Author Archives: Alex Barter

Roger Smith’s Millennium and the George Daniels Anniversary No. 1

I was recently asked to research and write the catalogue for two exceptional watches being offered by Sotheby’s Geneva on 5 November 2023: Roger Smith’s personal white gold Millennium watch and the first George Daniels Anniversary wristwatch.

Roger Smith’s white gold Millennium wristwatch (left); George Daniels Anniversary No.1 (right) images © Sotheby’s

An exceptional and fascinating pair of watches, the Millennium and Anniversary watches shown here are of great significance to modern horology. No other wristwatches could more clearly mark the transference of skill and knowledge from Master to Apprentice than the two watches illustrated and discussed here.

Between them, these watches mark the culmination of Dr. George Daniels’s career and the rise to independence of his successor, Dr. Roger Smith. Indeed, the unique co-signed Daniels/Smith white gold Millennium and the Anniversary No.1 represent the bridge between the greatest British watchmaker of the 20th century and the greatest living British watchmaker of the 21st century.

Roger Smith’s White Gold Millennium – the last George Daniels Millennium watch to be made – image © Sotheby’s

Completed in 2001, this is the last example from the Millennium series of watches to be made and was specially assigned to Roger Smith by George Daniels. Excited by the prospect of owning a watch by his master and mentor, and in recognition of his own work on the Millennium watches, Smith asked for permission to co-sign the dial – a request readily agreed to by Daniels. This is the only watch ever signed by both Daniels and Smith. The watch is additionally engraved to the back of the case Roger W. Smith together with the year of production ‘01’. Some months after the watch’s completion, Smith took the difficult decision to privately sell the watch to a collector to help fund and realise Smith’s dream of creating his own watchmaking business – Roger W. Smith Ltd – a firm that is now one of the leading independent watchmakers in the world.

Offered at Sotheby’s Geneva on 5th November 2023 by the same private collector, the ‘Daniels/Smith’ white gold millennium was sold for a record CHF 2,177,500 (£1.95million / US$ 2.4 million).

Dr. Roger Smith O.B.E. (b.1970) first met Dr. George Daniels M.B.E. (1926-2011) in 1988 while studying at Manchester’s School of Horology. Just 18 years of age, Smith was captivated by Daniels’s mastery of horology, astonished to learn that Daniels made every component of his watches himself, and fascinated by Daniels’s drive and belief in his own ability to improve the mechanical timekeeper. One should remember that, in 1988, the mechanical watch industry was only just beginning to recover from the decimation wreaked by the quartz crisis of the 1970s and early 80s. At the time, many saw little real future for the mechanical watch, so for the young Smith to see the confidence, passion and talent demonstrated by Daniels greatly inspired the young student’s imagination; in fact, that day in Manchester would change the course of Smith’s life.

Smith next met Daniels in 1990. At the time Smith was working as a watch repairer, changing batteries and fixing bracelets, but he found his mind continually wandered back to the day he met Daniels in Manchester. Smith resolved to write to Daniels and ask if he could work as his apprentice. A reply arrived, stating that while Daniels did not want to employ an apprentice, he would be pleased if Smith would visit his workshop on the Isle of Man. When the day arrived and the two met once more, Smith impressed upon Daniels his desire to make his own watch and, encouraged by the master to do so, over the following months and years he set about making his first watch, a one-minute tourbillon pocket watch with spring- detent escapement. Smith took the watch to show Daniels in 1992 and was rather crestfallen with the reception that both he and the watch received.

Over the next five and a half years, Smith spent his time mastering the 34 different trades essential to the craftsman of a truly handmade watch, remaking his next watch four times in the process. Finally ready, he apprehensively travelled once more to meet with Daniels in 1997. Following a somewhat brusque welcome, Daniels set about examining Smith’s new watch. After a tense silence, Daniels’s questions began: ‘Who made your case?…and the dial?…Who made your escape wheel?…Who made your spring detent?…Who made your tourbillon cage?’ To all these questions Smith could answer simply: ‘I did’. The questions over, a smile crept over Daniels’s face as he announced: ‘Congratulations, you are now a watchmaker!’

After this encounter Smith initially returned to his trade repair work until a life changing call came from Daniels, asking him to come and work for him on a new project. At the time Daniels’s co-axial escapement had just been taken on by Omega and Daniels wanted to create a small series of watches based on the new Omega ébauche.

The display back of the white gold Smith/Daniels Millennium reveals the movement. The rim of the case back is engraved Roger W. Smith with the year of production (20)01. Image © Sotheby’s

After several years of negotiation and development, Omega launched their version of Daniels’s co-axial escapement at the Basel watch fair in 1999 and as part of the agreement reached between its inventor and Omega, Daniels was to be supplied with a small number of Omega’s co-axial ébauches. It was these movements that would form the basis of the Millennium wristwatch project with each movement re-worked by Daniels and Smith in the English style with gilded plates and blued steel screws, as well as a special calendar module. Smith began work on the project at Daniels’s workshop on 2 January 1998. Before long a substantial wait list had been created for the Millennium wristwatches and between 1998 and 2001, 56 Millennium wristwatches were made of which 49 (including the prototype) were made in yellow gold and just 7 in white gold. All aspects of the Millennium watches were meticulously designed and considered, including the exceptional engine- turned dials that Daniels taught Smith how to make and master, and their hands which were cut and filed by hand.

With all the Millennium watches complete, Smith left Daniels’s employ and set up his own watchmaking business and so Roger W. Smith Ltd was born. Smith’s ambition was to create his own lineage of completely handmade, series-produced wristwatches. Daniels helped ease Smith’s transition to independence by commissioning two rectangular tourbillon wristwatches to be made under the Daniels name. While working on his own watches, Smith would continue to collaborate with Daniels over the following years. In 2009, Daniels approached Smith with a new project, the Daniels Anniversary Watch.

George Daniels Anniversary wristwatch No. 1. Image © Sotheby’s

To mark 35 years since the invention of the co-axial, Daniels was determined to create a new series of wristwatches incorporating his patented escapement. However, unlike the Millennium wristwatches that used the Omega base calibre, the Anniversary would have an entirely new English wristwatch calibre designed and wholly made in Daniels’s Isle of Man workshop. The ‘Daniels Anniversary’ was to be a celebration of the handmade wristwatch and limited to just 35 pieces, marking the 35 years since the co-axial’s invention. Offered here is the first wristwatch from the series which is prominently numbered 1 to the backplate. It was also the first wristwatch to have been designed and made in its entirety on the Isle of Man, and the Manx triskelion can be seen engraved to a special plaque beside the watch’s escapement.

Made for the same collector who purchased the Daniels/Smith co-signed white gold millennium watch, the Anniversary No. 1 is offered at Sotheby’s Geneva on 5th November 2023 for the very first time.

A significant feature of the Anniversary wristwatches was their use of Smith’s single wheel version of the Daniels co-axial escapement, the incorporation of which was agreed by Daniels himself – a clear illustration of the Master’s admiration for Smith’s own talents and the collaborative nature of
the Anniversary project. Made by hand, the eccentric silver dials were enhanced with multiple decorative engine-turned finishes and inlaid with gold chapters; the hands were also handmade. Cased in 18ct gold, the watches were fitted with sapphire crystal case backs, allowing the co-axial escapement to be viewed and appreciated in action. At the time the Anniversary project was initiated, George Daniels was 83 years of age. On 21 October 2011, just two weeks before the prototype and the movement of No. 1 were due to be shown in London at SalonQP, Daniels passed away; with his death, completion of the Anniversary watches fell to Smith alone.

The glazed case back of the George Daniels Anniversary No.1 reveals the movement. Roger Smith’s single wheel version of the Daniels co-axial escapement can be seen in the photo beneath the lower left side of the balance. Image © Sotheby’s

It is easy to forget just how remarkable the invention of the co-axial escapement was. Invented in 1976 and patented in 1980, the co-axial was the first serious challenge to the dominance of the ubiquitous lever escapement, the latter invented more than two hundred years before by another Englishman, Thomas Mudge in circa 1754. Although of English origin, the lever escapement was further developed and perfected by the Swiss and was the dominant form of watch escapement for much of the 19th and throughout the 20th century. A detached escapement, the fork of
the lever escapement impulses the balance in both directions of the balance’s swing and is detached between each impulse, thereby reducing friction. However, the lever’s pallet jewels create a sliding friction as they engage with the escape wheel. To reduce this friction, lubrication is required; yet, as the lubricant degrades, so the impulse is weakened, the balance amplitude drops, wear is increased, and servicing becomes necessary. In the co-axial escapement, impulse is given directly to the balance by the escape wheel using a pushing rather than sliding motion. Creating tangential rather than sliding friction, it does not require lubrication. It is this manner of impulse which applies some of the principles of the chronometer escapement but with the co-axial’s advantage of impulsing the balance in both directions of its swing (the chronometer escapement impulses the balance in one direction only and is not self-starting).

The action of the co-axial escapement and reduction in the need for lubrication greatly improves the movement’s performance and allows much longer intervals between servicing, thereby giving the watch a more consistent and reliable performance. The co-axial escapement’s origins lie in a commission given to George Daniels in the early 1970s by the great collector and owner of the Time Museum, Seth Atwood, who requested a watch that incorporated a new invention

to improve the mechanical watch’s performance. This led to the creation of the first watch with Daniels’s own escapement – the Daniels independent double-wheel escapement. This escapement utilized two mainspring barrels, two symmetrical trains, two escape wheels and a ‘Y’-shaped central locking detent with three pallets. A masterpiece of design, the movement was almost perfectly symmetrical but with an almost doubling in the number of parts required to make the movement, its application was more suited to being housed within a pocket rather than wristwatch case.

Daniels knew that to convince the watchmaking world of the suitability of his new escapement for general production, an alternative had to be found,
and so the smaller and slimmer co-axial escapement was born. The first watch with co-axial escapement was completed in 1979 and sold to the collector Esmond Bradley Martin in 1983.3 In 1986, Daniels exhibited at the Basel Watch Fair, showing a display of wristwatches all with his co-axial escapement – these included two entirely of his own creation and five further examples by Omega, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Zenith and Jürgensen, all of which had been modified by Daniels to include his own co-axial escapement. During the 1990s Daniels entered into discussions with the Swiss movement manufacturer ETA, which would eventually lead to the co-axial’s adoption by Omega; Omega released their first wristwatches with Daniels’s co-axial escapement in 1999. It is truly remarkable that Dr. Daniels managed to persuade a Swiss manufacturer to take on his escapement as an alternative to the lever escapement which the Swiss had so successfully and energetically developed throughout the modern era. Indeed, there can be no greater testament to the genius and success of the co-axial than its adoption by Omega for series production, particularly when one considers the extremely rigorous testing the escapement had to endure before its acceptance by the brand.

These two watches were sold at Sotheby’s Geneva on 5th November 2023 as lots 97 and 98 for the following prices:
Roger Smith’s white gold Millennium – CHF 2,177,500 (£1.95million / US$ 2.4 million).
George Daniels Anniversary No.1 – CHF 736,600 (£662,300 / US$820,800).

The George Daniels Space Traveller Watches

Being asked to research and write the catalogues for both of George Daniels’s Space Traveller watches gave me a fascinating opportunity to examine these two iconic watches up close.

George Daniels Space Traveller Watches © Sotheby's

George Daniels Space Traveller Watches – image © Sotheby’s

George Daniels was fascinated by space exploration and in homage to the astronauts he so admired, in 1979 he decided to make a watch that could be of use in space. Daniels began work on his first Space Traveller watch in 1979 and design drawings from 1980 show that planning was already at an advanced stage. Daniels made just two Space Traveller watches and each display sidereal and mean solar time, phases and age of the moon, annual calendar and the equation of time.

Their left hand dials show sidereal time in a 24-hour format; within this dial a wedge-shaped aperture reveals the moon phases while a slimmer aperture within the chapter ring contains a gold disc with a pointer above that indicates the age of the moon. The right hand dial shows mean solar time, the inset aperture with gold disc displays the annual calendar. Traditionally the standard of time used by astronomers, sidereal time is based on the amount of time it takes the Earth to turn on its axis. By measuring the Earth’s transit of a fixed star, one is able to measure the actual time it takes for the Earth to turn on its axis. This period is known as a sidereal day, which is approximately 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds. The equation of time is the difference between apparent solar time (the time as indicated on a sundial) and mean time (the average of solar time). Since the Earth has an elliptical orbit, the difference between mean and solar time ranges from + 14 minutes, 59 seconds to – 16 minutes, 15 seconds. Solar time agrees with mean time on or about 15 April, 14 June, 1 September and 24 December. At the top of the dial, the fan-form sector displays the equation of time. Smaller seconds dials for both the sidereal and mean solar time dials can be seen at the base of the sidereal and mean solar dials, overlapping their corresponding chapter rings.

George Daniels Space Traveller I – video © Alexander Barter
George Daniels agreed to sell his first Space Traveller watch in 1982. Immediately regretting his decision, he set about making a second example. Daniels was determined to make his new version even more complex by the addition of a chronograph that could be switched between the solar and sidereal time trains.

George Daniels Space Traveller II with chronograph – video © Alexander Barter
The movements of both Space Traveller watches were designed with a 32-hour duration and each has two going-barrels with two contra-rotating trains driving the two escape wheels of Daniels’s independent double wheel escapement, incorporating a ‘Y’-shaped central locking detent with three pallets and mono-metallic, stainless steel, four-arm balance with gold adjusting screws, free-sprung overcoil balance spring and Daniels’s auxiliary compensation. Space Traveller II has slimmer central bridge work to help accommodate the chronograph mechanism; in fact much of the chronograph work is visible above the movement’s backplate. Remarkably the chronograph can be switched between the sidereal and mean solar trains to compensate for the 3.555 minutes of daily difference between mean solar and sidereal time.

George Daniels Space Traveller II movement – image © Alexander Barter

The Space Traveller II was kept by George Daniels until his death in 2011 and was his dress watch of choice. Of course everyone was always keen to see what watch Daniels was wearing – the design of this watch with its glazed case back meant that, not only could the viewer marvel at the beauty of its dial, but they could be equally mesmerised by the complexity and wonder of the movement, clearly displayed through the exhibition case back.

In 1988, the Space Traveller I appeared at a Sotheby’s auction in Geneva where it sold for CHF 220,000 (£83,000 / $151,000). Entering a private collection, it wasn’t seen again in public until it was sold once again at Sotheby’s in London on 2 July 2019 by which time its value had increased…just a little….the Space Traveller I sold for £3,615,000 ($4,554,900). Meanwhile, the Space Traveller II had been auctioned at Sotheby’s in London on 19 September 2017 when it achieved £3,196,250 ($4,322,288). Interestingly, the Space Traveller II had in fact been sold just 5 years previously on 6 November 2012, also at Sotheby’s, for £1,329,250 ($2,124,407), reflecting the extraordinary increase in the value of Daniels’s watches seen in recent years. [All exchange rates from the Bank of England’s historical daily spot rates]

George Daniels Space Traveller II in original box – image © Alexander Barter

Sotheby’s asked me to research and write the catalogues for both Space Traveller watches for their auctions in 2017 and 2019. It was extraordinary to handle these watches and, sitting with them in front of me, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the famous quote by Sir David Salomons. Writing about Daniels’s hero Abraham-Louis Breguet, Salomons noted: “to carry a fine Breguet watch is to feel that you have the brains of a genius in  your pocket” – in that sentence you could quite easily substitute Daniels’s name for Breguet’s.

A watch by Richard Masterson

In January 2020 this wonderfully original watch by Richard Masterson appeared at an auction of items from Spetchley Park in Worcestershire, seat of the Berkeley family for more than 400 years. I travelled to Chorley’s auction house to view the watch in person.

Richard Masterson, London, circa 1645

In the photograph above you can see that the watch has a silver dial with Roman numeral chapter ring. A single blued steel baluster-form hand indicates the time on a ring calibrated for hours and quarters. By the 1640s dials were most commonly marked for quarter hours, prior to this period only half hours tended to be shown. To the dial centre a vase of flowers is decoratively engraved, the flowers themselves have a naturalistic three-dimensionality and as they stretch around the dial, they pleasingly curl around the inner edge of the chapter ring.

Leather covered outer protective case with silver piqué work and decorative hinge

With a plain silver inner case, the leather covered outer protective case has decoratively applied silver pins – known as piqué work. There is a particularly beautiful, decorative silver hinge. Although a few silver pins are now lacking to the back, it is rare to see original protective outer cases in such fine condition.

Masterson’s backplate and movement side view

The movement is typical of the period with a verge escapement, gut line fusee, and a worm-and-wheel set-up for the mainspring. The hole at the top edge of the movement would have secured a pointer which originally indicated to the scale on the silver wheel of the worm-and-wheel, a part of the decorative bracket to the right of this wheel is also lacking but other than these small losses, the movement is in lovely original condition. Pierced Egyptian pillars hold the movement plates together and the backplate is signed R. Masterson, London. A plain two-arm flat balance is covered by a screwed-on irregular balance cock and foot, the latter decoratively pierced and engraved with flowers and foliage.

Richard Masterson, was a Free Brother in the Clockmakers’ Company from 1633 becoming Warden in 1637 and Master in 1642. He is believed to have died in December 1653 (for dates see Brian Loomes, The Early Clockmakers of Great Britain, 1981, p. 382). 

17th Century Animal-Form Watches

Novelty watches have a long and fascinating history. During the second quarter of the seventeenth century a fashion for watches cased in the form of animals began to emerge, a genre that included watches cast as mammals and birds.

Caspar Cameel bird-form watch, prob. Strasbourg, circa 1635 – image © Sotheby’s

Only a small number of animal-form watches are known and these include examples cast as dolphins, lions, a swan and a rabbit. The bird shown above was made in Strasbourg but the majority appear to have originated in Geneva. Ironically the strict Sumptuary Laws and Ordinances of Calvinist Geneva would have forbidden the wearing of such ornate watches within the city itself, and such pieces would therefore have been made for export.

Jr. Sermand, Geneva, silver dolphin-form watch circa 1640

The short video above shows a dolphin-form watch that was sold at Sotheby’s in Geneva (11 Nov 2019, CHF 22,500). It is typical of the manner in which movements and dials were incorporated into cases cast in the form of animals. The dolphin’s hollowed out body and head accommodate the verge movement with the dial revealed beneath a hinged panel to the dolphin’s base.

Jean Baptiste Duboule, Geneva, silver lion-form watch circa 1635 (photo: Alex Barter)

One of the most charming form watches from this period is the lion watch illustrated above which can be found on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Innovative minute displays in the late 17th century

Following the introduction of the balance spring in the mid-1670s, timekeeping was revolutionised. Watches had previously almost casually marked time but were now suddenly able to keep time to within a couple of minutes per day. In fact, so dramatic was the impact of the balance spring that, by 1680, most new watches incorporated the device.

Metropolitan Museum of Art New York – MET public domain image

Before the balance spring’s introduction, the vast majority of watches had only a single hand which moved from hour to hour, indicating on a ring calibrated for each half- or quarter-hour. Only a fraction of pre-balance spring watches displayed minutes yet the greater accuracy afforded by the balance spring’s introduction meant that minute display was now not only practical, but desirable. During this period there were no hard and fast rules for the display of minutes on a watch dial and, in England, a range of innovative time displays began to appear towards the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries. Shown above is a watch by Richard Colston. This watch, which dates to circa 1690, has broad apertures at the top through which the hours are displayed with additional markings for quarter hours. Minutes are shown at the edge of the dial and indicated via a central hand (the tip of the hand in the photograph has been broken and shortened. At the base of the dial, a smaller aperture shows the current date.

Richard Colston – Ashmolean Museum Oxford – photo © Alex Barter

Another innovative form of time display from this period is the so-called wandering hour watch. Shown above is a ‘sun and moon’ watch made once again by Richard Colston and dating to the very late 1600s. Here the hour is shown on a disc through a large central aperture. The disc is divided into two, during daytime hours, a blazing sun is seen crossing the aperture, a central extended ray points to the hours marked to the edge of the aperture. The silver champlevé dial has hours marked from VI until VI. When the sun disappears below the VI at the right-hand side of the dial, a moon will appear at the VI position to the left side of the dial. An extended ray from the moon then points to the hours in a similar fashion to the sun but this time against a night sky. Minutes are shown at the edge of the dial and are indicated via a central hand.

Richard Colston, a watchmaker from London, was made Free of the Clockmakers’ Company in 1682 and died before 1710.