George Daniels Horological Collection at Sotheby's London

Sotheby's sale of George Daniels' horological collection made a an incredible £8.2million.

November 14, 2012

Sotheby's London's November sale of  George Daniels' Personal Collection of watches and clocks made £8.2million.

George Daniels (19 August 1926 - 21 October 2011) was a world-known horologist and the most important of the 20th century. He was the only watchmaker ever to have received a CBE and a MBE for his services to horology. Up for sale is his personal collection of clocks and watches that includes those he made and kept and fine and rare examples by some of the most famous makers of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Consisting of approximately 130 lots the sale was a tribute to a life devoted to horology. Many of these special pieces had been unseen in public for many years. All proceeds from the sale of the collection will go to help the George Daniels Educational Trust.

This much-anticipated sale sums up the life of the greatest watchmaker of our lifetimes. I first interviewed Dr Daniels in 2003 and since then spoke to him on the phone over the years. 

The first time I met him, I drove to his beautiful countryhouse in Hereford, where he was working on a high precision pocket watch number 33 with a co-axial escapement, tourbillon and 15 seconds remontoir system. He thought this would be his last work and confessed: "I have done everything," in his rasping voice that was to deteriorate over the years.

In his kitchen in Bage Pool, a 1615 farmhouse Dr Daniels is making a pot of tea while I look at the framed photographs on the walls. There is one of him in front of Sotheby's in Geneva at the sale of his first oil-free watch. Another is a 1970's advertisement in which he extols the virtues of an American glove brand he endorsed. There shots of antique cars and classic car races. On the table is a Classic Car magazine and the parts of a brass tap he was repairing.

The man who is capable of holding in his mind the entire workings of a complex clock confessed to being confused by the rituals of seeing to guests. "I'm no good at this tea business. It's something women are so good at but I can't seem to manage - I forget what I am doing."

In his living room flooded with morning light, an antique repeating clock marks the time with quarter hour strikes. "The watch I am working on may be my last watch - it depends on whether I can make any further improvements because I think the important thing is to enhance the progress of the watch."  He becomes so involved with the conversation that his tea goes cold on the table in front of us. "My purpose in life is to improve my profession" which explains why he has only ever created one of a kind watches, mainly pocket watches with the exception of the Millennium watch, which was a series of 50 wrist watches. All his watches have been created according to his desire to improve on the last piece so there are no two the same. And if this sounds obsessive, he is the first to admit it." You have to practise the art sixteen hours a day and think about it 25 hours a day."

I notice a Rolex Oyster on his right wrist. It is a Rolex that Daniels fitted with one of his co-axial escapements for the 1986 Basel fair. He is wearing both watches as he is carrying out a test, checking both watches against a radio clock for accuracy. The Rolex was one of twelve leading watch brands that Daniels equiped with his co-axial movement to prove to the industry that it was easily adapted to modern watches. "It was a very difficult time, but now they can't deny that my escapement  keeps better time as test have proven it." But even with this daring move, he did not convince the watch giants.

And George Daniels' obsession with watches started at an early age. At five he took the back of his first watch - a Roskopf he recalls " I can see it perfectly now" as he slowly opens out his surprisingly large hands, remembering the moment. Encouraged by what he found he moved on to his mother's sewing machine and his father's alarm clock and soon no mechanical object was left untouched. The five year old was not surprised to see a mainspring and oscillator inside the alarm clock. "I had a gift for mechanics, fortunately for me,without that I wouldn't have been anything."

This poignant confession comes from the man who made the most significant contribution to watchmaking in the last two centuries. His 1976 co-axial escapement has revolutionised the way mechanical watches distribute their energy and made them significantly more precise shaking off the bane of mechanical watches: inaccuracy. He describes his oil free escapement as a fundamental re-oganisation of the forces. Since  1754 almost all mechanical watches have been fitted with Thomas Mudge's lever escapement and it took George Daniels to attack the most vital function of a watch to bring about this change. Daniels pleaded with Omega to have his escapement put into production, and with only a twenty year patent on it, time was beginning to run out. "I was desperate for them to manufacture my idea and I still want everyone to make it. I just want my invention to permeate horology. The lawyers were drawing  out the most complicted formulas for this commonal garden Englishman to associate with the gods of the Swiss watchmaking world." As we all know, in 1999, Hayek took up this Englishman's co-axial escapement and it is now being used across in Omega's top ranges. And Daniels is adamant that the co-axial can not be improved on as the fundamental principles are contained within it though the accuracy of the co-axial escapement has shown up other areas of the watch that can be improved such as the bearings, pivots and jewels.

In an industry dominated by overwhelming family names and history, he talks openly of his impoverished childhood in North London as one of eleven children with barely boots to wear. Daniels explains that once his interest had been sparked in watches he worked for the "sheer obsessive love of the art. I worked because I enjoyed it. I didn't give a damn about anything else. I wasn't interested in making money - I didn't need any money and if I did I could go to the local jeweller and take home a hat full of watches and come back and mend it and take them back and get money. But you can't do that today."

And this obsession marked Daniel's development. At school, he preferred to be amongst his friends Tompion, Harrison and Mudge in the library rather than playing football, so the boy who was no good at maths, fed his obsession with horology. Daniels enlisted in the Army at the age of 18 and was posted to the Middle East where repairing colleagues watches, typewriters, cameras and anything else mechanical in army camps in Egypt and the Lebanon gave him the cash to buy his first watchmaking tools. When he returned home and he began restoring and repairing watches as well as attending night school in horology for three years, his only stint of formal horological education, though he was made a doctor of Science by the University of the City of London in 1992, which he considers to be the greatest complement ever paid to him. & MBE 1982 and medals.

In 1967 he began work on his first watch that he sold to Sam Clutton in 1969, a highly respectd horologist and vintage car enthusiast through whom he came into contact with the work of Breguet. Daniels has been very influenced by Breguet and when not at the work bench wrote "The Art of Breguet."  "He had an extraordinary philosophy. He was totally flexible, never prejudiced, never blinded himself to a possibility and I have pretty well followed his philosophy and it worked very well for me too." It certainly has worked well. Today multi complicación que incorpora, repetición de minutos, calendario perpetuo, termómetro, ecuación del tiempo y tourbillon de minuto, con claro, el escape co-axial is on show at the Clock Room in London's Guildhall. On the whole he does not care for complicated watches and says that he created the Space Traveller as proof of his ability.

At the age of 25 Daniels first acquired the other object of his lifelong passion: cars. And how he came across his first car is typical of Daniels unorthodox approach.  Looking in a shop window at  motorbikes he saw the reflection of a sleek MG pulling up at the pavement. He knew that he had to have this car, so on the set date, he turned up outside the vendor's house and after going through insurance and tax details, keys in hand, had to ask "how do I drive it?". His grinding journey home resulted in a broken crank shaft and as he had no money to have it fixed, set about it himself and has been a keen mechanic ever since, rebuilding the eight classic cars.

His philosophy of watchmaking is concise: "I just make watches in my simple style and each one is dedicated to improving the art of watchmaking." At this point he takes off his left wrist a Daniels Millennium watch, the first of 50. "I don't like fuss. I have only put decoration around edge of the movement because it represents the highest quality free hand engravingthat was very fashionable in the 19th century. When a watchmaker can't think of anything new to do he turns to decoration. The dials are more practical, down to earth. I like to have different patterns on the dial, not for decoration but to isolate the different areas of the dial." The Millenium watch is a break from his usual approach of making just one of a kind timepieces. "I wanted to have the cachet of competing in the open market with the millenium collection."  And true to his simple approach, his explanation for placing the crown at eight o'clock is to avoid it wearing away the edge of your trouser pocket. For this series he had an assistant, Roger Smith and used components made to order from ETA. Daniels has only kept a few of his watches and says he has no attachment to them.

Daniels confesses to having an unusual relationship with the tourbillon. He admires the rotating cage as a beautiful and fascinating development in time keeping but since Breguet brought it to light in 1795 progress has rendered it redundant: "today we can do the same with less fuss and bother so it is no longer necessary." As far as complications are concerned, he remarks "it has all been done."

For his other watches he makes every component, including the buckles. The whole process can take up to 2500 hours of work. He shuns modern technology: "These modern people they do like to have all this gear. Nowdays it is hardly possible to get a watch made without a computer being involved. The have the whole thing moving on the screen - I don't think its necessary. I only make one watch of each type so why do I need a drawing or a record of it. I work out in my mind how it is going to work. All I need is a sketch to show me where the hands are going to come through the dial because I almost always find a reason to not make the hands concentric to the dial." 

For his other watches he makes every component, including the buckles. The whole process can take up to 2500 hours of work. He shuns modern technology: "All you need is a nail file and a butter knife. These modern people they do like to have all this gear. Nowdays it is hardly possible to get a watch made without a computer being involved. The have the whole thing moving on the screen - I don't think its necessary. I only make one watch of each type so why do I need a drawing or a record of it. I work out in my mind how it is going to work. All I need is a sketch to show me where the hands are going to come through the dial because I almost always find a reason not to make the hands concentric to the dial."

Over a bowl of soup and a pint of bitter at his local pub, Daniels reminds us that we cannot miss his classic car collection that he keeps in a pristine barn behind his house. Daniels keeps his cars in Hereford so that he can compete in the different classic car and confesses his favourite is the Prescott Hill Climb. As we walk into the garage, a mechanic is making adjustments and preparing to wrap up the cars at the end of the summer racing season. The bonnet of a fire engine red 1908 12 litres Italo Giant Grand Prix racing car is open as Daniel's makes checks a detail of the gleaming engine. Daniels admits that he does not have a favourite car but he does confess that the Italo goes like a giant race horse, with a boyish sparkle in his eyes. Each car he owns has a unique feature, in the case of the 8C 1932 Alfa Romeo it was raced at Le Mans by Lord Howe and Sir Henry Birkin. He has George V's 1924 Bentley that looks surprisingly intimate for regal transportation and a 1907 10.6  liter Daimler. "Make sure you write down that it's a 10.6 as it is a big boast to be able to say that you have two cars over 10 litres." Daniels lifts the cover off an elegant cool grey 1953 Bentley Continental, all sleek curves, gleaming woodwork and warm leather, that he used on his last trip to Switzerland. Every Spring he rolls up in the Watch Valley in one of his impeccable motorcars to visit his friends and holds an annual Daniels' dinner in Le Sentier, probably the closest he gets to a holiday.

Daniels leans on the wooden fence separating his house from the farm area and laughs remembering how at 3 am the solution for the co-axial came to him and he almost did not get out of bed to write it down. I hope to hear that he does have plans for another watch in the future but he replies saying that Einstein believed that one man in a lifetime can only comprehend one philosophy and when he has done his best, he must leave it for others to continue. And Daniel's feels that he has reached this point. However, Daniels may also be thinking of another of Einstein's quotes: "I never think of the future. It comes soon enough."

We use our own and third party cookies to improve your experience and our services. If you continue, we consider that you accept their use. You can get more information on your website at cookies policy.