The Un­com­pro­mis­ing Maestro

Plaza Watch meets Roger Smith, one of the world’s finest watch­mak­ers, to dis­cuss tra­di­tion and moder­nity in high horol­ogy.

Plaza Watch International - - The Uncompromising Maestro - WO R D S JOSH SIMS

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 .

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