A new fair promoting the work of British watchmakers will give collectors who attend it the chance to buy limited edition pieces unavailable elsewhere.

The majority of the 44 brands exhibiting at the inaugural British Watchmakers’ Day, being held at Lindley Hall in London on March 9, are creating special designs for the event. These include variations of sought-after models by the record-breaking independent watchmaker Roger Smith and award-winning brand Christopher Ward.

Tell us what Watches & Jewellery content you want to read more of

🔗 Take part in the reader survey to help us shape our future coverage and enter a free prize draw.

The fair, the first live event organised by the Alliance of British Watch and Clock Makers since the trade body launched in 2020, is expected to attract collectors from across the globe.

Alistair Audsley, the alliance’s chief executive, says the concept is inspired by Record Store Day, which sees independent record shops sell vinyl releases created exclusively for that yearly event. Similarly, he hopes British Watchmakers’ Day becomes an annual fixture for the watch sector.

Britain has an illustrious history of horological innovation, particularly during the 17th-19th centuries. However, although later makers — including George Daniels — made a global mark, the country’s watch industry declined in the 20th century.

Alistair Audsley
Alistair Audsley says British Watchmakers’ Day was inspired by Record Store Day, which sees independent record shops sell vinyl releases created exclusively for that event

Audsley wants the latest selling event to make the statement that “British watchmaking is back”. “We’ve got watches which suit every wrist and every pocket from a first-time buy £50 watch up to a Roger Smith at £500,000, and almost everywhere in between,” he says. He adds that the exhibiting brands each have a “completely unique approach”.

Smith is a big draw for the fair. He is offering a rare opportunity to purchase one of his new watches, as well as showing the unique GREAT Britain piece he made in 2013 to support the UK government’s international marketing campaign of the same name. The Isle of Man-based watchmaker, who produces 18 handcrafted pieces a year, closed his waiting list in 2021 and those at the bottom face a five-year wait.

He is crafting his “ideal watch”, which will be sold via a closed bids auction at the event. “It’s [a] very simple, very stripped back Series One in 18-carat red gold with a mixed-metal, engine-turned dial and some very beautiful engraving [of a rose] that we’re doing especially for this watch on the raised barrel bridge of the movement,” says Smith.

Roger Smith’s GREAT Britain piece

His Pocket Watch Number Two set an auction record for any British watch when it sold for $4.9mn last June. He is chair of the alliance, which has 91 members — all brands registered within the British Isles — and will donate any money raised above the new watch’s £350,000 retail price to the not-for-profit organisation.

Christopher Ward is producing 10 Bel Canto watches, named the Bel Canto 9324 after the date of British Watchmakers’ Day. The first two 300-piece limited editions of its Swiss-made C1 Bel Canto chiming watch — the Azzuro Blue version of which won the prize for watches priced SFr2,000-SFr8,000 ($2,300- $9,200) — at last year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève awards, sold out within hours of release in 2022.

Currently, customers who pre-order a Bel Canto, which went on general release in January 2023, face a seven-month wait for their watch.

Mike France, chief executive and cofounder of Christopher Ward, and cofounder of the alliance, says the new limited run will “cause a bit of a stir, which is exactly what we want to do”. The piece features a laser-etched Union Jack on the platine and Roman numerals on the dial — a first for the model. It will be sold via a raffle at the fair, with profits donated to the alliance.

Zero West’s exclusive designs also have a British feel: one of its two unique watches for the event celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive. It is the brand’s first railway-inspired watch, and incorporates a salvaged boiler tube from the engine.

Christopher Ward Bel Canto 9324

FS-2 Flying Scotsman Custom Special

Designing for a watch enthusiast who admires British watchmaking allowed Bristol-based Fears to “make something a little more esoteric”, rather than thinking about the commercial aspect, says managing director Nicholas Bowman-Scargill. Its new reference of 10 Brunswick pieces, inspired by a 1924 design from its archive, is the brand’s first watch with a sterling silver case since the 1920s.

Jonny Garrett, founder of William Wood Watches, says that, while many of his customers own pieces by other British independent watch brands, having Smith at the fair will bring a new “elevated audience” he can introduce to his brand. His Fire Exit Busy Man day-date watch, limited to 300 pieces, illuminates like a fire exit sign at night and features a figure doing a different activity every day of the week — partying on Saturday.

William Wood Fire Exit Busy Man day-date

Fears Brunswick Ag Sterling White 

Event tickets are £10, or free to members of the alliance’s club for enthusiasts and collectors, who Audsley says number just under 800 in 19 countries. France expects “a lot of collectors will be travelling across continents” for the fair’s limited editions, noting that Christopher Ward received interest from customers in the US and Singapore. He says this type of event is “uncharted territory” in the world of watches.

Independent watch expert and auctioneer Geoffroy Ader expects that the “great concept” of British Watchmakers’ Day will enjoy success among collectors, who he believes are “looking for things that are outside of the box”.

“The fact you gather people in one venue [means] it’s much easier for everyone to recognise the importance of English watchmaking,” he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article