Human, All Too Human: The Art of Watchmaking

Karl Smith talks to author Michael Clerizo about his new book on master watch-maker George Daniels, and why he continues to have such an impact on the contemporary independent watch-making industry

“A watch dealer in London told me a story. In the mid-eighties he expected the mechanical wristwatch to disappear.  Then, creatures known at the time as yuppies started appearing in his shop asking for mechanical wristwatches. At about the same time the prices of wristwatches at auctions started to rise. For the dealer the answer was simple – people perceived the quartz watch as junk and wanted something of quality that would last ­­­– a good mechanical watch should last 200 years even with minimal attention.  A quartz watch will only last 15 – 20 years. Most people will keep an iPhone or iPad for a maximum of two years.” – Michael Clerizo

There is something unique about the watch – perhaps something as simple as being a member of that oh-so-wonderful and oh-so-rare group of ‘looks good on everyone’ items, or something deeply more profound. Time, after all, as we know it, is all too human a thing.

“It’s hard to overplay Daniels’ influence on the watchmaking industry”

Michael Clerizo knows this better than most, having written about watches for a decade, his new book George Daniels: Master Watchmaker is a retrospective of one of the industry’s true pioneers – perhaps even its prophet: “He was a fascinating man with a story that has universal appeal. He rose from grinding poverty and parental abuse to the pinnacle of his profession. He became wealthy and respected, even famous in some quarters. He never gave up. He relentlessly pursued the watch industry until (at least one part of it) accepted his co-axial,” he explains.

It’s hard to overplay Daniels’ influence on the watchmaking industry – from the innovation Clerizo mentions (his co-axial was the first escapement mechanism to be industrialized since 1754 and can be credited with reviving the flagging Omega brand), to the equally powerful existential influence that the British horologist still holds over its spirit.[/one_third]”The indies are individual watchmakers who launch their own brands, working on their own or with a small team, to produce low volume, high quality watches. The best known are probably, Francois-Paul Journe, Roger Smith, Peter Speake-Marin and Greubel/Forsey. I estimate there are forty to fifty working today,” Clerizo recounts, “they see George as an inspiration.”

In that sense, Daniels is the forefather of modern artisan watchmaking. He was, Clerizo explains, the first man in over four hundred years to make a watch entirely on his own, with no brand to speak of save his own name. “Those actions inspired a generation. If you were a watchmaker that wanted to go it alone, George proved it could be done.”

His own book, Watchmaking was, for many, their first instruction manual: “That book became the bible for independent watchmakers all over the world. Watchmakers as far away as Oregon, Japan and Australia learned their craft from George’s book.” While Clerizo says that few watchmakers actually followed in Daniels’ stylistic footsteps, with a somewhat wistful air he notes that “George showed other watchmakers how to realise their dreams – far more important then only having an influence on style.”

George Daniels: A Master Watchmaker and his Art, by Michael Clerizo is out now in hardback, published by Thames Hudson