On Thursday, 6th November, Hodinkee.com published an open letter from Roger to his peers and collectors in which he explained concerns for the future of British watchmaking. It has indeed proven controversial; both the letter, a video interview with Roger as well as comments from collectors and makers from around the world can be viewed here (http://www.hodinkee.com/blog/
Over the last few years I have observed a renewed interest in British watchmaking with varying degrees of encouragement and dismay.
For the last twenty-five years, I have absorbed myself in designing and making complete and original pieces of horology in keeping with our great history of British watchmaking. As apprentice to the last great British watchmaker, Dr George Daniels, I had the honour of witnessing such history at first hand.
My reputation and methods are entirely founded on being a British watchmaker in the truest sense of the claim; by making watches in their entirety in our studio including, most importantly, the movements.
Today I am encouraged that much is happening with investment and job creation in watchmaking, as well as renewed interest in our rich horological heritage.
But I am dismayed by the current direction and ethos (or lack of it).
We are very much in the infancy of a revival in the British watchmaking industry, but we are also at its most critical point. Our actions today will define the future.
Since my studio only produces around ten pieces per year, they are clearly available to only the most determined of collectors. The field therefore remains open for the first volume-produced ‘true’ British watch, which will of course include a British movement, designed and made in its entirety within our shores.
To date, this has not been achieved by any current British watchmaker. So where, in fact, are we?
In my view today, there are three other distinct types of British watchmaking company.
The first (which is typically an overseas holding company) will rake through our horological history books and appropriate a watchmaker’s name (and valuable heritage). They then make extraordinary claims as to their company having direct lineage back to that original watchmaker.
This is clearly misrepresentative and it is frankly embarrassing when I meet collectors who have bought watches from a “heritage brand” in the false belief that their watch is directly connected to the company’s founder or has been produced in Britain.
The second type is the product designer who simply adds some design flourishes to an existing ‘base’ watch, either Japanese or Swiss. Calling them “watchmakers” is akin to calling a maker of picture frames the “artist.”
The third type (and includes the makers I feel should be conditionally applauded) is a new British watch company, started from scratch by founders with their own vision.
However, despite some noble aspirations, they again readily tap into our rich history, mention a few horological greats, choose a very “British” sounding name, and then quickly discard this rich British watchmaking heritage by conveniently buying in foreign components.
Looking back in history, we see some eminent British watchmakers buying in quality Swiss movements and so you may say “what’s wrong”?
Well, these days it is all about the presentation together with lofty claims of provenance.
Recently I witnessed a British watchmaking company claiming to have designed and made their new movement in house in England. If you can’t “kid a kidder,” just try kidding probably the best informed collecting community there is! Within minutes, eagle-eyed watch devotees online realised that the movement in question was designed and made in Switzerland. The fallout was astonishing, but not a surprise, because the watch devotees had been lied to and taken for fools. The statement was quickly retracted. But the damage was done – and not just to the individual company.
With new British watch brands I hear, all too often, talk about these manufacturers blazing the trail for a re-birth of British watch making and yet, on even cursory inspection, their watches are ostensibly of foreign origin. Furthermore, for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of our recent history British watchmaking never really died, thanks to the pioneering work of the late aforementioned Dr George Daniels.
While the number of Daniels’ entirely British watches was extremely limited, their significance was global and historic. Above all, Daniels proved that the mountain could be climbed, that it could be done!
These premature and deceitful claims diminish Britain’s rich horological past, and prejudice its present and its future.
Let me state once again, there is no shame in a British watchmaker using Swiss movements to drive their watches. Some of our forefathers did just this, driven by economic expediency and the quality of movements available.
Today there are no movements being mass produced within Britain and so common sense dictates that we must look to Switzerland for the supply of quality movements until we British are in a position to honestly declare that we are able to mass produce high quality mechanisms to drive our watches.
This is an incredibly difficult endeavour. It will take huge investment and a concerted effort – perhaps an unprecedented partnership between our British watch companies.
But isn’t that the point? A true British watch is not meant to be easy. Easy has no interest or value.
George Daniels achieved his acclaim and rightful place in horological history by climbing that most difficult face of the watchmaking mountain. Lacking any readily available British components, he worked out how to make each and every one of them and hand made his watches from scratch. It was brave; unprecedented. It should have been impossible – like using an ascent of Everest as a course in rock climbing!
Today, the current crop of ‘watchmakers’ are indeed planting their Union Jacks in the same spot at the top of that mountain.
But instead of climbing it, they are flying up it, business class – courtesy of ‘Swiss Air’.
Let me be absolutely clear here. If we take a ‘binary’ view on provenance, taking a Swiss movement, finessing it and framing it does not constitute making a ‘British’ watch. Claiming otherwise diminishes the very heritage these companies seek to gain value from. At last year’s Salon QP, I spoke about the need for British watchmakers to take the challenge of producing true British watches more seriously if our revival is to be anything more than a fantasy.
Within a year of making that speech (which can be found online), I am therefore dismayed to find that some of my fears have already come true.
I make no apology for being a purist. Ours is the purest of mechanical arts.
Perhaps I am an alarmist? But when I read comments from collectors all over the world talking (justifiably) about “more British smoke ‘n mirrors” is it really such a big conceptual leap for this to slip into the collectors’ consciousness and cause long-term damage to the reputation of British watchmaking?
For me an industry’s ability to self-regulate is a privilege, not a right.
The only fundamental right should be that of the consumer to be able to purchase products which are precisely what they say they are.
It seems we can learn a thing or two from the food industry and their Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). The purpose of the regulation is to protect the reputation of regional foods and eliminate the misleading of consumers by non-genuine products.
So even if I spend £2 on a “Melton Mowbray Pork Pie,” the regulation dictates that my purchase has been 100% made where it claims to be made, and to a process consistent with its heritage.
However, if I invest £5,000, £10,000 (or more) on a wristwatch, it currently seems that no such integrity of provenance is even required, let alone protected.
This seems pretty ludicrous.
If we are to become the beneficiaries of Britain’s incredibly rich heritage in watchmaking, then we must be curators of its reputation. Perhaps we should look to establish our own basic standards to establish our country’s watch making provenance.
Let’s hope nobody does it for us, because I believe British watchmaking is currently taking liberties with that privilege. Some of its participants are making misleading claims as to the British provenance of their watches in order to boost the value of their products.
Our country rightly has claim to significantly defining what we carry on our wrist to this day. Many inventions, which the Swiss have brilliantly mass micro-engineered into the watches of today, were actually British in origin.
This wonderful heritage contributes to what makes a British watch worth owning. British country-of-origin bestows a watch with significant added-value.
So what needs to be done?
While we continue to be self-regulating, I ask for aspirant British watchmakers to show restraint in their claims. I ask for them to take their responsibility as curators of Britain’s watchmaking heritage – and its future – more seriously. As heirs apparent to this heritage we need to curate that reputation instead of simply trying to cash in on it.
Having devoted my working life to developing British watchmaking I passionately believe in our industry and its potential. My aim is not to denigrate the aspirations of those who are intrepidly setting out to create mass-produced British watches. It is my hope that the global community of watch collectors will also forgive recent indiscretions as the exuberance of youth.
But let’s not spoil our ongoing efforts by prematurely popping the champagne corks and declaring the “Second Coming” of British watchmaking.
Above all, let’s ensure that we protect our industry’s reputation by applying the only true virtue for which we should be renowned…
Roger W. Smith
Isle of Man. October 2014