An Introduction to High-End Independent Watchmaking – The Original Independents
A few months ago, we wrote a short series of blogs exploring the largest watch groups in the world. You can read the series here. These groups all manufacture millions of watches annually and spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing. They are the big brands that you’ll recognise if you are a watch collector, or if you are not. We also wrote a series of blogs exploring some of our favourite microbrands, small brands making a limited number of well-priced watches.
There is another type of brand which we haven’t explored before. The high-end independent watch makers.
What Is an Independent Watchmaker?
There is plenty of debate about which brands count as independents. For example, Rolex is a standalone brand, independent from the major watch groups; however, it is never classified as one of the “independents” by the mainstream watch media. When we use the term “independents”, what we mean is a small high-end watchmaking business, that is less than 40 years old. Typically, it will be named after the main watchmaker, designer, or owner. Crucially, it will be focused on building creative, high-end, unique watches.
Why Do Collectors Love Independent Watch Makers?
Independent watchmakers are mostly supported by the wealthiest, most discerning watch collectors. Until relatively recently, it was very difficult to see watches from these brands, as they were typically purchased directly from the manufacturer and remained in private collections. This has changed in recent years, as social media provides a platform for collectors to share their collections with the public, and the independent brands themselves are starting to market their products more widely.
All the high-end independent brands have a unique proposition for their customers, reflecting the personality of the head watchmaker/owner. Some brands will focus on beautiful designs and finishing, others will focus on mechanical and engineering ingenuity, whilst some will try to create watches that turn convention on its head. The independent brands are all alike in their founders’ desire to show off their creativity and skill and make stunning watches. This blog will explore the two original high-end independents: Daniels and Dufour.
Romain Gauthier Insight Micro-Rotor
George Daniels & Roger Smith – Entirely Handmade Watches
The father of independent watchmaking is the late British watchmaker George Daniels. Daniels is one of the most important watchmakers of the 20th Century. One of his key inventions was the Co-axial escapement, which is now used in almost every Omega watch. This movement was designed by Daniels to improve accuracy, and reduce the amount of servicing that the automatic watch requires, reducing the cost of servicing for the owner.
George Daniels is believed to be one of the first watchmakers to master all of the skills necessary to make a watch entirely by hand. During his lifetime, he made 27 unique watches, entirely by hand. This included individually machining every single cog within the watch, hand turning the beautiful dial, and stitching the leather strap. You can view some of the Daniels’ watches in the British Museum in London. Their beauty is even more remarkable considering their entirely handmade nature.
A George Daniels watch sold by Phillips Auction house in 2019
George Daniels hired one apprentice in his lifetime – Roger Smith, who continues Daniels’ tradition of making all of the parts for his watches in his Isle of Man workshop by hand. You must apply to Roger to commission a watch, which will typically take a few years to make. Apparently, he only makes watches for people that he likes! His watches are highly prized by collectors and are very rarely resold. When they are, they go for very high prices. You can see why when you consider the very high quality, fully handmade nature of the watches.
Roger Smith Series 5 Open Dial
Philippe Dufour – The Most-Simple Complicated Watches
Another independent watchmaking legend is Philippe Dufour. His early career saw him move around a few of the large Swiss watchmakers, including Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet before becoming frustrated and setting up his own independent brand in the early 1990’s. ACollectedMan, one of the only places authorised by Mr Dufour to re-sell his watches has written an fascinating article detailing Mr Dufour’s journey to becoming a watchmaker. You can read it here.
Philippe Dufour is renowned for creating very simple, classically designed watches, with phenomenally beautiful movements, often containing a grand complication, or additional function. He holds the honour of being the first watchmaker to put a complication called a Sonnerie into a wristwatch, in 1992. This complication chimes the time in the way that a large clock such as Big Ben will. The Grand Sonnerie chimes the hours, ever hour, and the hours and quarters every quarter hour. The Petite Sonnerie chimes the hours and quarters, but does not repeat the hours every quarter hour. As you can imagine, it would take a genius to design and build this mechanism and make it small enough to fit inside a wristwatch. Philippe Dufour watches have become incredibly expensive in the past few years, and a Grand et Petite Sonnerie has just been sold at auction for over $5m. You can read more about the watch here.
Philippe Dufour Grande et Petite Sonnerie, sold by ACollectedMan.
Philippe Dufour Simplicity
Watches from these independent brands are a long way above our budgets at The Watch Collectors Club; however, we still take every opportunity we can to see them in real life, and try them on. They remind us of the skill of master watchmakers, and the creativity that makes us fall in love with their watches. Our blog next week will explore four modern independent watchmakers, who are pushing the boundaries of design and engineering: Voutilainen, MB&F, Laurent Ferrier and Czapek.
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