‘Watchmaker’ is a very loose term. Someone who dismantles, services and reassembles watches can be titled as such. Someone who takes a machine-made blank and hand finishes it—they too can be called a watchmaker. But someone who actually makes watches, with their hands, from the drawing board to the finished result, that’s surely the ultimate watchmaker. This is the kind of watchmaker George Daniels was.
George Daniels was the kind of man who couldn’t leave things be. He had grown up fascinated by mechanical watches, but he found himself faced with the very real prospect of this centuries-old technology being surpassed by something new and exciting, that had timekeeping capabilities mechanical watchmakers could only dream of. But where the world embraced this step forward into the future, Daniels resented it; the way it was reliant on a battery, the way it stripped a watch of the mechanical fascination he so admired. But he didn’t just grit his teeth in the typical British way and resent it quietly—he actually decided to do something about it.
So, in 1967, Daniels set about making his own pocket watch, an incredible achievement I’m sure you’ll agree—but despite its impressive quality, Daniels wasn’t pleased with it. He’d made something unoriginal, and he believed that if he were to give mechanical watchmaking the attention it deserved, he would have to revolutionise it in some significant way.
The most important part of a movement, the Swiss lever escapement, is the heart of a watch and mechanically regulates the time, making it the ideal candidate for improvement. It had, however, already been refined to maximum efficiency over the better part of two centuries.
But despite this seemingly impassable roadblock, Daniels still couldn’t leave things be. He turned his attention to the detent escapement, a feature of many high-precision marine chronometers, because he’d noticed something about the Swiss lever that troubled him: every impulse on the balance wheel came at the cost of friction. Friction requires lubrication, lubrication is affected by temperature, so temperature changes have quite the effect on timekeeping when that friction occurs 28,800 times per hour.
The detent escapement, however, produced so little friction that it didn’t require lubricant at all, but there was a major problem with the mechanism: because drive was imparted only in one direction, shock or movement could easily make it stop—fine for clocks, just about suitable for pocket watches, and useless for wristwatches.
Still undeterred, Daniels built a dual detent escapement, with two escape wheels driven by two wheel trains drawing power from two mainsprings. It ran at less than a second out over a month. The watch was so accurate that even a slight change in humidity could be detected in the timekeeping—but it was also hugely complicated, expensive, and took up a lot of space. It needed to be refined.
What Daniels did to solve the space problem was to combine the two escape wheels into one, so that they co-occupied the same axis. He called it the ‘co-axial escapement’. The first escape wheel gave a direct impulse to the balance wheel in one direction, with the second in the other direction via a pallet fork, allowing the minimal friction of the detent escapement in a form suitable for wristwatches. This was in the 1970s, before computer-aided design, before computer simulations. It was all calculated and designed by hand.
Daniels then took his idea to Switzerland at the request of none other than Patek Philippe. Finally, after more than a decade of work, Daniels’ goal of moving watchmaking forward was coming to fruition. He showed them his escapement, and they told him it wouldn’t work. He returned with a working example in a pocket watch, which they said was too big for a wristwatch. So he returned again with it fitted in a wristwatch, which they said was too thick for them. Once again he returned with it fitted into a thin Patek Philippe watch, ready to finally reap his reward. They said no.
But Daniels still refused to give up, and what was Patek Philippe’s loss became Omega’s gain, as the company adopted the co-axial escapement into its flagship movements. But what better way to appreciate that success than by viewing the co-axial escapement in an actual Daniels watch, the Anniversary, the last to bear the great man’s name before his passing in 2011.
From the very first to the very last, Daniels’ watches are handcrafted in the most traditional of senses, shaped from raw stock all the way to the finished product within his Isle of Man workshop. The style is as Daniels intended right from the start, a homage to the great English watchmakers of old, both inside and out.
In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine a product that doesn’t go through some kind of automated process, but in the same way that Daniels created the co-axial escapement with his head and his hands, so too are these watches made. Every screw, hand turned and hand blued; every tooth on every wheel, cut individually; each line of each of the many styles of engine turning engraved one by one. The electricity in the workshop powered the lights and kettle, and that’s about it.
Daniels may be gone, but his legacy remains; not just in his watches, but in his protégé, Roger Smith. This automatic Millennium was their first collaboration together, and the Anniversary their last, but Smith has kept Daniels’ spirit very much alive through his own watches, built in the way Daniels taught him. Smith has even refined the co-axial further; Daniels would be proud.
It’s hard to fully convey how important these—and all of Daniels’ watches—really are. When someone is able to advance a two-century old technology to such extremes, it’s worth paying attention, especially when it’s achieved to such an incredible degree of quality. So, if you’ve ever wondered what the term ‘watchmaker’ really means, wonder no more, because this is it.