The Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XVI: Inside The George Daniels Lots
With three rare-to-see George Daniels timepieces headlining the upcoming auction, Watchonista tapped Daniels’ official biographer to get the inside story on these masterful wristwatches and the watchmaker’s inspiration.
Three George Daniels wristwatches – the unique Spring Case Tourbillon in yellow gold from 1992, a yellow gold Millennium Watch, and a yellow gold Anniversary Watch that commemorates the invention of the co-axial escapement – head to Phillips’ Geneva auction rooms on November 5th.
Most of the commentary about this troika of timepieces from the master mentions the healthy prices achieved for his watches in recent auctions. Fair enough. If there is a horological heaven, George, surely a resident, beams an angelic smile when his watches sell for six and seven figures. He might even needle his companions by asking them: “tell us Tom (Tompion), Abe (Breguet), and John (Arnold), what has your stuff done lately?”
Like many people raised in poverty, George appreciated money but it was never his only motivation – he wanted to make great watches. The pertinent question about the three watches for sale is how they reflect his aesthetic philosophy and approach to watchmaking.
The Spring Case Tourbillon
Take the Spring Case Tourbillon’s most salient feature, the hinged case, and the problem it solved – displaying information on a double-dialed watch. For George, removing a watch from the wrist and then flipping it to see the back dial was clumsy and time-consuming. He looked for a mechanical solution, hence the hinge.
The hinge is not a surprise, as George loved mechanical devices. From his work in the 1960s as the premier restorer of the creations of Breguet, Arnold, and others, George was familiar with pocket watch hinges. Still, his hinged case was never meant as a reprise of others’ work, but as part of his quest for two qualities he demanded of all his watches. To quote a 2005 interview: “it was of the utmost importance to me that my watches possess elegance and simplicity. They are the sources of beauty in watches. These are things you can only create at the workbench with tools in your hand.”
Were watches and cars George’s first exposure to “elegance and simplicity” in mechanical devices? No. That position belongs to film projectors and bicycles.
In the early days of World War II, the sixteen-year-old George Daniels took a job in a garage specializing in replacing batteries and tires in his London neighborhood. As the war continued business declined as tires and batteries were mostly restricted to military vehicles. The owner hit upon the idea of converting silent film projectors, of which thousands were lying unused in London cinemas, to show sound films.
George took to the project with pure delight especially when he saw the inner workings of projectors manufactured by the UK-based Kalee company. “I thought it was a machine with elegance and beauty. Even my sixteen-year-old brain thought of those words when I looked at a Kalee. I felt that way because…you could see how it worked and see that it had its own quiet character because it would run so smoothly with all of its wheels going at high speed. It radiated quality.”
Consider the Simple Bike
Another source of inspiration for George was a bicycle. In the 1930s Hyman Hetchin produced excellent, handmade bicycles in his London shop near George’s home. A kind-hearted man, Hetchin always welcomed George and happily discussed the finer points of his bicycles.
“I hadn’t encountered the work of the masters of horology yet…but when you looked at a Hetchin you knew you got the best if you got one of those.”
For George the lugs (sockets that connect and hold together the tubular frame) on a Hetchin were magical. “They were too elegant to have been mass-produced by a machine. You knew there was human intelligence and experience involved in making those lugs. They were graceful with swirls and scrolls and looked very natural, not contrived.”
He continued by describing what was missing from a Hetchin: “no machining marks, no tooling marks, all that was washed away. Hetchins are simple, very handsome machines perfectly made, nothing superfluous, nothing unnecessary, and eminently suited to their purpose.”
The other trait that George saw in Kalee projectors and Hetchin’s bicycles was proportion which he defined as: “every single item is to scale. If you need a screw to hold a very tiny thing down, then you make a very tiny screw.”
The quest for elegance, simplicity, and proportion yields watches that were in George’s words, “…perfect machines for telling time.”
His Inspiration is Showing
All three of the watches in the sale are equally revealing of George’s credo even though one, the Spring Case Tourbillon, has components fabricated by his friend Derek Pratt, while the other two were made by Roger Smith using George’s methods.
Look at the dials and you’ll see what “eminently suited” to purpose means on a watch. Elegantly interlaced, easily readable asymmetrical chapter rings paired with the arrowhead of the hour hand, the slim minute hand, and the curved short end of the second hand.
On dials, George preferred three engine-turned patterns – diamond, barleycorn, and basket weave. On the dial of the Anniversary Watch, the arrangement is basket weave on the main and seconds counters, diamond on date aperture and up/down gauge, and barleycorn for the outer ring.
All in the Movement
The true test of George’s philosophy is the movement. He abhorred Geneva stripes as too fussy and a distraction from the essential workings of the movement. He gilded the main components to a honey-hued, blued screws, polished steel components, and beveled straight edges, an approach Roger adhered to on the Millennium and the Anniversary.
Look at a George Daniels movement and you can admire its working as he did with the Kalee projector. As with a Hetchin bicycle, you will not see any tell-tale marks left by the human hands that produced the movement.
Simple, elegant, and perfectly proportioned watches. Quite the place to end up considering he started with projectors and bicycles.