George Daniels, The World's Greatest Watchmaker

By Martin Dean
Sotheby's Masterworks of Time series brings to auction some of the finest and rarest watches ever made and represents one of the greatest collections of pocket watches of all time.

T he first part of four sales, 'George Daniels: Visionary, focuses on the work of a man considered the greatest watchmaker in the world, and features a beautifully curated selection of watches and clocks from the Renaissance through to the 20th century. It incldues the finest British and Continental makers in horological history, such as Charles Frodsham, Smith & Sons, Edward East, and Northern Goldsmiths. Early German and English watches featuring astronomical indications round out the complicated pieces by these firms. The centrepiece is George Daniel's 1982 Space Traveller, considered the finest watch ever made.

Among watch collectors and horologists, few names inspire awe quite like that of visionary watchmaker George Daniels CBE.

George Daniels CBE

He was widely regarded as the greatest watchmaker in the world during his lifetime, and famously invented a new watch mechanism, the coaxial escapement, which revolutionised the accuracy of mechanical watches as the first new escapement design for over two centuries. So significant was this advance that Omega began using it in its top-grade watches, and has continued to do so since 1999. This innovation alone has been described as 'the most important horological development for 250 years'. Famously, his mechanical watches were more accurate than quartz watches, with some of them losing less than a second a month.

An 1819 encylopedia of Arts and Sciences suggested that 34 people were required to make a watch, all of which needed to be masters of their varying crafts, the product of serving extensive apprenticeships. George Daniels mastered such a large number of these varying arts however, that he was able to create handmade watches entirely by himself, except for the springs and the glass.

His career as a watchmaker began shortly after he left the British Army in 1947. Beginning as a watch repairer, he was inspired by early masters such as George Margetts, and studied horology at night school until, after a decade’s work, he was able to open his own shop in London.

During this time he developed an interest in the work of Abraham-Louis Breguet, an acclaimed 19th century French watchmaker. He would go on to become the leading expert on Breguet, and even created a replica of Breguet’s famous three-wheeled clock.

Of the 23 pocket watches he made in his lifetime, his 1982 Space Traveller I is considered to be the finest of Daniels’ creations.

He had enormous admiration for the astronauts who successfully landed on the Moon, and created this watch both to commemorate the 1962 landing and to make a watch that would be of theoretical use to astronauts. It’s capable of accurately displaying both solar and sidereal time, that is, time told both by the Earth’s relation to the Sun, and to distant stars.

In its construction he drew on and refined the work of 18th century watchmaker George Margetts to increase the accuracy of his sidereal/solar trains. In the 18th century, to check the accuracy of your watch, it was necessary to use a precision clock, set to a star.

Daniels then enlisted a Cambridge academic to further refine the accuracy of the watch, eventually getting it to a variance of just 0.4 seconds per year. This is the ideal watch for those planning to travel in space, or for any with an appreciation of the ultimate in mechanical precision, and a remarkable feat in the history of watchmaking.

Daniels took great care to pass on his knowledge to future generations of watchmakers. Perhaps the best known is Roger Smith who is a leading independent watchmaker today. Upon his death, Daniels left instruction for the creation of The George Daniels Educational Trust which assists those studying to become watch and clockmakers.

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