We Made It: Watchmaker Roger W. Smith

If there’s one thing the Swiss do better than chocolate and don’t-ask-don’t-tell banking, it’s watches. They’re world leaders and they know it. Visit Geneva today and you can’t turn a corner without coming face to moon-phase-indicating face with a work of haute horology. Brand names, like Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe, loom above Belle Epoque apartment buildings; there are watches with diamond-encrusted grins winking in every second window display and just leaving the airport requires you to run a gauntlet of glossy ads – posey shots of fathers with adoring eyes and flashy wrists, ostentatiously tousling the heads of their children. But it wasn’t always that way.

Back in 1800, Britain produced around half of the world’s watches and long before that British horologists were leading the field. It was John Harrison (1693-1776), a frock-coated Yorkshireman, who finally solved the problem of establishing longitude at sea by developing a marine chronograph accurate enough to allow calculations to be made – undeterred protracted voyages, saltwater, and churning, vertiginous seas. It was only in the 20th century that the Swiss got their second hands ahead. They were quicker to adopt mass production techniques. The English stuck to what they knew, making pocket watches by hand, and that was that.

Nowadays, if you’re looking for a quality timepiece, something that’ll ensure your handshakes raise eyebrows and start conversations, you look to the Alps. Unless you really know what you’re doing that is, in which case you bypass Geneva and head for the town of Ramsey on the Isle of Man – because there is one proper British watchmaker left, a softly-spoken Lancastrian who’s keeping the tradition alive and beating the Swiss at our old game.

Widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest horologists, Roger Smith doesn’t do things by halves – he does them by 32nds, having mastered the 32 techniques required to make a watch almost completely by hand, something very few watchmakers around the globe can claim.

“The wristwatch had always been a mass-produced item since its incarnation in the early 1900s,” Smith explains. “But what I was not seeing in the modern wristwatch was the craftsmanship and the attention to detail that used to be put into the fine old pocket watches of 100, 200 years ago in Britain. What I wanted to do was put some of those qualities into the wristwatch, focussing on making everything to the very highest standard.”

Smith calls his approach the Daniels Method, after his mentor the late George Daniels, whose series of handmade watches is one of the most important in modern watchmaking history. In the 1960s Daniels had ideas for improvements to the mechanical timekeeper, but by then Britain’s industry had all but vanished and he couldn’t source the parts that he needed. So he decided to make his own. “He started this very unique approach to watchmaking where one man learns everything – how to build a complete watch. It’s very unusual, very rare indeed.”

Had it not been for Daniels, Smith might never have been a watchmaker. He trained as a repairer at the Manchester School of Horology from the age of 16 and only moved in to making watches after meeting the great man. “He visited the college and for me that was a turning point,” Smith recalls, “one of those inspirational moments. This man only made one watch every year to 18 months. He didn’t just create ordinary watches he created beautiful works of art. It was an incredible thing to see.”

So incredible that Smith spent the best part of a decade working on two watches of his own. The second was pronounced by Daniels to be a success and Smith moved to the Isle of Man to become his apprentice. “He was a brilliant teacher: very calm, very patient. But he expected everything to be done perfectly. He was quite a task master. I always describe it as the finest finishing school ever.”

Smith set up his own studio, Roger W. Smith Watches, in 2001 and when Daniels died in 2011 he became the torchbearer for his technique. It takes around 11 months to make a Roger Smith watch, crafting the dial, the case and the hundreds of components that comprise the mechanism, using jewels, precious metals, steely patience and iron nerve. It’s this that explains the price. With his team of eight,  Smith produces just 10 watches a year, ranging from the “entry level” Series 1 (priced at around £100,000) to the complex Series 4 (at around £200,000), which Smith spent four years developing.

“I designed a travelling window around the outside of the dial which shows the date. That was very difficult. It took a long time to work out how to make it happen, and happen efficiently.” That sounds like a grumble, but for Smith it’s a big part of watchmaking’s appeal. “It's all about exploration, working something out and solving problems” he explains, “and we’re always looking for improvements.”

The studio also produces a small number of individually commissioned watches. “We do one bespoke piece every three or four years, designing a completely unique watch for somebody. One off. Never to be repeated.” Even here Smith keeps things classic, however. He doesn’t go in for over top contraptions – bullet-proof, bomb-proof and waterproof to 20,000 leagues, with more features than the cockpit of a light aircraft. “My watchmaking's not really about lots of complications. It's about the craftsmanship and the individuality of the pieces.”

Among the studio’s signatures flourishes is exquisite chequered engraving on the watch dial. “That's a pattern we create using a straight line engine and a rose engine,” he explains. “They're hand-operated pieces of equipment, about 200 years old. In industry today that would be a stamped out, mass produced item, but this is all hand done. Very time-consuming. Very much our signature.”

Classic and time-consuming seems to be what Smith’s “clients” are looking for. “Usually they're people who have bought the usual mass produced watches, very good watches, Rolex or Patek Philippe. They're looking for something more specialised as their knowledge of  watchmaking increases. They like learning about the process and my approach.”

Many are collectors looking for a piece of watchmaking history, but Smith’s reputation in the luxury world is also growing and he was recently awarded “Best British Luxury Craftsmanship” at the Walpole Awards in London – a ceremony that also honoured a London fashion outlet owned by Victoria Beckham.

It seems an odd fit. Smith is no fashionista and no brand-conscious marketeer. He’s humble, a little bit shy and charmingly, infectiously chipper. Everything is “great” and “good fun”. The company doesn’t even have a shop. If you’re interested in a watch you visit the workshop in Ramsey. So does it feel strange being part of a world of Burberry handbags, Bentleys and West London boutiques.

“It does a bit,” he concedes. “My focus is watchmaking. That's really all I'm interested in. It's wonderful to be recognised but I'm not interested in awards. My goal is the watches and trying to create something very different.”

That and training the next generation in the hope that Britain’s watchmaking industry will start ticking once again. He’s currently recruiting for two more watchmakers (“It's very difficult to find people but when you do find the right one it's great”) but he hopes that eventually his proteges will want to move on and set up their own businesses.

“I'm very keen to pass on the skills. We have a great history in Britain and it's very important to preserve that heritage for a time when we are making watches again. I think it'll come. You've got to keep reminding people what we are good at and that we should be there again.”

http://www.rwsmithwatches.com/

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