By R. Jay Nudds
Last November I had the pleasure of attending a seminar hosted by Roger W. Smith in which the eminent successor to the late George Daniels put forward his thoughts, and, crucially to this discussion, feelings on the state of watchmaking in England.
It is indisputable that the English have a storied reputation in the field of horological advancement, but quite how influential many of England’s greatest exports were, would surprise the man on the street who might think the Swiss not only wrote the book on watchmaking, but also locked it away in a Zurich safe, hidden from all eyes but their own.
No, this island, so often shunned by the industry, lacks nothing in the way of ingenuity; it is only infrastructure that lets it down. The quartz explosion of the seventies instigated a recentralisation of watchmaking. The tendrils of the industry that had reached out and touched all corners of the Western world retreated to their Swiss roots, taking with them much of the heritage of American and English brands. The ‘lucky’ ones were consumed by Swiss conglomerates; the less fortunate ceased production, their legacies consigned to the ranks of history.
For a long time the future of mechanical watchmaking was in serious doubt. Few could have predicted the resurgence of the industry spearheaded as it was by the indefatigably creative and bold mind of the late Nicolas G. Hayek. Over the past thirty years the industry has prospered, heralding a new dawn of possibility. Tough as it is for start-up brands to compete with long-established maisons, there is at least enough interest and passion in new and diverse products to sustain those who hit the market with adequate preparation, a unique selling point and a bucket-load of luck.
That it is possible for a nascent brand to enjoy success was not the message Smith intended to deliver. Smith’s seminar championed the ‘Daniels Method’ – the ability of one man to master each of the 34 individual trades needed to make a watch from start to finish. Daniels was one of a handful of men capable of such a practise, and most definitely the only Englishman in possession of the requisite knowledge. It is Smith’s belief – a belief I believe to be correct, however depressing the acceptance of the fact may be – that the future success of English watchmaking lies not in an almost certainly futile attempt to match the Swiss in terms of production quantity, rather to out-punch our Helvetian allies in the field of quality.
And it is a specific kind of quality on which Smith believes the English should focus. There is so much knowledge, wisdom and experience in the horological hotbed of Switzerland, not to mention a fervent desire to keep these attributes ‘in-house’ that trying to compete in terms of modernism and material diversification would probably end in failure. Smith supports pure watchmaking. He is very much of an old school that the Swiss manufacturers seem more and more likely to neglect in favour of new techniques, radical escapement solutions and gimmicky complications that might tempt their high-rolling aficionados to add to their collections.
Smith wants English watchmakers to actually make watches. It is that simple. He freely admits the logistical nightmare that would accompany any attempt to grow the industry in such a painstaking fashion, and grudgingly concedes that help from our Swiss counterparts might be necessary, if only the offer of assistance were forthcoming.
At the end of his impassioned talk, Smith gamely fielded questions from the audience. One particularly persistent inquisitor wanted to find out Smith’s thoughts on the dial, case and hands, as his seminar had paid those components little in the way of lip service. Although acknowledging that they were indeed essential components, his disdain for those who focus on the superficial over the heart of the watch shone through. Some people, in light of the elegant beauty of Smith’s more superficial components, might think this a smokescreen, but the Isle of Man-based ingénue was adamant – watchmakers should concern themselves with the movement above all else. In his mind, beauty is more than skin deep.
But this opinion highlights a significant problem for English start-up brands. Given that the cost of tooling and the acquisition of necessary know-how to make a watch using the Daniels Method is beyond the reach of most anyone with a bank balance below seven digits or a similarly flush backer, the creation of a timepiece worthy of England’s heritage, according to Smith’s criteria, is nigh on impossible.
I do not disagree with Roger Smith. At the very top watchmaking should be all about the movement and its complications. However, I believe there to be a great deal of merit in the superficial aspects of watch construction. A recognisable case silhouette is almost enough alone to secure the longevity of a brand. A creative re-working of the visible components of a watch, with due diligence applied to perfecting that which is within the means of smaller brands with less financial clout than their storied competitors is a laudable and worthwhile pursuit.
It would be wonderful to have the ability to enter the market at the highest echelon, but it is, for most aspiring watchmakers and designers, a step too far too soon. As Smith made clear, the English must operate within a niche market; they must serve a client base that is interested in their wares, whatever the focus. Getting a foot in the door is important, and should be achieved any way possible.
It is unlikely that anyone regards a Swatch original as the greatest watch ever made, but the success of the company, based entirely on an ingenious re-imagining of a time-honoured instrument saved the industry for all of us, Smith and Daniels included. There is a place for resourcefulness in the lower strata of watchmaking, and we should not discourage small English brands from setting off with nothing but a cleverly wrought case and an eye-catching dial. Such brands cater for those with an interest in watches who may not be able to afford one of Smith’s ten-a-year timepieces. They may not be buying a handmade masterpiece, but an entry-level brand, offering an imaginatively executed product enables them to buy into the industry. If the immediate future of English watchmaking is in the hands of the designer then there is reason for optimism. Now is the time for the next generation of Smiths and Daniels, of Mudges and Harrisons to show the world what they have to offer, on whatever rung their resources might force them to start.
Only time will tell if Smith’s admirable vision of English watchmaking materialises, but until then anyone making enough noise to be heard above the storm of Swiss superiority should be leant an ear and given a helping hand.