oger W. Smith does not care to project an image of a watchmaking grandmaster. His boyish demeanour and relaxed attire belie his 52 years on earth and more than three decades in the field of horology. He is also not one to boast of his achievements. There is no mention of the fact he was the only man ever considered as the heir apparent to the legacy of George Daniels, the greatest watchmaker of modern times. No mention of how his single-wheel version of the co-axial escapement took the ground-breaking work of his late mentor to the next level. And certainly, no mention of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) honour awarded him at Buckingham Palace in 2018 for outstanding services to his trade.
Instead, Smith wants to talk about his mission to re-establish Britain’s watch industry. Before its 20th century decline, Britain led the world in horology for more than two hundred years, as detailed in a previous Europa Star article. Notable Britons played a defining role in the development of timekeeping innovations that have since been superbly engineered at volume by the Swiss. From Thomas Mudge’s lever escapement subsequently refined by the likes of Patek Philippe, to Daniels’ revolutionary co-axial escapement commercialised by Omega, virtually all mechanical watches have a British heartbeat.
- Roger W. Smith receiving his OBE from (then) Prince Charles
It is this distinguished history that inspires Smith. But returning a nation to the forefront of horological glory requires more than heritage. And Smith knows that his top-end artistry is not the answer. “We cannot rebuild an industry on the back of artisanal watchmaking,” he says, “It just won’t work. And, that’s actually how British watchmaking died. Because back in the 1800s, it didn’t move with the mass production and industrialisation of the trade. That’s how they lost the industry. So, we already have proof it doesn’t work.”
“We cannot rebuild an industry on the back of artisanal watchmaking. That’s actually how British watchmaking died, because back in the 1800s, it didn’t move with the mass production and industrialisation of the trade.”
A change of heart
Smith’s own approach to watchmaking harks back to that golden age. He acknowledges he began with “a very idealistic view as to what British watchmaking should be - making everything by hand and everyone producing super quality at an incredible level”. Smith himself has mastered 32 of the 34 unique skills needed to make a watch manually from raw materials, as per the Daniels Method. Even amongst elite watchmakers very few have ever reached this level. But it’s a time-consuming and expensive process. Just seventeen watches built entirely by hand leaves Smith’s workshop every year, after a five-year waiting list and several more years of production. Each one comes with a six-figure price tag. It is the most demanding approach to the craft there is, and nothing can hurry it.
- Roger W. Smith with his mentor George Daniels
However, Smith has had a change of heart since he joined forces with Christopher Ward’s Mike France to form the Alliance of British Watch and Clock Makers in 2020. The Alliance is an official trade body that represents watch brands operating in the British Isles (including the Republic of Ireland), as recently profiled by Europa Star. Whilst Smith has long been an active proponent of the sector’s potential (he was appointed an Ambassador of the UK government’s GREAT Britain campaign in 2013), it is the Alliance that has broadened his view. “What it has demonstrated is really you cannot replace a lost industry on this very handmade approach that we take,” he says, adding, “It’s made me more appreciative of how other people interpret their watchmaking.”
- This unique ‘Series 1’ wristwatch made by Roger Smith, with a dial customisation proposed by A Collected Man, achieved a hammer price of £660,000 last year. Twenty per cent of the profits were donated to the Alliance of British Watch and Clock Makers, the trade body for which Roger W. Smith is chairman.
- ⓒA Collected Man
The Alliance is pushing for growth with the aim of putting Britain firmly back on the global watchmaking map. “We’ve called that the ‘Project 1 Billion’ and that’s our ambition,” says Smith, “I think we may get there, but it’ll be slow and it’ll develop gradually over the time.” The trade body currently has over 75 members spanning the horological spectrum. “We’re under no illusion a lot of these companies are very small and very niche… but what they all have is a unique story. And we have to embrace everyone within what is a small industry at these embryonic stages,” he asserts, “We have to try to help and nurture as many people as we can.”
Despite the grand vision, Smith remains pragmatic about the future. “Will we ever be making watches in our entirety in the UK? I’d like to say yes. But I think that’s very far down the road.” One of the key problems is the absence of local supply chain and the challenge of establishing one. “We can’t be naive about this,” he says, “If you think of setting up a watch manufacturing company, imagine the sheer volume of high-quality movements you would have to produce to get the unit price down to a reasonable level. That’s a massive order, a massive order. And to compete with the Swiss, China, or Japan, who are doing a remarkable job of that already, it’d be very hard for us to do it in the short term.”
“Will we ever be making watches in our entirety in the UK? I’d like to say yes. But I think that’s very far down the road.”
Bringing in talent from overseas
That said, looking on the bright side, Smith sees British ingenuity shining through. “British watchmaking today, in a large part, is only possible thanks to imports of cases, dials, hands, movements and so on,” he says, “There are some brands doing specialised work [within the country], but the majority have to rely on other watchmaking nations – that’s the situation we’re in. And it’s a very exciting situation because there is so much diversity going on here and so many unique watches being created.”
- In 2013, Roger W. Smith was appointed an Ambassador of the GREAT Britain campaign. He created the GREAT Britain as a unique piece to celebrate British innovation and technology around the world.
Perhaps importing know-how is another way of kickstarting a manufacturing base. “At the end of the day, what I’m interested in is growing the sector within Britain. And we seem to be doing it in tiny, tiny steps,” says Smith, “At some point in the future, we may start bringing in talent from overseas to help develop these techniques and skills, and to re-educate watch and clock makers in Britain.” It’s an approach Smith says the industry must be very open to.
- A Roger W. Smith 18K gold manual wind Series 2 wristwatch shattered its top estimate to sell for £516,900 at the Bonhams Fine Watches sale last December.
With or without external input, the recent success of the Alliance 01 timepiece has shown Smith that the future is likely to revolve around working together. The limited series was co-created by Christopher Ward and Fears to raise funds for the Alliance. All 50 pieces sold out in just three minutes. “I think we’re in a perfect situation for more collaboration to happen between companies and to share ideas,” says Smith, “And maybe out of that, people can support, or begin to support other watchmakers.
“I think we’re in a perfect situation for more collaboration to happen between companies and to share ideas.”
A timepiece that never needs servicing?
Smith himself is involved in a research collaboration on nanomaterials for watches with scientists at a university in England. The project could potentially create ‘a timepiece that never needs servicing’. The team have tested the use of nano-coatings to produce frictionless components that require no lubrication. Smith elaborates, “The oil in a watch is always the Achilles heel of any wristwatch because it needs cleaning and relubricating every five years or so. If we can go some way to removing the oil even from several key components, then that would be a huge game changer. But our ultimate goal would be to remove its entirety from a mechanical watch.”
- Roger W. Smith announces groundbreaking nanomaterial research on the holy grail of a watch that needs no lubrication and never loses time.
Smith is looking to the future, and helping to craft a promising one. “Watchmaking has been hugely rewarding,’ he says, “It’s been very good to me over the last 30 odd years. Perhaps it’s about time I try and put something back and support others.” And he is certainly not resting on his laurels, “As I say, we have this target of Project 1 Billion in ten years. If that happens, that would be a massive achievement for the sector.” At least in his lifetime, Smith has made it his mission to see to that.
“We have this target of Project 1 Billion in ten years. If that happens, that would be a massive achievement for the sector.”