The making of watches and chronometers (see also clockmaking).
|Historic area of significance||London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Coventry|
|Area currently practised||London, Isle of Man, Birmingham|
|Origin in the UK||16th century. The first successful chronometer was invented and made in London and completed in 1759.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||11-20 (see ‘Other information’ for number of restorers)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||6-10 acquiring the additional skills required to become a master watchmaker capable of making a watch from start to finish, and those whose level of skill means that they largely have to work under supervision even if they are earning money while training.|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Since the invention of the mechanical timekeeper eight hundred years ago, the centre of the world of watchmaking has moved location on three notable occasions – from Germany between 1560 and 1630, to England between 1630 and 1890, and finally Switzerland from 1880 to present. During each of these eras, watches produced within these areas have demanded a premium. The watches being analysed by this research fall into the second period when England, and particularly London, was home for many of the world’s most celebrated watchmakers. In the space of just 150 years, English horologists and inventors contributed the balance spring which gave such an extraordinary improvement in timekeeping and accuracy it allowed for the addition of the first minute hand. Thomas Mudge invented the detached lever escapement in 1755 which improved timekeeping by reducing frictional error. By 1765 watches could keep such accurate time that they were worthy of the introduction of a seconds hand. One of the most extraordinary watchmakers of the era was John Harrison, who created the first successful marine chronometer in history to win the Longitude Prize. Among his considerable contributions to the history of horology, he made significant advances in our understanding and compensating for temperature variation, including bimetallic strip compensation. He invented the caged roller bearing, a virtually frictionless assembly requiring no lubrication and used in virtually all complex machinery to this day.
The earliest known record of watchmakers in Switzerland dates back to 1556. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Swiss industry had entered a state of rapid growth financed by strong global trade links and organised for greater production efficiency than UK watchmakers. The Swiss industry was, and remains, primarily for export. While the 20,000 watchmakers of London were responsible for the manufacture of 15,084 watches for export in 1793, in 1790 Chapuis estimates that Geneva’s population of 1,800 watchmakers were responsible for exporting around 14,000 gold and 45,000 silver watches annually. Additionally, those 20,000 London watchmakers were part of the city’s population of one million inhabitants representing around 1/50th of the population, whereas Geneva’s watchmakers represented around 1/12th of its 20,000 inhabitants.
Where, in the UK, watchmakers still operated as relatively independent workshops, Swiss merchant watchmakers through the redistribution of labour to develop early non-standardised production line methods. To illustrate how successful this method was, in comparison, in 1796 London watchmakers Smith and Upjohn of Red Lion Street, Clerkenwell record selling 3,388 watches that year, falling to 2,307 in 1797. Another watchmaker, Richard Bailey, also of Red Lion Street sold 3,870 watches in 3,870 dropping to 2,940 by 1797. Comparatively, in Switzerland in 1793, watchmaker Frédérick Japy sold approximately 40,000 watches. The production method was referred to as établissage, which is the predecessor to the ébauche (or unsigned movements for sale to another watchmaker who finishes and decorates them).
By embracing technological advances in standardised machine production made by watch manufactories in the United States, such as Waltham, and combining them with the skilled workforce existing in Europe, by the end of the nineteenth century Switzerland became the centre of the world’s watchmaking industry and remains so to date.
 These dates are generalisations with some overlap in the transitional periods.
 Robert Hooke, London, 1664.
 Daniel Quare, London, 1690. Previous to this, watches had an hour hand only as the timekeeping was not accurate enough to warrant any further precision in measurement.
 Thomas Mudge, London, 1755.
 John Whitehurst, London, 1765.
 Harrison’s final payment for the Longitude Prize was made in 1773, although he never received the full prize money. Source: BETTS, J. Harrison. National Maritime Museum, London, 2007, p. 89.
 Formed of a sheet for steel and brass riveted together which rely on each other’s different thermal expansion rates to move a fixed point. The bimetallic strip was used in the index regulating the balance spring on Harrison’s H3 chronometer made between 1740 and 1759, and is a common feature in homes around the world as the thermostatic safety control in electrical plugs. Source ibid, p. 56.
 BETTS, J. Harrison. National Maritime Museum, London, 2007, p. 57.
 CHAPUIS, A & JAQUET, E. (1970) p.15
 CHAPUIS, A & JAQUET, E. (1970) p. 72.
 Guildhall Library; Commons Journals 53 (1797-1798) 326-336.
- Albert chain making (precious metal by hand)
- John Marsh (at G.H. Moore)
- Case making (watches)
- Adam Phillips (deceased)
- Seth Kennedy (from scratch for vintage and antique movements)
- Struthers Watchmakers (only for their own watches)
- James Lamb
- Casting (precious metal)
- Dial enamelling (watches) – extinct in the UK in its traditional sense but there are a few companies experimenting with enamel and refining their processes to bring it back.
- Robert Loomes
- Struthers Watchmakers with Deakin & Francis
- Andy Roberts
- Dial printing and restoration (watches)
- J. Soni
- R. Bill
- Bedford Dials
- Drop stampers, formers and pressers
- Deakin & Francis (in-house only)
- Fattorini (in-house only)
- Toye, Kenning & Spencer (in-house only)
- Downing (independent)
- Engine turning
- Deakin & Francis
- Paul Saunders
- Seth Kennedy (recently awarded a QEST Scholarship in engine turning)
- Engraving (hand)
- Gear cutting
- Roger Smith
- Glass cutting (watch) – including the cutting of synthetic sapphire and fancy shapes
- Steven Hale Watch Restoration (in-house only)
- Goldsmithing (covers setters, mounters, polishers)
- Gong making – for repeating watch mechanisms – extinct in the UK (likely extinct before the turn of the C20th)
- Glen Parry
- Pinion cutting
- Roger Smith
- Strap makers (for watches/leatherworking)
- Tool makers (including small engineering and horological gear cutter manufacture, clipping tool and die sinkers)
- F. Bevan (small engineering)
- K&T Engineering (small engineering)
- PP Thornton (horological gear cutter)
- John Coxsey (works within Toye, Kenning & Spencer – clipping tool maker)
- Die Design (die sinker)
- Watch finishing – practised in-house by a small number of independent watchmakers in the UK and classed as a separate art within watchmaking. Learning the finishing of each component can take several years and the skill is considered as endangered in Switzerland. UK, e.g.
- Roger Smith
- Struthers Watchmakers
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Lack of awareness: Lack of general public awareness in career opportunities in the craft.
- Training issues: Lack opportunities for watch and chronometer making apprenticeships past a technician level. Due to the low number of master watchmakers in the UK and the amount of time it takes to train apprentices there are limited opportunities for those wishing to further their skills to find a master to train with.
- Training issues: watchmaking tutor vacancies at UK institutions are difficult to recruit for which has resulted in a lack of specialist teachers of practical watchmaking skills in the education system.
- Financial issues: Lack funding available for watch and chronometer making apprenticeships past a technician level. There are limited current schemes that offer support to trainees past an introductory level. Those that do offer little financial assistance above a contribution towards the minimum wage rate for apprentices of £3.70 an hour (2018). Qualified technicians will already be earning the national living wage, however, will require a great deal of additional training typically taking a further 3-5 years to reach the skill level of a master watchmaker. This is extremely financially draining for small workshops who must cover the additional wages and the loss of earnings of the master watchmakers carrying out the training.
- Lack of access to allied crafts supporting the trade: It is now virtually impossible to create every component of a watch in the UK due to a shortage of allied craft businesses, the most extreme examples being spring making (hair and mainspring) and jewel making (synthetic corundum train jewels and watch crystal), neither of which still exist in the UK on a commercial level. Rebuilding these networks of allied craftspeople takes time and is very expensive meaning watches completely fabricated in the UK are considerably more expensive to produce than those made in countries with better trade support.
- Aging population: particularly effecting conservation and restoration, there are more specialists with the skills required retiring than there are entering the trade.
- Training and recruitment issues: Brexit has changed the landscape for recruitment. Previously companies would take European trained watchmakers on a regular basis. In the UK now, the few college graduates tend to go to big name firms like Cartier, Omega, Rolex where they can command a higher salary and it is difficult to recruit into the relatively low paid, but highly skilled, making jobs.
- Lack of infrastructure – the traditional watch and clock making industry no longer exists and so new watch and clockmakers are unaware of available resources.
- Training issues: The level of training is not as high as it was and young watchmakers don’t gain enough skills in engineering.
- Set up costs: Its incredibly expensive to setup a workshop. Lathes are very expensive as are many other tools.
- Competition from larger international companies: Watchmakers are being snapped up by companies who can pay higher wages. This is a major problem because these watchmakers spend their time repairing watches and not honing their watchmaking skills operating machinery.
- British Horological Institute
- British Watch and Clock Makers’ Guild
- Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust
- The George Daniels Educational Trust and Committee
- The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers
- British Watch and Clock Makers
The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust award Scholarships to existing masters of craft to expand their skills and Apprenticeships both to those at an entry level as well as technicians who have secured a position with a master irrespective of age.
Craftspeople currently known
UK independent makers and micro workshops making watches and chronometers from start to finish including all parts (where viable):
- Charles Frodsham
- Mike Blayney
- Roger W Smith
- Struthers Watchmakers
Independent UK crafts businesses that make their main craft income from the conservation and restoration of vintage and antique watches and chronometers, including making parts for existing pieces:
- The British Horological Institute publish a list of current accredited repairers‘ of watches, clocks and turret clocks. The list is not exhaustive and it is estimated that around half of professional “craft” watch and clock makers are on the list. An FBHI accreditation will mean that a maker has demonstrated that they can make clocks or watches in their examinations and assessments.
Independent UK crafts businesses that make their main craft income from the modification and refinement of movements, including the significant making of parts for existing pieces within the UK:
A further 21-50 professional makers earning their main craft income from the conservation and restoration of vintage and antique watches and chronometers, including high-grade and complicated mechanisms, and have the ability to make parts for existing timepieces. A further 201-500 professional technicians earning their main income from the service of modern watches and chronometers, including changing parts. A further 51-100 technician trainees (i.e. those acquiring the foundation skills required to gain entry-level employment in this craft at a service centre, and those whose level of skill means that they largely have to work under supervision even if they are earning money while training).
There is a recognised national shortage of high-grade restorers and conservators capable of working on complex and historic watches and chronometers. Restoration also provides one of the best pathways for watch and chronometer makers to start designing and making their own timepieces from scratch as it requires the same skill set. Estimating the availability of work is challenging as the long-term shortage of skilled craftspeople has resulted in many workshops and retailers ceasing to work with vintage and antique pieces because they have no way of repairing them; rather than in response to a lack of demand.
The limited number of businesses still practising traditional watch and chronometer making means that if one or two were lost there would be a high risk of the skills dying out altogether. As there is national skills shortage of traditional watch and chronometer makers in Switzerland, it is not unknown for high-grade makers and restorers to be recruited internationally and their skills lost from the UK. The lack of supporting network and opportunities for development is another draw for UK watchmakers to relocate to Switzerland exacerbating the attrition of skills from the UK.