Roger Smith $1mn pocket watch a ‘cornerstone’ for high-end UK makers
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When a 22-year-old Roger Smith showed George Daniels the first pocket watch he had made, the master horologist sent him away to start again. “He said it looked too handmade,” says Smith.
Undeterred, he spent the next five and a half years perfecting a second pocket watch, featuring a perpetual calendar and tourbillon with spring-detent escapement, and took it to Daniels in the Isle of Man, a British crown dependency, in 1997. “He was very frosty and complained,” says Smith. “I remember him saying, ‘Why did you bring that first watch? It was awful’ . . . on the way down to the workshop.”
Daniels, regarded by many as the 20th century’s greatest watchmaker, examined the piece and questioned Smith about how he made its components. “Eventually, he said: ‘Congratulations, you’re a watchmaker,’” says Smith.
Now, the estimate for this pocket watch when it comes up for sale at Phillips in New York on June 10 is in excess of $1mn — a sum that would set a new auction record for a Roger Smith piece. The current record of $840,700, for a Series 2 open dial wristwatch (2017), was set at Phillips in New York last June.
The sale comes at a time when the British watchmaker’s work is achieving eye-catching prices on the secondary market. The online platform, A Collected Man, the only approved retailer for pre-owned Smith watches, is due to announce on Friday that it facilitated the $1.2mn sale between two clients of the only stainless steel piece Smith has made, a Series 2, in January.
Silas Walton, the platform’s founder and chief executive, and one of Smith’s clients, believes it to be the “most expensive wristwatch ever sold” bearing Smith’s name. The London-based business previously sold the watch, delivered in 2007, for just over £250,000 in 2018.
But Smith’s Pocket Watch Number Two, which has a 66.5mm-diameter gold case, is “one of the most important timepieces to come up for auction in recent years,” reckons Paul Boutros, head of watches for the Americas at Phillips.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a singular timepiece that has changed the life and career of a watchmaker as this has,” he points out.
Boutros says it is the “cornerstone by which 21st-century English watchmaking is possible today” because, without it, there would have been a “gap” in continuity for high-end, handcrafted British independent timepieces following Daniels’ death in 2011.
After approving Pocket Watch Number Two, Daniels enlisted Smith’s help in 1998 to finish the Millennium Series of wristwatches he made to celebrate Omega’s adoption of his coaxial escapement.
Smith launched his own brand, Roger W Smith, in 2001, carrying on the Daniels method of one person designing and crafting a mechanical watch. Today, with the exception of a few components, Smith and his team in the Isle of Man make everything in-house and produce 18 watches a year. The average price is £330,000.
Smith sold Pocket Watch Number Two to a collector in 2004 to fund his then fledgling business. It is one of only three pocket watches he has made. He disassembled his first to use some of its components in his second. The third was a private commission.
He says the $1mn-plus estimate for his second pocket watch is “very flattering” but that he has always been driven by watchmaking and “never thought about the potential material gains from it”. However, he keeps an eye on the secondary market, where he says prices for his pieces “have been going up quite significantly of late”. The next test of the market comes on Sunday in Geneva, where Phillips is offering an 18-carat pink gold Series 1 (2021) with pink gold chapter ring, the only Smith piece with this case/dial combination. It carries an estimate of SFr150,000-SFr300,000 ($164,000-$328,000).
Jonathan Darracott, global head of watches at Bonhams, which last December sold a yellow gold Smith Series 2 (2011) for £516,900, more than double the low estimate, says recent keen prices have been led by increasing valuations for Daniels’ watches. Phillips sold a Daniels Spring Case Tourbillon for SFr4,083,500 in November, a world auction record for a wristwatch by a British maker.
There is also growing interest in independent watchmakers from collectors. “It’s this realisation that you get something very different . . . everything is very individualistic,” says Darracott. “It’s made with an artisanal rather than a production point of view.”
However, while there has been a trend of rising auction prices for independent watchmakers generally, he says Smith, Daniels, and Geneva-based FP Journe “are the tempest that’s driving the storm”.
Smith closed his waiting list in 2021, and those at the bottom of it have a seven-year wait for their watch. He thinks he will scale up annual production to 20-25 pieces in a few years’ time but is “not prepared to cut corners”. It is the “extraordinary quality” that makes his watches sought after, says Boutros.
Darracott says Smith’s achievements are the result of dedication. “He did it because he loved it and that’s what comes through in his watches, and his personality as well,” he says. “He needs to be applauded and every success that comes to him is well deserved.”