George Daniels and the art, science, engineering geometry, physics, metallurgy of watchmaking.
On the morning of Thursday 6 July Sotheby’s London will auction a George Daniels pocket watch. Made in 1970 the watch is the fourth George made. Its first owner was Edward Hornby a watch collector and George’s friend.
The Hornby is the fourth pocket watch George made. George did not consider a watch finished until after a careful, final inspection he placed it in a box and prepared an invoice. With the Hornby, he performed that ritual on New Year’s Day morning 1971 before seeing the watch’s owner later that day.
Always eager to hold a watch by George again I rushed to the first auction exhibition at Sotheby’s showrooms on Saturday. Before talking about the watch a few words about Edward Hornby.
Hornby enjoyed writing. Rather than send Christmas cards, every year he’d pen a few pages about people various happenings in his life then have the pages printed, bound and mailed to friends and acquaintances. He called these little books The Adventures of Edward Hornby. In the 1984 version, he recounts two incidents involving he and George and Sotheby’s auctions in the late sixties and early seventies – which I subsequently included in my book George Daniels: A Master Watchmaker And His Art.
“By the late sixties, the sight of Daniels bidding on a watch at auction piqued the interest of other buyers driving up the price. Edward Hornby recounts two stories illustrating how the former firewood seller dealt with the more sophisticated environment of watch auctions.
The first incident involved an uncased Breguet movement and a Swiss dealer named Mannheimer. Daniels and Mannheimer were present at the same auction. Concerned that his interest in the movement would convince Mannheimer to bid on it upping the price to an unacceptable lever Daniels turned to Hornby and said: ‘This is what we’ll do. I start the bidding and go up to about £300 and Mannheimer will follow me and bid £350. The auctioneer will look back to me and I will not only fail to bid but I will shake my head vigorously, turn round and walk out of the room drooping my catalogue as I go. You then, from the other side of the room, come in with a bid of £400, the auctioneer shouts New bidder, £400 I’m bid and looks back to Mannheimer. He might possibly put in one more bid in which case you do too but the odds are he’ll pack up.’ It all worked like a charm and we got the movement for £400 and George would have been quite prepared to have paid £1000.’
Hornby then tells of another encounter with Mannheimer at a Sotheby’s auction.
‘George had bid for a watch for me and my limit was £1,200. We didn’t get it and it was sold for £1,500 to Mannheimer. We went and had a cup of coffee round the corner till the end of the sale as George had bought another lot and wanted to collect it. When we got back George was summoned to the office and told there had been a muddle about lot 142, which was my lot, the ultimate buyer had said that his bid was taken by mistake and that George could have it for £1,450. George came and fetched me and the proposition was explained. I said no, I was under no obligation to bid at all but I would buy the lot for my original limit of £1,200. The Sotheby’s official said “Just a minute I must go and make a telephone call’ and slipped out of the room. He was back in the room very quickly and couldn’t possibly have had the time to make a call and said “You can have it for £1,200. As we walked down the stairs I said to George “What was the meaning of all that”?
Daniels explained to Hornby: ‘I should suspect that Mannheimer has a very similar watch locked up in his safe in Zurich and wants to establish a high price for it. He and his friend bid it up to a satisfactory height and then go and whine that it was a mistake and hope they can sell it off at the under bid. In this case they failed and they lost £300 on the deal because they will have to pay the full £1,500 which they bid and that will be the price officially registered. They will probably think that it was worth it and no doubt they will be able to charge their client in Zurich £2,000.’
For me Hornby’s stories prove that George was a canny operator in the auction rooms of the time.
George always described his first eight watches made between 1969 and 1973 as ‘primitive’. Only the seventh in the series boasts a complication, a power reserve indicator. The others are time only watches. The first of the series has a pivoted detent escapement, the others employ spring detent escapements all eight feature tourbillions. (George considered the tourbillon a complexity and not a complication.) To the rest of us those don’t sound like primitive watches but they were to George.
Why? George was a man with ideals. He once told me: ‘It was of the utmost importance to me that my watches possess elegance and simplicity. They are the sources of beauty in watches. These are things you can only create at the workbench with tools in your hand. The beauty of a watch for me lies in part in its geometry, in the shape of the case and the design of the dial. But geometry is even more important for the movement: a movement must be geometrically perfect, nothing superfluous, nothing that makes the movement look out of proportion, and it must have the perfect finish. The other part of the beauty of a watch lies in its timekeeping. A beautiful watch keeps perfect time. The whole thing fuses into one. The beauty of a watch is geometric and aesthetic and about timekeeping. If we are looking at a perfect watch we are looking at a perfect machine for telling time.’
George felt that with those early watches he had not yet created the ‘perfect machine for telling time.’ That development came later when he made watches with his invention the co-axial escapement. Even so the Hornby and his other early watches do possess elegance, simplicity and proportion. Nothing is superfluous and the finish is pure perfection.
One of the intriguing characteristics of the Hornby is that it has a self-starting spring detent chronometer something many horological textbooks will tell you cannot possibly exist.
George would not let something he viewed as insignificant – such as a statement in a textbook – stop him from creating the impossible. He experimented with chronometer escapements altering the geometry until he invented one that would self-start.
George’s experiments with chronometer escapements illustrate the science, engineering geometry, physics, and metallurgy of watchmaking.
As for the art, George said: ‘’I know today people say many things are a work of art. I am sometimes asked if a watch is a work of art. It depends on your definition. To me a work of art is an artificially constructed object with integrity and the ability to amuse, intrigue and educate the human mind.’
On Saturday I left Sotheby’s and walked onto Bond Street. For those of you unfamiliar with London’s Bond Street is lined with watch brand boutiques – places where I have spent many hours. When I left home that morning I planned to view the Hornby and then visit some watch boutiques. And there’s the rub – after again appreciating a Daniels watch I could not bring myself to enter shops full of mas produced watches. I headed straight home.