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The revival of the home-grown British wristwatch

What’s in a name? When it comes to British horology, quite a lot as it turns out...Adrian Hailwood explains why Smith is the one to look for, and always has been.

This column has always sought the long view with regard to watches and when it comes to ‘Best of British’ there is a delightful symmetry in that the past and present as both come down to a man named Smith. The last time Britain had a home-grown mass-production wristwatch manufacturer was in the brief period between the end of the second world war and 1970. This was when Smiths was making high-grade movements at its factory in Cheltenham but as with many things in British industry, the history is much more convoluted than that.

Smiths began as Samuel Smith (later & Son), a jeweller based in Elephant & Castle in 1851. Its trade was in diamonds, clocks and watches. At this point the watches were either English-made but usually Swiss imported with the shop name applied to the dial. Samuel Smith was soon to see the branding possibilities of watch retailing over and above jewellery and secured a supplier of high-quality watches that allowed him to achieve good results at the Kew Observatory trials and then publicise the fact in the Guide to the Purchase of a Watch.

Competition from the USA and Switzerland led Smiths to develop new areas of expertise and the booming automotive industry was the perfect opportunity to use its precision engineering in a more profitable direction. Vehicle and later aircraft instruments including speedometers, became the mainstay of the business with watches dwindling to nothing.

It was wartime necessity that drove Smiths back to watchmaking. Aware that Britain was over-reliant on both Germany and Switzerland for horological supplies, Government funds were used to re-ignite watchmaking R&D. Starting from scratch with scant supplies was tough, and although a GSTP pocket watch was produced by 1942, it was only after the war’s end that wristwatches were achieved.

Fast forward to the present and wristwatches are again being made wholly in Britain

The demands of the military for precision and durability forced Smiths to produce high-quality movements. The lack of the kind of skilled labour available in Switzerland led to a different kind of excellence, that of tooling over assembly. The design of the movement parts in Smiths watches allowed them to be assembled by a relatively un-skilled workforce; an example being the attachment of bridges to the dial plate which used self-centring posts to locate the parts exactly. With balance springs and jewels all being sourced in the UK, these were British watches down to the last screw.

The 1950s saw ever-increasing quality of wristwatches available to the civilian market culminating in Britain’s only mass-produced automatic wristwatch in 1959, but the timing was all wrong for Smiths. A combination of poor sales, cheap imports, the loss of the Empire markets, reliance on government funding and the arrival of quartz saw the end of watch-making at Smiths by the early 1970s.

Fast forward to the present and wristwatches are again being made wholly in Britain. Roger Smith, the only apprentice of the late George Daniels and a serious innovator in his own right, creates watches that are the antithesis of mass production. Since 2001, Roger Smith has not only put British wristwatches back on the global map but has (to mix a metaphor) carved out his own tiny niche right at the top of the tree. Having mastered the 32 trades that make up the Daniels Method to allow the creation of an entire watch by hand by an individual, Roger has moved onto serial production, although serial still means that less than a dozen watches leave the studio annually. Each piece is a work of both art and craft with a level of detail and finish that seems wrong to call handmade but is too perfect to come from a machine.

The Series 4, Roger Smith’s latest creation, is his most complex, showing a triple date and moon phase. While the multitude of dial features add to its decoration, complexity is not the goal for this watch; instead clarity and simplicity are key. To achieve this, Smith has removed the pointer date hand, and replaced it with a unique ‘travelling aperture’ that highlights the relevant day.

If Britain’s wristwatch heritage is to match that of its pocket watches we need a little of both Smiths. Certainly we need the craft and innovation of Roger and his team to create something highly desirable but we also need something of the Cheltenham Smiths, not compromising the Britishness but making
the watches a little more accessible.

For more information, see fellows.co.uk

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