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Making faces

Technical drawings (C) Michlmayr

There’s a smiley that’s been bothering me (:-S). It’s meant to signify worry, or perhaps, mild concern, and it’s popping up all over the place. Increasingly, I see it typed as a codicil to Tweets, Posts or other social media comments about English watchmaking, and appears to denote a mistrust of, or even disbelief in, the preceding statement, which often refers to claims from watchmakers about the English-ness of their wares. This distrust is not new – there have been many such similar responses to the Swiss watchmaking industry over the past decade (and increasingly in the past few years as online watch-related fora and ‘blogs have proliferated). However, it sometimes feels more like a knee-jerk reaction, rather than a considered response. I was therefore especially intrigued when I was first lent a watch by newcomers, and very “English” watchmakers,  Meridian for long-term test and then invited to visit them in Norfolk.

On an unassuming light-industrial estate on the outskirts of Norwich sits the headquarters, showroom and workshops of the Meridian Watch Company. The purpose-built facility was actually assembled around a huge, ten-ton safe (purchased from eBay, no less) that sits squarely in the centre of Meridian’s small office. Meridian employs about a dozen employees in the UK, many of whom multi-task, working on watch and clock repairs for co-founder Simon Michlmayr’s other business. Fans of external / public clocks may already be aware of Simon’s work, both in Norwich and elsewhere; Simon himself is a WOSTEP-trained BHI-member and second generation clock and watchmaker. Meridian’s other co-founder is Richard Baldwin, CEO of Arcadia, with links to Bunter and Fleurier. Richard is a keen collector, who has been dedicated to the industry for almost twenty years; he’s a fantastic foil to Simon’s technical brain – a Waldorf to his Statler, or is that Statler to his Waldorf?

A sample of prototype Meridian watches

The visit began with a trip through the history of Meridian – three prototype watches that were designed over the previous few years since Simon and Richard first had the idea to produce a watch. It’s clear that a few things have remained constant during the planning and prototyping – Meridian watches are not for the faint of wrist; at at least 46.5mm, each of the prototypes has a mass, a weightiness, that is not unimpressive. Working with diving buddies, the pair created a couple of watches with locking bezel mechanisms (neither of which was entirely successful from a cold-water diving point of view), as well as a pilot-style model in which the beginnings of the modern Primes can be seen. The lockable dive bezels were particularly interesting; it’s always fascinating to see how manufactures / designers approach dive bezels. With Meridian, as you can see from the photos opposite, the focus was on a sprung device to stop the bezel from turning accidentally. While divers found these hard to use even when not wearing neoprene, there are further plans afoot to create a different style of bezel that is more easily operable.

The Meridian watch box in white oak

The Meridian workshops are working repair centres, specialising in the repair of both watches and clocks. The building has therefore been subdivided into various areas: a repair workshop; a clock-making area; cleaning rooms; and the watchmaking area itself. Each is dotted with equipment – both new and old – ranging in size from a rather nice brass spotting machine to a cherry picker. I must admit to getting a little (over?)excited at the sight of so many cool bits of kit – vintage lathes, a topping tool, a sonic cleaner from the seventies – Simon has just about every tool for every job. And this goes some way to explaining the approach that Meridian has taken to watchmaking: they really do make a large proportion of their watches in-house. In fact, they probably make too much. Richard was explaining that they had recently been looking at a watch box to accompany the wallet in which each Meridian Prime arrives. But they were unimpressed with the hinges that were commercially available. So they made some themselves. The results are impressive – possibly the loveliest hinges I’ve seen – and this relentless attention to detail (or rather, attention to producing exactly what they want, and refusing to compromise) is something that appears to underpin the Meridian watchmaking philosophy. 

A prototype 100 Hour version of the Meridian Prime

Rather than buy in complete Swiss-made movements, Meridian have used a source of new old stock ETA ebauches from the past fifty years. This allows them to literally build their own movements, from the bottom up, customising some components, decorating others: frosting, bevelling, polishing, plating and assembling. Ken Kessler, in his piece for QP Magazine, has recently written that Meridian use the “raw Unitas 6497/8 in component form.” When I first read that article, I had assumed that they were “modifying” movements, in much the same way as many others – perhaps adding a moulded rotor, or speccing the ETA at source. But what I saw was a revelation. Richard has described the process to me a number of times over the past months, but for some reason it hadn’t really sunk in (perhaps there was also an element of (:-S) in me as well?). Meridian really do “make” watches, hand-blueing the screws, sending the bridges off to be hand-engraved and even crafting the cases and casebacks from a single piece of steel (which have to be labelled throughout the process to ensure that the matched pair are able to be successfully reunited).

It’s wonderful to see a company like Meridian having a go at such things. The Unitas movement that drives the Prime is but one of many fires that are currently in the fire: while I was there, I saw a hand-cut differential being assembled for the forthcoming 100-hour Power Reserve model (results show an average of 103-108 hours), as well as an automatic movement on a test bed. There’s a glass caseback in the works (see above) and plans for a variety of dial designs, layouts and even a truly in-house movement. It’s wonderfully ambitious – a property that Meridian appear to have in spades. But how about the watch itself? I’ll get to that in the next part of the story.

the #watchnerd

Published inbritish watchmaking

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