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George Daniels : A Master Watchmaker & His Art (book review)

George Daniels : A Master Watchmaker & His Art
By Michael Clerizo
Published by Thames & Hudson, London, 2013
Hardcover, 30cm x 30cm, 216 pages

I’ve been an admirer of George Daniels (1926 – 2011) since my teenage years when I came across a copy of his legendary book Watchmaking in my local library and was fascinated by what it contained. Now some 30 years later, George Daniels : A Master Watchmaker & His Art by Michael Clerizo is a fitting tribute to one of the most extraordinary talents of the past 100 years. What he achieved marks him as a true genius in every sense of the word.

This lavishly illustrated book is split into sections which span across his life; first a biographical section covering a span of decades, followed by the watches he made over that period, then another biographical section, more watches and so on. This book begins with his early life in abject poverty during the Great Depression in London where he lived with 10 siblings, a violent alcoholic father and little stability (by the time he was aged 10, the family had lived in eight different apartments). He turned to the streets, thieving from people’s houses to survive but also discovering kindness from strangers which was lacking at home. Most of the book however covers his remarkable career from his time at a horological training school to the point and beyond where he arguably became the most brilliant watchmaker of the past 200 years.

For those unfamiliar with his achievements, he only made 37 watches in his life but each of them pushed the limit of what was possible in a mechanical watch and each in its own way an experimental prototype of increasing complexity. What makes this even more remarkable was that not only did he design the watches (often in his head; detailed drawings only came after the watch was completed) he virtually made everything himself. The cases, gears, pinions, escapements, levers, hands, the beautiful engine-turned patterned faces, the watch chains (and every link in that chain), blued winding keys, face lettering, repeater gongs, tourbillons…even each tiny individual screw...every single piece was made by himself, by hand. The only parts he didn't make himself were the balance springs and glass “crystal” over the watch face. He didn't just learn the technique to make each of these parts, he completely mastered them. He was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer.

One thing I liked about the book was (unlike many other watch books I have read) it was actually quite liberating to know that owning a George Daniels watch is almost impossible. Even just having the opportunity to see a Daniels watch in the flesh is difficult. I could admire the extraordinary craftsmanship, but I found my usual “watch-lust” greatly reduced as they are virtually impossible to obtain. Admittedly there also exists the 50 Millennium wrist watches he made using a modified Omega movement together with his only apprentice Roger Smith but these are also held by collectors and can sell for over $100,000. Probably the closest that us mere mortals can get to owning a Daniels watch is an Omega fitted with a co-axial escapement which he invented in 1974 and then sold to the company in the 1990s after trying for years to find a manufacturer willing to take on his idea. I think it is rather sad that today Omega fail to mention his role in their marketing and often come very close to taking credit for something they didn't invent. (see this for example). It’s quite a shame as I would have thought his story would have fitted very well with the image that Omega likes to project. Daniels made very little money from the co-axial escapement which has made Omega millions; actually he didn’t make a huge amount from his watches at all as most required a year’s worth of full-time labour to complete. He died a wealthy man but most of that wealth came from buying, restoring and then on-selling vintage British sports and racing cars.

Sadly, as is often the case with such driven men, his personal life was less than a happy one. His marriage to the daughter of a wealthy client, which was to became his "key" into the rarefied British upper-class, was not to last. His relationship with his only child appears to have been virtually non-existent and the watch he made for her in 1970 ("The Sarah Jane" ) was never passed on to her and sold for £349,250 at the Daniel's auction held at Sotheby's late last year when his remaining estate was sold off to raise funds for an educational trust . One can only speculate how the terrible conditions of his childhood could have impacted on his ability to form a loving family bond.

The standard of photography is superb. The internal watch movements are all photographed and several are shown disassembled so the reader can see far more that would ever be the case if the watch were on display. It's a handsome, well-produced, heavy book which will look good on any bookshelf or coffee table. In saying that, I would have really liked to have seen a 1:1 life-size photograph of each watch. Most are shown greatly enlarged which allows you to appreciate the detail but not the scale of Daniels' craftsmanship.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates mechanical watches and particularly anyone who owns and want to know the story behind the origins of their Omega Co-axial watch. However you don't need to be someone who lusts after top-end watches to enjoy this book; just someone who can appreciate the point at which precision engineering is lifted to that of high-art. When reading it I'm sure that my mouth dropped open several times as I began to understand the audacity of what George Daniels created. He was certainly a remarkable man.

Available from The Book Depository or Amazon

Here are some images I scanned from my copy:

Daniels with his wife and daughter at his original London workshop in the early 1970s. He later moved to the Isle of Man.


The "Sarah Jane", (1970)
18ct gold case with engine turned face featuring diamond, barley-corn and weave patterns in each section. The movement features a chronometer escapement built into a one-minute tourbillon carriage.


The Space Traveller II (1985)
This was a "thought experiment" by Daniels who wanted to create a watch which theoretically could be used on a manned space mission. It displays both solar and sidereal time with each having a chronograph linked to that time. The two times shown will drift apart at a rate of 3.555 minutes per day with the degree of accuracy separating the two times calculated to be 0.28 seconds per day. It also features an annual calendar, phases on the moon, and a quadrant for the equation of time.
This watch sold at auction at Sotheby's for $2.125 million.


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