In the digital age, the era of the apprentice learning a hand-skill over a period of years is fast becoming a rarity. One such exception to this is Johnny Dowell, a master engraver who worked through the ranks of world renowned gunmaker, James Purdey & Sons. Johnny, having since gone freelance, now does collaborations with watch makers, motorbike manufacturers and audio companies to name a few. We sat down for a coffee and a chat to find out where it all began.
How did you come to be interested in a career as an engraver?
Initially, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I had thought I would maybe do something fashion related. I was going to attend CSM (Central Saint Martin’s) like a few of my friends had done, but then before my studies finished previous to that, I came across a catalogue at my uncle’s house for James Purdey and Sons…
The Gun makers…
Exactly, my uncle worked for them and I don’t know how I had never come across this before, but it immediately interested me. He wasn’t an engraver, he was a finisher, which means he is the one who checks if the gun is functioning correctly and makes sure it is in a shop-floor sellable state.
And you hadn’t really come across this at all previously?
I must have at some point, but I never really looked closely at the engraving work. I thought it was all just simple rings, you know, but then when I looked properly there were all sorts of things, like lions and engravings of game.
That then lead to you applying for a job with them?
Yeah, I had good illustration skills and it matched the kind of rough route career-wise that I wanted to take, so I applied and ended up getting an apprenticeship. They taught me for five years and in the 15 years I spent with them, I was the only engraver they employed.
Was it challenging at first?
Yeah, it definitely was. There is a probation period and you have to be able to clearly demonstrate your artistic skills; you’ve got to be able to draw. Provided you can demonstrate that, you maybe end up making it to the step where you engrave a gun.
What were you drawing initially before you were engraving?
Well, Purdey’s is over 200 years old and they have a traditional pattern which you have to learn to do by heart. You draw that pattern so many times that it becomes programmed into your brain, that you can draw it perfectly without much thought. Once you’re competent at the pattern, you then use a scriber to sketch the design onto the metal, and take it from there.
How do the more intricate custom designs work?
The client will come with an idea of what they want and I’ll start sketching that out until we arrive at something we’re happy with. Once that’s done, we use a transfer to get the outline onto the metal.
Sort of like tattooing?
Yeah, it’s very similar actually.
Is it quite a traditional feeling environment to work in?
Actually not really, it’s a factory filled with forty guys and everyone is having a laugh.
[Laughs] So, perhaps the opposite of what we might imagine?
It’s actually different from most gun factories, because a lot of the other businesses separate all the processes into their own sections and rooms. Engravers in one room, finishers in another, but at Purdey it was more like a conveyer belt, leading to a more casual and social environment.
"I was petrified [laughs]. In the lead up to this, I had been working up and up over five years on bigger and bigger parts to get my confidence up. So, then I went in for a chat with the guys, who showed me a pattern and asked if I felt I could do it."
What was it like when you got your hands on the first gun you would be engraving for real?
I was petrified [laughs]. In the lead up to this, I had been working up and up over five years on bigger and bigger parts to get my confidence up. So, then I went in for a chat with the guys, who showed me a pattern and asked if I felt I could do it.
Things suddenly got real…
[Laughs] Yeah, and so I said, “Yeah, I think I can do that,” they handed me the gun and off I went. Some of these things take 300 or 400 hours to complete, all done under microscopes and magnification loops; it was an enormous undertaking.
Did you make a mistake on your first gun?
I’ve never made a big mistake on a gun, like where you slip across the entire surface and leave a huge scratch. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen, you wouldn’t be allowed to engrave a gun if that was a possibility. The kind of mistakes that will happen aren’t visible to the naked eye, or they are easily correctible.
So, it might just be that the cut went too deep or too shallow or something?
Yeah, or if the tool broke it can make a mark. These things are done with patience and care, nice and slowly, which actually forms a big part of the training; you have to train your patience as much as the techniques required.
Once you had completed your apprenticeship, what was the plan?
I wanted to stay on and work with them. They put a huge investment into training you up, so there is some feeling of obligation to them. I stayed with them for 15 years, which is quite rare at a gun company.
Where do they usually go?
They either go freelance or just go work for other companies, which feels a little unfair.
"I was more interested in clothes and painting trainers, you know? I would always be thinking of other things that I could engrave that were out of the norm."
Were you ever actually interested in shooting?
No, not at all. A lot of the guys are, but it was never really something for me; I was more interested in clothes and painting trainers, you know? I would always be thinking of other things that I could engrave that were out of the norm.
What sorts of things did you begin with?
I got some of the guys on the other machines to make me simple things like dog tags and keyring chains, so I could engrave my own thing on them.
These kinds of things were just for you or was the idea to sell them?
Yeah, just for me, I used to wear them a lot. Walking around with my own personalised dog tags made out of titanium [laughs], I probably looked ridiculous.
What was the first watch you engraved?
The first was a project that Jaeger LeCoultre brought to us because they are part of the Richemont group too. They had a client who wanted two Reverso’s engraved with some flowers which were significant to him and his wife.
Was that a challenge by comparison to your usual canvas?
It was different because it was stainless steel, and everyone always asks me what’s nice to engrave with watches, but stainless steel is a horrible metal to engrave, potentially one of the worst.
It’s very inconsistent, so the density makes it a bit jumpy. One spot will be soft, one is hard, so it presents a unique challenge. The Reverso’s were a mild steel actually, which is much more consistent to the kind of stuff Rolex use, for example.
And the engraving came out nicely in the end?
Yeah, and what was really nice is that the director of Jaeger sent me a nice thank you note for having done the work.
"I definitely felt I could do more watch related projects, but even now it’s hard to get hold of the kinds of people that sign off on this work."
Was it this experience that made you think about potentially expanding the type of work you were doing?
Yeah, I definitely felt I could do more watch related projects, but even now it’s hard to get hold of the kinds of people that sign off on this work. There are ten people that you have to reach to sign off on a project, and until all ten are on board these things are in limbo; it can be tricky.
Is that why you wound up working with more independents than the majors on these projects?
Yeah, for sure and then I would complete that work during breaks or free time that I had at work. I wrote to a lot brands and got no response though. I approached Linde Werdelin because, at the time, they were just up the road from me in London; they aren’t anymore though.
How did you find them, because they were quite obscure back then…
I saw them in a yacht magazine that I happened to be looking at in Portugal. I was looking for a brand that were in reach and that had a bit more space on the case for designs, and they fit the bill perfectly. The contrast of their modern shaped cases and my work seemed like they would make a lot of sense.
Is it more or less of a challenge to work on an angular case like that versus a curved case?
I much prefer an angular flat case to work with, because with the curves it becomes a more complex movement for the engraving. It’s not necessarily more difficult than the flat shapes, but I just prefer it.
How did they respond to your suggestion of collaborating?
They were very enthusiastic about it, they said, “We love the idea, we’ve never done this before and we’ll get back to you.” I didn’t hear anything and around six or eight months later I decided to follow up with them and they responded saying, “We were going to get back to you, but we had to release some new watches first. Why don’t you come meet us.”
So, I went to see the founders Jorn and Morten, who were quite taken by the Purdey association and initially suggested doing something along the classic lines of scrolls and the typical kind of thing you’d see on a gun.
Were you not keen to take that route?
Not exactly, no. I said that their watches were too modern for that kind of approach and suggested doing something completely different that would complement the watch. Given their ties to diving and skiing, something along that path seemed logical.
They weren’t too put out with you dictating the course?
No, they were fine with it. Eventually we made six or seven of the first series which was called Oktopus Reef, and was made of grade five titanium.
"It’s the hardest material I’ve worked with to this day. It destroyed all my tools, and I ended up having to change to a different kind of steel to cut through it."
Which is notoriously hard, right?
Yeah, it’s the hardest material I’ve worked with to this day. It destroyed all my tools, and I ended up having to change to a different kind of steel to cut through it. I put the tentacles of an octopus on the bezel and then coral reefs around the bottom, with bubbles rising up to the top.
Seems like a nice harmony theme wise…
Yeah, I mean, their logo is an octopus also, so it works. It would have been odd to have a dive watch with Purdey gun scrolls on it. So, we made a series of those, each of which had a slight variation to the design, but were all on the same theme. We mostly changed the positioning of the engravings, so they would all be unique.
And they all presumably went very quickly…
Yeah, my only regret is not getting one for myself.
What came after that?
Well, a funny coincidence happened after that. I was working on a project for a client at Purdey, not someone I knew personally, but it was to engrave a family crest. It just so turned out that the job was for George Bamford, which was pointed out to me by a colleague.
That’s a funny coincidence…
And what’s weirder is that we were following each other on Instagram anyway. We got talking and I told him that I’d love to do some work with Bamford and he was immediately interested and he suggested I come in for a meeting. I ended up engraving a Datejust with a samurai motif on the bezel, case and bracelet.
By this point were you becoming a little bored at work?
Yeah, I was getting a little tired of doing the same scrolls day in day out. The real issue was more that it just didn’t feel challenging anymore, or creative. Not to put a dampener on that time, but I needed more creative challenges. No one wanted dinosaurs on a gun… [laughs]
"I sent him a few options of potential designs, and he said, “You know what, I’m going to send you the watch and you do what you want on it.”"
[Laughs] Funny that…
So, with George Bamford, it has always been interesting because he’s very trusting creatively. I sent him a few options of potential designs, and he said, “You know what, I’m going to send you the watch and you do what you want on it.”
Wow, very trusting…
Yeah, I was taken aback by that actually. Three or four weeks later, I delivered the watch and he loved it.
You’ve worked on a few other special pieces too right, there’s a Nautilus which is circulating that you worked on?
Yeah, that was also through George for a client of his. That was great to work on that watch, because it’s a rare watch to begin with and rare that someone would want to do something to that design. It was a ref. 3700 and they wanted to have a scorpion on the back with flowers around the bezel. It wound up looking very cool.
Let’s talk about your personal Omega Speedmaster. What gave you the idea to make this?
So, after making a bunch of watches with George, I decided that I wanted to make something for myself. I found this Schumacher Speedmaster for sale in Japan, and having been a fan of both his and Snoopy’s for some time, I thought, “I’m going to put Snoopy in Schumacher’s Ferrari.
[Laughs] Why not!
The Snoopy connection to Omega is so cool, and so it was an opportunity to make something that was very relevant to the brand, but totally unique. The gold number seven on the front of the car is the number of world championships he’s won; it’s still the record.
Wow, that’s a nice little detail…
The watch is intended as a faithful tribute to the brand. Both Snoopy and Schumacher have been incredibly important to the brand over the years, and are both connected to the Speedmaster.
"The watch is intended as a faithful tribute to the brand. Both Snoopy and Schumacher have been incredibly important to the brand over the years, and are both connected to the Speedmaster."
Did you show this to the guys at Omega?
Yeah, indirectly. I was sending pictures to a bunch of guys in the industry, Kristian Haagen, Adam Craniotes, Fratello and it found it’s way to Raynald Aeschelimann who sent me a little note saying, “You should be really proud, you’ve got a one-off.”
That must have felt good to get a nod from the brand…
So, how did you get a smooth caseback for it?
It was the original caseback but we ground it down at Purdey. We had to take away a lot of material, so it was lucky that I didn’t go through it when engraving. There’s actually a tiny dent on there, I won’t tell you where, but had I pressed any harder it would have gone through.
Since working on watches, you’ve gone on to work with quite a few brands now right?
Yeah, the work with Bamford lead to working with Harley Davidson and their customisation department. A chap named Charlie Stockwell is in charge of that, and we worked on a specially engraved bike for a show they were involved with in Japan. I put koi carp on the tank, suspension and engine covers.
Wow, how long does something like that take?
A long, long time [laughs].
The scale change impacts it a lot we would imagine?
Yes, I bit off a bit more than I could chew on that one. Hugely undercharged, as it wound up taking me quite a few months. I was happy to do it though because adding a brand like that to your CV makes a big difference. That lead to working with Marsno Dynamic, who make audio equipment.
Oh yes, you engraved headphones for those guys right?
Yeah, these big over ear headphones with metal exteriors, which sell for £1,000. I decided on that project to go back to scrolls because the juxtaposition seemed fun to me.
So, what have you got coming up that we can look out for?
There are many projects on the way, but they’re all quite secretive at the moment. There is one in particular that I wish I could mention, but it will be out there soon enough.