Six Small Words

The Watchmaker’s Apprentice Trailer

The Watchmaker’s Apprentice is a documentary about Roger W Smith and Dr George Daniels, and the relationship between these two extraordinary men. Produced by DAM Productions, a version of the film premiered some time ago at SalonQP, and was released as a limited edition DVD last year. It finally goes on general release this month (released in the UK through Bulldog, on August 10th). In the film, the late Dr George Daniels uses six small words to describe watches. These words (which inspired a series of posts on the #watchnerd) may not be the first that spring to mind when one considers modern horology, but, perhaps, that’s the point.

Historic (/hiˈstôrik/) Adj. 1. Famous or important in history, or potentially so. 2. Of or concerning history; of the past.

There are many historic watches; by their nature, watches record history by displaying the passing of time. Some watches have been central to historic events, such as the Omega Speedmaster worn by Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, which he used to successfully time the re-entry of the spacecraft into the Earth’s atmosphere. Some watches have become historic by dint of their ownership: Abraham Lincoln’s William Ellery pocket watch, for example or Winston Churchill’s Breguet. Others have become part of history, such as the astrological mechanism that appears to have lain undisturbed off the island of Antikythera for the best part of 18 centuries.

Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims

However, there is a group of watches that, for me at least, is truly historic. Their multi-branded iconic dials all show exactly the same thing and were the inspiration for the Memorial pictured above. At least two are now on display at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima.

Watch from the Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima

A pocket watch, belonging to Mr Kengo Nikawa, stopped at 08:15 on the morning of August 6, seventy years ago. Mr Nikawa was over a mile from the hypocentre of the blast; he died two weeks later. A similarly-stopped wristwatch (above) tells the same story.

These watches have no intrinsic value; their style, brand, movement, complications and finissage are irrelevant.

These pieces recorded history.


Intellectual (/ˌintlˈekCHo͞oəl/) Adj. Of or relating to the intellect: “intellectual stimulation”; an aspect of something where learning, erudition, and informed and critical thinking are the focus

A few years ago I was talking recently to a watchmaker about timing, or rather about the different terminal ends applied to balance springs. The question had arisen as a result of a brief discussion of the multiple patents belonging to the Heritage Watch Manufactory. He immediately recited an equation that described the spring, using its length, height, thickness, mass. I nodded. Smiled. And realised that the maths was almost completely beyond me (although the basic principles remained within my grasp. Probably). Given watches are such a passion, it seemed odd that I’d not really delved into the study of watchmaking itself — true horology. I must admit to feeling more than a little inadequate.

Upon reflection, I realised that the mathematics that underpins the effectiveness of balance springs as a timing device that had begun with discoveries by Hooke, Hautefeuille and Huyghens in the 17th century was still in use. Although technical advances abound, especially in the realms of materials science, the basics have probably remained largely unchanged. I had been thinking for a while that I should probably spend more time understanding the manufacture and mechanics of watches and less time writing about their looks and therefore asked for a list of reading material. The recommendations included de Carle’s Practical Watch Repairing, Daniels’ Watchmaking and Suanier’s Treatise on Modern Horology. The latter, first published in France in 1861, set out to document everything that was known at the time about clock and watchmaking. Saunier’s aim was “to make the volume useful to the greatest possible number of those who live by our delicate and difficult industry”.

In many respects, Saunier’s Treatise is as relevant today as it was when first translated into English in 1877. The industry remains “delicate and difficult” and there are certainly many to whom the intellectual aspect of horology is less than important. Indeed, far more words are written each month on watch forums and ‘blogs than are dedicated to the study of watchmaking. However, without such study, are we truly able to appreciate the watches about which we so obviously care? The answer, of course, is yes; one does not need to understand drag coefficient to board a ‘plane. But as I spend more time exploring the horological, the more interesting watches become.

Since then, my library of watchmaking-related books and pamphlets has grown; many of these stem from the 19th or early 20th century, although there are some more recent additions. Just as relevant now as it was then, is, perhaps, Pascal’s sentiment, quoted by Saunier in his Preface: “We should see no farther than those who have gone before us, did not their knowledge serve as a stepping stone to our own.”

Technical (/ˈteknikəl/) Adj. of or relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques.

While browsing a well-known UK watch forum, I read a post describing a member’s first attempt at regulating a recently-purchased piece. The poster revealed his surprise at seeing the watch’s movement for the first time, and in particular, at how small it was. Of course, the majority of watch-wearers will never remove the case back from their watch, nor attempt a spot of regulation, so the opportunity to see the inner workings of a mechanical watch are generally limited, unless your watch has a display back.

Heritage Watch Manufactory

Display backs allow the watch to be viewed through a sapphire crystal “window”. One is usually able to see the balance wheel — “the beating heart” of the mechanical watch, as well as bridges, the rotor (if automatic) and the barrel(s). One imagines that, of the small minority of watch-owners with a display back, even fewer will be aware of the history of the balance wheel, nor the increasing technical advances being made by, for example, the Heritage Watch Manufactury, Ulysse Nardin or Greubel-Forsey.

The balance wheel — or rather the wheel and balance spring — was a 17th century solution to a rather tricky problem: how to fit a pendulum into a portable time piece. The balance has two key parts: a wheel-like structure that sits within the watch mechanism and a small, coiled spring that causes the wheel to oscillate as it receives power from the barrel. The oscillations drive a series of wheels, which are advanced as the balance swings from position to position. Controlling these oscillations, and negating the effects of temperature and gravity, is the key to highly accurate timekeeping.

FP Journe Resonance

Technical advances in watchmaking are far more common than one might imagine; it’s the use of these discoveries in mass-produced models which appears to be rare. Take the co-axial escapement, for example: it took George Daniels many years to persuade a major manufacturer to use his invention. Now, it’s the jewel in Omega’s horological crown. Why did it take so long for a more efficient, better piece to make it to the mainstream? Who knows: inertia, perhaps.

When it comes to the balance, there are two examples that strike me as particularly interesting. HWM approached the problem of the balance in a very methodical manner, looking not only at the balance wheel itself, but also the input device (i.e. controlling the power produced by twin barrels) and the output device (the escapement). Larger wheels are inherently more stable, and therefore should be better timekeepers. The HWM balance is 16mm across, beats relatively slowly (2.5Hz) and utilises a form of compensation that was first proposed in the second half of the 18th Century. This patented VIVAX (or “living”) balance has two “arms” on the outer rim of the wheel, which move — opening and closing as the assembly oscillates — and (in effect) self-regulate.

Greubel-Forsey, on the other hand, have focused more on the immediate effects of gravity / the positioning of the watch. Having spent much of the past decade developing increasingly complex tourbillon-based cages to house their balances, their most recent invention, which builds on previous designs, has two balances, with a spherical differential that averages out their impulses. These two balances are inclined at 35°, allowing for each balance to also be slightly larger than if laid flat, and also to counteract the position of the watch.

A Greubel-Forsey GMT-1

That technical, scientific improvements are still being made to mechanical watches is part of the pleasure I gain from this hobby. That such improvements are also artistic, beautiful and often full of whimsy, just adds to the enchantment.

Aesthetic /esˈTHetik/: Concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.

There was, if I remember correctly, a slightly disparaging statement that Dr George Daniels made about 19th and 20th Century Swiss movements in his book Watchmaking. His premise was that English “gentlemen” — the wearers of fine timepieces at that time — appreciated timekeeping over beauty. English movements were designed to keep good time and therefore there was, perhaps, no need to cover up their (technical) shortcomings with superfluous finissage.

However, finissage has now become synonymous with luxury or certainly with haute horology; the quality of the finish on a watch is almost directly proportional to the price (although this often seems to be on a log scale). A friend and watchmaker told me that, while discussing finishing on a recent visit to Switzerland, he heard of parts being beveled and polished by hand; they could only be considered suitable for inclusion in the watch if they were no visible defects under a 20x loupe. In effect, the watchmaker was asking for flawless work and one assumes that the price will be inline with the cost of flawless diamonds, i.e. astronomical.

But it’s not just the finishing of the mechanical elements of a watch that should be considered. There are aspects of all parts of a watch that can be appreciated — after all, few owners ever get to see the inner workings of their watches for more than a fleeting look. For me, it is often the unexpected that provides delight. Romain Jerome (previously best known for their Titanic, Space Invaders and Back to the Future models) unveiled a collaboration with Mo Coppoletta, owner of The Family Business. The watch was called the Tattoo-DNA, and incorporated both a tattoo design, a tattoo’d strap and the logo of The Family Business. The tattoo aesthetic is one that I cannot even pretend to understand, although the watch does (in my eyes, at least) manage to capture something of the art of the tattooist.

Romain Jerome x Mo Coppoletta

But back to Dr Daniels. In November 2013, I was lucky enough to be invited to a dinner at the Club at the Ivy, where the guest of honour was Roger W Smith. Roger spoke for a few minutes about his previous twelve months, which he had spent reconstituting George’s studio. Roger also touched on the topic of British watchmaking, as he was due to deliver a speech at SalonQP the following day.

It has been said that George Daniels wanted to prove to the Swiss watchmaking world that the coaxial escapement worked. Perhaps more importantly, he wanted to make a difference to horology, and be remembered for that difference. When you take even the briefest look at one of Daniels’ watches, as I managed to do last week, it’s hard not to consider what one is not seeing; the sketches, the calculations, the failures and, more importantly, the many, many thousands of hours that sit behind the object. Perhaps, in each of those most beautiful of watches is the distilled essence of Dr Daniels; a life’s work.

Use·ful /ˈyoosfəl/ Adj. Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways

Most watches have but a single purpose: to tell the time. When a watchmaker adds functions to a watch, these are generally known as complications, and may include such useful features as a chronograph, date, moonphase, alarm or second time zone. Of course, time also has another use — navigation. As any seasoned traveller will understand, local time “changes” as we move east- or westwards from our point of origin. For every 15 degrees of longitude we travel, we lose or gain an hour, hence the modern world is divided into Time Zones.

Harrison’s H4 Pocket Watch (C) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Ministry of Defence Art Collection

However, in the seventeenth century, it was a little trickier to determine in which Time Zone you were, and therefore your longitude. It was Charles the Second who began the journey towards accurate mapping of the (night) skies to assist in this process when he established the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675. However, following a series of maritime disasters due largely to incorrect navigation, it became clear that a solution was needed to what became known as the problem of longitude.

Accurate time was so important to transocean navigation that Parliament passed the Longitude Act in 1714, in which it set out the requirements for the measurement of longitude, and offered a series of prizes, which increased in value in relation to the accuracy of the solution. Above all, the solution was required to be “found Practicable and Useful at Sea.” Incredibly — given the import of the matter and the large sums involved (£20,000 is equivalent to about £2.5m in today’s money) — the Act appears to have been a bit of a slow burner: no record of any meetings of the Commissioners for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea (“the Board of Longitude”) can be found for the first twenty-odd years.

It was John Harrison, a relative unknown in the clockmaking and scientific circles of the time, who “solved” the problem. The science writer Dava Sobel‘s quite magnificent book provides the definitive version of the story, which I won’t even attempt to replicate here. Suffice it to say, Harrison’s first submission, the H1 chronometer (a portable clock that quite brilliantly replaced the pendulum with two counter-sprung oscillating balances), and the subsequent H2, H3 clocks and the prize-winning H4 pocket watch built by John Jefferys, were a sea-change in timekeeping and navigation.

A copy of this latter pocket watch was made in 1769 by Larcum Kendall, and came to be known as K1. In a piece of synergy rarely seen in the zoo-horological world, the K1 was used by Captain James Cook in his second voyage to the South Seas (1772–5), the voyage in which was discovered my favourite member of the Glaucidae.

Harrison’s longitude-related clocks and watches remain part of the National Maritime Museum’s collection and were shown as part of Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude. The exhibition marked the 300th anniversary of The Longitude Act; their (rather good) Longitude ‘blog can be read here.

It’s difficult to know what was in George Daniels’ mind when he uttered the six small words that sparked this ‘blog post, but I hope that he was thinking of Harrison (and others) whose timepieces were “found Practicable and Useful at Sea”.

Amusing /əˈmjuːzɪŋ/ Causing laughter or providing entertainment

Watches aren’t meant to be amusing: watches are serious items to be collected, locked away; an investment. They certainly shouldn’t make you smile. Well, not unless you’re able to buy cheap and sell high; this isn’t a hobby, after all, this is a business. Gordon Gekko (for example) had a really cool watch, a Cartier if I remember correctly, and we *all* know about the residuals on those.

Or maybe watches are just status symbols; items of conspicuous wealth; wrist real estate for oligarchs. A secret handshake for the meta-Masons? Perhaps. I’ve always believed that most watches are to be worn, experienced, enjoyed.

This view appears to be shared with at least some of the people and brands with whom I’ve had contact over the years. I’m not talking about throwing your Patek in a pool, or taking your Greubel-Forsey up a mountain, but watches almost always look better on a wrist, rather than in a safe. And while it’s still far too easy to put haute horlogerie on a pedestal, there is often a sense of observable playfulness when watchmakers gather. Take SalonQP for example — the Independents Gallery might have been cathedral-like: crisp white walls, black microfibre gloves and reverential tones. But instead, Stepan, Kari, Tim and Bart combined to produce a vibrant hub of activity; there was even dancing. Perhaps.

The fun side of watches can sometimes be lost; the owner of one of the most well-known of watch ‘blogs was recently published for the first time. The title of this tome? The World’s Most Expensive Watches. It appears to contain a Daniels — a co-axial chronograph — although Roger Smith’s watches don’t appear to have made the Top 100. Breguet hardly gets a mention, and Mudge, Dent and Harrison are omitted entirely. Cost may not always be a good indicator of greatness.

As Kurtz might have said: the horror! The horology!

However, there are people to whom the amusing side of watchmaking does, at least, appear to be not only relevant but essential. Take, for example, London-based designer and watchmaker Crispin Jones. He believes “a watch should do more than just tell the time — it should start a conversation, make you think or just make you smile.” Mr Jones’ Watches are relatively cheap (the priciest is currently £350 / $580, with the average piece selling for £160 / $265) and a lot more fun than the majority of watches on the market. I should come clean and tell you that I own two — one based on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the Vingt Mille, which is now available as a non Limited Edition) and a second, slightly more esoteric mystery-dial, called the Baitball. Both watches were designed by illustrator and artist Fanny Shorter.

When George Daniels described watches as amusing, I’m not sure to what he was referring. At the Sotheby’s auction of Daniels’ collection in 2012, there was a surprising inclusion: among the marine chronometers, the prototypes containing co-axial escapements and the rare books, was a Trafalgar. This lot eventually made £813 — and was purchased by Richard Hoptroff. The reason it was such a surprising inclusion? It’s a talking quartz watch. Perhaps it was this to which George was referring — a cheap, base metal and plastic novelty, that presumably sat alongside the pocket watches, clocks and watchmaking tools within the Riversdale studio. A toy amongst the tourbillons.

A precious thing. After all, time is that most precious of commodities to those who devote their life to measuring it.

Originally published on during 2013.