This could be the ultimate retirement watch for some lucky soul. It’s a George Daniels 4 minute Tourbillion with a slim Co-Axial escapement and compact chronograph mechanism circa 1991. It is estimated that it will sell for between £150k and £250k at the upcoming Sotheby’s auction on November 6.
The high end value of the watch is a far cry from how George Daniels began his career as a watchmaker. In fact his is one of the most fascinating stories of triumph over adversity by a watchmaking legend in recent history. He is considered by many to be the best horologist in the world during his lifetime. He was the only watchmaker ever to have received a CBE and an MBE for his services to horology.
Born on 19 August 1926, in Edgware, Noth London, George Daniels was one of eleven children. It wasn’t an easy upbringing by any means. His father, a carpenter, was a violent drunk and the family constantly struggled for money. When George asked his parents about his birth he was met with abuse, later learning, on applying for a passport, that not only was he illegitimate but that he had no birth certificate.
Daniels’ lifelong fascination with watches began at an early age. When he was five years old he happened to find a cheap wristwatch lying on the ground. ‘I managed to get it open and I was intrigued with the workings,’ he recalled. ‘It was like seeing the centre of the universe. I knew that’s what I wanted to do; I wanted to spend the rest of my time with watches.’
By the age of fourteen, Daniels was forced to leave school in order to look for work. He began his career in a mattress factory, devouring all he could about watches in his spare time. He left the mattress factory after a week to become a grocer’s errand boy, then found employment in a garage specialising in re-treading car tyres. Using what he had gleaned from books, he began to make extra cash for himself by repairing clocks, and watches going from door to door to ask if any repairs were needed.
Daniels was practically unique among modern watchmakers in that he was able to make a watch by hand entirely under his own steam. This included the challenging metalwork required to make the case and dial. It required him to master the making of watchcases and to engine-turn so that he could make the dials. In his lifetime Daniels made 37 watches entirely unaided, and that’s not including prototypes. He also made a series of 50 wristwatches with noted British watchmaker Roger W. Smith, starting with the Omega basic movement. A hallmark of Daniels’s watches are their clear and clean dials, which usually feature subsidiary dials interwoven with the main chapter ring, it is clearly a strong Breguet influence. Daniels’s first watch was sold to Sam Clutton for £2,000 in 1970 and it’s believed he bought it back from Clutton five years later for £8,000.
Daniels joined the British Army in 1944, and again, his watch repairing talents were able to earn him a bit of money and a few beers among his army colleagues. He left the army in 1947 with a a gratuity of £50, which he spent on tools. He then managed to get a job as a watch repairer.
Daniels enrolled himself in night classes at Northampton Institute – later City University, London – for the princely sum of £2 a year for a three-year course. He attended night classes three evenings a week after work. When he had passed his final exams in 1953 it was the end of his only spell of formal training. He managed to become a Fellow of the British Horological Institute. His talent began to become known to some of the top watch dealers and collectors including Sam Clutton, a well respected watch dealer, noted collector and fellow vintage car enthusiast who turned Daniels’ attention to the great French watchmaker Breguet. This was a major breakthrough for Daniels and he concentrated on the repair and restoration of Breguet watches for many years. By the 1960s, after a visit to the House of Brequet in Paris, Daniels had managed to establish himself as the leading expert on Breguet. In fact Breguet became his obsession and he was often called upon to advise upon Breguet’s timepieces.
Development of the co-axial escapement
Daniels was extremely keen to overcome a fundamental design flaw in the traditional lever escapement, which was its need for lubrication. Indeed, whole volumes had been written on the subject of how best to keep the escapement lubricated. It resulted in a change in performance over time as the oil degraded – the effect being, in Daniels’ words, ‘a bit like driving uphill with the handbrake on’.
Daniels had been aware of the problems almost from the start of his watch repairing career, and it was a problem which had puzzled and perplexed watchmakers for centuries. Daniels’ ingenious solution was the coaxial escapement, a deceptively simple-looking arrangement of cogs and levers, which virtually eliminated the need for lubrication by significantly reducing sliding friction, thus ensuring greater accuracy over time and reducing the need for servicing. The coaxial escapement has been used by Omega in its high-end timepieces since 1999.
A deal with Omega
Upon presenting his solution to the watch industry in 1976, the watch world was sceptical. But by the 1980s a major player in the Swiss watch industry, Swatch Group’s chairman Nicolas Hayek endorsed the concept and adopted it for Swatch’s Omega brand. In 1999 at the Basel Watch and Jewellery Fair the company unveiled its first mechanical watch featuring Daniels’ co-axial design. The event was so significant it was hailed a new era in mechanical watchmaking.
Over the next three decades, from 1969 to the mid 1990’s, Daniels proceeded to create more than 20 exquisite pocket watches. Each one, constructed entirely by hand, took more than a year to complete. These pocket watches featured grand complications, including a tourbillon minute repeater with perpetual calendar, equation of time, phases of the moon, thermometer and power reserve display.
Watches for connoisseurs
Daniels specialised in making watches for connoisseurs and collectors, featuring cases, dials and movements which were instantly recognisable as his designs, and which incorporated unusual design features to add to their appeal. It didn’t take long for several keen collectors to approach Daniels for his custom made watches, each of which became much sought-after collectors’ items, fetching prices in excess of £100,000.
To celebrate his 80th birthday in 2006, Sotheby’s and Bobinet (the antique watch dealer) held a retrospective exhibition featuring every watch Daniels had ever made, all bar one one which is on exhibition at the British Museum.
In terms of legacy, Daniels ranks right up there among the greatest British horologists of all time: Thomas Tompion, Thomas Mudge, John Arnold, George Graham, Thomas Mercer, Thomas Earnshaw and John Harrison, a horology supergroup all from the British Isles.
George was not only a supremely gifted craftsman who made some of the world’s most desirable watches, he was also a car connoisseur, held in immense respect throughout the vintage motoring world.