David Newman, Chairman of The George Daniels Educational Trust, on the Beginnings of the Artisanal Watchmaking Movement
In between successive lockdowns, The Hour Glass Content Editor David Morris had the pleasure of speaking with a lifelong friend, Chairman of the George Daniels Educational Trust and guardian of George Daniels’ legacy, Mr David K Newman.
David Newman met George Daniels (1926 – 2011) while working as a young surveyor. The two soon struck up a friendship over a shared interest in classic cars. Before long, David found himself immersed in the world of independent artisanal watchmaking – a category of watchmaking George Daniels virtually invented by himself.
“Daniels’ proposed alternative to the electronic watch was an approach that heroically fetishised both a watchmaker’s time at the bench and veritable hand craftsmanship. And in so doing, was consecrated as the father of contemporary artisanal watchmaking and inspiring generations of others to pursue a similar path.” – said Michael Tay in the opening address of our online exhibition, The Persistence of Memory.
Over a series of phone conversations, we discussed all manner of things, including George’s mechanical virtuosity, his inspirations and what he was like as a friend. I hope you enjoy the read.
David Morris: Did you have an interest in horology or mechanics before you first met George?
David Newman: I’ve always had an interest in cars and motorbikes. My father was a keen motorcyclist and a keen car man; he took me to my first motor race. We were fortunate because we lived in the Crystal Palace grounds. And of course, at the Crystal Palace in South London, there was a motor racing circuit, which our garden backed onto. I spent hours and hours driving around in my mother’s car and would only stop when I ran out of petrol, much to my parent’s annoyance. But I didn’t have a horological interest. My interest was purely mechanical, motorcycles and cars.
I rode competitions, motorcycle trials and scrambles. And it wasn’t until I met George that the horological interest came into being. I was a young surveyor working for the local council. And George came into the office one day to ask about planning permission for a new garage. After talking about the garage and what was needed, I ended up doing the drawings for him. George wanted the garage to rebuild his vintage Bentleys. I was also interested in vintage cars and had a 1929 Singer Junior.
And so, I started to work with George in my spare time, rebuilding his third Bentley 4½ Litre. Both of us also collected motorcycles, so we did quite a lot of motorcycling. And so, by visiting the house on frequent occasions to work on cars motorbikes or to go out on them, inevitably, I ended up in the horological workshop. I saw beautiful, stunning watches and clocks.
George was introduced to Breguet and fine watches through Sam Clutton. Sam was a big vintage sportscar man; his uncle was a founding member of the Vintage Sportscar Club. If you’re moving in those circles, you’re moving in the horological circles. The vintage car circles and motorcycling seem to be the common denominator.
It doesn’t matter who you speak to; Roger loves classic cars and is also interested in motorcycles. Many of George’s collectors in America and throughout the world have the same mechanical interests. When George died, the people who bought some of his cars were watch people. The only two commonalities that I haven’t mentioned are steam and railways. The common denominator is undoubtedly fine engineering and good quality clocks. Clocks, watches, motorbikes and cars.
DM: What was George like as a designer?
DN: George was very keen on design. Practical design. In one of his interviews on YouTube, he talks about the design of watches, and he says, in quite a strong voice, that he’s got magazines full of pictures of watches that you can’t tell the time on.
George was very critical of overdesign; he wanted a degree of simplicity in his designs. He wanted it to be functional. And I think he achieved that in everything that he did. Regarding his 24 pocket watches, every watch is different. Every watch is also an improvement from the previous one.
Discover more about George Daniels in The Persistence of Memory
He was meticulous in his attention to detail. You saw that when he was restoring or rebuilding a car. When he bought a classic vintage car, he would strip it straight away because he wanted it to be perfect. The Alpha, in particular, had a new body on it. That was a historically significant car. When he rebuilt the YU 3250 Bentley, he wanted perfection. And he got it.
DM: How was George as a friend?
DN: As a friend in the early days, we were both bachelors, and we used to go to a lot of Vintage Sports Club meetings. When my wife Pamela and I got married in 1965, George didn’t attend the wedding as there was a Bentley Drivers Club race meeting at Silverstone – his ex-wife July did attend, though. We’ve always been very close. July is a very close friend, and both of us speak at least once a week. Pam is the godmother of George’s daughter, Sarah-Jane.
When George left to the Isle of Man, I came with him and drove the 4½ Litre Bentley over, taking with us the watches. He was a good friend and came to our house on many occasions after moving over – right up until he stopped travelling later on. He kept a motorbike at my house for when he was in London; he’d use it to whisk around London.
I also used to go to his house in Yorkshire, in Cold Cotes. That was a pretty cold, miserable place in the winter. Damp, windy and wet. But of course, it was a wonderful place for sitting down to write. He wrote The Art of Breguet there. He also had a country house in Hereford, with an enormous equestrian barn, which he concreted over and built ten lockup garages inside the barn. The garage was within the barn, and he’d keep all the cars there.
DM: Did you enjoy the same level of friendship with Sam and Derek?
DN: I knew Sam very well. He lived in a stunning house in Blackheath. Pam and I used to go there for supper. When his mother died, she left him a vintage Austin Heavy Twelve-Four, which Sam gave to me and I kept for some time. However, the financial implications of looking after it and restoring it were too much for me at the time. So, with Sam’s permission, we sold it. Sam was a frequent visitor to George’s house; I would bump into him there, and, when Sam moved to the Island of Man, I saw him when I was with George on the island.
I used to speak to Derek about once a month on the telephone. Derek and George had a weekly routine. On Sunday mornings, they would normally ring each other. But it wasn’t until shortly before Derek passed away that we realised that his sister lived less than 100 yards from my last house. And I only found that out because I saw Derek’s car with his Swiss number plates in the driveway. It’s a small world!
Derek did work for George. He helped him on the manufacturing side of the Co-Axial and acted as an interpreter as he was based in Switzerland. I mean, they were very, very close. You’ve only had to look at the gifts that Derek gave George, the dedications, and the little notes when he gave George a couple of clocks.
Discover more about Derek Pratt in The Persistence of Memory
Derek was also doing his own work; they both respected each other and they were very close. George was involved in proposing Derek into the Clockmakers Company. And he stayed with him in the U.K. when he was over. And vice versa. But Derek didn’t travel to the Isle of Man often. I think George went to see Derek in Switzerland, more than Derek came to the island.
DM: Looking back, it seems that Derek wasn’t so much chasing recognition; he was more than happy to focus on his work in the workshop.
DN: Yes, I think that’s true. Like George, they were much happier in the workshop. George’s working day would start very early in the workshop. He’d drink copious cups of black coffee during the day and then have a meal in the evening. He did that for most of his working life.
Towards the end, he had the burden of administration, papers and letters; mountains of letters used to get dropped off from all over the world. Some demanding replies, as it were. We used to turn the notes over, write a response on the back, and then put the letter in an envelope and send it off. Reasonably often, though, of course, it created more correspondence because George would answer a question, and then the person who asked the question would then respond and query or take issue with George’s answer. George used these to carry on for a little while and consider the matter closed. As George once mentioned, this correspondence was necessary because you should go if the opportunity comes up to visit someone’s home and see their collection. If you didn’t go, you missed an opportunity, which you may regret in the future.
DM: The same can be said about George’s watches today. Collectors should seize every opportunity presented to them to see his creations ‘in the metal’.
DN: The days of Daniels watches coming onto the market is very limited, possibly only occurring now due to the death of a collector. Because they’re in serious private collections, I suspect there won’t be many coming on the market. When you look at what the Space Traveller fetched the second time it went to market, that’s a pretty significant price. Fortunately, the man who bought it – I know him quite well, he’s lent it to the Clockmakers, so you can see it and appreciate it. And then there’s Sam Clutton’s second Daniels watch on display in the British Museum and two in the Beyer Museum in Switzerland.
DM: His work continues to inspire, as does the work of Breguet.
DN: George took copious notes for every Breguet that he worked on, and of course, if you look at George’s pocket watches, there’s a resemblance in many cases to Breguet’s work. He was inspired by Breguet quite clearly. I remember carriage clocks with severe fire damage coming into the workshop, and he had to virtually remake the clocks.
As a result of working on Breguet, it didn’t take too long for a discerning owner to realise that there’s someone out there who could repair well. He used to advertise in the Antiquarian Horological Journal with a picture of the latest Breguet he was working on, and would include technical descriptions of what he’d done. And if you look at the workbook, the same names keep popping up. They were all discerning owners – if you look at the names in the workbooks and compare against the schedule of names for the Millennium project, there’s a duplication.
Video: Sotheby’s Presents the George Daniels’ Millennium Wristwatch – a 20th Century Horological Icon
If you look at The Hands of Time book, every person there when they talk about their inspiration, they talk about Breguet or Daniels. Breguet and Daniels. That’s why I’m very keen to get The Art of Breguet back on the shelves. It sold out a long time ago. When Tina Miller sold her Millennium and her horological library the year before last, the books that George signed fetched substantial sums of money. The Art of Breguet, the leather-bound copies, they’re bringing serious money now. But I’m very lucky as there are dedications in all my books by George and they’re very personal. I’ve got one here, “To David Newman, the most helpful and congenial friend of many years. George Daniels, 2007”. George did some lovely dedications in books for various people.
DM: What sort of collector acquires a Daniels watch?
DN: If you look at Sam Clutton, Edward Hornby, Sam Bloomfield in America or the Architect Cecil Elsom, they certainly didn’t know each other. Don’t forget, George selected his customers – you didn’t go to George and say make me a watch. He went to you and said, “I’d like to make you a watch”, “don’t ask what”, he’d say, “I’m telling you”. He certainly did that with Edward Hornby, and Hornby talks about it in his book about how he acquired his first Daniels. Sam Clutton also talks about his first Daniels watch in his book The Collectors Collection.
If you look at the first Daniels, that had five owners, I think. The second owner was my boss – the chairman of the company that I worked for. He had it for some time and sold it because he was leaving the country to live abroad and didn’t want to take it with him. That’s now in America, where the majority of them are.
But if you go back to the Millennium project, I mean, he was only going to make a dozen to start with. If you look at the list of customers and names, over half weren’t collectors – they were people interested in cars and who knew George on the island. You see, there’s quite a few on the island; the island is quite a wealthy place. Indeed, I can count at least a dozen on the island today, and that’s without the Anniversary watches. If you look at the Anniversary customers, the Anniversary customers were also Millennium customers because they knew George, and it seemed a natural progression. Some of the Anniversary customers are also Roger Smith customers. And I think if you looked at the Anniversary project and looked at Roger’s and George’s customers, that’s where the majority of them are – it’s a very close-knit community.
And now Roger has clients that have more than one Smith, and they’re moving around. As you’ll see, some are selling their Series 2 to go on and acquire a Series 4 because some people want to enhance their collection, not necessarily in volume but in quality. George always liked to have a technical gizmo in the watch somewhere, just a slight little improvement – but you’d still be able to say it’s a Daniels watch.
Roger is continuing the Daniel’s method; he’s using the same Daniel’s equipment in the same workshop environment. I know he considers himself very lucky to have had the opportunity because no one else has ever worked for George. George saw in Roger, I suppose, the same spirit that George had in his younger days.
Discover more about Roger W. Smith in The Persistence of Memory
DM: Following the passing of George Daniels, was the administration aspect daunting?
DN: Indeed, for the last 15 years of his life, he was very actively involved with this business. He was keeping a watchful eye on the administration. Administration to George was a burden, he wanted to get into the workshop and away from it, but he never really did master the computer. He had a continuous fax roll, and if he didn’t go in the basement, it would keep on churning out paper. But his whole life really was in the workshop, whether the car workshop or the horological workshop. He tackled those workshops with the same level of enthusiasm and technical skill.
I was on the island with him one day. He’d had a terrible day with administration and paperwork. He was worried about his intellectual property, his patents, and what would happen when he passed away. So, we started mapping out what would happen in the event of his death. We were re-writing wills at an alarming rate. The month before he went into the hospital, George convened a meeting in his house with the four trustees plus Jonathan Hill from Sotheby’s, and he told us what he wanted to happen. Our lawyer pointed out to George that we weren’t trustees yet and that the trust doesn’t start until you die, and George burst out laughing and told us he wanted us to know the direction to travel in. We had to bring the will into the 21st century.
When George died, he left all of his papers, films, videos and drawings to the Clockmakers Company Museum located in the London Science Museum and the London Metropolitan Archives. They’ve digitalised most of the film now, and it’s just a matter of going through it. There are 11 linear meters of archival shelving dedicated to Georges Daniels. The index is 77 pages long, so there’s quite a lot of information.
DM: His books continue to inspire.
DN: When we go to the British School of Watchmaking annual award ceremony where we dish out the graduation certificates, the graduates have always been given a copy of Watchmaking by George Daniels.
Before George died, they came over to the Isle of Man with a bloody big box of books, and George signed them. And last January, the final signed copy that they had was given to the graduating student. They all say the same thing, and so did Roger when George first went to Manchester as a visitor; they all get inspired by Daniels work. They don’t get inspired because they see Daniels watches selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds, but because of the work. Everyone, when they talk about their inspiration, virtually all talk about George.
DM: Do you have advice for the next generation of watchmaker?
DN: Don’t give up. I mean, if you look at Roger. Roger built a watch, went to see George and George dismissed it. Roger took seven years to finish the watch, and in the end, George couldn’t fault it at all. George said to me, “that’s a young man that’s achieved an enormous amount”. When it came to the Millennium project, George immediately got Roger to come over to the Isle of Man. And we can see the success since then.
It requires dedication. George would start at six in the morning and work until late in the evening. As long as you don’t see it as a get rich quick scheme – because it’s not. It requires a lot of dedication, and then you’ve got to build a name for yourself. And you can only do that through quality.
If you look at F.P. Journe or Voutilainen, all the independents, they’re all very dedicated. It’s a vocation.
The guys in Rogers workshop come in on Saturday mornings and work on their projects. What a fantastic opportunity. Roger learnt a lot from George and is using the Daniels method once again.
DM: By the way, congratulations on your 50th continuous membership for the Vintage Sports Club!
DN: Yes, I have my 50th-anniversary continuous membership badge. It’s a rather lovely thing to have, and I always put it on my lapel when I go to a Vintage Sportscar Club meeting or car show. George was my proposer, and Sam Clutton was my seconder. So, you can’t get better than that! And George was my proposer into the Clockmakers Company, and my seconder was Franck Mercer of Mercer Chronometers. So once again, two pretty good referees.
DM: Thank you David, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
The Persistence of Memory Online Exhibition
Discover George Daniels’ monumental impact on the development of independent artisanal watchmaking through our inaugural online exhibition, The Persistence of Memory – A Survey of Artisanal Watchmaking | 1970 – 2020.
Article Banner Image: George Daniels ‘Alan Banbery’ Millennium Watch (1999).
The George Daniels Educational Trust
George Daniels was passionate about education, and his legacy, The George Daniels’ Educational Trust, established upon his passing on the 21st October 2011, is a lasting tribute to a remarkable man. It was his wish to support students demonstrating initiative and merit, but lacking the necessary resources to realise their ambitions, so that they might advance their education and further the development of the disciplines of Engineering, Horology, Medicine and Building or Construction.