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Roger W Smith Limited
Following in the footsteps of greatness
John Harwood son of Bolton, Lancashire, who invented the modern day automatic wristwatch settled for sometime in the Isle of Man. The small Island in the Irish Sea has a population of only 87,000 inhabitants and yet appears to provide a draw to remarkable horologers.
Dr George Daniels, a Londoner, famous horologer and creator of the Co-Axial escapement settled in the Isle of Man and crafted 37 remarkable timepieces. All were peerless exemplars of horology.
A young protégé of Dr Daniels was Roger Smith. Roger Smith, now 41 years of age, was also born in Bolton, like Mr Harwood. In his career he has a well-earned reputation for creating magnificent timepieces featuring the Co-Axial escapement and flawless finissage.
When I formed ESCAPEMENT, I remarked to my wife that I dreamt of visiting a watchmaker called Roger Smith. I enthused about watching him on You Tube making blued watch hands for example.
A chance meeting at Salon QP in the latter part of 2011, resulted in a kind invitation to visit the Atelier in Cronk.
I journeyed from Ronaldsway Airport in February and passed through the curiously named Fairy Bridge and I had to question whether I was dreaming. I was about to meet a personal hero. Roger is a craftsman who can make a whole watch not merely assemble one.
Interview with Roger Smith by Angus Davies
Angus Davies (AD) - One of the things I notice is that you wear glasses. When people ask me if I ever wished to be a watchmaker, I reply that I lack steady hands and my eyesight is not very good. I assumed you would require perfect eyesight to be a watchmaker.
Roger Smith (RS) - No, not at all I have a slight astigmatism, but I am able to cope.
AD - Are there any physical or psychological attributes to becoming a good watchmaker?
RS - You have to be dextrous
AD - Very good fine motor skills
RS - Yes, you also have to be able to extremely patient
AD - You mention patience. It must be very nerve-racking at times. Having spent hours on one component, it can all go wrong at the eleventh hour. At that one point if it goes wrong you are back to zero.
RS - The guilloché dials are fabricated from several components which involves soldering the components together. That moment is a bit tense because too much solder and it can flood through into the guilloché and it is ruined.
RS - Or likewise when I am engine turning, one bad cut, too much pressure, and it will show up.
AD - Yes, because you are doing everything by hand as opposed to CNC. Do you use any CNC?
RS - No CNC or stamping here.
AD - I like that. Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to sound elitist. I like it when I see a watch with a very simple guilloché and accept at that price point it will be CNC. However, there is a romance with the idea of the dial being made my hand.
RS - Yes, well we only make 10 watches per year so we can afford to spend the time. The reason we only can make 10 is because there is a huge amount of hand work. Eighty-odd percent of making the watch is spent at the bench finishing, decorating, assembling etc.,
AD - I am surprised to see that you do guilloché because that is a trade in its own right. To have all the skills in one small manufacture is rare.
RS - Yes, that is something I got from George (Dr George Daniels). No watchmaker learns how to engine-turn.
Traditionally there are 30 - 35 trades, you would go to your engine-turners, case makers and so on. George was the first person in history to make a watch from start to finish.
When he wanted to make his watches in the mid 1960’s, the watchmaking industry had virtually disappeared, so he had to learn all these skills. He had to learn case making, dial making, wheel making etc.
He did not want to rely on the Swiss, obviously because of the distance from the Isle of Man and their different philosophy. That is why he learnt engine turning. The rose engine we have is George’s.
That is why I learnt engine turning. When I worked for George I had to learn dial making for the Millennium Series we made.
AD - Are all your products made to order?
RS - They are, yes. People contact us and they join the waiting list. It is about a two year waiting list at present.
AD - I have this image of you as a small artisan, a watchmaker, however, I come across your name over and over again. You have obviously been very good at attracting publicity. Who is the Marketing guru? You or Caroline (Roger’s wife)?
RS - Both of us really. I have a bit more experience of marketing because I have been doing it for so long.
AD - Do you ever get any orders from Isle of Man residents?
RS - Yes, sometimes.
AD - I would suggest a Roger Smith is a considered purchase. You will know a little about watches if you select a Roger Smith timepiece.
RS - Yes, people who purchase our products tend to know about watches. I would not describe it as a brand or a fashionable watch. To purchase our watches you have to be passionate about horology. When people buy our watches they see something very different from anything else on the market.
AD - I think the appeal for me is the fact that this is not mass manufactured or a perfunctory item produced merely to meet a need. Nor is it a default purchase where you have reached a certain position in life and you elect to buy a watch purely because of its price point.
AD - Can you tell me a little about your history. Where do you originate from?
RS - Bolton, Lancashire
AD - Am I correct in saying you did some work at LVMH at Worsley (near Manchester)?
RS - Yes, it was Duval then. Prior to that I went to the Manchester School of Horology in Gorton. I did a BHI course.
I went there for 3 years. I learnt about practical elements like bench work on watches and clocks, technical drawing and also learnt about the history and technical side of watches and clocks. It was a good, broad, all-round education.
When I was at college, George Daniels came and gave a lecture. I remember the day we were told he was coming to visit. We were told he made watches by hand and I thought, “You what?”
He turned up and it was just an incredible experience. He looked at everyone’s technical drawings. When he came past me, I asked what was on the end of his pocket watch chain and out came his Space Traveller Pocket Watch and I just thought “My God”, I am in the presence of greatness.
That evening he delivered a lecture to the students and members of the Manchester branch of the BHI and it was just an incredible talk. Here was a man talking about the world he had created.
George talked about testing his escapements in pocket watches and about his battles with the Swiss watchmaking industry. He explained the disadvantages of the lever escapement and the advantages of the Co-Axial escapement.
At the end of the talk I thought, "Wow", there is something special here. I thought there is more to horology than I am learning.
I wrote to George when I was 19 and asked if he would apprentice me. He wrote back and said he did not think he wanted to work with anyone as he had always worked on his own but invited me to the Isle of Man to see his workshop and talk about my future.
I arrived at the airport and he picked me up in his old Bentley Continental and took me to his house. He showed me his collection of watches, really enthusing about these great old watches.
He then took me out for lunch and asked me why I wanted to be a watchmaker. I did not know what to say I was only 19 and a little tongue-tied.
He then took me around his amazing workshop.
He said if I wanted to be a watchmaker, he couldn’t teach me, but I had his book and if I really wanted to be a watchmaker, to go away and to teach myself.
George said if you want to be a watchmaker, you will do it. If the passion is there you will do it.
He gave me a small mandrel lathe and I returned to the mainland.
I returned home and told my father that I wanted to make my own watches and he loaned me some money to purchase a lathe and I started making my first pocket watch.
I left LVMH and I worked three days a week, part time, in Manchester repairing watches, spending the rest of my time working on a pocket watch.
That watch, took about 18 months to make and it was a nightmare from start to finish. I had made clock components before but working on watch components was difficult due to the scale.
When the watch was completed I phoned up George and asked if I could bring the watch over for him to look at. I visited him and showed the watch to him and he was appalled. He said it looked handmade. A handmade watch should actually look better than the finest machine made watch. Artistically it was wrong.
George said, "Put it in the back of a cupboard and go away and learn the 30 - 35 trades and perfect them". He said "at least you have a watch that works".
I think for me that was the first battle, making a watch that ticked.
George said "Now you know you can make a watch that works, go away and concentrate on the finishing".
AD - I want to ask you about school. Were you fantastic at maths or brilliant at metal work?
RS - No, I was Mr Average. I wasn’t particularly good at maths, but I have always been fascinated by things which are mechanical. I have always been better with my hands. The first day at college was the best day of education I had ever had. I could not believe that education could be so exciting. Up to that point I did not see the point of school and did not connect with it.
AD - What are your aspirations?
RD - We are slowly increasing productivity but we will never make 50 watches because it would not be possible to make the kind of watches we make. Maybe in 10 years time we may make 20 watches. However, the watches we make are so detailed, so specialised that we cannot mass produce them. It is impossible.
AD - Where do you get the skills from? We are here on the Isle of Man. Do you train everyone who works for you from scratch?
RS - Yes, we do. It is the only way to do it.
A square of silver is placed on a rose engine and a dial is created.
The Daniels watch features two additional patterned sub-dials, machined by hand using a rose engine, together with a semi-circular panel located beneath 12 o’clock. Each component has its own motif, adding to the interest of the dial.
The three inserts have to be soldered into position from the rear of the dial without surplus solder contaminating the delicate guilloché. One careless error and days of work is rendered to the waste bin. It is this courage which marks out the artisans at Roger W Smith watches.
Once the components are securely in position, the rear of the dial is finished, hiding any trace that the dial is anything more than one piece of silver. An illusion worthy of Houdini.
Roger Smith is an incredibly modest gentleman with an amazing talent for watchmaking.
His timepieces are remarkable. The blued screws have a unique iridescent indigo hue which mesmerizes with its lustre.
Roger’s dials are engraved to afford the watch a longevity sadly lacking with lesser timepieces. He explained that his aspiration is for a skilled craftsman to be able to pick up one of his timepieces in 300 years and be able to restore it to a factory fresh appearance.
I do not wish to sound sycophantic but my admiration for Roger prior to my trip was not misplaced. He is an artisan par excellence.
I suggested that I may refer to him following in the footsteps of John Harwood. He immediately without pause or hesitation, said he wanted to be compared with Dr George Daniels. There is no finer compliment to his former mentor.
I looked at Caroline, Roger’s wife, who is expecting their first child. I hope she gives birth to another watchmaker who will take their first tentative footsteps into horology and another generation of timepieces emanate from the atelier in Cronk.