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Sotheby’s to sell the George Daniels Horological Collection, greatest watchmaker of 20th century

By Christopher Proudlove ©

back coverI’m not sure what George Daniels would have made of the iPhone. Apart from making voice calls and texts, for as little outlay as free, or 99 pence at worst, it’s possible to have the thing tell you the time or the weather anywhere in the world, the air temperature in Wirral and even when high tide will be tomorrow in Rhyl, constantly recalibrating itself to take into account leap years and phases of the moon. He’d probably have bought one just to take apart to see how it was made.

Dr Daniels, who died at his home on the Isle of Man in October last year, had that kind of inquisitive mind. When he was five, he opened up the back of a broken watch to reveal its complex mechanism of wheels and cogs, shedding a light on a new universe, which he said transformed his life.

On November 6, Sotheby’s will sell the personal collection of watches and clocks George built over a lifetime devoted to horology: unique timepieces George made himself, together with fine and important antique clocks and watches by makers who inspired him. They are expected to raise £3.8 to 5.8 million.

Proceeds from this landmark sale will be added to the £11 million raised for his collection of vintage cars, sold last June. The funds will go to the George Daniels Educational Trust, set up by him to further the higher education of pupils studying horology, engineering,

Watch-1medicine or building construction. There could be no more fitting memorial.

Dr George Daniels was a world-renown horologist and the most important watchmaker of the 20th century. He was the only watchmaker ever to have received a CBE and an MBE for his services to horology and the inventor of the revolutionary Daniels “co-axial escapement”, the first new watch mechanism created since the invention of the lever escapement by Thomas Mudge in 1754. Unlike the lever, escapement, this allows the movement to run unaffected by the deterioration of its lubricant.

In Sotheby’s catalogue for the sale, a foreword by Andrew Crisford, a friend of Dr Daniels and a Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, notes that in the past, it would take 34 people to make a watch, all highly skilled, having served lengthy apprenticeships. In addition to case making, dial making and engraving, no fewer than five different craftsmen were required to produce the wheels alone.

In an industry now largely reliant on quartz movements and batteries, Dr Daniels had no access to skilled craftsmen. Instead, with the exception of engraving the numerals on the dials, he mastered almost every single technique himself conceiving, designing making a complete watch from blank sheet of paper to a finished, ticking, supreme timepiece, “down to the last blued steel screw”, as Tina Millar, a former head of Sotheby’s clocks and watches department put it.

He also decided he would make only watches that interested him, rather than what the market might require. In a 40-year period, he made only 27, each one taking as much as 3,000 hours to create. He would sell only to people he liked. Sotheby’s sale includes nine prized examples that have never before been on sale. The most valuable is estimated at £500,000-800,000.

This gold-cased pocket watch is a masterpiece of engineering, designed to show the skills of the matchmaker as an artist craftsman. As a result, it is highly complex. Called the Grand Complication watch, it was made in about 1987 and has a one-minute tourbillion – it revolves once a minute to counter the effects of gravity on accuracy; the Daniels slim co-axial escapement; minute repeating mechanism on two gongs; instantaneous perpetual calendar; equation of time; moon-phases; thermometer and power reserve indicator. Enough to make an iPhone blush.

Close behind at £400,000-600,000 is the “Space Travellers’” watch, which has a charming story attached to it. On a trip to Zurich, Dr Daniels had dinner with a collector who was keen to buy the watch he had with him. The watch was not for sale, but the collector persisted, impressing Dr Daniels with the compliment of not even asking the price. So the watch changed hands. Immediately regretting parting with it, Dr Daniels decided to make another, even more complicated and accurate than the first.

In the 18th century, the accuracy of a watch was checked against a precision clock set by a star. By means of having solar timed (based on the passage of the sun) and sidereal time (based on the rotation of the Earth), this watch could make the calculation for you, the difference being 3.555 minutes per day, to an accuracy of 0.8 seconds a year. With the help of a mathematician from Cambridge University, Dr Daniels was able to produce a watch which reduced to error to 0.28 seconds.

He used to say to people: “When you are on your package tour to Mars you need a watch like this, and when using the telephone for long distance calls you could switch the chronograph into sidereal time to cut your bills by 3.555 minutes per day!”. It was named to commemorate the first moon landing in 1969.

Watch-6The most valuable wristwatch is the first made by Dr. Daniels to demonstrate the suitability of the co-axial escapement for wristwatches. It also incorporates another of his inventions: a compact chronograph mechanism which was experimental at the time. It is estimated at £150,000-250,000.

Dr Daniels’ formidable success – he retired to the Isle of Man for tax purposes – enabled him to acquire exemplary timepieces by some of the greatest makers in history. The sale includes more than 100 antique clocks and watches covering some 400 years of craftsmanship.

They range from Dr Daniels’ favourite, a German carved wood cuckoo clock, circa 1880, which was kept running in the kitchen at Riversdale, his £2.5 million pound home in Ramsey (estimate £250-350) to a superb, small, and extremely rare silver-mounted ebony table clock, made by Joseph Knibb and dated 1677, which is estimated at £600,000-900,000. The clock was given as a gift to his great grandfather, the surgeon Thomas Beckett by George III.

It will be interesting to see if a Daniels watch beats it. I suspect it might.

Tags: Clocks · Watches

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