Greatest watchmaker of a generation and you’ve not heard of them
On the surface, luxury watchmaking is fairly straight forward. Brands like Patek Philippe, A Lange & Sohne and Vacheron Constantin are seen as being at the top of their game.
But beyond the names you know though, there exist a handful of independent watchmakers; singular people that take the industry above and beyond anything bigger companies could hope for.
So rich is the heritage behind watchmaking, it's hard to fully-grasp its entire history. Every time you think you’ve got your head around it, Sotheby’s introduce a new watch from a brand you’ve never heard of, or a model you didn’t know existed.
Enter George Daniels. Surprising then that in his lifetime, he was considered the greatest watchmaker in the world.
During his life, spanning 1926-2011, he mastered the art of horology and by himself convinced bigger companies to adopt mechanics that he invented.
This is one of the few people in modern history that could build a watch simply with his two hands. Unlike most commercial brands out there, he didn’t use machinery at all, no electrics, just him and his tools.
Watchfinder has a great video on a few of the man's works
Events like SIHH and Baselworld show us every year countless new watches made by all the big players. In Daniels’ lifetime, he completed ‘only’ 27 watches in his 60 years as a watchmaker, let that number sink in, he spent entire years refining and perfecting singular pieces. All by himself.
Famous not only for being one of the most talented horological minds in history, he is also famed for innovating the modern wristwatch. He created something called the co-axial escapement.
If that term rings a bell, it’s because it’s something Omega uses in its most high-end pieces. Yep, Daniels made something with his hands that is now used at mass by Omega.
To put it simply, the escapement is the heart of a watch, a large cog-type mechanic that keeps the watch literally ticking. Originally, escapements required lubrication to allow metal teeth to slide past one another. This lubrication eventually would be detrimental to a watch.
This is where Daniels created a lubrication-free escapement. He described it as a mechanic similar to that of opening a gate, in which a small pendulum swings into a piece and keeps the watch ticking.
The co-axial was his greatest legacy to the watch world.
If you’re unsure just how monumental his legacy is, Esquire Middle East wrote a piece on his magnum opus piece being sold off, for $4.5 million dollars. Most of his pocket watches and wristwatches in fact almost always go for a well over $1 million.
The man’s legacy however is still alive, as his apprentice is carrying on his work.
A man called Roger W Smith is now gallantly carrying on this mission on behalf of Daniels. Smith is the man whom Daniels imparted all the knowledge he had to.
Whilst Smith has not as of yet continued the creation of pocket watches, he does create wristwatches in true Daniels spirit. Utilising British-craftsmanship, once more all by himself without the use of machines.
“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.” Said Smith.
Smith’s watches include the most complex dial ever created by hand. ‘The Great Britain’ was a one off piece by Smith commissioned for the British government itself.
Smith’s and Daniels’ philosophy in the watch world really stands out. As the industry gets more complex, so too do dials and methods of reading the time. Brands like HYT spring to mind, creating watches about showcasing the art of horology more than showing the time.
Daniels however wanted to maintain those two things, have simple timekeeping with anything but simple detail. His simplicity and elegance is one of his best legacies, just look at his co-axial, born out of a need to make watch mechanics simpler, not the other way around.