Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview
January 2024 20 Min Read

The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell

By Raj Aditya Chaudhuri

Stephen McDonnell does not own any watches. He freely admits that before the Legacy Machine Perpetual for MB&F, he had never even designed a full movement. Yet the watch, which represented a wholesale re-imaging of the age-old complication, won the Calendar Watch Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) in 2016. His second ever design, the MB&F Legacy Machine Sequential Evo, was even better received. It was awarded the overall top prize, the Aiguille d’Or, at the GPHG in 2022.

Yet McDonnell’s career, and indeed his entire adult life, has been spent fighting an internal battle, trying to convince himself that he could never become a watchmaker or a watch designer, let alone one who could hold a candle to the mythic Swiss industry.

His is a story of the many triumphs, big and small, often against his own instincts. This was plain to see when we spoke with McDonnell in his home, and the adjoining workshop he has created for himself, in Belfast. He talked about his childhood, transitioning from engineering to divinity school at Oxford, his time on welfare and how he managed to get to WOSTEP, the watchmaking school in Neuchâtel, and teach himself watch design.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking
Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

ACM: Where did you get your interest in watchmaking from? After all, Belfast isn’t a city with an established culture for the craft and you studied Theology at Oxford.

SM: If you grow up here you would never consider watchmaking … because it's unknown as a career. Nobody becomes a watchmaker if you grow up in Northern Ireland and it’s nearly the same in England. It is a little bit better now; slowly it improves. But I was born in 1974, so we’re talking early 1990s when I went to university. Watchmaking was something I adored and have been obsessed with since I was a small child. I really got into it when I was about five or six years old when I got hold of a mechanical clock. When I was at school, I always felt this is something I’m mad about, but it will only be like a private interest for me. There is no career to be had; this doesn’t exist anymore. The difference is, of course, if you're in Switzerland, every third person you meet in the pub on Friday night is in the watch industry in some way – there’s a whole ecosystem.

None of that exists here. I never considered it as a career at that time and I went off and did other stuff. I actually got into Pembroke College [Oxford University] to study Engineering and did it for a year before realising I wasn’t capable of surviving the whole degree course and changed to Theology at the start of my second year. I really enjoyed it [the coursework]. I came back here [to Belfast] at the end of ’96 when all of my friends from university were becoming venture capital analysts and accountants and merchant bankers. I moved home here and went on the dole for three months. Then I got a job working for the Simon Community, which is a charity that looks after homeless people, and they have shops. I drove a white van between two furniture shops, delivering furniture donations to the shops. Whenever people bought the furniture I would deliver stuff to their homes, all for the princely salary of £5,000 a year. I was quite happy.

But I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I’d always had this interest in horology, and that had never gone away. But during this time, my mother bought me a clock for my 21st birthday from a local antique dealer. I went to see the dealer and was looking at his clocks and he and I got chatting. He noticed I was interested and asked if I could repair a few clocks for him. Very soon I started to repair all these clocks that he was buying and selling. From there I started repairing clocks for another jeweller in Belfast, and then another one nearby, and suddenly I had all these clocks to repair and it became almost like a business.

I suddenly realised, well – maybe there is something in this; maybe this can be something more than just a hobby. I got a job as a watchmaker for a jeweller in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and that was my first [watchmaking] job. Through my work there I kept hearing about WOSTEP. Initially I thought, well, I could never do that. You know, I couldn't possibly. I would never be of the calibre to go to Switzerland and go and study watchmaking. That’s impossible. But the name WOSTEP just kept reappearing. Eventually I looked into it, applied and I got in. I started in January 2001.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

What was it like moving to Switzerland and starting at this watchmaking school you never thought you could get into?

There are a series of red lines in my life – getting a clock as a child was one. Getting to WOSTEP was another. From the moment I went to Switzerland, the learning curve was vertical in the first two years. However, it was – without trying to sound pretentious – a bit like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts. Suddenly everything fits, all the weirdness in my life now all of a sudden makes sense and I’m surrounded by a world that I can really understand. These are my kind of people; I seem to be good at it [the coursework] and I like the place. All the pieces just fell into place. It was literally fucking magic.

You’ve built a reputation on disrupting traditional movement architecture. What spurred this?

Now that I’ve been doing this longer and I understand much more about how the whole thing works, I think the Swiss have, dare I say, a slightly complacent attitude to the industry. There’s sort of a feeling that, “well, we’re the Swiss – only we can do watchmaking”. Everybody else also thinks only the Swiss can do it. It feeds a perpetuating cycle where they [Swiss watchmakers] do it the same. It’s like the perpetual calendar – we’ve done it the same way forever. Nobody feels any need to innovate or evolve things or make them more interesting. I suppose it’s always good to shake things up a bit. I mean, if you don’t keep it interesting, then what’s the point?

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking
Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

Your workshop, although compact, is complete in terms of the equipment needed to prototype movements and watches. What was the thinking behind acquiring all this?

I knew I really wanted to push forward with watchmaking in an independent way. You can’t do anything without your equipment. I had seen my future in terms of building prototypes – unique pieces for other people. So, in order to do that, you need all the equipment. This was the very first step … of getting on that road to where now I have what I need to make all the bits and pieces [of a prototype] myself. I started collecting these in the spare room of our first-floor apartment in Neuchâtel. Initially, I just thought I’d buy a lathe and have it in the spare room and fiddle with it and it’d be fun. I didn’t realise it would get to the stage it has now, but things kept developing. I became increasingly obsessed by it. As the work increased, as did the need for the equipment to do it.

So, the spare room thing didn’t work. We had our first child and my equipment wasn’t going to fit in the room anyway. So, at that point I moved in with Stephen McGonigle; he had a workshop about a mile outside of Neuchâtel. This was in 2007.

And that was perfect – it was a big room and a big industrial lift. It was a perfect workshop … because a watchmaking workshop is halfway between an artist’s studio and an operating theatre. Everything has to be really clean [and] well-organised but it has to inspire some sort of creativity as well.

Instead of buying watches, McDonnell saved up to buy one bit of machinery or equipment with his savings every year. His first acquisition while in Switzerland was a lathe that he transported in the back of Irish watchmaker Stephen McGonigle’s Opel Kadett.

You spent several years at WOSTEP, first as a student, then as a teacher, working first as a deputy to Kari Voutilainen and then, when he left, taking on the main role. What was that like?

While the teaching was good, and I was happy to do it for a year or two, I don’t think I was ever really born to be a teacher; it wasn’t my passion. I felt that it was distracting me from actual watch design. I was done with it two years before I actually left because I was very nervous about becoming independent and taking that big step. When I moved in [to the workshop] with Stephen McGonigle in 2007, I left WOSTEP almost at the same time.

I remember it being very exciting, but also very scary [setting up the workshop with McGonigle] and it took several weeks to get all this equipment set up before I could start working. I finally finished organising everything and I was just about to start work and then literally that was the day – I remember I was opening a drawer – [that] my wife phoned me and told me she was pregnant with child number one. I was terrified.

You are perhaps best known for the work you did with Maximilian Büsser. How did that relationship develop?

At the time, Peter [Speake], as I mentioned, was pushing me to start designing. Through him I’d also met Max [Büsser]. Peter was involved with the very first Horological Machine, the HM1. At that time, MB&F was just Max and his assistant, and his office was his car. He didn't have any watchmakers or a team of people. He had employed a company to produce all the components, assemble the watches and supply him with cased watches, which he would then sell. Midway through this process that company was sold and changed hands and the new owners didn’t want to work with Max any more. So, they just gave him several large cardboard boxes filled with thousands of components and told him to sling his hook.

He’d poured every penny he had into this project, and he had all these parts. But the thing [the watch] had never been prototyped so nobody knew if it worked or not. Max was in a real state. So the brief was to take these kits of parts – that did not have any assembly instructions, that were missing bits and other bits that didn’t work properly – and work out how the thing went together. We had to work all this out and then try to get the watches assembled. Max would say I took the lead in doing that, and it was a very interesting project.

You mentioned Peter Speake was encouraging you at this time to learn watch design. Could you please tell us why you hesitated to take this step?

When I left WOSTEP and became independent, I worked a lot with Peter and I was doing watches for Christophe Claret. It was Peter who saw something in me – what exactly he saw, I am not sure. He and I are good friends and he pushed me and kept saying, “You have to learn CAD”, “You have to start designing stuff”. I always replied, “I could never do that, Peter. What are you talking about?” At that time, I was just assembling complications, minute repeaters, tourbillon minute repeaters and chronographs. And I was doing perpetual calendars for Peter and other bits and pieces.

So initially I thought [that designing a watch was] a crazy idea. But Peter pushed me to do it. So, I just stopped working for three months and I taught myself CAD. I was self-employed at the time and our first child, my daughter, was a month or two old. I stopped working and started learning CAD, unpaid effectively for three months, and then started to design stuff.

Initially I designed several modules to go with base movements for Peter, like jumping-hour systems. So those are the very first things I ever actually designed. And I not only designed them, but I made everything – I made those entire modules on the equipment that you see here in this room. So, it was a complete A-Z design, building the whole thing, casing it, and making it a watch and presenting it and then Peter sold those.

As with any true passion, McDonnell tells us how he often finds it hard to switch off. He speaks of nights spent lying in bed doing calculations in his head. Sometimes, when a breakthrough comes, even if it is in the dead of the night, he feels compelled to get out of bed, make it to his workshop to note the line of thinking down, if not to test the theory immediately.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking
Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

Over the years, McDonnell has accumulated all the tools he might need to completely fabricate a prototype from start to finish. As his desire to do and learn more grows, he says he feels like he is constantly running out of room in his workshop.

How did you get back together with MB&F?

It was 2012 when I got back together with Max with the idea of doing some sort of project. Prior to that, I'd been working on a very long, drawn-out, very complicated project which involved an investor. The investor decided it was a difficult arrangement and he no longer wanted to continue with it, and pulled out. Suddenly, I found myself unemployed with no income.

Peter, who is a recurring character in my story, came down and I showed him the design of this cool watch I had created, which has never seen the light of day. It had several mechanisms which were completely new. So, Peter said, “OK, what we’ll do is we’ll take one of these systems, we’ll turn it into a watch that will feature this module, and then we’ll sell it and have some income.” This was six weeks before the Basel fair. In those six weeks, I took the idea, turned it into a complete module, got the thing finished – not just functional, but completely finished, looking lovely – and Peter took it to Basel.

I knew Max would be there and I was interested in trying to do something with Max and so I said to Peter [he should have] the watch in his pocket and show it to Max. Max thought it was great and after Basel, they [MB&F] called me and said let’s meet up. That resulted in the Legacy Machine Perpetual.

This watch was a fundamentally fresh take on the workings of a perpetual calendar. What made you decide to pursue this?

I did the course on restoration and complications with Voutilainen [at WOSTEP] and I remember getting my hands on a perpetual calendar for the first time. It was this mythical complication and I remember opening it up and getting into it and I was just amazed. I remember thinking, “Is this it?” Because it was really clunky and there are all sorts of problems with the big lever and how it moves around. If you do the setting at the wrong time, you can break the tips off some of the teeth.

At first Max wanted nothing to do with an idea for a perpetual calendar. He of course had previously worked at Harry Winston and Jaeger-LeCoultre and he had nothing but problems with perpetual calendars. They didn’t work properly, and nobody even expected that they should work properly. It was taken as part of the game that they would sell the watch to the client, the client would break it and it would be sent back to the after-sales service, and the watch would just come and go.

My question was, why the hell has nobody done this better? So I said to Max that I have an idea for a calendar which won’t do any of those things, it will be completely reliable and nothing will go wrong with it – no matter what intervention the wearer makes [with the pushers and crown] can break it.

The classic perpetual calendar is based on a wheel with 31 teeth, 31 being the longest month. To me that’s counterintuitive, because whenever you have a month which is less – for example, the end of February – if you watch what happens on 28th February, jumping to 1st March, you’ll see that for about 20 minutes, the watch will move forward on 29th February, then maybe half an hour later it’ll move to 30th February, then 31st February. So, it reads these incongruous values and then eventually will settle on 1st March. But this seemed so inelegant.

For me, it’s much more logical to take 28 as the base for the calendar calculation, since all months have at least 28 days, and add in the extra days as and when required. Then you always have exactly the right number of days in the month.

But you can’t use the same system as the traditional calendar. This required a completely different architecture, what MB&F call a mechanical processor – it’s a multi-layered stacked gear with moving segments inside. You programme it on the 25th of the month for the present month, and then at the end of the month it spits out the extra days – be it 28, 29, 30 or 31.

The watch also allows direct access to the year in the cycle of 48 months or four years. In the conventional perpetual calendar, say you have to go back by one month in the 48-month cycle, what you actually have to do is go forward by 47 months, pressing the month corrector 47 times, which is again very incongruous. Mine allows direct access to the year and with one press you move forward a whole year, or 12 months.

The other thing as well, is that in a conventional perpetual calendar, if you look at the date, the 31st and 1st are so close together because the wheel governing it typically has 31 teeth. So, it looks ridiculous. It does the calendar in a completely new, more efficient and effective way. But the information it provides is familiar to everybody. It’s how it does it that’s interesting.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

You moved back to Belfast in 2014. How do you view your experience in Switzerland now?

When I moved to Switzerland to attend WOSTEP … I went there to study and then they asked me to stay on and train to become an instructor. But that’s watchmaking – that’s the bench, the machines, the tools. It’s not design. In Switzerland you have this real disconnect between people who are watchmakers who do all this stuff [work at the bench], and then you have the people who actually do the designing. If you want to be a watchmaker at the bench, you go to watchmaking school. If you want to design watches you go to, effectively, engineering college; it’s a subset of an engineering degree for four years. But the two never communicate. So, all the people who go and do watch design will do a four-year degree, but they’ll never have held a pair of tweezers. Similarly, the people who do watchmaking can do all sorts of great, very dexterous work and make all sorts of parts, but they never design anything.

So, you have this real polarisation in Switzerland between these two extremes, and very often you hear people complaining that the engineers who’ve designed something [have] done the fantastic CAD design of something, and it looks brilliant on the screen 200 times larger, and all the levers are perfectly parallel and it all behaves exactly as it should. But then when you build it in reality, it doesn’t work because they’ve never seen the design through the eyes of a watchmaker.

I would say if I have anything to bring to this, it’s because I design stuff through the eyes of a watchmaker. So, I went to watchmaking school but I’m entirely self-taught with the design stuff. I never did the four-year degree, and this is just entirely me making it up as I go along.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking
Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

While McDonnell doesn’t repair clocks or watches any more, in his spare time he is repairing a 150-year-old kitchen clock for a relative who lives in a historic building that functioned in the past as a hotel, along the northern coast of Ireland. Both the clock and the hotel building have been in the McDonnell clan for several generations. The clock hasn’t worked since the 1950s and McDonnell is fabricating many of the broken and missing components for it in his workshop. He also has in his workshop, a clock believed to have been owned by Thomas Andrews, Belfast-based designer of Titanic. The clock has been passed down through his family.

The thinking behind the Legacy Machine Sequential Evo is also grounded in a similar frustration you had with chronographs, is that right?

It was actually at Dubai Watch Week in 2016. The Legacy Machine Perpetual had just won the Calendar and Astronomy Watch Prize at the GPHG that year and Max and I were having dinner. He, being a watch collector, had just bought a Tiffany pocket watch, a rattrapante chronograph. He was all delighted with this watch and he showed it to me. I told him it had the same technical flaws and limited functionality that all other chronographs have. He wanted to know what we could do. I said, “Well, you know, I’ve got an idea.”

In a conventional chronograph, you start [it] and then during the first lap it runs. But as the car passes the line at the end of the first lap, you would have to stop your chronograph, record the time, reset to zero and then restart the chronograph, simultaneously, which is, of course, impossible.

So, the design of this [Legacy Machine Sequential Evo] means whenever I start the first chronograph, it runs during lap one. Then at the end of lap one I’ll press the magic fifth button and it will instantaneously stop the first chronograph and start the second one. During lap two then I can at my leisure record the time for lap one, and then reset this one to zero. Meanwhile, this one is still running and recording lap two and at the end, once they pass the line, I do exactly the same thing – I press the fifth button again and it stops the second chronograph and starts the first one. I can continue endlessly.

Similarly, if you have two events, [such as] two people who are going to race across a finite distance, and they start together, I can have both chronographs stopped and I can press the [fifth] button at the beginning, so both chronographs start instantaneously together. Then whenever the first guy passes the finish line, you can stop the first chronograph, doing the same with the second chronograph when the second guy passes the finish line. So, I’ve got the two times independently recorded.

It was only around 2018 when I first formally pitched it to MB&F in Geneva. At the meeting, as I was explaining the premise to the technical team, out of the corner of my eye I could see Max’s smile getting bigger and bigger. In the end, it was quite an easy sell.

It brings functionality to a chronograph which has never been seen before. It was the same with the perpetual calendar.

McDonnell’s aesthetic approach to design has also yielded the Legacy Machine Split Escapement. While the Legacy Machine 1 featured the balance and escapement on the dial side, McDonnell split the two up – in the Split Escapement the balance wheel is mounted on a long balance staff, and is visible on the dial side, while the escapement is on the movement side of the watch. It makes for a decidedly tidier aesthetic.

How did you achieve this?

The big part of the innovation was having the two chronographs integrated together. You know, you have two completely separate chronographs, but then they’re brought together by [a system linking] them. The functioning of the conventional chronograph is completely counterintuitive. In a conventional set-up, as soon as you switch the chronograph on it adds friction to the system and makes the amplitude of the watch drop. So, at the moment when you want the most precision, it makes the precision worse, which is mental. Because of this you have a waste of energy which is significant, but it’s tolerable in a normal chronograph. If you use that mechanism and put two of those in the same watch, all of the losses would be doubled. If you have both chronographs running simultaneously, the losses would be so significant that the performance would be so impaired that the watch would no longer run acceptably. So, in order to make this watch happen, I had to find a completely new way to do the chronograph in a fundamentally better way so there’s no loss of energy whatsoever with zero, one or two chronographs engaged – it changes nothing.

I had to create a vertical clutch with internal jewelling, which has never been done before. The internal clutch is one of the things that was a very big part of the research. If you look at the display … normally with a chronograph you’ve got the seconds counter in the centre of the water and the minute counter axis is only a few millimetres away. With this watch, the seconds counters are down here, so you have a huge distance between the two. It’s for that reason you’ve got these giant wheels on the bridge side; they’re the gear train that operate the minute counters. So, the idea of moving the minute counters further away and driving it with the special gear trains is another innovation. All in all, the calibre design has five patents linked to it.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking
Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

While McDonnell persuasions are best described as technical, his approach has a very human quality to it, complete with the vulnerability that that entails. Like most of us, he worries about his creations falling short. His three children leave him little notes of affirmation, one of which he found hidden in his suitcase when he travelled for Dubai Watch Week last year.

What was the process like dreaming up this calibre?

You know, once they [MB&F] said yes, I fully launched into actually designing the thing, but the idea really grew organically. From the back of my head, the whole watch just grew from a central kernel of an idea. It felt – again, this is going to sound pretentious – but like it was almost like it was designing itself [and] I was just moving the parts around.

But then it didn’t work at all in the prototype, and it was a disaster that nearly finished me off. I always knew that there was one area of the design, in terms of the programming on the 25th, that was difficult. I was so pleased with how the rest of it worked. As I was going through the design, it seemed like such a small thing, and I thought, “I’ll resolve that.” Gradually the more I thought about it, the more that one little detail grew and became the entire project. If I couldn’t solve that, there was no workaround.

Whenever the programming happens, there’s a lever that swings in very fast; it bangs into a pin and the pin effectively controls the moving segments inside the wheel. So the lever will stop in a different position depending on what you want to programme. But because the lever comes in very fast and the impact is like a collision with the pin, the lever will stop in the right place, but the pin will ricochet off the lever and bounce around. The programming is only right if the pen is in contact with the lever at the end. If the pin comes to rest somewhere over here, the programming is wrong, so it was finding a way to make sure that the pin remains touching the lever.

Every day for a year and a half I’d been banging my head against the wall trying to find this solution. I phoned MB&F in tears on a Friday – I was devastated by this. They advised [me to take] the weekend. I was sitting in the workshop feeling very depressed on Monday morning and the solution, as if by magic, dropped out of the sky into my head. I redesigned the programming lever – it took me about three hours and it worked the first time.

I remember the day it worked – my family were going to visit friends who have a holiday house in Portaferry in County Down. I was waiting for some parts to come from Switzerland and the box arrived that morning. I said to my wife, “Look, I can’t go. I just have to find out if this works.” I started to build at 10am and worked nonstop, finishing it 12 hours later. And it worked the first time. I stayed up the entire night just listening to David Bowie and drinking wine. I got the bus to Portaferry the next morning. I still have the bus ticket from November 2014.

I notice you never really wear watches and don’t collect them either. What gives?

Given the work I do, I never wear a watch because it feels a bit close to the bone. Besides, the watch as an object is sort of secondary [to me]. I’m not saying I’m not interested in watches, but what I’m really after is what’s inside it. All the machinery and the tech that goes behind it is what interests me hugely.

You’ve often talked about how you didn’t pick watchmaking; it picked you. Can you tell us what you mean by this?

know it sounds pretentious, but since I was … about five [years old I have been fascinated by watchmaking]. I’ve always been very technically curious, not just about watches, but everything you can think of. I want to know how things work and what is inside them and how the components are made and what is the profile of the gears, this kind of stuff. I don’t think [I] learned that. I’ve always had that obsession … since I was a little child. I never went to engineering college in Switzerland to learn watch design; what I do, I do completely autodidactically.

Now that I do it – yes, it does seem to be the thing I should be doing, but because of all the struggle with my self-confidence, I never would have gone down the road of starting it [watch design] off if Peter hadn’t pushed me. The more I did it, the more I was drawn into it and now I’m so far up the mountain with so little oxygen that [it’s] like I don’t know a way down.

What are some of the influences that have informed your aesthetic?

I’m not artistic at all. When I was at school, I could never draw or paint. I don’t really understand how, but I seem to be able to come up with forms that people seem to like and I seem to be happy with. The movements I do, I’m told, look good. It’s a really good question and the answer’s going to disappoint you because I’ve absolutely no idea. The beauty of watches is that it’s a wonderful combination of technical mechanisms that [are] governed by the functionality of the watch. Any component in the watch has to obey the underlying geometry of how the thing functions. Having obeyed that, you can actually lay the components out aesthetically in infinite different ways.

Even with something very simple like a spring – the only bit of the spring that functions is the tip which touches the lever it’s working with. Everything else is just support for that little tip. The aesthetic works for the component itself, but also in harmony with everything around it.

There is often the situation where I have designed a component and it is entirely functional, but I am not satisfied with the aesthetic. I redesign it over and over again till I feel that punch in the gut when I do get it right. I don’t know what I’m aiming for until I get there. It might just be changing one line, one curve off the edge of something and suddenly the whole thing seems right. It may come quickly or there and sometimes I’ll wrestle with it for days.

McDonnell’s iterative approach to aesthetic perfection saw him create 15 versions of the four steel bridges that hold the chronograph parts in place in the Legacy Machine Sequential Evo until he reached the ones he was satisfied with. He has one of the original prototypes of the calibre while the only other one sits in a safe at MB&F.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

The Legacy Machine Sequential Evo won the Aiguille d’Or in 2022 – one the highest prizes in watchmaking. You’ve talked about how after that you didn’t get a single call from journalists asking to talk about the watch. What was that like?

I felt really depressed for several months, actually, because it felt like a culmination of a huge piece of work and I’d felt a real sense of achievement to have done that. I’m sort of hiding here [in Belfast] so, in a sense, people can’t really see me. It did generate lots of articles … but I wasn’t really seeing any of it.

There’s this brilliant book called Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake who was a very eccentric guy. It’s set in this very strange world and in the very first chapter … [you meet a character] called Rottcodd who lives and keeps this museum of wooden carvings. Then the whole book happens. And the last chapter is back to … Rottcodd and he’s still at the museum, oblivious to everything that has happened in the book. And I suppose I felt being here, I felt a bit like Rottcodd. MB&F were getting all this attention – deservedly. But it felt like it was happening remotely, independent of me. It was odd. I suppose that’s the nature of it. I am quite reluctant and shy. So, whenever I do a thing like Dubai Watch Week, there is genuinely lots of interest, lots of people really want to hear about [it], and that’s very exciting. I suppose I need to be doing more of that. It’s just that it’s not my natural disposition.

Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking
Read The philosophies of Stephen McDonnell | A Collected Man Journal Blog Interview Independent watchmaking

Working by himself, far removed from the poles of watchmaking, does come with its drawbacks, says McDonnell.

It could be said that this is partly because your name doesn’t appear on the dial of the watches you have made so far. Do you plan to change this in the future?

MB&F have been very good to me and I have a very nice relationship with the brand. This is because my interest is in all this deeply technical stuff and the development of what’s inside the watch. Most independents have to spend a lot of time travelling around the world, going to meet collectors, going to dinners and events, doing all this legwork. With the arrangement I have with MB&F, I don't really have to do any of that. That’s why nobody really knows me. I’m left completely alone here and nobody bothers me. They [MB&F] allow me total freedom to do the watches [and] I think that arrangement works really well.

What I love about watchmaking is that it’s one of the few domains where it’s possible for one person to do the whole thing – right from the idea in your head of what it might be, all the way through the conception, design [and] development process. So, I think that as a watchmaker such as I am, if I go through my whole life and I haven’t [created under my own name], at least a couple of times, it’s something I’m going to regret forever. I think it’s something I need to do.

I don’t think I would ever set myself up as an independent … where [I’ve] got a significant volume of pieces being made every year and it’s a proper business with lots of employees. I don’t think I’d ever want or be able to do that. But I do think that somewhere along the line I’m going to have to do something for me. Exactly what form that takes and when, I’m not sure. I think MB&F and I will always be friends and if I do this, it will be with their blessing.

We thank Stephen McDonnell for welcoming us into his workshop in Belfast and spending the day with us offering insight into his singular method to watch design. Photography by James Partridge.