INTERVIEW: “We squandered world domination.” Roger Smith says British watchmaking deserves a new dawnAndrew McUtchen
Let me start by saying the headline is paraphrasing master watchmaker, and OBE, Roger Smith, and a contraction of two statements. The first is that Britain “had a great history [in watchmaking], and we squandered it.” The second is his statement that “for a couple of hundred years, we had world dominance.” Assuming that you forgive me, we can continue with this very interesting development. Which is the formation of the British Alliance of Watch and Clockmakers, which had already amassed 30 trade members at the time of this interview, late last year.
What’s the backstory here? What has led to the formation of the Alliance?
I’ve noticed over the last 10 to 12 years, there’s just been a steady increase in people who are entering into this sector and I’ve been thinking about this for many, many years and realising that things were going on and that perhaps we all needed to get together and start sharing our ideas and trying to build this fascinating industry. And I bumped into Mike France, about two years ago at a Salon QP Events, which is held in the Saatchi gallery in London. Really, we felt that there was something bubbling away under the surface. And perhaps we ought to get together and work out how we can best support and help to grow the sector.
And what is it, what’s it going to do?
Our mission statement is to promote British watch and clock making around the world, to provide a powerful voice for our sector, to champion British Providence, and also to encourage British supply chain jobs and technology. The first thing that we are doing is to engage with KPMG and ask them to create a bellwether report into the sector. Until we know what size and scope the sector is within the UK it’s very difficult to help and assist it. It will be released at the end of February 2021. From there, we can then start to look and work out where we can help and focus our attention. If this report reveals that, for the sake of argument, 60,000 steel cases are needed within Britain every year, then suddenly you’ve got the potential to start a new case making business. It gives people our mission and enables us to speak with governments and engineering companies, educators, and it enables us to hopefully put forward our cause.
95% of people that hear this are going to say, “Just leave the watchmaking to the Swiss. They own watchmaking, right?” What’s the answer to that?
Well, you are right, the Swiss do things brilliantly. They have, well, a world-renowned watch and clock making sector but I think the interesting thing is that we do things differently. We can be different. And from the very outset we were very honest and we said, “Well, we can’t compete with the Swiss. They are masters at what they are doing, but we can be different.” And we’ve already managed to bring in 30 trade members. And over the next coming weeks, we’ll be starting to present them through our website. And I think people will be fascinated to see the diversity of the craft-based companies that are fortunately joining us. But then again we’re covering the whole range of watches. It’s not about being an elitist organisation, we’re hoping to cover and represent all aspects of watchmaking. So that’s from somebody who produces 70 pound watches going up to many tens of thousands of pounds.
Who are the best British watch brands today?
That’s a very difficult one, isn’t it? And it is not about being the best it’s just about contributing to the sector. And the great thing is, again, what we’ll be showing is that watches are accessible to people with all price brackets, all price ranges. And we have friends who collect watches and they’ll happily pay 150-200 pounds on a watch, but that’s their world. That’s what they are fascinated in. This friend of mine who collects G-Shock watches and he derives a huge amount of pleasure after that. Watchmaking can have a snobbish following where you will get people who will only follow a specific brand and everything else is rubbish. But that’s not the case. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about trying to build this sector and I’m trying to create jobs within this sector. So it’s a lot more diverse.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the co-founders of Bremont Watches, Giles and Nick English, over the years, and their great narrative is to somewhat recast Britain’s role in the story of watchmaking. Is that something that you feel at pains to do as part of this as well?
Well, we are in a wonderful position that we can shape British watch and clock making in whichever direction we want it to go. We’re going to be led by the members and it’s an all-inclusive alliance or organization. And yeah, we want to hear what our members have to say. We can do things very, very differently. We’ve got a fresh start with horology. For a couple of hundred years, we had world dominance, but that gradually slipped away and left us with virtually nothing happening in Britain from the 1960s onwards.
That’s the part of history Nick and Giles like to reprise, which is that moment in time, which has been somewhat swept away by the Swiss narrative. So I wondered how much of the fire in your belly is about a reinstatement as much as a fresh start?
Well, I mean, of course, you can’t deny our history and it was a great history, but I’m afraid we just squandered it. It was not supported from the 1850s onwards – British watchmaking, clockmaking really went down the pan with the advent of mass production of both watches and clocks in America. The powers that be at the time, in the 1850’s, said they were not interested. So, America basically took off and started producing very high quality pocket watches. They were a third of the price of the British pocket watches, and that was a start of the end.
So we can all learn from history and we did have a great history, but that’s done. It’s time to move on then, create something which is fresh and different. And the watchmakers that we’ll be presenting on our site are at all different price ranges. As you know, there’s barely any manufacturing done within Britain. I know Bremont are making cases and Analogue Ambitions do make other components. We make everything here in the Isle of Man, but there is basically no manufacturing base in Britain at all. So you will see watches, which are ‘British’, that have been designed in Britain, but there’ll be important components from China, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Germany and so on.
And that’s really nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a true reflection as to what is happening today in Britain. So we’ve got to embrace that, but with the idea in our heads is that we can bring some of this engineering back to Britain. I mean, Britain still has a great name for engineering. We used to be great car manufacturers. Car manufacturing in Britain is probably on the way out now, and yet we have this incredible industry that surrounds Formula One. So, we can be great contributors, certainly in the motoring world through Formula One and I don’t see why, given the time, we can’t do the same for watches. We can be very creative as a nation, so we can chase this and work it out as we go along.