The Intricate World of Mechanical Watches: a Resource List
Written by TODD OPPENHEIMER
As with most pursuits that draw devoted hobbyists (including plenty of obsessive ones), fine mechanical watches have spawned a large and passionate subculture. A little Googling will lead you to myriad websites, magazines, conferences, and other gathering grounds for those who want to follow—and, when they can afford it, purchase—timepieces that represent the height of horological skill and beauty.
The following list is only a small sample of those resources, but it’s enough to introduce you to the best of the best. The list includes some of the rising stars in watchmaking. Some are young horologists who are making mechanical timepieces that are as fine if not finer than anything made during the golden age of watchmaking, which dominated the world of horology from the 1700s through the mid-20th century.
- First, if you want a superb primer on how a mechanical watch works—in lay terms, with numerous delightful moving graphic aids along the way, this web page provides a very accessible overview. If you want to dig a little deeper, this blog is more complete.
- Revolution, a magazine published in Singapore, regularly chronicles some of the more stunning modern achievements in horology. Its well-written offerings include this list of today’s star watchmakers.
- In the above list, don’t miss one of the most remarkable entries: Roger W. Smith, the only living watchmaker to have apprenticed under the late George Daniels, the great British watchmaker. Daniels catapulted into watchmaking history in 1974, when he invented the coaxial escapement, a highly efficient new system for regulating power in a mechanical watch. His invention constituted the biggest significant improvement in horology in more than a century.
- Today, many watchmakers aspire to be the next George Daniels. For a taste of what made Daniels so special, take a look at the 30-minute documentary. embedded in this short history on Daniels. The video captures a conversation between Daniels and Seth Atwood, an American watch collector who commissioned Daniels for an innovative watch—a request that led to Daniels’ historic invention of the coaxial escapement.
- Of all the big brands in watchmaking still in business today, none can compare to Breguet, if only in terms of history. (Patek Philippe might boast the most expensive luxury watches, but Breguet will forever remain the greatest innovator in mechanical horology.) Not surprisingly, Breguet has made great use of its outsized place in watchmaking history, and this summary of its history, on the Breguet website, says it all. The history is broken into six time periods, beginning with Abraham-Louis Breguet’s first great periods of innovation, which started in 1747. That is a good place to start, but don’t miss the rest.
- The U.S. has only a handful of watchmakers who are on par with the new stars of mechanical horology in Europe. One of the most accomplished is Roland G. Murphy, who founded and runs RGM Watches in Pennsylvania. Another is Josh Shapiro, a horologist in Los Angeles who has dedicated himself to making ultra-fine mechanical watches composed entirely of American-made parts, with as many as possible manufactured in his own shop.
- If you want a rich, historical treat, watch this video of a presentation that Shapiro made to the New York Horological Society, entitled “The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of American Watchmaking.” Shapiro’s presentation is lengthy (more than an hour), but it earns its keep. Unbeknownst to many, there was a time when the apex of watchmaking skill did not reside in Europe, but here in the U.S. This period of innovation and remarkable precision occurred, as it did in so many industries, during America’s great wave of immigration, which started in the late 1800s and ran through the early decades of the 20th century.
- It’s worth noting that America’s golden age of watchmaking was partly inspired by the birth of U.S. railroads, which required train conductors to carry watches that kept good time. In the early 1900s, watches made by now-storied American names such as Waltham, Elgin, and Hamilton got so good that European companies were sending their horologists to the U.S. to refine their skills.
- Last, if you’re really intrigued by the world of horology, and want to consider going into the field, here is a list of 35 top watchmaking schools around the world. For those just in the United States, the New York Horological Society also maintains a list of about a dozen American schools that specialize in watchmaking. Most are private institutions–some are part-time, but most are full-time, with two- to three-year programs. Only two U.S. watchmaking schools are formal college programs: the Watch Technology Institute in Washington, at North Seattle College; and the Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology, in Paris, Texas.