So is the mountain open again?” the jovial hotel receptionist enquires. It’s not a phrase I ever expected to hear outside of a film. “Was it closed?” I respond incredulously, answering a question with a question.
I had just driven timorously over the aforementioned mountain after dark in fog thick enough to chew on, with cat’s eyes the only clue to the road’s edge and with no idea where the appropriate lights were on my hire car. “Aye, because of the fog,” replies the receptionist. “You’d have to be crazy to drive over it when it’s like that.” The perfect punchline.
If it all sounds like a scene from Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero then I’ve succeeded in describing it. Of course the Isle of Man is a little more accustomed to visitors than the fictional Ferness, but the fish out of water scenario holds true. Who knew the island had mountains that could be closed should the conditions call for it?
Past the mountain in question sits Ramsey, a town in the north of the island. Roger W Smith has been an islander for more than 20 years now. He first came here to seek approval from exalted watchmaker George Daniels for a pocket watch he had spent 18 months making at the tender age of 19, only to swiftly be sent packing. Five-and-a-half-years later he returned with a second attempt that convinced Daniels to take on the only apprentice he ever worked with.
Smith and Daniels worked together on the Millennium series of wristwatches before Smith set up on his own. Daniels would once again call on his protégé to complete his Anniversary series of 35 watches shortly before he died in 2011. Standing in his newly built workshops, Smith tells me that the final Anniversary watches will soon be dispatched.
The work of both men has always been a measured affair. Things tend to be ready when they are ready and no sooner. In an uncharacteristic flurry of activity in 2015, Smith revealed a series of what would become five new watches at SalonQP. Four made it beyond the final prototype stage this year, while the Series 4 (as seen on one of our four special-edition covers) should enter production in 2019.
This £750,000 expansion into converted outbuildings on the same plot of land as the family home is Smith stepping up production. He now employs eight other watchmakers with a view to entering full production of his five watches and eventually designing four or five more. Now, instead of producing 10 watches a year, he is aiming for 13, perhaps even 14.
The workshop consists of a machine room, a dial and case-polishing room, fume cupboard, cleaning room and assembly room, as well as an office and visitor’s suite where clients often collect their watch in person. There is also a room that houses George Daniels’ workbench, tools and drawings. Members of the team will occasionally pop in to pick up a machine and take it into the workshop, making it a very functional museum.
I point to a pencil sketch hanging on the wall above the benches of a familiar-looking movement. Smith confirms it is Daniels’ own illustration of the Breguet No. 160 Grand Complication, better known as the Marie-Antoinette watch. Daniels, in keeping with his approach to watchmaking, illustrated his own books and visited the LA Mayer Institute of Islamic Art in Jerusalem to make sketches of the watch. Smith reveals that his mentor was one of the last people to view the watch before it was famously stolen in 1983, a fact that lead to Daniels being interviewed by Interpol at the time.
Perhaps the most immediate surprise of the visit is the amount of work conducted on CNC machines. A single operator is responsible for the fiddly, time-consuming job of using one machine to create a handful of components before changing jigs, recalibrating the machine and replenishing the raw material for an equally small run of different components.
“We’ve always used CNC machines,” explains Smith. “I’ve never shied away from showing that. If you want to make more than one watch a year you need to use CNC, there’s no question. Making pocket watches by hand is one thing but the reduced tolerances required for wristwatches is something else entirely. You make a change to one component and it affects five others. I’ve done it before but I don’t want to make watches that way.”
For Smith, the most important virtue of CNC manufacturing is “repeatable accuracy” and he estimates that 80 per cent of workshop hours are devoted to finishing components that have been “roughed out” using the CNC.
Smith, like Daniels before him and Breguet before that, seeks continual improvement in precision, exploring action and reaction with an engineer’s mindset. The CNC machine is an obvious caveat, but Breguet would have almost certainly jumped at the chance of using new technology, although Daniels’ own, personal exploration into lost horology techniques may have demanded a different response.
Smith attended a horology course near Manchester after leaving school, prompted by his father. Always practical, he describes the first day of college as “the best bit of education I’d ever had. Being able to use the tools, equipment and machinery was brilliant.”
Smith met Daniels in his second year, when the esteemed horologist gave a talk at the school. Daniels, with his famed Space Traveller watch safely tucked in a pocket, made a huge impression on the young student.
“I had no idea who he was, all I knew is that he was someone who made watches by hand. I didn’t even believe that was possible – all the watches around us were industrial. Seeing that watch just blew me away.”
After a brief spell repairing watches at TAG Heuer, Smith set about making his own pocket watches while still carrying out repairs. During this period he would uncover the design sensibilities that guide him to this day. He came to realise that wristwatches had always been mass-produced and that industrialisation meant they were no longer being made to the same standard as earlier, handmade pocket watches.
“It all goes back to that idea of early English pocket watches. Today you can go to an auction house, buy a 300- or 400-year-old watch and with minimal work it will keep as good time as it would have when it was first built. That’s just because of the design ethos behind it and that’s what I’ve introduced into my work, which is very much focused on longevity.”
A brace of ancient cast-iron Swiss Rose engine machines in one room prompts a discussion on brands using CNC machines to replicate such guilloché work. Smith admits the results can be flawless and has no issue when it is dealt with transparently but is less impressed by “brands producing thousands of watches a year claiming their dials are hand-turned”.
“It forced us to up our game,” says Smith, who utilises the talents of an adept member of the team to get the best results as the complex rhythm of the process (turning wheels and flipping levers) doesn’t come naturally to him.
The machines themselves belonged to Daniels, who salvaged them from a derelict factory in Clerkenwell, and drove them over Tower Bridge in an old Rover. Smith has no idea how they managed the task, though; when the cast-iron machines were recently moved, four people could barely get them off the ground.
The sense of self-improvement is palpable at Smith’s workshop, but mainly through his own candid admissions. Returns for repairs and servicing are rare enough occurrences that Smith doesn’t have a member of staff dedicated to the task. Most repairs, he admits, are down to him – “design issues” that he has now rectified.
“Every single watch that does come back I always look forward to seeing, finding out what went wrong, what can be improved, and that’s what the work is all about really, those continual improvements. We’re seeing extraordinary results now from the Co-Axial escapement.”
Smith has continued to develop the Co-Axial escapement, which Omega industrialised with Daniels’ help in the Nineties. His Series 2 watch was the first to be designed around the escapement. Omega retro-fitted its movements with Co-Axial escapements until the development of Calibre 8500 in 2007.
Smith began tinkering with the Series 2 movement, dropping the size of the escape wheel from 6mm to 4.5mm, something which “changed the watch completely”, allowing him to reduce the tension of the mainspring and subsequently increase recommended service intervals for the second generation.
He seems optimistic about the future of the fledgling British watch industry now that he is not so isolated and despite previously clashing swords with Bremont, he namechecks the brand for its case-making operation.
“In Switzerland I know the independents all use case-makers and dial-makers, which is natural. Had there been a watch industry in Britain we’d have probably done the same. It’s created this very unusual approach. Charles Frodsham & Co is now doing the same thing because of the nature of the UK,” he says.
“It’ll take time. We can buy the same machines as Switzerland but what we’re lacking in Britain is the skills. But we can train people, we can bring people in. Christopher Ward is an interesting one, because it’s based in the UK but has things made in Switzerland, which is logical. But it’s the start of something.”
Smith has come a long way from the days when he posted images of his watches on PuristSPro forums and received his first orders. Today, waiting lists for his pieces run into years and the watches have starting prices in excess of £100,000. One thing that hasn’t changed is where demand comes from, with customers based in the UK, US and Asia. He describes his clients as either self-made or people who’ve taken on family businesses. But he’s never had the capacity to seek new business in new territories.
“People have tempted me over the years with lots of money to build lots of watches, but I’d be terrified. I know how to make 10 watches well, so I’ll keep to small numbers, I think.”
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