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British watchmaking: a tale of tradition and innovation

By guest blogger ROGER SMITH OBE


GREAT Ambassador and master watchmaker Roger Smith OBE’s passion for the British horological tradition remains timeless. In his guest post, Roger tells the story of his journey into the art and craft of watchmaking – a journey across the UK, which he hopes will inspire the next generation of watchmakers and spread the word of British horological innovation all around the world.


Watchmaker Roger Smith wearing watchmakers glasses surrounded by equipment.
A life-long passion for timepieces...Roger Smith OBE

Journeying into the world of watchmaking

As a younger boy, I never thrived at school, but I always had a fascination with everything mechanical. After I’d taken apart our old family clock (and, thankfully, put it back together again…), my father suggested I focus my enthusiasm at the Manchester School of Horology (now the British School of Watchmaking). As soon as I began the course, I was hooked. However, the day my life really changed was when George Daniels visited the school and showed us his Space Traveller pocket-watch.


Dr. George Daniels CBE (1926-2011) is regarded as the greatest watchmaker of the last 250 years. As I gazed, utterly captivated by the Space Traveller, two things became clear to me: first, the true meaning of genius; and second, my own destiny. You see, as a pocket watch, the Space Traveller was a beautiful example of mechanical art. But what made it so utterly incredible was the fact that George had made every single component by hand.


That was when my vocation became my obsession.


I spent seven long years in my home workshop, trying to master the thirty-two separate skills required to hand-build a watch. These years included the setback of my first attempt being roundly dismissed by George, until, finally, I presented my second watch at his Isle of Man studio. It was then that I finally received his acceptance – as a true watchmaker.

Roger Smith and George Daniels sat looking at watches and drawings of watches.
Roger Smith with his mentor Dr. George Daniels

The British watchmaking tradition

I’ve always described my subsequent years working with George as the finest finishing school I could have experienced. He was utterly uncompromising and exemplified what makes British watchmaking special.


When we talk about hand-crafted watches, it’s easy to think about something a bit quaint, probably a bit dusty and fossilised in tradition. But that misses the point entirely.


Why? Well, while it is true that the British watchmaking tradition reaches back to the 18th and 19th centuries, that tradition is in fact all about innovation. Relentless, unadulterated innovation. If it doesn’t work brilliantly, discard it. If it does work brilliantly, improve on it.


Many people are amazed to learn that three quarters of the inventions which make a modern mechanical wristwatch tick are actually British, and come from a period of astonishing innovation dating back twotothree hundred years.


In fairness, we lost our way somewhat in the 1850s when, to protect our British craftspeople, we decided that the European notion of mass-engineering watches would never catch on. A century later, and Britain’s watchmaking sector had been totally eclipsed by the brilliance of the Swiss.


But the spirit of innovation remained, and when George Daniels invented the ‘co-axial escapement’ during the 1970s, he also ensured that mechanical watches would have a viable future – at a time when the world seemed dazzled by battery-powered Quartz. A mechanical watch could now go toe-to-toe with its battery-powered counterparts in terms of performance, while enshrining it as the ultimately sustainable wind-and-go technology. (The problem, as we all know with batteries, is that they have a predictable destiny… disposal).


Combining harmony and function


There’s another important British tradition, which is our approach to design; as watchmakers, we Brits design to find harmony with function. In other words, let’s not let design get in the way of actually being able to tell the time.


It was in trying to preserve that elemental goal that led me to invent a new watch function. For years, I’d been asked about adding a calendar function to my watches, and I’d always resisted. What’s always stumped us watchmakers is the travelling date-hand, since this sits over key date information for several days at a time, thus compromising the dial’s legibility. That might sound pernickety, but for someone whose life is devoted to looking at time in extreme close-up, it was a deal-breaker for me; and given that I only make 12 watches a year, I also make no apologies for being a purist!

A watch with a leather strap
The Series 4 watch

One day, about eight years ago, I had a seemingly obvious idea. What if the date numbers were on permanent display and it was the aperture which orbited them, instead? I announced the design with a prototype in 2015 and have since embarked on a five-year journey to make this idea truly come to life in my new Series 4 watch.


As a watchmaker working predominantly by hand, you learn from every single piece, and it was a happy coincidence that my first Series 4 is also the 100th watch I have made. It’s been a chance to reflect on my work so far and to reset my ambitions for the future.


A watch for GREAT Britain

Above all, I have been so very lucky to be able to create my watches, and no watch means more to me than the GREAT Britain watch. When I was invited to be one of the first Ambassadors for the campaign in 2013, I was also painfully aware that I represented a British sector which, to all intents and purposes, was forgotten. What GREAT does so brilliantly is shine a light on Britain’s unique stories, and I realised this was a wonderful opportunity to create the watch to show just what we can achieve in British watchmaking. The GREAT Britain is fitted with the first of my single wheel co-axial escapements, which takes George’s original design to a new level of performance and efficiency. I’m proud that this watch also represents a horological milestone.

The inner mechanics of a watch
The GREAT Britain watch

A new generation of watchmakers

Right now, there’s an exciting resurgence in British watchmaking, and that’s inspiring my future ambitions. With help and advice from the GREAT campaign, I recently co-founded our sector’s first trade body, the Alliance of British Watch and Clock Makers, together with Mike France of Christopher Ward, our leading export brand, and my fellow GREAT Ambassador, Alistair Audsley.


Our aims are as simple as they are challenging; to grow our international market and to encourage a renaissance in indigenous British watch production. We need more talent to enter our world. There’s never been a better time for young people of all backgrounds to come into British watchmaking, and we have some great educational establishments to provide talented newcomers with the best start. As I write, the British School of Watchmaking has just moved into a brand new and expanded facility in Manchester – bringing my own horological story full circle.


These are indeed exciting times…

All views expressed in this blog are the views of the guest blogger and do not represent the views of the GREAT campaign.