The legacy of the greatest watchmaker of his generation lives on. Dubai Watch Week remembers British horologist George Daniels
Last month, a George Daniels Grand Complication pocket watch sold at auction for CHF 2.42 million ($2.43 million), the highest result achieved for any watch sold during the Geneva spring auction season. To put that into context, that was at least two and a half times the sums collected for anything else in the same auction, from a catalogue that included rare pieces made by Patek Philippe and Rolex, the darlings of the auction scene.
Beyond the world of watches, the name of Dr George Daniels is little known, certainly far less than those establishment brands whose watches his frequently reduce to auction also-rans. And yet in the esoteric world of fine watchmaking, few names are met with such reverie as his.
The shortest answer is that George Daniels was the preeminent watchmaker of his generation, and, as many have it, one of the most gifted watchmakers in all of watchmaking history. He died in 2011, leaving a legacy that will continue to shape the mechanical watch market at both a commercial level and the high end for years, if not centuries to come.
Two stories from his life as a watchmaker illustrate the point.
The first is of Daniels the master of the watchmaking art. He was one of the few watchmakers who could create a complete watch by hand, including the movement, case and dial. He learned 32 of the 34 crafts considered necessary to build a watch, and in his lifetime made 27 unique pocket and wristwatches from the ground up using what is now known as ‘The Daniels Method’.
From the marine chronometer he made in 1953 to the Space Traveller of around 1982, which is considered his masterpiece, each was made in his Isle of Man studio without repetitive or automatic tools, and stands as testament to his extraordinary talent.
The second story is the development of what he called the Co-axial Escapement, completed in 1974. This was a revolutionary device, intended to accelerate mechanical watchmaking so it could match and outpace the timekeeping advances of the time made by quartz manufacturers.
The Co-axial improved on the lever escapement invented by English watchmaker Thomas Mudge in 1754, itself a mechanical marvel still in wide use today. Daniels’ invention greatly reduced friction, meaning mechanical watch movements that adopted it would be more precise and more durable.
On completing it, Daniels took the Co-axial to market. But this was a dark time for traditional watchmaking. The Quartz Crisis, as it’s now known, was coming to the boil. Eventually it would send around 1,000 Swiss watch companies into insolvency and roughly two thirds of the industry workforce into early retirement or redundancy.
But Daniels never lost the conviction that a mechanical watch is a thing of beauty and therefore worth conserving. All it would need, he surmised, was some real-world innovation. Many years went by before he found a like mind in Nicholas Hayek, founder of the Swatch Group and rescuer of industry grandes dames such as Breguet, Longines and Jaquet Droz. Hayek, who died in 2010, was smitten by Daniels’ escapement, and bought exclusive rights to it and passed it to another of his watch companies, Omega.
The first Omega Co-Axial was released in 1999, a quarter of a century after its inception. Since then, millions of pieces carrying the technology have been produced. Even in these last five years, during which Omega has introduced its generation-shifting Master Chronometer calibres, the Co-axial Escapement remains. The arrangement with Hayek made Daniels a very wealthy man and gave his work the mainstream credibility it deserved.
Following his death, Sotheby’s auctioned 134 lots from Daniels’ collection, raising more than £8 million ($10.1 million at today’s rates) for the George Daniels Educational Trust. The top lot was the Space Traveller Watch, which went under the hammer for £1,329,250 ($1.7 million).
Daniels, who was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2010 and whose work is displayed in the British Museum, made a lasting mark on mechanical watchmaking. Like Mudge and other leviathans of 18th century watchmaking, his name and work will be remembered for many centuries beyond his death.
For now, his legacy lives on in his body of work, and also in his only protégé Roger W. Smith, himself a hugely talented watchmaker. His story is one to return to another day…