Independent watchmaking has always been at the core of our interests here at A Collected Man. The much romanticised notion of the lone genius watchmaker, working away at mechanical excellence with nothing but his or her hands, is all too appealing. There are a handful of watchmakers that embody this to the nth degree, but quite possibly none as much as Roger Smith. The only direct apprentice of the late-great master watchmaker George Daniels, Smith has made a name for himself creating wristwatches using the same principles as his mentor. Roger popped by the office, so we decided it the perfect time to catch up.
So, what’s been happening since we last spoke?
Well, since then, a lot has progressed with the development of the series one, two, three and four pieces. Series one and three are now in full production and the series four, which was always intended to be done last, is nearing the end of its development stage, and we are anticipating actual production to begin in the new year.
The most complicated of all four, the triple calendar moonphase, right?
Yes, that’s it.
And how has interest been for this piece?
The response has been truly remarkable, people seem to really understand why I’ve chosen to do it, so I’m very pleased.
Also, would this be the first of your watches to use a moonphase?
Actually it would be my second, because my second pocket watch incorporated a moon-phase, but this would be the first wristwatch I’ve made with one.
You have also been working on a new building to expand your manufacturing capabilities, how is that coming along?
[laughs] The new workshop is coming along very well. I have been keen to take on more watchmakers for some time, and in the facility we currently work out of, that wouldn’t have really been possible. We have gotten to the point where the current building is just inadequate in terms of size and usability.
Is it true that you refer to it as ‘the barn’?
[laughs] Yes. We intend on moving over to 'the barn' in December. We will also be taking on new equipment, in order to make the whole production process better. It’s a very exciting step forward for us.
The mental image of you in a yellow hard hat and a fluorescent jacket has sprung to mind…
Well I do have my own hard hat.
How involved with the design of the new facility were you?
I did all of the interior layouts, because obviously I’m the only person who can say, with a degree of certainty, where everything needs to be. It would be quite difficult for an architect to come in and get everything right. It’s taken a long time to work all of this out, and you almost have to be a fortune teller to speculate on where you’ll be and the needs of the company in five to ten years time. that’s been the real challenge, I would say. The flow of the layout has come together nicely though.
"Well when I was young, my workshop was a small bench in a partitioned area of my father's garage."
It seems like every year, you're laying down further foundations on the Isle of Man. Given that you grew up just outside Bolton, do you ever stop to think about how much has changed?
Well when I was young, my workshop was a small bench in a partitioned area of my father's garage. It’s certainly been a big transformation to now have 3,500 square feet. I do have to pinch myself sometimes. We must be doing something right.
So, now for the reason for today’s visit, you’ve brought us something quite special…
Yes, It’s a Series 2 in white gold, with an open-worked dial. It has a slim chapter ring, made entirely out of silver. It’s a lovely example of what we can do with the open-worked dial design.
Of all of the pieces of yours that we’ve had through, this is certainly the most visually striking. What sort of issues are faced when making an open-worked dial?
Well, the level of finishing is exactly the same as on any other of our watches, we don’t up our game because it happens to be more visible in this version. All of our watches are a challenge to make, but the open-dial certainly comes with its own challenges. There is nowhere to hide on this type of dial, so it has to be 110%.
"All of our watches are a challenge to make, but the open-dial certainly comes with its own challenges. There is nowhere to hide on this type of dial, so it has to be 110%."
When did you first have the idea to make an open-worked series two?
That was back in 2010, and I designed it because I wanted to showcase the level of craftsmanship and finishing that we put into the watches.
It nicely highlights the functionality of the piece…
How are the waiting periods on these at the moment?
It’s around four years, but with the move into the larger facility, we should be able to cut that down in due course.
From recollection, the latest iteration of the co-axial escapement has made its way into the piece, what can you tell us about that?
[a muffled thud occurs] Argh. I’ve just banged my shin.
I’ll have to fight the pain. The story of my life [laughs]. So this piece features the single wheel co-axial escapement, which had previously been two wheels combined. The difficulty with the two wheeled escapement was accurately joining the two parts, because the tolerances are so low. The idea for the single wheeled piece came to me in 2010, and the by-product of these improvements has helped increase accuracy, while reducing wear on the gear-train.
What was the reason for the increased accuracy?
Because the wheel now uses less material, it’s lighter, meaning it requires less force from the mainspring to function. This reduction of mainspring force is another great advantage because there is far less stress on the components of the movement. There were a few challenges with it though, as to make it fit into the series two, I had to completely re-design the escapement to function on a smaller scale. It has performed far better than any of us had expected it to, and it has basically been a win-win. Horology isn’t about standing still and accepting things as they are. It’s about pushing things forward and making small improvements wherever we can.
"Horology isn’t about standing still and accepting things as they are. It’s about pushing things forward and making small improvements wherever we can."
On a slightly different note, you’re quite the fan of vintage Omega. What is it about Omega that you enjoy so much?
I like the brand a lot. When I was at college, and began playing around with watches, learning how to repair them and so on, it would always be exciting for me to work on one. The movements that Omega were making in the 1950s and 1960s were far superior to anything else I had seen. You could just tell that these were designed and built by watchmakers who truly understood the importance of longevity.
Many of them have even survived unserviced and still run to this day…
Yes, and with a very quick strip-down and a clean of the movement’s components, they can run as well as they did, back when they were first made. I suppose that’s what’s always fascinated me about these old Omegas, is that they were just of such high-quality mechanically speaking. This is the reason I find it hard to move away from that brand and venture into other vintage pieces, which I know aren’t mechanically as sound.
What typically attracts you about a watch?
The mechanics are the primary reason I would buy a watch. I’m not always drawn to the aesthetics of the piece, it’s more what’s inside. That’s always been my motivation, both in buying and making watches.
You have an Omega on your wrist today, tell us a bit about that…
This is an Omega Seamaster with a Calibre 321 Lemania movement inside. It’s manually wound and I believe the reference is 145.006. It’s my latest purchase.
What was it about this that made you think, I have to have it?
Well firstly, the movement is excellent, but secondly, the styling is very different. It’s quite understated and you just don’t see them very often; certainly not as much as you come across the Speedmaster. These are really wonderful watches. This one was made in 1967 and, to me, it’s a timeless classic.
On a final note, we wondered what you think George Daniels might make of what’s developed since his unfortunate passing in 2011?
I think if he had an extra life on him, he would be pleased to see that it’s now very possible for tiny independent watchmakers to be creating all of their own components. This is largely thanks to the development of CNC machinery, but things have dramatically changed. He was entirely reliant upon himself, going into his workshop day after day, working ten or twelve hours at a time in order to gradually create a single watch. I feel that he would have likely gone down some of the routes we are now taking with improvements. I think he would be just enjoying horology and making something different to the norm.
Your shin isn’t hurting too much is it?
You won’t include that in the interview will you?
No, certainly not.
To find out more, please visit Roger Smith's website
Follow Roger on instagram @rogerwsmithltd