Some categories of people are rather rare. Italian war heroes, vegetarian cowboys, drunken nuns and English watchmakers are all hard to find. Roger Smith certainly comes into this category.
He is not a vegetarian cowboy but he is an English watchmaker; probably the second finest English watchmaker working today.
The finest, as I am sure Roger Smith himself would agree, is an 82-year-old man called George Daniels, who happens to be both Roger Smiths teacher and his inspiration. Whether either of them can legitimately be called English is open to question since they both live and work on the Isle of Man.
Roger Smith is aged 37. He is a pale and slender young man who gives the appearance of being a professional musician and possibly an amateur marathon runner. He was born in Bolton but moved to the Isle of Man when he was 19 in order to work with the aforementioned George Daniels, who had recently invented the co-axial escapement (a device which many consider to be the single greatest horological breakthrough since Breguets tourbillon in 1795). While working with Daniels, Roger Smith assisted in the manufacture of fifty Millennium watches which were all sold within a year for around £30,000 each.
In 1991 he decided to remain on the Isle of Man and to set up on his own as a watchmaker. This was a courageous decision because it must be admitted that English watchmaking today does not have a stellar reputation. But Roger Smiths gamble appears to have paid off. His first commission was to produce two tourbillon watches for George Daniels and the then completed one other for a private client. His first watch completely of his own design consisted of a rectangular piece which he called his Series One. Working entirely alone, Roger Smith produced nine of these watches before moving on to a circular design which he calls his Series Two. So far ten of these have been delivered to customers.
Roger does not simply make the lettering and engraving on the face of his watches. He also creates almost every tiny component which goes into the movement of his watches, with the exception of the mainspring, balance spring, jewels and a few screws. Everything else is made by hand in his workshop where he employs a team of three watchmakers and an engineer.
If you want to own a Roger Smith Series Two watch you must first be prepared to spend at least two years on the waiting list. The reason for this delay is that only twenty watches are produced each year.
Roger will ask you for a down payment which amounts to 10% of the final cost of the watch. This can vary depending on which metal is used for the case, but for an 18 carat yellow gold case the total cost would be in the order of £37,000. Thus the down payment would probably amount to £3,700.
Once Roger starts to make your watch he will ask you for a further payment which will be in the order of £12,000. The balance is, of course, due on delivery.
While Roger was outlining the payments schedule he took off his own watch and passed it to me. It’s really a prototype, he explained, which is why it is numbered with a zero. I was immediately struck by the weight, which was a lot more than I would have expected of a watch this size. The dial, with its roman numerals, reminded me of an old pocket watch. That is exactly what I wanted you to feel, said Roger.
I try to preserve some of the characteristics of the old English pocket watches. And he surely has. I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of the face. The only visible complication was the power reserve dial which showed how long the watch would run before the mainspring had no more power. The watch will run for fifty-two hours, explained Roger. Why, I wondered did one end of the power reserve have the letter U while the other end showed the letter D?
The watchmaker looked at me with an expression of puzzlement and surprise. He was clearly talking to a total ignoramus. The letters stand for Up and Down and thus show whether the watch is either wound up or run down. I felt very stupid.
The back of a Series Two is, if anything, more beautiful than the front. A large sapphire crystal shows the complete movement, which is superbly finished down to the smallest detail.
But some of the more exciting contents were not immediately visible to a novice like me. Was there, I wondered, a co-axial escapement in his watches. It was as if I had asked whether his watches told the time.
Of course, said Roger. All of his timepieces make use of George Daniels co-axial escapement. This device, he explained, was not like so many of todays watch complications – only there to amuse the watches owner. It was actually more mechanically efficient than the conventional escapement. It also was far less reliant on lubrication, which means that a watch with a co-axial escapement will remain accurate even when it has not been serviced for ten or more years.
So much for the present. What, I wondered, did a young man like Roger hope to do in the future. He paused and stroked his chin. I want to expand, he said. Not a lot and not quickly. I really want to be not just a watchmaker but also a horologist. This means I would like to make pocket watches too. I was amazed. Surely nobody in their right mind today uses a pocket watch because to do so you first need a waistcoat.
You would be surprised, said Roger. There is today a certain type of collector who wants to own a beautiful pocket watch which is filled with fascinating complications. Of course it will never replace the wristwatch but as an example of horological art a pocket watch takes a lot of beating.
Would he, I asked, be prepared to accept individual commissions? Could someone ask him, for example, to make a chronograph or a perpetual calendar? Rogers face lit up. Of course, he replied. I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice. But they would have to accept that not only would the resulting watch be very expensive, it would also involve a very long wait. How long is long, I wondered. Oh I don’t know. Maybe eight years was the reply.
Not many people would want to wait eight years for a watch. But if the end result was a Roger Smith watch, I reckon it would be time well spent. And money well spent too.