In an interview with SHIFTed, Roger Smith discusses his not-so-complicated take on what makes superior horological craftsmanship.
On December 4, 2017, an eager audience assembled at the Horological Society of New York to hear Roger Smith deliver a lecture on the co-axial escapement. Over the past 20 years, Smith has solidified his reputation as a giant in the field of modern watchmaking, amassing numerous accolades including knighthood for his contributions to horology. A protégé of the late George Daniels, Smith now resides on the Isle of Man where he privately balances his time between his beloved family and lifelong passion for watchmaking.
While the waitlist for one of Smith's watches is currently four years, SHIFTed was able to sit down with him for an hour-long discussion following his talk at HSNY. Read on to get his take on form versus function, over-complications and what's under the hood of his '67 Mini Cooper.
[In your lecture with HSNY] you talked about the natural world being an inspiration and you sort of suggested it, at least at the end, with the Da Vinci quote that simplification is sort of the acme of your work or one's work.
Can you just talk a little bit more about that? Are there specific influences from the natural world that you've found?
Probably not the natural world. I mean, it's an interesting comparison with the heart rate and so I think that sort of logically ties into my views on the lever escapement, but I think generally, my view of horology is based around the marine chronometer, which is so basic, so simple. I feel with any design simplicity wins through. It's about creating something which is very basic and in theory should work and work and work.
It's proven with Harrison's timekeepers and then ultimately the work of Earnshaw and so on. At the end of the day, simplicity won through and produced these incredible timekeepers.
Not to draw it to its obvious conclusion here, but I mean, the simplest form of timekeeping that we have, or at least time-telling we have, is a sundial. Somewhere between that and a grand complication, we have a manually wound simple wristwatch. We're living in a fascinating time, because we don't really need these things. In fact, [an iPhone] does much better for timekeeping, and more people rely on that for actually knowing what time it is. So we're already sort of dealing in a space that is arguably . . . I don't want to say — obsolete. Do you ever have to confront that?
Well, no. Sometimes I find myself checking the time on my phone instead my watch, but a watch is so different. It's got qualities which an iWatch and iPhone can never have. You shouldn't even call it an iWatch, it's an iDevice, isn't it? It's a device at the end of the day that could never compete with a watch because they're so completely different. So, no, to answer your question.
whether people agree with my view of watchmaking or whether people agree with the other brands and the other people out there, everyone finds a little bit of interest in the world of watchmaking and such diversity, which you can't get with an electronic bit of kit.
Do you ever have to confront the fact that we're living in an age of the iPhone, and the iWatch sort of rides tandem to that as opposed to being the primary timekeeper.
I never like to confuse the two because they are so different. People buy a watch for a completely different reason. They're buying it because of the story behind the watch, because what the watch represents to them. It's a fascinating world of mechanics and whether people agree with my view of watchmaking or whether people agree with the other brands and the other people out there, everyone finds a little bit of interest in the world of watchmaking and such diversity, which you can't get with an electronic bit of kit.
Certainly. You said something that surprised me [during your lecture]. You said that a lot of your work is less math-driven and more conceptually driven and that it's a process of trial and error; I think most people wouldn't be surprised to hear that. Can you walk me through and talk about the process when you have a new idea? Do you go right to the lathe and start working, or is it sketches and concepts? How does that work itself out?
First of all, work it out in your head. For example, my Series 5 watch, which I could been working on up there for a while, the basic specifications worked out, I know roughly how to movements are going to work, what to achieve with that particular watch and when the Series 4 will be ready then I'll go to the computer and basically start sketching out. I'll just be working two dimensions on it and the autocut program. I'll sketch it out and then start developing from there. Always sort out the dial first, the aesthetics of the piece, then you can start to work back into mechanism in order to provide the information for the dial. At that point I start making components. I'll draw the components out, design it all and then start the making and testing and so on.
That's interesting. So you are starting with the aesthetic, you're looking at the dial?
Is it conceivable that you could start with the movement and move to the dial?
No, because when the client buys the watch, the first thing they see is the dial. If the dial doesn't work for them, they won't buy the watch — no matter how impressive the mechanism is behind it — and so for that reason, by drawing the dial, by designing it with the information you want on it, it gives you the key points where the information comes through for the mechanism. So that almost forces you into a corner, or rather, into the movement.
In a good way.
Yeah, and you need to start from somewhere. I mean if you were designing, you start that off with a mechanism. You need guidance and the dial gives you that guidance, gives you that start you want.
I guess what you deal with is such a different piece of watchmaking and constructing a timepiece than what so much of the rest of the world is working with. I think many guys who are into this, many people who are enthused about watches think about it's an ETA movement or it's a Valjoux movement in this watch and some of those manufactures today can change where the date window falls or where the crown is in the watch and they can get inventive in that way. It's mind-boggling for the average guy who's not a watchmaker that you could be working on a watch in your head right now. Would you say that's an effect of just years and years of doing this and you rehearsed your brain to do that? What is it that allows you to do that?
Yeah. I've been making watches since 1990 — so a long time now. When I started off I had a very different education and that was basically following George [Daniel's] watchmaking. We call that the Daniel's method where somebody sits down and designs and makes a watch from start to finish. I mean, that's what George did. George was the first person in history to really do that, to be able to design it and be the creator of the watch, and that's something that I've been doing for . . . yeah, almost 30 years now.
So it's the way I work. It's the way I think and, obviously, sort of gets better as the years tick by.
That leads me to a question about one's life's work. Can you identify one quest that you have and is it similar to what George Daniels had? Then I guess second to that is, is it conceivable that you'll reach your quest, or are you sort of laying the groundwork for your students to come after you and pick up where you left off?
When I first started work on the Series 2, over 10 years ago now, that was as a result of ideas I had when I was making my very first pocket watches when I was 20 . . . 21 years old. When I was making those pocket watches, I began to realize that a modern wristwatch had always been a mass-produced item. It had never been made by hand. I was repairing trade watches at the time, so your run-of-the-mill watches, ETAs, Omegas if I was lucky. It's a very different watchmaking to what I was doing at that time, making my first pocket watch.
I realized at that point that ultimately I wanted to make a handmade wristwatch and try and put the qualities of watchmaking that I simply wasn't seeing in wristwatches, into a wristwatch. So that's what I started to do, that's what I believe I'm still doing and I want to build this body of work that I'm talking about. At the moment, it's eight pieces and tackles various watches that had been done in the past but interprets them in my way to create something, which is going to be around for many, many generations; to build a watch how I believe watches should be built.
Do you have an apprentice similar to the way you were an apprentice to George Daniels?
Well, we do have watchmakers. There's seven of us working there. We'll see how it develops. What I realize is again, as the years go by, you can only teach somebody so much. If you want them to become a watchmaker, you can't force them to make watches like I do. I've only got here through hard work, really, and just this obsession to try and make watches in the way that I do. So you can only guide someone so far and it's up to them to take it the rest of the way. So somebody may come up to the crop. Who knows? I hope so.
Sounds like perhaps there's a twinkle there somewhere.
There's a potential.
I think for a lot of watch guys, what you do, and the care with which you do it, is really the standard for what we hope for the future. And while not everybody can afford one of your wristwatches, we can certainly all appreciate them. I think a lot of guys just see you as a high watermark for what watches should be. I think one of the things that's very striking though is that your approach is not about over-complication; you said [at HSNY] that we're in a new era of the coaxial escapement. What do we go from here? Is it longer lifespan?
That's something that's become apparent as I develop the coaxial. The coaxial escapement is 10 times more efficient in the way it delivers its power and that efficiency benefits the rest of movement with its weaker main spring and its less stress on the metal. So this got me thinking that a good escapement has more to offer than just the timekeeping. If designed really well, as a coaxial is, it can benefit a whole mechanism and eventually benefit the owner because the owner doesn't want to be sending his watch back to the service center every three, four, five years and not seeing it for the next two, three months.
Or longer, at times.
Yeah, and an expensive bill at the end of it. If that watch is well-designed and ticks for 10, 15, 20 years and then sent away for an overhaul, then that's a win-win for everyone — for the manufactures and the owner of the watch. That's sort of where my thinking is now going. As I said, this has only come out in the last year, really, as we've developed this new coaxial. We're beginning to really see the benefits of it.
You had a great analogy last night [at HSNY] in your talk. The door analogy illuminating the difference between the coaxial escapement and the lever escapement. I'd love for you to run that back for the purpose of this interview.
Yeah, so if you basically stand in front of the door, put your hand outstretched above the door handle and just walk straight forward. Your hand will just run down the length of the last sort of three inches of the door and your hand slides off the door and then you're through the other side of it. That's really how its delivered in the coaxial scale. It's a simple pushing action with minimal slide action, it's the slide action which is the issue because slide actions require lubrication in order to have them work efficiently.
If you want to compare that to the lever escapement, stand at the hinge part of the door, put your hand outstretched. If you walk forward, your hand slides down the whole length of the door before you're out the other side. It really takes some force to open the door that way and that force takes extra effort but also it takes lubrication down that length of the door before you're out the other side, and it's that issue: the lubrication. As that oil becomes stiffer, it's harder for you to push that door open.
What for you, as a watch guy and as a watchmaker, are the complications where you say, "I need to draw the line here. Everything below this line is acceptable; everything above is extraneous,"?
I think it's when you have multiple complications. I think two complications max, maybe three. I always remember years ago being shown one of the Gerald Genta's grand complications. They were a million pounds each in the '80s, I think. Those [movements] had to work so hard because they were so overcomplicated, wonderful bits of technology, but so overcomplicated. As soon as the oil has deteriorated the repeating mechanism seized and that's not a success. That's not what a million-pound watch should do.
I always come back to this sort of thing. If I can deliver a watch at home and if I don't see that watch again, then I've done a really good job and hopefully the client thinks I've done a good job. So, yeah, for that reason I'll never be going down the region of multiple complications. I never say never, but never multiple.
One of the things that I find personally very fascinating, when you look at watch complications — say moon-phase complications, or perpetual-calendar complications — it seems as though it's a human effort to try to make sense of what's happening in our world and have something that depicts it. In your mind, is creating the ideal wristwatch a capturing of time or is it simply a mirroring of what's happening with time?
I don't look at watchmaking like that. People often ask me "what does time mean to you?" I don't live my world like that really, I'm afraid.
That's almost what I would expect. It's about coming in and making a watch that works well.
Yeah, it is really.
One thing that might make that more complicated is having peers with whom to discuss these things. Are there people in your life with whom you can sit and talk to about these conceptual ideas or these concepts of timekeeping and watchmaking that are your equals that you can spar with or have conversations with?
Yes, I do ask for their opinion. I run that by people — what do they think of that traveling date aperture and so on. I'm very sort of open to them. Usually the mechanical side, that's sort of my domain just because I've got the experience. There's one guy, Andy Jones, who I may run things by.
I guess I want to push you a little bit on that because I can imagine a scenario in which you're trying to work something out and, for all intents and purposes, the people that you have in the workshop are your students or people that are training under you. Is there anyone on the earth with whom you could sit down and have a cup of coffee and say, "I've been working on this concept" and be able to flesh out an idea versus already have a concept that you run by people and get their opinion on?
No, I don't think so . . . no.
I imagine you sitting playing chess against yourself. You know what I'm saying? There's no person sitting on the other table —
No, it's just sort of me really, trying to think of different ways of doing things. The watches that I've been creating, this body of work that I want to put together is my thinking, all my work, and I don't discuss what the next piece is going to be with anyone. It's: 'what do I want to make next?' and there's a real luxury being able to do that.
In that vein, do you look to things that you've done in the past? Do you look back on those things and ever feel like, I was so young, I was so silly, why did I do that, or I was so naïve to think that that would work? Or is it more so of, that worked, but I'm going to make this one better?
I'm always moving on. Can we do better next time? Can anything be improved? Can the finishing be improved? Can the way we make the components or any area of the watch be improved upon? So, yeah, it's a continual drive and interest and just general improvement.
Are there designers' minds in different areas that you look to — either from their work habits or their attention to detail — that inspire you?
I can't think of one person that inspires me. Who knows? I think I'm one of those people who is very visual and I spot things and it may just spark off a thought or something. I'm sure things like that have influenced me, but to be specific, no, not at all.
I'm curious if you had any exposure to large timekeeping devices like clock towers or anything like that, and is there an appreciation for these massive clocks, and how do they differ? Are they as complicated in your mind?
During my time at college I was really fascinated with this really big engineering clock. But at the end of the day, these pieces are so simple, so basic and they have to be because clocks have to run for tens or hundreds of years. It's a testament to their simplicity and strength of build and design that those pieces are still here.
So it directly relates to my watches: The build of my watches is very strong, very robust and again, it could have been taken from there and a lot of influences that come from English pocket watches, which are very strong, very robust — a lot stronger than the equivalent French watches, which are very slim, very light, very beautiful pieces, but nevertheless weaker, technically.
So yeah, I've been very influenced by that.
I'm curious to know your thoughts on the American watchmaking history. How does that work influence your work in any way if at all?
Of the American industry or — ?
Of an industry of watchmaking on a larger scale that makes watches. Good, robust timekeeping devices for the average person.
Yeah, it would be very nice too, wouldn't it? The rise of the American watch industry was one of the sort of nails in the coffin for the British watchmaking. The British just weren't prepared to go into mass production, which is odd considering they were the founders of the Industrial Revolution — there's actually a big lesson to be learned there. If ever there was an opportunity or a moment where really good solid watch design could be put back into mass production, yeah, that would be brilliant. That would be awesome.
THAT'S YOUR REAL SENSE OF ACHIEVEMENT WHEN YOU CAN CLICK OVER ONE PIECE AND THE WHOLE MECHANISM SIMULTANEOUSLY JUST JUMPS AND SNAPS INTO POSITION.
You mentioned British watchmaking. There has been some comparison or at least some people have tried to put you and Bremont and some of the other smaller brands in Britain in the same category where others would say you're in two separate tiers. My sense of what Nick and Giles English are doing at Bremont is that they're trying to do that, they're trying to bring watchmaking back to Britain. Is that a folly?
I know they are making cases again and that's back in the UK and that's brilliant. That's what we need. It's a start. When it gets to making movements, where we can buy the same machines as the Swiss use or the Chinese or the Japanese use, we can buy exactly the same machines. The problem is the knowledge base has now gone from Britain. The only way you can replace that or start to regenerate that, is by bringing people in from Switzerland, Japan, China to run these machines and to start building these watches and training British people to do that.
Now, that would be hugely expensive. That's potentially a stumbling block. I've contemplated many times over the years people have suggested "Come on Rogi, you ought to ramp up numbers and these watches would sell, you could easily sell X thousand a year." We've looked at it over the years but the big concern, we always come back to this fact, is that there is no knowledge in the UK. There's no watchmaking knowledge around — and we have knowledge, I obviously know how to design and make watches — but to ramp up from 10 watches a year to 10,000, that scares me and I don't think I'll sleep at night. It's a different world.
I would have to bring in expertise from abroad to do it, to replace a lost industry. I hope that happens. It could happen. Fifty years time gradually as Bremont becomes more experienced, let's say they start making a few watch components and then start training people maybe to finish, to sell and then you get another company doing the same thing, who knows?
The offspring of these businesses in 10 years, 15 years, can start doing something too. It could take 50 years if you're doing it naturally. Who knows?
You mentioned that that concept of scalability in 10,000 watches a year versus 10 would keep you from sleeping at night. I'm curious, do you dream about watches? Do you dream in gears or are you just like everybody else?
No, I can leave work and forget about work. We've got a young family and the kids are great fun at the moment. I can walk away from [work] very easily. That's a very different story 10 years ago. I'd had 20 years of just six, seven days a week, terrific hours, wanting to build the business to what it is now. But I've done that now and I can gladly walk away and switch off, which is nice. It's a nice position to be in.
On the total other end of the spectrum, I read not two days ago that on Jeff Bezos' [the CEO of Amazon] property in Texas, they're installing a 10,000-year clock in the mountains. It's likely that no one who's on the project now will ever hear the chime; it's a conceptual exercise to think about time and the passage of time. Do you think about your timepieces and the life that they'll have long after you and I are gone?
Yeah, I'm thinking long term and these watches are designed to an extraordinary sort of level and standard. I take my inspiration from some of these English pocket watches out there. Today it's possible to go into an auction house and buy a great English pocket watch for very little money, with minimal work. This watch which is two, 300 years old, will be ticking as well as when it left that workshop, and now I've put that down to really good solid design. Good quality materials and again, that's been the basis for my design approach. I truly believe that if my watches are well looked after, they should be around for a few hundred years, and if they do need attention, with minimal work, it should be possible to bring that back to like-new condition because the dials are all silver or gold which can always be restored and the mechanism again, is always restorable.
We use basic materials to do that. So yeah, they're a very big part of my work really.
I remember the first time 'It' really clicked; I saw a pocket watch moving and you could see the third wheel and you could see escapement really clearly and the heartbeat of that balance wheel and it sort of all made sense even though I didn't quite understand everything that was happening. That was a moment of elation for me.
Are there still things, even simple things like that that blow your mind or give you that sense of elation?
Oh, yeah. It's incredible what you can do with a few springs and a few levers. There's excitement when you get a mechanism to work; that's your real sense of achievement when you can click over one piece and the whole mechanism simultaneously just jumps and snaps into position. That is so satisfying. It's a very nerdy thing, isn't it?
Knowing that somebody has spent decade after decade refining that craft so they are right up there and pretty untouchable, that's fascinating.
Especially if it lived in your brain at one point and now here it is in the metal. But I imagine there has to be an element, even a single degree of doubt as to whether it really is going to work, right?
Yeah, there always is. I will go down a route sometimes in design that just simply doesn't work and you've got to get to a stage where you say, "Right, I've got to change tack because this direction is just going nowhere." You need to step back, maybe completely redesign the mechanism. And that happens, but it's just part of the process.
When I look at a watch, I see all these parts moving in concert, and I can't help but think about music. I'm curious if you see that analogy and whether you listen to Beethoven or the like and think, "Oh, that's really fascinating how the compser put those two things together in such a way."
I used to listen to more music than I do now, just circumstances and so on. I suppose I reduced that opportunity but yeah, a beautifully crafted song, a piece of jazz perhaps, can really hit you. When you see a fine work of art, whether it's a modern sculpture or a fine painting, when you can see the skill and appreciate the skill of the person, that's what I like. Knowing that somebody has spent decade after decade refining that craft so they are right up there and pretty untouchable, that's fascinating.
I get the appreciation for the person — that's something beautiful in front of you — but I appreciate what that person's had to go through to get there.
Most people would look at a sculpture or a piece of art and say, "Whoa! Isn't that incredible?" But you're suggesting that you automatically think of the person behind that work and think, "Whoa! All the time and effort that went into being an expert to be able to do that."
Most people allow themselves to think about being born in a different time period. I'm curious if you feel similarly; if you could be born at any time period, would you choose to go back and be born in the heyday of watches or would you live now?
Now. I'd have to say now. Definitely now. There are so many opportunities, particularly watchmaking. We can buy equipment to help us make these components, we can buy CNC machines to make components, which would have been so difficult years ago to do and so no, now is an incredible time, especially if you're an independent watchmaker. We don't need a whole industry to help us to put our visions into completion.
Fascinating. That's not what I expected.
You can learn from the past. There's lots of influences in my work from the past, but no, looking on forward as well.
Were you a studious kid? Were you a good student? Or was watchmaking a rebellion against a standard sort of schooling?
Yeah, I was hopeless at school.
Yeah, I was always being pushed by my father, I think quite rightly because I was just very lazy.
I don't think anyone would classify you as lazy.
No, I was because I didn't see any interest, didn't see any purpose to it. I didn't really understand why I was going to school or anything like that, didn't see how maths or English could benefit me. The first day at college where I enrolled in an horology course, that for me was the moment. I was hooked from day one and that was the best day of education ever. I think as long as I'm stimulated by what I'm attempting to learn about, I'm fully 100 percent behind it. Otherwise, it's just that hopeless.
I'm curious . . . you've been at this for almost 30 years and I would imagine there's a great deal of responsibility that you feel being who you are, where you've come from with George Daniels. Are there expectations you think people put on you? Do you feel like you live up to those expectations?
Well, living on the Isle of Man, we're so remote and so out of the watch world. I don't really get any feedback from the industry. It's a great place to be and to do what I'm doing because there are no influences and, therefore, no expectations as far as I'm concerned. It always surprises me, like when I went to the talk [at HSNY], the reaction that we got from the talk. That's very gratifying and people seem to know what I'm doing and get what I'm doing, which is wonderful. But as soon as I leave this place, back on the Isle of Man, it's just me and the team of guys working with me and that's what I want really.
Do you have an opportunity to do anything else besides watchmaking and raising a family? Do you have a little hobby— motor cars or something like that?
I've got an old 1967 MK 2 Mini Cooper, which is very fun. I've been rebuilding the engine on that and that's good. When you get in that car and drive it, you have to think about driving it because otherwise you're off the road!
And that's half the fun.
Yeah, keep yourself on the road . . . haha.
What does the watchmaker's engine look like?
It's very clean.
Yeah, I can imagine. One of the questions that we've sort of danced around it but I'm curious to get a specific answer on: What's the balance between aesthetics and mechanics? Is it a fair, 50-50 balance between the two, or does one weigh out?
I don't really see any . . . they both got to be 100 percent. So every single spring, every single lever in the watch, the style of the plates, the way the weight, the components all flow together. It's just as important as the function. That's the unusual thing about watchmaking at this sort of level. It's just obsessing about the shape of that spring, how it looks and the overall picture of the mechanism, which is so important but of course it has to work.
So nothing takes priority.
So, perfection —
Yeah, in my eyes.
— in the eyes of the maker.
Photos by Atom Moore, courtesy of the Horological Society of New York.