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Handcrafting Watches with Elite British Watchmaker Roger W Smith

Roger W Smith

I’m always open to other people’s opinions on watches. So much about what we wear on our wrists is down to personal preference and what you’re actually going to wear it for that I’d hate to outright tell other watch lovers what’s what. That is, of course, unless I’m asked who the finest watchmaker in the UK is. Because that’s pretty damn obvious: Roger W Smith, OBE.

First, a bit of context. It can be hard to pin down exact production figures, but Rolex makes well over 800,000 pieces a year. At the other end of the spectrum, legendary independent watchmaker F.P. Journe produces around 700. Roger W Smith on the other hand has an upper limit of around five. Not 500, but five individual watches per year.

Roger W Smith

So rarefied are these watches that Smith has had to close his order book simply to work through the current backlog. The question is, therefore, why? Why does the master watchmaker take so long to build each watch and more importantly, why are they worth the wait? First, it’s worth discussing another name to set collector’s hearts aflutter, the inimitable George Daniels. Back in the 1980s, Dr. Daniels set up shop on the tiny Isle of Man to demonstrate that the true, traditional way of making watches – one pair of hands working on one watch under one roof was still possible, coining The Daniels Method.

There are 34 individual skills needed to hand-build a watch from the ground up and The Daniels Method requires master of at least 32 of those. It means making a timepiece alone and by hand, and is without a doubt the most demanding approach to haute horology possible.

Roger Smith Series 1

Roger Smith Series 1

Today, vintage Daniels timepieces are the holiest of grails, the kind of pieces that are invariably auction headliners. Back in the summer, a 1999 Millennium wristwatch sold for £519,000 at Bonhams; a couple of years earlier, his Space Traveller I went for a cool £3.6m at Sotheby’s. While his legacy as a watchmaker – including the most technically-advanced escapement in 250 years, the Co-Axial escapement that powers most Omega watches these days – is unassailable, Daniels only ever had one apprentice at his remote studio. You’ve probably guessed by now who that was: Lancashire born Roger Smith.

After passing The Daniels Method test by making his own watch, start to finish, in 1998 Smith became a collaborator, rather than an apprentice, moving to the Isle of Man to work on Daniels’ Millenium Series. Three years later, Roger set up his own studio and the retrograde calendar Series 1 was born.

Roger Smith Series 2

Roger Smith Series 2

It was however the Series 2 that put Smith on the map. The first modern, production watch by a British watchmaker, almost every single one of the Series 2’s 225 parts were built in the Roger W Smith studio, including the Daniels co-axial escapement. It was both technically and aesthetically magnificent, in short, the ultimate British timepiece.

Roger Smith Series collection

Today, there are five series of Roger Smith watches, starting with the understated beauty of the Series 1 and working up to the Series 5 with its open dial and magnificent level of finishing. Yet in many ways, it’s the Series 4, Smith’s most complicated timepiece, that illustrates his approach best.

“Something George Daniels drummed into me as a young man were his ultimate principles of watch design – clarity and simplicity. George absolutely hated watches which looked like an Enigma machine and needed an Alan Turing to work out the time! As we curate a new British watchmaking tradition, I believe that elegant simplicity must be our design creed.”

Roger Smith Series 4 Triple Calendar

Roger Smith Series 4 Triple Calendar

And so, despite the host of functions involved, the Series 4 Triple Calendar is anything but busy. An inline day and month display, peripheral date and combined small seconds and moon phase display all pack a lot of information into a svelte 41mm watch.

As for price, it’s hard to say exactly how much a Roger Smith watch will set you back, especially as the studio’s order book is now closed, but expect a Series 1 starting point of £130,000. As every piece is built to personal specifications, it’ll only go up from there in line with the amount of personalisation involved. And if you were going for one of these, you’d want as much as possible, right?

Roger Smith The Great Britain

Roger Smith The Great Britain, 2013

Of course, Smith doesn’t spend all of his time working away sequestered on the Isle of Man, even if that’s what a few of the collectors at the tail end of his wait list would like to hear. He’s also one of the biggest proponents of British watchmaking on a global scale.

In 2013, as part of the government’s GREAT Britain campaign, Smith created the aptly named Great Britain watch, based on his Series 2. The watch includes a unique movement with incredible three-dimensional architecture and one of the most impressive dials ever made by hand. Or a machine, to be honest. Smith wanted to show just what Britain could do and he did just that.

Roger W Smith

Since then, Smith also established the Alliance of British Watch and Clock Makers with Christopher Ward’s Mike France, a duo spanning both ends of the horological spectrum and both pushing their respective price brackets to ever more impressive extremes. Needless to say, Roger Smith earned his OBE.

As for what the future holds… well, don’t expect wait lists for a Roger Smith of any series to get any shorter. The difference is however that Roger does have a decent team he’s working with, meaning that in time he may well be able to expand The Daniels Method to a wider ring of watchmakers than one. In the meantime, he’s doing his best to not only make the finest timepieces in our fair isles but push British watchmaking as a whole to the status it deserves. He very much is the Best of British.

More details at Roger W Smith.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.