They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and, according to the owners, are worth the money. They are practically works of art and cost accordingly. Who makes the most complex, elaborately designed and assembled watches in the world, who are these people?


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Roger Smith

Roger Smith held his breath. On the other side of the table sat George Daniels, the best watchmaker in the world. They were in Daniels' personal workshop on the Isle of Man. Smith was only 27 years old. He flew in from his home in the north of England to show something to the great master. Something he's been working on for five and a half years. Handmade mechanical watch.

He waited impatiently as Daniels gently turned the device in his hands, examining every surface and every detail with his trained eye. Daniels asked Smith to clarify who made this or that element of the watch. For every question, Smith answered the same thing: "I did." Daniels then got up from his chair. “Congratulations,” he said, smiling. "You are a watchmaker."

This is how it all started for Smith, who soon after became Daniels' apprentice. Although Daniels passed away in 2011, Smith currently produces his own line of luxury watches, still based in the Isle of Man. Read also: best watches under 5000

Best watches under $5000

Despite the proliferation of electronic watches, the demand for mechanical watches has remained among those who can afford them, with manufacturers from Rolex to Patek Philippe. The unusual thing about Smith and his small team is that they only do 10 hours a year. This is a very rare, very beautiful and very expensive watch. What does it mean to make a watch like this?

The RW Smith workshop, located in a village on the Isle of Man, is a cottage - once Smith's own house - converted into a small factory of sorts. The landscape is generally laid-back, rural. On one side of the building is the Irish Sea, barely visible beyond the field. On the other side, a little further away, is Snaefel Mountain.

In silence, against the backdrop of this idyllic landscape, watchmakers RW Smith spend hours, days, weeks and months creating components for each piece of watch. Cutting, drilling, weighing, polishing, all on a tiny scale. Inside the workshop itself, there are three rooms containing vintage watchmaking equipment, a noisy milling machine and a row of benches where the most delicate procedures are painstakingly carried out, in the presence of a powerful overhead light.

Smith sets everything as precisely as his own watch. He points to the milling machine. “This is Germany,” he says. — It is widely used in Switzerland in the watch industry. And gives us complete independence from anyone. He allowed me to create a new course of British clocks.

A drawer in a large closet is pulled out. Tiny boxes, numbered from one to one hundred, stand in neat rows—the individual components for one pair of watches from Smith's Series 2. In the other corner is an old milling machine, bought by Daniels in the 70s. He is no longer needed. Next to it is an even more ancient device. It is used to tune the clockwork, a kind of geometric metal pattern that is one of the hallmarks of RW Smith watch design.

Smith points to one of his production dials. “A dial like this would take two to two and a half weeks to produce,” he says, noting that this project could take 100 to 200 years to repair and restore, if not more. “We cut out the lettering and numbers by hand and fill them in with ink so they can be updated when the time is right.”

The metal of the dial has a sheen of pure whiteness, and Smith explains that this hue is achieved by heating the material, silver, with fire to gently oxidize. This is so that we can roughly understand how such a device is made.

“The finish has to be absolutely flawless. There can be no excuses, no right or wrong, no half measures,” says the master.

The effort required to reach this level of—to use Smith's own word—perfection is staggering. A single watch, depending on its complexity, can take three years to produce. From start to finish, Smith's watchmakers work with a tolerance of 3 to 4 thousandths of a millimeter. Anything less can make the watch unreliable. The assembly of each pair, its final stage, is the most difficult. "He's very, very demanding."

“Every time you take your watch, you have to protect it from your fingers. You will think ten times about choosing a screwdriver to drive the screw and not stumble, because it can cost you several days of fixing the mistake.

During this process, the watchmaker can plunge into a state close to a trance, the master notes. “You must sharpen the sharpness of your mind. You have to just sit down and really concentrate."

The clock, explains Smith, is a relatively simple concept in terms of mechanical design. The energy stored in the compressed spring is gradually released by the trigger mechanism through a series of gears. Finally, these gears turn the final set of screws, which are removed and moved by the hour and minute hands. The whole task is complicated by the small dimensions and the aforementioned tolerances. And, of course, durability. Watch owners expect watches to perform flawlessly for many years without needing modification or intervention. Imagine, says Smith, that you would demand the same from a car engine.

Smith's slow production rate means that one pair of Series 2 watches will have to wait three years. If you're willing to wait, RW Smith watches start at £100,000. Smith makes other watches, however, using a movement designed by George Daniels himself, which costs £174,000. However, for some clients, this is a drop in the ocean. One of Smith's latest projects will involve creating a completely new, unique design for a client. “By the time I finish it, it will cost more than a million,” he notes casually.

Despite its remoteness, Smith's watch is frequented by the master's wealthy clients. “At some point they all come. I think it's only when they come that they fully understand what we're trying to do here. When they see the specifics of the work, work on the components that will be in the watch.”

It wasn't always easy. Smith says that at the time when his business was just starting, he was on the verge of poverty. At one point, everything was so creepy that he even had to sell that special watch he had been making for years to impress George Daniels.
Of course, Smith has an uncompromising sense of the quality and importance of his work. “I make no apologies for being a purist. Ours is the purest of the mechanical arts,” he wrote last year in an open letter on the website, criticizing the labels of other British watchmakers. He claimed that they mislead consumers about the origin of the components of their watches. Some of them, as it turned out, were selling Swiss-made movements, passing them off as completely British designs.

What does Smith think of the Apple Watch? “Nothing really,” he remarks caustically. For Smith, a watch must be mechanical, it must have a soul, it must be considered a friend or companion. “It might sound a little pompous, but you know, it's not much that you can understand and learn from,” he explains.

“I don’t know if you will ever have a connection with electronic things that need to be charged every day and contain only a small fraction of information.”

Will mechanical purists like Smith starve to death? Hardly. There are other purists at work on the other side of the Atlantic. In Los Angeles, California, Cameron Weiss (who is Weiss) runs his own watch business. Although he still uses Swiss movements, Weiss plans to switch to American designs by the end of the year. “We're going to be the first and only company to make American watches in an American factory,” he says.

Cameron's story

Cameron's story is not very different from Smith's. As a boy, he too was fascinated by watches. In Cameron's case, he learned his craft at Wostep, a Swiss watchmaking institute, before joining Vacheron Constantin, who claims to be the world's oldest watchmaker.
Weiss, like his peers in the industry, is obsessed with the details of watchmaking and describes processes like heat-treating the metal on screws to make them, in one case, a magical light blue hue. Another example he points to is careful polishing so that the oil does not seep through the parts of the movement after years and years. “The amount of attention given to each component is simply unrealistic,” he says. Weiss, of course, works to high standards, but his clients are simpler - the cost of Weiss watches starts at $ 950.

Ultimately, Weiss hopes to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. “In fact, my goal is to try to restore American watchmaking,” he explains. He also shares Smith's hope that others around him will share his commitment to excellence. To the highest perfection.

Smith is positive about the future of watchmaking. “I think it's on the rise,” he says cheerfully. Perhaps the omnipresence of electronics in our age has convinced people to turn back to the intricate mechanics of the gears, cogs, and dials of carefully assembled clocks. Smith is convinced of this. And it is useless to argue with a person who has invested so much time and effort into his devices. Of course, you can try to convince him, but as the watchmaker from the Isle of Man says, "there is nothing that can beat a really good mechanical watch."