The Uncompromising Maestro
Plaza Watch meets Roger Smith, one of the world’s finest watchmakers, to discuss tradition and modernity in high horology.
It’s a tough question, being asked what it feels like to be acclaimed as possibly the best watchmaker in the world. Roger Smith shifts uncomfortably. “It’s not a label I really think about – I just get up each day and try to make watches you can’t find anywhere else,” he says. And he succeeds. Smith makes just some 12 watches a year – “and I’m certainly proud to be one of the smallest makers in the world,” he jokes.
“Companies tend to announce their annual increase in production as though it was a recognition of doing well, but if I made 20 watches a year I’d know something must have gone down in quality.”
But what is more incredible is that he makes almost every single part of each watch, having also mastered each of elite horology’s specialist decorative skills. Not a screw is imported, not a farmed in. It’s certainly impressive for someone who once worked part-time doing repairs for a British high street jeweller.
He did, he admits, have something of a useful education. Having been mightily unimpressed with school – “I could never see the point” – it was Smith’s father, an antiques collector, who suggested he look into watchmaking. He did so and, aiming high – very high – Smith decided he would make a pocket watch for the late George Daniels, the inventor of the co-axial escapement (which allows a movement to run without the usual lubrication) and often proclaimed the greatest watchmaker of the 20th century.
Some 18 months of midnight toil followed. Smith approached the god-like Daniels with his offering. The watchmaking supremo told him it was not a bad effort – or a few words to that effect.
Undaunted, as many might be, Smith chose to try again – and consequently, at age 19, found himself to be Daniel’s one and only apprentice, a Skywalker to Daniel’s Kenobi. Closeted as the training was, it meant that Smith was unpolluted by either the received wisdom of Swiss watchmaking’s approach to case or movement making. Every solution was an original one. It also meant that, in time, Smith would produce historic masterworks in his own right, including an improvement to Daniels’ escapement – in part by radically lightening it – and in his own style, characterised by a raised barrel bridge, jewels in gold chatons, with silver dials and gold hands.
“As I get older I realise that my level of interest in watchmaking then was unusual, but it’s always been normal to me,” says Smith, who is based on the Isle of Man, off the British northwestern coast. “As a boy I had this obsessive quest to make things perfect – my first model aircraft had glue everywhere, so I kept going until there was no glue visible. So I think I found the right outlet in watchmaking. I’d probably be too nervous to approach George for the first time now if he was still around, but then I wanted to prove – to myself and to him – that I could do it. At that age I didn’t know what else to do. I’d always been impressed by George… he was very charismatic and doing something nobody else in the world was doing.”
When Daniels died, he bequeathed all of his watchmaking tools to Smith: “And I can pick up those tools now and still think what great watches were made with them,” he explains. “They’re a reminder not to stray: like George I want to make watches that fit into the great watchmaking tradition. No, my watches won’t keep better time, and it’s true that a cog hand-made is probably no better than one stamped out by a machine, But not using anything other than very traditional techniques and materials means these watches will be around for hundreds of years. And I wouldn’t be happy with anything less.”
Smith, unsurprisingly, has recently been selected by the British government as one of the nation’s leading craftspeople, together producing a collection of works that will tour the world showcasing British talent. His Great Britain Watch has a one-off movement, and 34 parts that make up a subtle suggestion of the Union Jack flag, making it possibly the most complex dials ever made by hand.
“It’s an unusual way to show that Britain still has its innovators – after all, watchmaking doesn’t typically fit in with typical ideas of Britishness,” Smith concedes, “though I do like to think that our watchmaking tradition could be recognised again. Some now claim to be making ‘British’ watches, but the movement, the heart of the watches, is Swiss. Probably the reality for the British industry is that the core knowledge has gone – I went down an unusual road that gave me a very deep insight into watchmaking that you can’t get any other way.”
It is an expensive insight too. Smith’s prices start at six figures – it is a fair reflection, however, of their ingenuity and artistry. Smith says his pro- duction may rocket up to a heady 15 pieces a year, but only in perhaps five or 10 years’ time, and in large part thanks to the fact that he too is now training up an apprentice to perhaps hand his own tools onto one day.
Intriguingly, far from being simply moneyed and keen to spend it, most of Smith’s necessarily wealthy clients tend to have created their money through managing or starting some sort of manufacturing business. “And I don’t think that’s any coincidence,” says Smith. “There’s something in my story they understand and perhaps appreciate, an appeal, a counter to the otherwise frenetic world we live in, to seeing someone using their hands to produce things. Perhaps they appreciate the effort that went into my training. Perhaps they just know that modern watches are all massproduced of course – and feel, as I do, that that means they all have something missing”.
“As a boy I had this obsessive quest to make things perfect – my first model aircraft had glue everywhere, so I kept going until there was no glue visible. So I think I found the right outlet in watchmaking.”
H an d ma d e an d b espo ke, each R oger S mith watch is entire l y uni q ue .