Today, when you think of great watchmakers, you probably think of the Swiss. The British, on the other hand, are among the most important watchmakers in history. England was known as the “King of Watches” in the 1700s. It is estimated that by 1800, the British had produced nearly half of the world’s watches. However, England has not only been a leading producer of watches. The British have also made significant contributions to the field of horology. They have produced some of the world’s most prestigious and accurate timepieces throughout history. Here, we’ll delve deeper into England’s rich history of watchmaking.
The First Decades: 1500-1700
Making watches and clocks has been a part of English culture since the 1500s. The first 200 years, however, were not well documented. Certain clockmakers were commissioned by King Henry VIII, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, according to records. Surprisingly, none of these horologists were of British descent.
There were, however, British horologists among the working class. In the mid-1600s, for example, an English scientist, philosopher, and architect named Robert Hooke began researching pendulums. In 1657, he claimed to have invented the balance spring. A century later, another Brit would use his discoveries to develop the marine chronometer.
Daniel Quare was another notable British watchmaker of the seventeenth century. In 1680, he invented a repeating watch movement, and in 1695, he invented a portable barometer. This was also a time of religious strife throughout Europe. A number of Huguenot families, for example, fled to England from France to avoid religious persecution. This type of group was eager to bring their skillsets and contribute to their new communities. Peter Debaufre was one such craftsman, patenting the use of jewels in watches and clocks in 1704.
The Golden Age of British Watchmaking: 1700-1900
Throughout the 1700s, England’s contribution to the field of watchmaking grew at an exponential rate. As more British explorers set out to explore the world, there was an increasing demand for reliable navigation tools. In 1759, one of the most significant horological achievements of the period occurred. For decades, people all over the world had struggled to discover an accurate method for determining longitude at sea. The need became so great that the British government declared a large prize would be awarded to anyone who could solve the longitude problem. With the invention of the marine chronometer in 1759, Yorkshire-born clockmaker and carpenter John Harrison did just that. Harrison had spent over a decade developing and testing it before it was ready for the voyage. It was a success on two transatlantic voyages to the West Indies in 1761 and 1764. In the end, it altered the landscape of sea travel.
By the mid-1700s, London had established itself as the centre of the watchmaking industry. However, a shift was beginning to occur in the industry. The pocket watch began to evolve from a highly functional to a more decorative object. As a result, the emphasis on technical accomplishments waned while attention to aesthetic techniques increased. Despite these changes, England was revered for its advancements in the field of watchmaking throughout this era, and many watchmakers continued to innovate. Escapements for slimmer cases were perfected by Thomas Tompion and George Graham.
Furthermore, Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement, which is still used in watchmaking today. This momentum lasted for the next century. In the 1800s, England’s watch exports peaked at around 200,000 watches per year. Slowly and steadily, new innovations emerged. In 1807, Thomas Young invented the chronograph, and in 1820, Thomas Prest invented keyless winding. John Harwood later invented automatic winding. Nonetheless, the British had one fatal flaw that ultimately led to their demise in the twentieth century.
The Decline of Watchmaking in England from 1900 to 2000
While other countries focused on developing new and more cost-effective manufacturing methods, the United Kingdom remained stagnant. They stuck to tradition, which required many different artisans to handcraft components and assemble watches. Soon, the American and Swiss markets began to outperform the British in terms of output. However, with mass production came inevitably lower quality. As a result, for a time, England was the leading manufacturer of high-quality watches. This, however, will not be enough to keep them on top in the long run. Eventually, mass production methods and, as a result, quality improved. The British were no longer at a competitive advantage, and they refused to change with the times.
To some extent, the two World Wars, particularly WWII, helped level the playing field. During this period, most countries, including England, shifted their focus to the production of military watches rather than civilian watches. The Swiss were an exception, which helped them to dominate the industry as they do today. Nonetheless, the brief revival of British watchmaking after WWII was insufficient. Soon after, the industry was hit by the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, and everyone suffered. Nonetheless, some British visionaries persevered in the face of adversity. The most illustrious example is the legendary George Daniels. Many regard him as one of the twentieth century’s greatest watchmakers. He patented one of his most notable inventions, the co-axial movement, in 1980.
Today British Watchmaking
Today, England has deviated from tradition, modernised, and rebuilt much of its industry reputation. However, they have yet to regain their former glory. It’s difficult to find watches made entirely in Britain, including the movement, as it is in many other countries. Roger Smith, an independent watchmaker, is one of the few examples. Smith inherited the great watchmaker’s workshop and equipment after Daniels died in 2011 and continues to carry on his legacy. Furthermore, there are a number of notable British brands that have risen to the forefront of horology in the twenty-first century. Bremont, which was founded in 2002, is a prime example. Still, the British have a long way to go before they can reclaim their former glory and become a major player in the industry.