Developing the British mechanical wristwatch of the 21st Century
Dr Roger W Smith OBE will deliver City’s annual George Daniels Lecture on November 27th in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre. His lecture is titled, The Development of the Mechanical Wristwatch.
George Daniels CBE, DSc, FBHI, FSA (19th August 1926 to 21st October 2011) created the co-axial escapement, one of the most significant developments in watchmaking for the last 250 years and which has since been licensed to Omega.
He studied horology at City’s predecessor, the Northampton Institute.
After his death, the George Daniels Educational Trust has administered the funds he bequeathed to provide undergraduate scholarships, bursaries and PhD studentships for City's engineering students.
Currently acclaimed as Britain’s most highly regarded watchmaker, Roger’s horological career began, aged 16, at the Manchester School of Horology. He passed out top of his class and was awarded the British Horological Institute’s Bronze Medal. During the course, Dr George Daniels (1926 - 2011), was a visiting speaker and inspired Roger’s ambition to make wristwatches by hand.
In 2015, Roger Smith announced the first range of authentic British watches for decades. The range comprises reimagined Series 1 and 2 watches, newly developed Series 3 and 4 watches and the Series 5 or Open Dial watch. All feature Roger’s latest evolution of his single-wheel co-axial escapement. In 2018, Roger was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for ‘outstanding services to watchmaking’.
Roger spoke to City News about his work and the place of British watchmaking in a global marketplace.
City News: How challenging or easy has it been to rekindle an interest in English watchmaking with stiff competition from Switzerland and Asia?
Roger W Smith: English watchmakers have contributed around 75% of all the inventions which make a modern mechanical wristwatch function, so consequently there is a latent interest in a resurgent and broader ‘British’ sector. There is also a particular aesthetic to British watches; they tend to be a little understated and, increasingly, I think we’re seeing a return of that spirit of practical invention. As such, and in particular at the premium end, there is a real place for British watchmakers in the global market. It’s actually a very exciting time.
CN: Are young people getting the necessary assistance and encouragement to go into watchmaking - is the craft in a healthy situation for the next two decades at least?
RWS: There are several parts to that question so, let me start from the latter part; As I said, I think we’re entering a very exciting period for British watchmaking and, when you talk about a 'craft being in a healthy situation', what we are referring to is a resurgent and rapidly maturing business sector. So the implication of this is that the encouragement for young people to enter our sector has to be vocationally led. It’s about jobs and careers at the end of the day and it’s a shared agenda for our businesses and the education sectors to work together to ensure the appropriate training and support for training is there. It’s time for us to stop thinking of British watchmakers as ‘hobbyists’ or simply 'continuing a tradition’ through the perspective of a rear view mirror. It’s time to think of British watchmaking as a viable career choice and future for talented people.
CN: You are quoted as saying that watchmaking is the purest of the mechanical arts. How do you think this assertion is being received in an increasingly digital world?
RWS: We’re at an interesting juncture where people are increasingly dismayed by a life of pure ‘function’ over enjoyment and celebration of our very human ability to create beauty as well as function. Ultimately, it is about understanding that human beings want to make an emotional connection with objects that break the mundanity of just function. It’s also interesting to see the resurgence and fascination with the ‘analog’ in other sectors. For instance, the music industry was nearly destroyed by digital delivery of music, but today its fastest growing market is vinyl. That’s no surprise to me. You can’t make a human connection with a digit.
CN: Earlier this year, you were awarded an honorary doctorate from Birmingham City University. Has this helped to give greater recognition to watchmaking in the UK?
RWS: I can’t tell you how much it meant to me personally and also for its recognition of British watchmaking. Looking out at all the talented young people I had the honour of addressing at the award ceremony, I really hope it helped to inspire them, and many others, to enter our incredible world of horology.
CN: What would you say are some of the distinctive features of modern British watchmaking?
RWS: What we’re consistently seeing in modern British watches is an understated and functional aesthetic without the brashness of over decoration. British watches are practical and sometimes combine with a dose of ‘wit’ in the design. I always say that the only tradition in British watchmaking is to innovate. Our history has been full of innovators and my own approach is to constantly strive for better performance and greater efficiency. I am very excited to anticipate where other British watchmakers will take our mechanical art. Dare I say it, in the past, Britain’s ability to innovate was rarely matched with entrepreneurial skill and that’s hopefully where the next phase of Britain’s watchmaking sector will have learned lessons, so that we can match our skill with strategy to assure a healthy future.
To attend the 2019 George Daniels Lecture, please register using this weblink.
For more information about Dr Roger W Smith OBE, please visit his website.