Through a glass, darkly

Four-Minute Tourbillon
Roger W Smith, photographed in 2013
Roger W Smith, photographed in 2013

There’s a lack of transparency in watchmaking. This isn’t news – the history of clock and watch production is littered with companies that use (or have used) partners, third parties, suppliers and agents to design, build, manufacture, power, cover or finish their pieces. Just look at the world of pocketwatches, where the point (and indeed location) of sale was often far more important than the movement within. However, even two hundred years on, in a world in which no information is secure, few of these relationships are disclosed, and many remain relatively unknown, even to the horological cognoscenti.

Take Metelem S.A. for example. The Le Locle-based firm is a one of the oldest dialmakers, owner of a number of patents relating to the production of complex dials, and the outsourced partner of many of the higher eschalon of watchmakers in Switzerland and Germany. Everyone from Breitling to Breguet, Jaeger LeCoultre to Zenith, Audemars Piguet to A Lange & Sohne use (or have used) Metalem. Many of their clients also buy balance springs from Nivarox – FAR SA (founded c1933 and named for for “NI VARiable, NI OXydable”). Or crystals from Stettler Sapphire AG, a company that began manufacturing jewels in 1881. In short, almost everyone uses someone else, although few will discuss it openly.

Of course, there are exceptions. MB&F, a brand about which I have written recently, likes to stress the last letter of its name. The “F” stands for “friends“, and often allows young, upcoming or little-known watchmakers to make a name for themselves (David Candaux on the HM6, for example), as well as allowing established watchmakers and designers the freedom to express themselves (Kari Voutalainen and Eric Giroud spring to mind). Everyone from the copywriter to the photographer, casemaker to the movement finisher appears on the ‘site. It’s a very inclusive and open approach to the creative process, and one I wholeheartedly endorse.

At the other end of the spectrum are those that attempt to eschew all external contact, instead turning inward to focus on the production of an entirely individual (and often quite staggeringly beautiful) watch. Roger W Smith, the Watchmaker’s Apprentice, learnt many of his thirty-two trades from his mentor and teacher, Dr George Daniels. For Smith, whose production is severely limited by “the Daniels Method“, each of the dozen or so watches produced this year will bear his name, and will have been almost entirely produced in the Isle of Man by his small team of watchmakers.

This approach, and the heartfelt beliefs behind them, led Smith to pen an open letter on Hodinkee (it’s a shame there was no suitable English ‘blog available); as much a call to arms as a demolition of the marketing of modern British watches, it garnered much opinion and comment. Many agreed with him, pointing to recent scandals as evidence that the sky had already begun to fall. An accompanying video reminded viewers that Smith “didn’t want to knock anyone”, and that there was “no shame” in importing Swiss movements, or indeed having watches made outside of the United Kingdom for “economic reasons.” He proposed restraint, a certain respect for the designation, lest we damage, irrevocably, the good name of English watchmaking.

Interestingly, not all of Smith’s work is carried out on the Isle of Man. True to his word, Smith’s ‘site clearly labels each component of the Series 2 watches with their provenance: cases and dials are made and hand-engraved in London, while the main spring, balance spring, jewels, some screws, sapphire crystals and straps are brought in from specialist suppliers**.

It’s these economic reasons that I have recently been considering: any venture must be financially viable, although there are, of course, degrees. For the sole trader, it may mean merely turning over a decent amount, a year’s salary, perhaps, with appropriate pension planning. I’d probably sit Timefactors in this camp. Eddie Platts, a Sheffield-based one-man-band, has been selling his watches for over a decade, online, and with the minimum of fuss. Unlike modern Kickstarters, he refuses to take payment up front, relying instead on a stream of loyal followers, and a stable of shrewdly-chosen subjects. His watches have tended to be hom(m)ages to other people’s designs: from the historic Smiths W10 to the Precista and CWC naval divers of the eighties, his designs are well-priced, usually mechanical, cased in Germany (possibly manufactured by Fullswing in Hong Kong) and often contain Swiss movements. Bouyed, perhaps, by the success of others, he appears recently to have started using “Great Britain” on his dials, although, in the case of many of the pieces, there is nothing – bar the (re-)design – that is British.

Compare this to another one-man-band, Crispin Jones. Jones, of Mr Jones Watches, designs original watches from his Thameside studio, often drafting in other local designers / illustrators (such as Fanny Shorter) His watches are usually manufactured in China although some have London-printed dials. The watches are fun, low-cost, almost entirely quartz and often limited in numbers. They are also marked “Made in London” – perhaps reflecting the casing of certain models in Camberwell (see also Detroit-based Shinola).

In a Victor Kiam-esque moment, Christopher Ward so liked the movements they were importing from Switzerland, that they bought the company. Having worked closely with Synergies Horlogères for many years, the two merged in 2014 under Christopher Ward (London) Holdings Ltd. At a stroke, Christopher Ward went from underdog to overlord, leap-frogging Bremont, et al, in the race to be the first British manufacturer of mass-produced movements. I don’t believe Smith considered this outcome in the three descriptions of British watchmaking companies he set out in his open letter, and I must admit, I was rather surprised too. Having an in-house, or in-group, movement maker is something of a coup, even if many of the bases are still ETA / Sellita. Of course, the manufacture remains in Switzerland.

I’ll be writing about Struthers London shortly. The Struthers are taking old movements – often Omega and Universal Geneve, and putting them into their own handmade, highly decorated, solid silver cases. It’s an artisanal approach that seeks to breathe new life into old movements, and one that I find quite interesting.

I’ve written about Schofield and Pinion Watches recently, and would have both of these in the next “tier” of British watch companies. More aggressively priced, but also using (arguably) significantly higher quality components and materials, these watches are also maked “London”, “England” or “Made in England”. In the case of the Schofield Blacklamp Carbon, Giles Ellis has conveniently provided the following information to support his claim:

  • 100% – Watch assembly in England
  • 85% – Value content of Blacklamp attributed to England***
  • 100% – Watch Design in England
  • 98% – Value content of associated Blacklamp items attributed to England
  • 100% – Assembly of associated Blacklamp items in England

There are very few British watchmakers going to these lengths to be transparent about the source and value of thier materials. The earlier Signalman models, for example, still retain the Germany label as they “feel this to be the most sincere and appropriate description.”

The gulf between these watches (even the £9,950 Blacklamp Carbon) and the Series 2 of Roger Smith is, of course, huge. However, there are two more British companies that come closer to Roger’s prices: Robert Loomes & Co and Bremont Watch Company. I won’t rehash what I wrote over the summer about the latter’s perceived failure to correctly communicate the status of the BWC/01 movement that’s housed within their Wright Flyer (prices start at £17,950); suffice it to say, I am still, sadly, unaware which of the “many of its constituent parts” have been “crafted at Bremont’s workshops in Henley-on-Thames.” I am aware that Bremont (like Roger Smith) had at least one five-axis CNC machine on order, but, to date, have seen none of the outputs. Perhaps parts are being manufactured in Silverstone, a location that has been referenced in recent Bremont Job Descriptions, mentioned in presentations (e.g. the talk Giles gave to the BHI in October) and interviews.

Which brings me on to Loomes. I first met Robert in the very early days before the launch of the Robin watches. At that point, he was taking Chinese Seagull movements, stripping, cleaning, finishing and rebuilding them, then timing and casing them in Stamford. However, since then, he’s been taking old stock Cheltenham-made Smiths 12.15 movements from the fifties, applying similar techniques (including some significant decoration) and then casing them in Stamford-milled steel cases. The dials are also milled in Stamford, and they are, apparently, the “only firm in England to cut and polish [their]own sapphire crystals.” The Robin watches are approximately £7,800, rising to £17,800 for the Red Robin. Interestingly, their claims have also increased in line with their prices:

Robert Loomes & Co are the only entirely English watchmakers. Every single component is made in this country and the watches are hand-built to order in Stamford. Each Robert Loomes watch is the product of hundreds of hours of machining, polishing, finishing and assembly.

If true, and again, it’s difficult to substantiate this claim, Robert Loomes & Co may have gone further than any other British watchmaker in this list; there’s also the merest hint that this is a geographical claim (applying, as it does, to England, rather than the UK (including the Isle of Man)). It’s also just about compatible with the Smith statement, as the Smiths movements used by Loomes were designed over sixty years ago.

Open letters are useful, but so are consistent definitions, technology, innovation, history. We have the principals, as well as the supporting cast; we might pull together a quite staggering production if we only had a director. But, as with so many walks of life, there really is no incentive to work together. Roger was right to pull out economic reasons as the driving force behind using Swiss movements, but it’s also the driving force behind just about every other decision that’s made. The success of the last horological revival, for example, the high-grade movements so lauded by Loomes and others, was a product of the economic environment of the thirties, rather than a romantic return to British watchmaking.

Dr James Nye has written a quite remarkable history of Smiths Industries (now Smiths Group), the last British manufacture, that eventually diversified into everything from autopilots to airport body scanners. The success of the English, Welsh and indeed Scottish clock and watchmaking factories was largely due to their ability to be repurposed in times of war, rather than the inherent quality of their products. Yes, the 27.CS is a cool thing. Yes, of course the Cal.0104 19 and 25 jewel Imperial movements developed at the high-grade workshops in Cheltenham are worth looking at again. But they are old movements, hardly suitable for the watches we wear today. What we need is to be able to draw on the past, but look to other industries, whether it be medical (for their use of innovative materials, often on a small scale), sporting (Formula 1 is often mentioned) or technological (silicon, LIGA, 3D printing). The future of British watchmaking, on a large scale, cannot just be about the hand-polishing of staggeringly beautiful movements.

I started this piece talking about transparency, but, as you can see, I’ve struggled to describe even the current state of British watchmaking, let alone add anything useful to the discussion. The one thing I have learned over the past few years, is that I don’t have the answers – I’m not even sure that I have the right questions.

the #watchnerd

** It is not entirely clear what proportion of these items is sourced from outside of London / Isle of Man, although one assumes that they are all from within GB: the Series 2 is “the only production wrist watch currently being made within Great Britain. In fact, it is the first wrist watch to have been designed and made entirely within Great Britain for over 50 years.” Until August 2013, the following text was used to describe the Series 2: “of the two hundred or more components which go into the creation of a Series 2 watch, only a handful of these are not made in his Isle of Man Studio.”

*** If we could persuade BlackBadger  (sculptor of the internal Moonglow ring) to move to Sussex, I’m sure this number would be even higher

the #watchnerd
The #watchnerd: the most interesting watch 'blog you've never read. Probably.

3 Comments

  1. Glad to see you talk about Roger W Smith, who is a personal hero of mine (along with Dr George Daniels).

    Do you think it’s possible to itemize parts by the location they were created in or is it fair to the end consumer to be broad with country of manufacture?

    I understand from a marketing point of view, a watch labelled “made in Britain” or “Swiss made” etc. – does make the watch more appealing, however surely this is prevaricated on historic quality and not on current production? Also, how would this be policed or authenticated?

    1. Thanks for the comment James.

      Some people have tried – I think I mentioned Roger and Giles Ellis from Schofield in the ‘blog piece. Roger is quite clear on his ‘site what is / isn’t made in the Isle of Man – for example, the main spring, balance spring, jewels, some screws, sapphire crystals and straps are brought in from specialist suppliers. I’d like to see more transparency within the industry generally, but I think I may be waiting a long time for that.

      How did you find the ‘site, if you don’t mind me asking?

  2. Thank you for your reply. I agree that there needs to be more openness, even from some of the larger niche mass market brands, however I question how is best to achieve this and how to educate the customer on the value of knowing this information. Providence matters more than just the signature on the caseback.

    I found you through Google! :)

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