One of only four fully custom wristwatches by George Daniels, and Roger’s first fully hand-crafted wristwatch, the importance of “The Blue” in British horology is reflected in an exceptional price.27 January, 2020
The end of the decade gained even more significance for Roger during the closing weeks of 2019, with the curation and sale of the famously elusive tourbillon wristwatch “The Blue” by A Collected Man.
It’s fair to say that the last decade has been transformative for Roger. A poignant beginning with the passing of his great mentor Dr. George Daniels in 2011 was followed by a succession of quite staggering achievements.
Roger’s development of the single-wheel co-axial escapement (followed by significant further advances during the decade); the creation of the GREAT Britain watch and invitation from the Prime Minister to become one of the first Ambassadors for the campaign in 2013 elevated Roger and British horology into the upper echelons of the British creative and manufacturing sectors; the launch of his Series 1-5 watches in 2015, signifying the first all-British range for at least fifty years; it felt like Roger’s OBE in 2018 and Honorary Doctorate in 2019 really were the apogee of the decade.
Well, almost… but not quite!
“No true horologist measures their achievement by price” says Roger “but it would be naive to ignore what the exceptional sale of “The Blue” represents - and it is, above all, a very special watch”.
Indeed, this wristwatch occupies an important place in the pantheon of George Daniels’ work, alongside the twenty-three pocket watches he completed (plus one unfinished), during a horological career that has become the stuff of legend since his passing.
‘The Blue’ wristwatch is a white gold, rectangular cased, one-minute Tourbillon with a calendar sub-dial. Both ‘The Blue’ and its near twin, ‘The White’, were built as a result of a commission placed by a collector (and close friend of George Daniels) who approached the watchmaker for a tourbillon wristwatch during 2000.
Roger picks up the story; “It was a request that George agreed to, partly because he’d already been considering the creation of a handmade wristwatch to celebrate and, I suppose, to showcase his co-axial escapement which had recently been adopted for industrial-scale production by Omega. However it was also on the proviso that he would produce two pieces in order to justify what would be a significant investment in development”.
By 2001, the scope of the project had been agreed upon, with George having lined up a buyer for the second tourbillon wristwatch, which would later be christened ‘The White’.
“The watches are technically identical, except for the finish” explains Roger; “The Blue gets its name from the blued steel baton hour markers, matched with blue steel hands, while The White has white gold markers with blued steel hands.
Delivered to the commissioning collector for £40,000 in 2006, the sale for £1m in December 2019 is a staggering reflection on the importance of the watch.
Silas Walton, the founder of A Collected Man curated what was a strictly private sale. Silas remarks; ”It was a privilege to be able to sell the Daniels “Blue”. It’s a fantastic watch, with a wonderful story and a highly-attractive, dial-side one minute tourbillon. For us, it also represented a fascinating transition between Roger and George, where one designed and the other created. We may not see another like it for some time.”
So let’s go back to the start of the creation of the tourbillon project. Where were you at this point in your career?
I’ve described it previously as a ‘transitional period’, and it really was. I was still working on the Millennium watch project with George, but I was putting ideas together and building my workshop at home to embark on my own Series 1.
Consequently, I was splitting my time between my home and Riversdale (George’s workshop). I was investing in equipment and preparing to move on. It was a daunting step to take, but I felt ready. We’d been working as collaborators rather than as mentor/apprentice for at least two years by this time, but nevertheless you’re faced with the unknown…
The timing seems quite providential then…
In retrospect I realise that George was, in his inimitable way, giving me the best possible ‘leg up’ with this project. He was from that pre-war generation that simply didn’t offer easy platitudes and frothy praise, but his support was frankly far more practical and helpful in nature.
In fact, he had started working on two pieces back in 1998. One was the now famous ‘Unfinished’ pocket watch but the other was, in fact, a rectangular wristwatch. George simply ran out of time with the Millennium project consuming us, but he’d got as far as a few components; he’d worked out the sizes and had built a base plate and a barrel bridge.
So, as I was leaving him to start my workshop, he asked me if I would be happy to take on a commission…
You’ve often said that George’s watches literally ‘fell out of his head’, meaning that there were no drawings…
That’s right. George gave me a good sketch of the watch, more for the aesthetics of course than the technical design. In fact, if working solo, I work the same way. However, the expediency of a drawing is either when you’re making a second, technically identical watch, as I was with The Blue and The White, or when you employ other watchmakers, as I do today.
What was George’s thinking behind a rectangular tonneau design?
As with everything George did, it was meticulously thought out. Let’s think about the broader context. He’d just been vindicated after a twenty-five year struggle to get the co-axial escapement adopted by the industry. But he also wanted to create his own wristwatch built according to what we posthumously refer to as ‘The Daniels Method’ of handcrafting. If he was to build his own wristwatch then it also had to reflect what was going on in watchmaking at that time. Well, we all remember that the rectangular and tonneau style watches were very on-trend in the late 90s. George definitely wasn’t someone who was influenced by fashion, but he definitely wanted his co-axial escapement to be housed in a design which felt contemporary and therefore, familiar. It was a visual representation of horological relevance, and of ‘normalising’ the application of his radical escapement design. In a way, it was George telling the world of watchmaking that his work ultimately spoke the same visual language… while completely revolutionising what was going on behind the dial!
So, you’ve got a sketch and some basic components. What was the biggest challenge to turn this into a watch, while having the great master looking over your shoulder?
The biggest challenge? Everything!
First of all, I’d never made a completely handmade wristwatch. It was a ground-up build. At this point, I had only built pocket watches entirely by hand, with tolerances of one to two hundredths of a millimetre. A wristwatch essentially miniaturises that and so the tolerances become exponentially less forgiving. Now you’re talking three to four thousandths of a millimetre. That makes every single aspect a challenge.
However, it is thanks to The Blue and The White that I gained the vital insights into those challenges that led to my Series 2 watch. It led me to where I am today.
It was also fascinating to truly intuit the mindset and design ethos of George; to apply my hands to manifest what was falling out of his head. And he was a continuous presence as I was often working at Riversdale. These were very much Daniels London watches.
Perhaps there’s some irony in that this process also helped me to gain total clarity for my own design ethos. I wasn’t reacting to George, which I think can be a danger with an incomplete understanding. I was going my own way with a very clear objective.
You started the project in 2001 but it took five full years before you finished the watches…
Well, I said it was difficult! I still had an enormous amount to learn as well as forming ideas and techniques. I was also consumed by my own workshop. I was in this ‘zone’ - working 12 - 14 hour days, six or seven days a week. It was relentless.
While it was essential that I went through this process, I’m sure he was frustrated as the watches simply needed to be delivered.
What was George’s reaction to the finished watch?
Well, after years of working with him and understanding, as I said earlier, that he wasn’t exactly the gushing type it was all ‘by-the-by’.
In fact I recollect him saying something like “Oh, you’ve finished it have you? And why did it take three years more than it should?”
However, you have to understand that in the language of George, that translated to ‘I’m delighted…’
In his excellent article about The Blue for Hodinkee, Stephen Pulvirent reminded us that you were directly involved in the making of more than 90 of the 129 pieces bearing the Daniels name…
I must admit that until I read it, I hadn’t fully realised that myself! Obviously George made his truly defining watches well before my time working with him. His Space Traveller was, of course, what made me want to become a watchmaker.
But it is incredibly gratifying to feel I played a part in the story and legacy of George Daniels.
Photography by A Collected Man