Ultimate Cars, Watches & Hi Fi S02 ep19 : Roger Smith, Smith Watches, [England]

Interview with Roger Smith

Roger Smith reinterprets the past, combining them with modern horological developments such as the Daniels co-axial escapement in order to create exclusive and distinctly English wristwatches for the connoisseurs of today.


Smith: What I have been trying to do over the past few years is set a standard for watchmaking.
My own personal standard.

Smith: I trained at watchmaking school many, many years ago at the age of sixteen in Manchester.
I remember on the first day at college, just being utterly amazed. You know for the first time in my
educational life, I actually enjoyed it.

Smith: When I was seventeen, eighteen George Daniels visited the workshops and it was that day
that I knew then that I wanted to become a watchmaker.

Smith: I have to admit that prior to his visit I didn't know anything about George Daniels, I didn't
know who he was and you know when I found out that this man made hand-made watches from
scratch that really, you know, I just couldn't believe it, you know, how the hell do you make a
watch by hand?

Smith: He discussed his work with the collapsible escapement and showed us photographs of his
workshops, all the different watches he's made and then the culmination of the day was when we
were all in the workshop together and I asked if I could see what was on the end of his pendant
chain and out he produced this amazing space traveller pocket watch which he created to
commemorate the, mans landing on the moon.

Smith: I continued with the course, finished the course and I worked in service centre. In the
meantime I had been given George's book 'Watchmaking' as a gift and basically this book is a
watchmaker's manual and it tells you how to make a watch from start to finish and I read this cover
to cover several times. By the end of it, it is written so well you actually believe you can make a
watch and so that's what I did.

Smith: And I wrote to George Daniels and asked if he would apprentice me and he invited me over
to the Isle of Man, picked me up in this Bentleigh Continental, amazing car sort of nineteen, I
suppose sixties, fifties, sixties. A car that he had rebuilt and took me out for lunch and showed me
his workshops and his watches that he was making. And basically at the end of the day he said,
look, Roger if you want to make watches, I can't teach you, I'm too busy doing my own thing. You
just have got to teach yourself as I once did.

Jewellery Theatre Carravaggio

Smith: I started the first watch when I was 20 and it took a year and a half to make. Funnily
enough I knew in the back of my mind that it wasn't right. It was a pocket watch with a tourbillion,
took it over to show George Daniels and basically he pulled it to bits, he wasn't impressed and told
me so. At the end of the visit he said well at least you now know how to make a watch. So the next
thing to do is go away and learn all the different skills necessary to create a hand-made watch and
that's what I did. I put this watch at the back of the bench and you know melted down the gold for
the case and then started on the next watch which was, I supposed a kind of bit ambitious but it
was another tourbillion pocket watch completely made from scratch, but with a perpetual calendar
mechanism fitted onto it.

Smith: I mean the only components I didn't make for the first, well for all these pocket watches has
been their balance and main springs. But everything else case, hour hands, every single component
has been completely hand made. I would have felt like a cheat had I bought in components.

Smith: I started a second one when I was twenty one and I finished it when I was twenty six,
twenty seven and I was taking George's advice on board and basically concentrating on making
every single component.

Smith: The first watch was made I think about four times over a five year period. I would get to
the, you know, eleven, twelve months into the project and I started to look at the components that I
made previously and they were of a far poorer quality and so I started to remake the components
and it is just a continual cycle really until the watch is ready and I do get to a stage where I
thought, oh well, you know, I done as much as I can and if George Daniels does not approve this
time, then you know forget it.

Jewellery Theatre Carravaggio

Smith: We arranged to meet on the Isle of Man again, flew over, George has got quite a terrific
reputation, he's a formidable character and he doesn't stand fools. As he opened the door and he
just stood there and sort of uttered a few words and said oh, you best come in. He has got a very
gruff voice and we went into his sitting room and he was busy sorting through papers and he just
left me standing there in the corner of the room for about ten or fifteen minutes, and I was
beginning to wonder why on earth I had actually turned up here, and after a while he said oh well
we best go down to the workshop and we best see what you've been up to. So, I followed him down
to the workshop and on the way he said that that first watch that you made was appalling wasn't it?
He says were you trying to pull the wool over my eyes? And I said no, no I just did what I did.
Anyway we got into the workshop and I put this box on his watchmaker's bench and he took out
the watch and started looking at it and turning it round in his hands, he didn't say anything for a
good five minutes and just turning the watch over in his hand and he had his loop on it and was
inspecting it in great detail and then he started to ask questions like, who made the dial for you? So
I said well, I made the dial, and then he said, oh and who's your case maker? So I said, well I am
the case maker, and then he'd open the back of the watch and he would say who made the detent
then? I said well I did the detent and the escapement? Yes I did the escapement and suddenly he
just closed up the watch put it on the bench and stood up and said congratulations, you know you're
a watchmaker and he didn't stop talking for the next twenty minutes, half an hour and he didn't
stop talking.

That must have been your epiphany?

Jewellery Theatre Elements

Smith: Yeah, I didn't hear any of it, my mind was going, you know, doing loop the loop.

Smith: But then six months after that, George phoned me up and asked if I would move to the Isle
of Man and to work on the millennium project which was a series of fifty wrist watches. Omega
were starting to develop the coaxial escapement with George and they were on the verge of
launching the Omega Coaxial or the Daniel's Coaxial. As part of this sort of celebration if you like,
George got fifty movements from Omega and we were to build a Daniel's Watch around this

Smith: I moved over to the Island in '98 and I worked with George for just over three years on this
Millennium Project and it was an incredible experience, it was if you like, the finest finishing
school you could wish to go to.

Smith: The work came to an end, I think to help me on my way really, he found two clients who
wanted a completely home-made tourbillion wrist watch making. So I went on my own I had the
ideas to make my own wrist watch, the Series 1 and but also at the same time I had this watch to
do for George, these two watches.

Does he have many staff working for him?

Smith: I think he had somebody in the sixties or seventies for a few months but now I am the only
one who is being taught by him and who's worked with him for any period.

Smith: Now we have a workshop with several people working inside it. We have a CNC machine
which helps us to produce the plates and other components but we've kept the core of what I'm sort
of really interested in which is the finishing aspect of the watches.

Jewellery Theatre Fairytales

Smith: They start at just over £38,000. It's a time only piece, it has a Daniel's coaxial escapement
but what we do is we make, well again with exception to the straps and the sapphire crystals and
the jewelling and the balance springs, we make the complete watch in-house which is
phenomenally rare, I don't think there is any other watch maker doing this.

Smith: At the moment we make just twelve pieces a year and my next sort of aim is to get this up
to twenty pieces a year. But you know that's going to take a huge amount of work and a lot of
skilled labour to do that.

Smith: I believe I am making the finest wrist watch available anywhere in the world today. The
dial is made silver and is all hand engine turned, all the lettering is all hand engraved and it's made
up of seven different sections which are either soldered together or screwed together and again the
hands are all made of gold, all hand cut, hand finished, hand polished. This as I say was the
prototype was finished in February '06.

Smith: Ten watches are now out there in the world and the reaction has been tremendous. I was
told just earlier today actually a story of three owners of Series 2's who met in New York. They
were all showing their watches around and they could all see the difference in those watches.

And they’re the same watch

Smith: Exactly the same watch but one of them you know, he, I don't know whether he was
unhappy that his dial was the best because it didn't show the fact that, and obviously we're getting
really good now and he wanted to see the sweat and the tears in that dial of his watch.

Smith: This isn't new, it's all been done in the past. You know you can buy these watches to this
quality a hundred and fifty years ago, two hundred years ago. My big thing is if you could have
done it then, why aren't we doing it now?

OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Roger Smith, Smith Watches, England