All geniuses are meant to have a streak of madness to them. But Roger Smith comes across as almost incongruously normal.
Roger engaging after the talk - credit WatchGecko
You’d walk past him in the street without giving this quiet, bespectacled man a second glance. You might think he was an engineer of some sort, and had it not been for a chance encounter with the great George Daniels when he was at technical college in Manchester, this is probably exactly what Roger would have ended up doing.
For someone whose intelligence and attention to detail is way beyond what most mere mortals can comprehend, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that Roger was no good at school. As in, seriously bad. It all changed when he went to college and discovered watchmaking; then it wasn’t long before he became Daniels’ first – and only – apprentice. Of the 129 watches that Daniels produced, Smith was involved in around 90 of them.
Roger in conversation with Andrew Morgan from Watchfinder UK - credit WatchGecko
The rest of the story is already legend, with Smith taking on Daniels’ mantle, to the point where all his watches are built to the ‘Daniels Method’ – which means that one watchmaker will build an entire watch from scratch, completely by hand.
It requires a virtuoso mastery of different skills that are almost impossible to imagine, but it’s the way that Smith learned to make watches, and he believes that it’s the best way: even though it’s impossibly labour-intensive. A pocket watch that he built single-handedly in his parents’ garage (at his second attempt) is what earned Smith his coveted apprenticeship, after he presented it to Daniels, who inspected it closely, snapped it shut, and handed it back to him, saying: “Congratulations. You are now a watchmaker.”
Six words that made their mark on horological history. Daniels was a huge influence on Smith’s life and career, having taken over the workshop on the Isle of Man, where the legendary Daniels watches were originally built.
His strict adherence to the ‘Daniels Method’ is the reason why only 18 Roger W Smith watches are made per year, and there’s a waiting list that stretches on for so many more years that Roger had to close it.
Always time for a selfie with a legend - Credit WatchGecko
He often jokes that he doesn’t have one of his own watches as he can’t afford it – although that’s not entirely true, as he wears one of his prototypes. Such is his unstinting attention to detail that nothing less than absolute perfection is even close to acceptable. And that commands a hefty price tag: a new record for a Smith watch was recently set at auction, raising £660,000.
I was privileged to meet Roger at a talk he recently gave at the Royal College of Surgeons. This was an appropriate venue, as watchmaking is the only other endeavour that requires a similar degree of precision and patience.
Most of all though, it’s Roger’s relentless quest to improve that really stands out. He took Daniels’ invention of the co-axial escapement and made it even better, and he’s currently working on research projects with Manchester Metropolitan University to create watches that require no lubrication – which he says will be a game-changer.
But Roger W Smith, OBE, is unbelievably self-effacing. His main concern is to use his achievements to highlight the prominence of British watchmaking as a whole, and to leave behind him a legacy that will constantly inspire others.
He certainly inspired me, so we made a quick video after his talk with my impressions of what he said. Check it out right here on the WatchGecko YouTube Channel.