I am sure George and Roger

 By: 219 : September 2nd, 2010-07:46
will be interested to know the regard with which their watchmaking is held across the world. Thank you for leaving a note. Trust me when I say that I felt fortunate and lucky to be invited to talk to both Roger and George. It was a fantastic weekend on th... 

Workshop is too neat....?

 By: MTF : August 31st, 2010-11:35
Thanks Andrew for the interviews. Brings a tear to my eye with the best of British pride. But, Master Daniels's workshop looks too neat. As I recall, it was messier in years gone by! MTF

Probably Roger's influence. That said, there were parts of the

 By: 219 : September 2nd, 2010-07:48
work bench that were a lot more 'busy' than the one I photographed. Some gems for the watchmaking world that I will not mention here. Andrew H

Thank you

 By: davidcast77 : August 31st, 2010-11:49
A fantastic post. George Daniels and Roger Smith are two of my favorite watchmakers. Definitely a post to bookmark.

Thanks Andrew...

 By: DonCorson : August 31st, 2010-11:54
an Ode to the work of two Englishmen. Great pictures too. George Daniels with his books has been an inspiration for many, myself included. Roger had the luck to be the one who got to work the closest with him. Now he is honouring his tradition. Bravo! Don

Great post Andrew! [nt]

 By: felipe : August 31st, 2010-13:00
No message body

Thanks Felipe - great to see you here. I think you were

 By: 219 : September 2nd, 2010-07:52
at the FPJ dinner in London? Douglas said he was on the list but could not go. So, with one of the very first Series 2, when are you adding a Daniels to your collection? Andrew H

The stuff that dreams are made of

 By: ChristianDK : August 31st, 2010-14:55
In its purest form...... This is one of the nicest posts I have read in the 6 years I Have frequented this forum. Thank you! I will return and read it again many times and enjoy your wonderful photographs and touching report of the greatest watchmaker ali... 

Thanks Christian - appreciate the kind words. Truly a pleasure to

 By: 219 : September 2nd, 2010-08:09
meet both gentlemen. Thanks for leaving a note. Andrew H

Excellent article. Thank you. [nt]

 By: polarbear1990 : August 31st, 2010-15:33
No message body

Thanks. nt.

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-08:56

Superb effort, Andrew...

 By: BDLJ : August 31st, 2010-20:32
The writing, the photography, the whole plot....fantastic work.

The complements are much appreciated. Mostly my work

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-08:58
was a reflection of Roger's and George's. Unique watches and unique individuals. Andrew H

I have a little request here.

 By: cen@jkt : August 31st, 2010-21:42
Could kindly any of you stop bothering Mr. Smith so he can start working on my watch? Why I couldn't see as what you saw when I traveled there? Nice pictures and superbly written report..... so I must forgive you for bothering Mr. Smith . cen@jkt

Believe me when I say that Mr Smith is hard at work on

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-09:00
your watch, and everyone else's for that matter. Even Mr Smith is allowed the odd day off, and he used that day to help show me around the Isle and chat with George. It will all be worth it when you have that Roger Smith strapped to your wrist! Thanks for... 

reading your article made me dream

 By: user : August 31st, 2010-21:52
that I was there with George Daniels and Roger Smith and we talked about the co-axial escapement and watches from past and future of both. it was a great dream.

A dream like place... it was a wonderful time sitting around

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-09:02
chatting with Roger and George. Hopefully that was conveyed in the article. Glad you enjoyed the read Andrew H

nice Interview, Andrew. (nt)

 By: Ronald Held : September 1st, 2010-04:57

Fantastic Article!!! Thank you - Questions about Journe.....

 By: asg : September 1st, 2010-12:40
This was a great read and pictures to match! One of the best posts on the purists in some time! So, its just irking me........ Journe and this George Daniels Mentor thing...... Can someone confirm yes or no to the following? 1. Did Journe ever study with ... 

I think the answers to the quesions 1 through 4 is no! Question

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-09:12
5 I dont know. I think that George was something of a mentor in the french translation. George showed that you could go alone, be independent, and survive as a watchmaker. As we go through life there are role models for each and everyone of us. Some are d... 

This post is absolute PPro Anthology

 By: Ares501 - Mr Green : September 1st, 2010-15:49
as well as lesson in philosophy, watchmaking and human tenacity toped with leitmotif of importance to be true to yourself no matter what I enjoyed reading it tremendously Salute Mr. Daniels & Smith Thank you from all my heart Andrew Damian

Pleasure Damian - glad you enjoyed reading the article as much

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-09:03
as I enjoyed writing it. Andrew H

Great article...

 By: RobCH : September 2nd, 2010-06:27
...great photos... ...Great watchmakers! Thanks, 219 ! Met Roger Smith at Basel this year, and what a humble gentleman he is. Have read many articles and books by George Daniels, would love to meet him too one day!

Great post, Andrew!

 By: dxboon : September 2nd, 2010-07:20
I loved reading it! I have a lot of admiration for both men, and feel RWS' watches are very much to my taste. It is always a pleasure to see people taking pride in upholding the positive traditions of their homeland, in this case "English" type watches. B... 

Thanks Daos - yes some English pride in the watches that Roger and George

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-09:06
produce and have produced. If it was not for them, this quintessential English style might be consigned to the horological history books. Thanks for reading Andrew H

Thanks Douglas - good to see you here. Thought any more about

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-09:07
the watch in question?? Cheers Andrew H

Yeah - it gets like that when there is that annoying thought

 By: 219 : September 5th, 2010-13:49
in the back of your mind. Good luck Andrew H

Thank you for your lovely report...............

 By: Topcat30093 : September 2nd, 2010-16:46
It was nice to read about two of Britains finest watchmakers.

George Daniels showed that the mechanical watch could

 By: 219 : September 3rd, 2010-09:08
survive, that the single watchmaker could exist as a manufacturer by themselves, and I think Journe must have taken inspiration from that. Andrew H

A wonderful post, thank you Andrew

 By: grumio : September 3rd, 2010-21:56
I always enjoy seeing inside the workshops like this - a chance to peek behind the curtain. Interesting to see what look like red and white Omega material packages in the one of the workbench photos. The photograph above the tin of discarded parts. Perhap... 

Good eyes - yes they are Omega tags and probably left over

 By: 219 : September 5th, 2010-13:53
from the Millenium series. Thanks for reading Andrew H

What are they wearing?

 By: ChristianDK : September 4th, 2010-04:36
Hi Andrew In the 9th picture where you see Daniels and Smith, it looks like Daniels is wearing two watches on the same wrist??? I tried to zoom inbut the resoultion made it not possible to see? Is it just an illusion and what is he wearing? Smith seems to... 

Well the Daniels watches are the Journe and the, well,

 By: 219 : September 5th, 2010-13:55
the Daniels Millenium in the pictures. Roger's everyday watch is not one of his own, but from a watch company set up in London last century. I think that is about as much as I can say! Thanks for reading Andrew H


 By: ChristianDK : September 6th, 2010-07:09
Thanks Andrew for your reply Amusing how Daniels wears both on one wrist - but he is THE MAN and can get away with it in style Also interesting that that the other "mr handmade" ;-) wears a watch that has become a completely industrialised product as his ... 

I know a few independent watch makers and I cannot

 By: 219 : September 7th, 2010-00:44
think of one who does not highly rank the watch with the crown! And some even own one or two - including GD! Andrew H

What an incredible experience!

 By: boa2 : September 6th, 2010-06:50
Thank you so much for the beautiful post. The opportunity to spend time with these two, especially in the workshop itself, is as good as it gets in this wonderful hobby. Thank you for bringing us with you!

It was an incredible experience - and a very

 By: 219 : September 7th, 2010-00:46
enjoyable one. Hopefully that came out in the description. Thanks for reading. Andrew H

excellent article

 By: picaro63 : September 11th, 2010-20:03
It is very rewarding to learn of men who are still artisans and working to produce devices like these. It gives me hope that all is not lost.

Many thanks - you should try and get to see the watches for

 By: 219 : September 12th, 2010-09:30
yourself - they are wonderous things to behold. Andrew H

never been a big fan..until now

 By: Hororgasm : September 12th, 2010-11:33
thks fr sharing...and your references to Adam Smith is just excellent!!

Many thanks - I am an economist by trade, and Adam Smith

 By: 219 : September 13th, 2010-02:43
was required bedtime reading for all of us! Became fascinated with the arguments and Hume's theories for the state of human action. With the philosophy and manufacture of Smith and Daniel's watches being from the same era, it seemed appropriate to couch t...