When you think of the great horologists of history, your mind might rightly wander to the Vallée de Joux and the spiritual home of the Swiss watch, or the smoky streets of Abraham Louis Breguet’s 18th-century Paris, or perhaps even to the birthplace of Greenwich Mean Time itself at the Royal Observatory in London. You are unlikely, however, to immediately think of the Isle of Man.
Alone in the middle of the Irish Sea, it would be easy to assume that this self-governing island nation is as far away from the centre of the horological universe as humanly possible, but that isn’t the case. From his workshop, one man quietly advanced the wristwatch further than any of his peers in Geneva or predecessors had for more than a century.
That man was Doctor George Daniels.
During his 60-year career before his death in 2011, Daniels was a watchmaker in the most literal sense: a maker of watches. He painstakingly transformed metal stock into magnificent pieces of haute horlogerie through more than 2,500 hours of labour. No apprentices, no colleagues, just one artist’s pursuit of perfection.
To know Daniels is to come face-to-face with the modern notion of the independent watchmaker: an artist more than an engineer, a man who paved the way for the likes of Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen and François-Paul Journe. He quite literally wrote the book on his craft: setting out more than 30 individual disciplines required to fashion a watch by hand in his seminal book Watchmaking.
FP Journe, revered in his own right these days, paid tribute to his one-time mentor after Daniels’ death: “You were the pioneer; the first watchmaker who showed us the path to horology of Art, a non-utilitarian horology.”
More than being a master of his craft and hugely influential to artisan watchmaking, Daniels invented many new movements over the years – seeking to innovate while others replicated the masters of yesterday. A Master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, Daniels was indeed a keen student of watchmaking history, in particular the grandmaster of 18th and 19th-century horology Abraham-Louis Breguet – Daniels’ self-proclaimed greatest influence and whose influence is clearly visible in the watchmaker’s exquisite classic dials – but, more than that, he wished to draw on the teachings of his predecessors in order to advance precision timekeeping.
You were the pioneer; the first watchmaker who showed us the path to horology of Art, a non-utilitarian horology
Daniels’ crowning achievement was the co-axial escapement he created in 1975. After years of detailed historical study of all known previous escapements, Daniels created his own which incorporated a system of three pallets that separated the locking function from the impulse, avoiding the sliding friction of the lever escapement. This made lubrication of the pallets theoretically unnecessary and thereby vastly improved the mechanism’s long-term performance by removing one of the main shortcomings of the traditional lever escapement, the lubricant itself. It represented the biggest step forward in movement innovation since Thomas Mudge pioneered the lever escapement centuries earlier in 1755.
Daniels would ultimately sell the rights to his escapement: ensuring his legacy would live on. In 1999, Omega began fitting it in their high-grade wristwatches, and today is found on virtually all of its mechanical wristwatches.
The watch world is quick to operate in hyperbole and absolutes, but it’s no exaggeration to say George Daniels is arguably the most influential watchmaker of the 20th century.
It shows the renewed interest in independent watchmaking that the star attraction of the Phillips New York Watch Auction on 11-12 June isn’t a Patek Philippe or a Rolex, nor is it a long-lost artefact or a piece unique, it’s a timepiece designed by George Daniels.
Given the incredible success of last year’s Philippe Dufour and FP Journe lots at Phillips’ Geneva Watch Auction in September, this should perhaps come as no surprise, but it’s nonetheless a sign of changing interest at the pinnacle of high-end watch auctions.
That is not to say George Daniels watches aren’t exceedingly rare – far from it, in fact. Over the course of the watchmaker’s lifetime, he handmade just 24 unique pocket watches, in addition to two completely unique wristwatches (again, entirely handmade). The closest Daniels ever came to a serially-produced collection was the limited-edition George Daniels Millennium, launched in 1998 with just over 50 examples made, and the George Daniels Anniversary watch launched in 2010 with just 47 examples completed.
The watch going under the hammer in New York is the George Daniels Anniversary No.00 in Platinum. Launched in 2009 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Daniels’ ground-breaking co-axial escapement, the Anniversary watch was a collaboration between the great watchmaker and his then apprentice Roger W. Smith. Daniels conceived the watch itself but it was Smith, who is now considered his mentor’s professional heir and today’s leading British horologist, who crafted the timepiece by hand.
Typical of Daniels’ constant pursuit of progress, the Anniversary wasn’t simply an homage to his previous work but the natural evolution of his life’s work. Indeed, at the heart of the watch is an all-new British calibre pioneered by Roger Smith under the watchful eye of Daniels himself. Speaking of the Anniversary before his death, Daniels said: “This wrist watch is a culmination of over 40 years of watchmaking and unashamedly takes inspiration from several pieces in my body of work. The 18 carat gold case houses a completely new and original Daniels calibre which is fitted with a calendar and power reserve complication and, along with the minute, hour and seconds, provides all the information that a fine watch should.”
Typical of Daniels’ constant pursuit of progress, the Anniversary wasn’t simply an homage to his previous work but the natural evolution of his life’s work
The escapement within uses Roger Smith’s single escape wheel version of the Daniels co-axial escapement, where the upper and lower wheels of the original design were combined into one escape wheel with added teeth. The result permitted the wheel to be fabricated in a single operation and removed a potential error source. As Daniels explained: “This development, conceived by Roger Smith, guarantees both radial and concentric orientation of the two sets of teeth and their pivot point and I see it as a natural and useful development of my escapement.”
The present example is one of only 47 George Daniels Anniversary watches ever produced. It was also the first of only four examples finished in platinum and boasts the highly covetable “00” serial number.
The Anniversary model is a celebration of George Daniels’ life and achievements. From the impeccable hand-crafted and finished 40mm diameter case to the dazzling display of handiwork on the Breguet-inspired hand-engraved, guilloché silver dial, this is simply the best of British watchmaking.
Looking more closely, we see Roger Smith’s exceptional talent showcased to the fullest degree. Each section of the dial is finished in a different style: grained silver chapter rings indicate the time to the centre of the dial, along with two oversized registers for date and constant seconds, offset against a variety of hand-applied guilloché patterns. The power reserve indication is also neatly placed at the 12 o’clock position, with the “Daniels” signature proudly displayed on a plate at 6 o’clock.
The No. 00 movement seen through a sapphire crystal back, more closely resembling a pocket watch than that of a traditional wrist watch, is a work of art. It is vintage George Daniels both in style and execution.
As an extremely rare example of the George Daniels Anniversary Watch, and with the importance of Daniels’ work to modern-day horology, it’s no surprise that this Lot comes with a $500,000 - $1,000,000 guide price. We wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if this blew past the top end of that particular estimate.
The watch is accompanied by a signed and dated letter by George Daniels to the original owner, along with guarantee, presentation box and setting pin. With a portion of the proceeds benefiting The George Daniels Educational Trust, The Alliance of British Watch and Clock Makers, and the Horological Society of New York.
George Daniels watches rarely show their faces at auctions, rarer still do models of this exclusivity fall under the hammer. Expect a lot of interest once bidding starts on 12 June.
For more information, see phillips.com