An Introduction to British Watchmaking
We explore the undisputed legacy of British watchmaking and its revival in the 21st century by stalwarts like George Daniels and Roger Smith
Long before Swiss watches gained the recognition for ultimate precision and pedigree in horology, the world’s finest clocks and watches were made in Britain. In fact, in the 17th and 18th centuries, English watchmakers like Thomas Tompion, John Harrsion and Thomas Mudge introduced some of the most revolutionary innovations, which have an undeniable influence on the industry even today.
The center for all things luxury, London in the early 20th century was an inspiration for many European entrepreneurs including Rolex’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, who set up a watch distribution company there in the early 1900s. In fact, he came up with the name ‘Rolex’ while riding on a horse-drawn omnibus in London city in 1908.
Right from John Harrison, who changed the history of maritime travel with the world’s first marine chronometer to Thomas Mudge, whose greatest innovation – the detached lever escapement – is still crucial to the making of mechanical watches around the world – English watchmakers from the 18th century left an indelible impression on the evolution of horology over the last two centuries.
Here’s a brief look at the undisputed legacy of British watchmaking and its revival in the 21st century by stalwarts like George Daniels and Roger Smith.
The Golden Age: 1600 to 1800
Although the earliest pocket watches were seen in the 1400s, it was Charles II – the ‘Merry Monarch’ from England – who actually made them fashionable in the mid 17th century. Paired with well-fitted waistcoats, these timepieces were made smaller and slimmer to fit inside pockets, encouraging the wealthy and influential gentry to adapt them as an everyday wardrobe essential.
Inextricably linked with exploration and navigation on the high seas, watchmaking witnessed a dramatic turn in the early 18th century with English clockmaker and carpenter John Harrison’s invention of the marine chronometer. In 1714, Harrison took up the challenge to find the perfect solution to calculate longitude at sea. He devoted 10 years of his life to develop the first marine chronometer in 1736. He then perfected this invention over the next two decades and received a parliamentary reward of £20,000 in 1764.
Largely shaped by the hunger for discovery and the industrial revolution, Britain produced more than half of the world’s watches in the 1800s. All the major inventions and innovation in horology in the 17th and 18th century were led by English scientists and watchmakers like Thomas Tompion, who made the world’s first spring-regulated watch and Thomas Mudge, who introduced the revolutionary detached lever escapement in the 1750s.
In fact, several inventions related to accuracy and timekeeping, which the Swiss have smartly mass micro-engineered today, were actually invented by the British. Had it not been for George Graham’s efforts with the deadbeat escapement in clocks or mechanical improvements in lever escapements by Mudge, watchmaking wouldn’t have been as progressive as we know it today.
By the end of the 19th century, Britain’s watchmaking capacity came to a stagnation, while the rest of Europe, primarily Switzerland, picked up momentum. By 1850, Switzerland was producing over 2,200,000 watches while the Brits were stuck at an annual production of 200,000 watches. Heavily dependent on skilled craftsmen, the English watchmaking industry couldn’t catch up with the Swiss, who were swift to adopt mass production techniques.
George Daniels: 20th Century’s Greatest Watchmaker
Slowed down by World War II, the British watchmaking industry got completely wiped out by the Japanese quartz watches in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that slight signs of revival started to show with the exceptional talent of one man – George Daniels. Daniels, who has been called “the greatest watchmaker of the 20th century”, mastered 30 individual skills required to create his exquisite watches. Starting with raw materials, Daniels spent around a year making one watch, limiting himself to creating less than 30 timepieces in his entire lifetime.
Inspired by Abraham Louis Breguet, Daniels was unperturbed by the Quartz Crisis in the 1970s. He believed in the magic of handmade, quality timepieces and continued making watches in the traditional English way – with frosted movement plates, engine-turned dials and jewels set in gold chatons – even during the glory days of the battery-powered Japanese watches. “I was the only maker of handmade individual watches working long hours to establish a London workshop and gain the attention of those collectors who could understand what I considered to be the importance of such a venture,” Daniels wrote in his 2000 autobiography All In Good Time.
In 1980, Daniels’ introduced the world to one of the greatest innovations of the century– the lubrication-free Co-Axial escapement, which was bought by Omega and is used in the majority of its watches since 1999.
Daniels received the Gold Medal from the British Horological Institute and he inspired generations of young watchmakers, including his only apprentice and fellow Isle of Man resident, Roger Smith.
Smitten by Daniels’ most famous pocket watch, the Space Traveller, Smith tied himself down to his work desk for 18 months to make a tourbillon pocket watch with spring detent escapement and twin barrels. Made entirely by hand, the timepiece didn't get him the desired appreciation and apprenticeship with Daniels. So he set out to make the now famous Pocket Watch Number Two. He spent another five years toiling away on this yellow gold perpetual calendar tourbillon pocket watch enriched with a moon-phase, leap year indicator and spring detent escapement. Ultimately, the Pocket Watch Number Two earned Smith an apprenticeship with Daniels and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2019, Sotheby’s sold the Space Traveller I £3.2 million, a record for an English watch at auction and in June this year, Smith’s Pocket Watch Number 2 hammered for $4.9M million, making it a world record for any auctioned timepiece by Roger Smith—and for any auctioned British timepiece.
Roger Smith And The Renaissance of English Watchmaking
If it wasn’t for Roger, George Daniel's legacy wouldn’t be what it is today. Based on the secluded Isle of Man, Smith’s body of work may be small in number but his quality and influence on modern watchmaking is unmatched. In his two-decade-long career, Smith has made just 100 watches but each of these pieces is a testament to his commitment to “the Daniels Method” of painstaking creation of every little component by hand. Given the rarity of these masterpieces and of course the romance around owning an extraordinarily finished timepiece, Roger Smith’s watches are wildly coveted these days.
In 2001, Smith set up his own workshop at the Isle of Man, creating watches with ornate engravings, intricate guilloche work and impeccable mechanical movements. At the heart of Smith’s watches is the co-axial escapement, which he further improved from George Daniels initial design using a single co-axial escape wheel versus a two-piece wheel, which simplified production and improved accuracy.
Today, Smith is not only one of the most respected and successful independent watchmakers of our time but also a torchbearer for young watchmakers in Britain. In 2020, he co-founded the Alliance of British Watch and Clockmakers to provide strategy and support for the resurgence in British watchmaking. “It’s the UK’s first official trade body for the sector and we have representation on UK Government sector panels; but it’s also more than that. For our 83 trade members (along with our 750 global club members), it’s an active community of like minded watch and clock brands who comprise by far the majority of the modern British sector,” says Alistair Audsley, who co-founded the Alliance of British Watch & Clock Makers with Roger Smith and Mike France. “Our main objective is to raise awareness of Britain as a watchmaking country and to help increase interest and market share for our members. Next year, on March 9th 2024, we will host our first major live show, ‘British Watchmakers’ Day’ which will showcase the work of our brands. Meanwhile, we’re also focused on developing careers and encouraging new talent into education and training in our sector to help drive its continued resurgence and, long term, to encourage more indigenous production,” he says.
In 2021, the trade body commissioned KPMG to analyze the current state of the British horological industry. According to the report, there are as many as 100 domestic companies in the sector, selling around one million timepieces a year with combined revenues of about £100 million. “Amongst the respondents there was a high proportion of relatively young businesses that had entered the market since 2010, indicating that the sector may be going through a period of significant development,” states the report.
Though not a member of the Alliance yet, Bremont inaugurated a 35,000 sq ft manufacturing and technology facility in Henley-on-Thames in 2021. This new manufacture would enable the brand to produce around 50,000 watches within the country. Besides Bremont, there are a handful of brands like Christopher Ward, Charles Frodsham, Fears, Garrick and Robert Loomes working their way through the resurgence of British watchmaking.
Rebecca Struthers, the award-winning designer, watchmaker and historian, is the first person in the history of Britain to have earned a Ph.D. in horology. Over the last 10 years, Rebecca and her husband Craig have been making customized timepieces inspired by traditional English horology and goldsmithing. The couple’s first in-house movement, Project 248, was the remake of an ancient English lever escapement based on a pocket watch from the late 19th century.
While there is no match for their creativity, English watch brands still struggle on the manufacturing front. Switzerland is one of the key supply-chain partners to British watchmakers. So is China for the lower price-band makers, as well as Japan for mid-priced brands.