We are excited to have recently recruited Ali Raja, an MEng graduate of Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. One of his passions is watches and he recently prepared this brief history of watchmaking in Britain. It provides a useful insight into the complexities of watches, and their movements.
Britain was once the home of horology. Scientists and mathematicians worked together in the streets of London to develop technologies that became the bedrock of modern timekeeping:
Robert Hooke invented the balance spring in 1657 which, when attached to the balance wheel in a mechanical timepiece caused it to oscillate with a resonant frequency. As a result, it controlled the speed at which the wheels of the watch turn, and thus the rate of movement of the hands.
Peter Debaufre patented the application of jewels in watches in 1704, which significantly increased the lifespan and service intervals of the mechanisms by reducing frictional wear.
In 1759, Yorkshire-born clockmaker John Harrison completed a decade long endeavor of developing the Marine Chronometer – a tool used to determine longitude at sea by comparing Greenwich Mean Time with the local time – and changed the landscape of sea travel forever.
In the mid-18th Century, as the attention to technical achievements declined and attention to aesthetic techniques grew, artists and jewelers established their careers by working with clockmakers to transition the pocket watch from a highly functional tool to a decorative one. This momentum continued through the late modern period and encouraged watchmakers like Graham, Mudge and Harwood to help England reach its peak in watch exports, at around 200,000 watches a year, over the 19th Century. So it makes sense why, in 1905, a young German watchmaker by the name of Hans Wilsdorf set up his business at 83 Hatton Garden – a business which would soon be called The Rolex Watch Company Ltd.
The last 100 years, however, have not been kind to the British watch industry. American and Swiss watchmakers, assisted by modern manufacturing techniques, soon began to offer quality watches at lower prices. The World Wars that followed forced Britain to move toward mass production of cheap, durable and reliable military watches instead of the handcrafted, high-quality, artisan timepieces it was so used to making. The Swiss, unlike the English, continued to produce higher quality, dressier, civilian-focused wristwatches during this time – a practice that has ultimately helped them dominate the market to this day. Then, on 25th December 1969, Japanese watchmaker Seiko unveiled the Astron, the World’s first Quartz (battery powered) wristwatch and began what is known in the history of horology as the ‘Quartz Crisis’. A time during which the art (and science) of traditional mechanical timekeeping was unable to compete with the significant increase in accuracy and ease of manufacture offered by quartz watches. As a result, the art of mechanical watch making was brought to the brink of extinction.
Subsequent decades have seen improvements, and recent trends in the global market provide hope for the future. Retailer Watches of Switzerland, which sells brands such as Rolex, has said that watch sales increased around 30% in the six months through October 2022. The group – which also owns Goldsmiths and Mappin and Webb, opened 5 new showrooms at the iconic Battersea Power Station in London and additional mono-brand boutiques across the UK, US and Europe in the first half of 2022.
Data released by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry shows that global luxury watch sales continue to be driven mostly by younger consumers. Millennials in Hong Kong and China respectively account for 36% and 22% of the total yearly growth. The latest data reveals that although the number of Swiss watches being sold annually is currently lower than ever before, the industry is still enjoying significant growth, presumably driven by higher price items. A growing interest in the premium watch industry has meant consumers are spoilt for choice in the GBP 200 – 3000 segment, with exports of Swiss watches dominating the higher end of the spectrum.
These figures bring to mind the old adage “the Grass is always greener on the other side”. While the ever-changing and colourful wallpapers on the screens of smartwatches will not last any more than their 2 days of battery life, the mechanical wristwatch can be a statement of individuality that will survive far longer than the wearer’s lifespan. In a world where sophisticated atomic clocks can already track time accurately to three hundred billionths of a second per year (read that again, slowly), our obsession with value propositions helps the mechanical watch stand out not only for the unashamed extravagance it brings to the table but also for the connection it offers to a simpler (happier?) time when dividing one second into 3 distinct parts was accurate enough to keep us punctual!
So it seems natural for an increasing number of people to be attracted to the simplistic charm, the sustainable nature and the opportunity for personal expression offered by a mechanical timepiece.
Providing the necessary momentum to these shifting preferences are watchmakers like Roger W Smith, Mr. Jones’ Watches, AnOrdain and Christopher Ward, amongst others. Some look to produce watches that are handmade entirely in the UK; some provide a refreshing take on dial design; others operate under a “designed by us, but produced overseas with quality parts” ideology. The growth experienced by these brands in recent years paints a promising picture for the future of British watchmaking.
Figure 1: Roger W Smith - Series 1 movement
Roger W Smith is an independent watchmaker established in 2001 and committed to the British watchmaking tradition of discovery. They apply next generation science to the traditional art in a bid to “discover new worlds of possibility within the microcosm of timekeeping”. In their effort to hand-craft every watch with parts made only in the UK, they produce just twelve watches a year. Each one being crafted to a peerless standard of horological excellence.
Figure 2: MJW - 'A perfectly useless afternoon' by Kristof Devos
Founded by Crispin Jones, Mr. Jones’ Watches (MJW) is a London based watchmaker that collaborates with talented illustrators and artists to produce unique, yet affordable timepieces that have become a canvas for artistic innovation. Turning the crown on an MJW timepiece sees its dial come to life and the emotions ignited by its playful nature are second only to those felt when realising that you have just been served a brilliant crash course in Interactive Design.
Figure 3: AnOrdain Model 1 - Plum Fume
Founded by architect Lewis Heath in 2015, AnOrdain is known by many for its stunning enamel dials. These made-in-Glasgow works of art have helped AnOrdain carve itself a permanent place in the world of watches with a reputation for interesting timepieces with decorative dials at a reasonable price. They use high quality Swiss mechanical movements on the inside. The long waitlist is testimony that this brand is loved by many - thrill-seekers and purists alike.
Figure 4: Christopher Ward - C1 Bel Canto Limited Edition
Christopher Ward is a British watchmaker popular for their unapologetic use of ‘British design’ elements. They claim to be the result of the “advantageous combination of an English determined desire to make better Swiss watches, with the Swiss ability to engineer and deliver them.” Operating a strict DTC business model, the brand seeks to keep its products accessible to the ordinary consumer while simultaneously venturing into the world of high horology by developing its first in-house mechanical watch movement, the Calibre SH21 in 2014. In 2022, the watchmaker unveiled the FS01 movement inside the C1 Bel Canto Limited Edition watch. This striking mechanism is designed to chime on the hour, every hour while the dial provides an unobstructed view of the chiming hammer.
It is evident that opportunities in this market are being seized by many. Some are looking to establish market share by doing a little bit of everything with high levels of quality control. Others are taking their time to find a niche. But as all these watchmakers lift their loupes, spring their balances, paint their dials and encase their innovations into a package small enough to sit on our wrists, an industry that has long been stifled finds its breath once again. The work takes time, and the achievements that come out of it are, admittedly, incremental. But, in the words of someone a lot wiser than myself – “after all, how many increments does it take before you've got a revolution?”