Independent watchmakers are like distinguished tailors who make bespoke suits, but being independent comes with great risk. Some people embrace it and set out on their lonely journey into the unknown. Take the late George Daniels, the founding father of independent watchmaking. His watches have recently been the subject of much discussion.

Exactly one year ago I wrote about the phenomenal success achieved by independent watchmakers at Phillips auction house (Philippe Dufour and François-Paul Journe). This year’s records only confirm that the word “independent” plays an increasingly important role in the world of watch collecting, which is in part down to the masterpieces created by George Daniels (1926-2011), like the Spring Case Tourbillon. Exactly 30 years after its creation, it was sold for 4,083,500 CHF at a November auction organised by Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo.

Admittedly, it is now not so rare an occurrence to see seven-figure sums at watch auctions, but for some this result came as somewhat a surprise. First of all, the record was held by one of the industry’s leading brands and secondly, this auction yet again highlighted collectors’ admiration for independent watchmakers. Phillips valued the Spring Case Tourbillon at 1 million CHF, which was a clear underestimation given the price it fetched at auction. Especially given its uniqueness.

George Daniels crafted two unique watches for his own use and one of them was the Spring Case Tourbillon. Made in 1992, it has a 40 millimetre two-part yellow gold case and two faces. The first displays hours, minutes, seconds and a power reserve, while the caseback features a date display and a day-of-week indicator as well as an open aperture revealing the one-minute tourbillon and co-axial escapement. It is understood that Daniels was so pleased with this watch that he wore it every day. He reluctantly let it go in 2005, when his friend finally convinced him to sell it. The Spring Case Tourbillon that appeared at Phillips auction house was offered for the first time at auction and it made history as the most expensive watch made by a British watchmaker.

The co-axial escapement invented by George Daniels is regarded as one of the most significant horological innovations of the last 250 years. As is often written about him, George Daniels dreamed of revolutionising modern watchmaking, but it wasn’t until one of the leading brands showed interest in his work that his dream became reality. In the early 1980s he travelled to Switzerland to show his idea to several well-known manufacturers. At the time he was turned away by industry leaders such as Patek Philippe and Rolex. It was only by chance that he finally managed to bring his project to life. Nicolas G. Hayek, or “the big boss”, as he liked to call himself, had a vision for how to use the new escapement. In 1999, 20 years after Daniels created the co-axial escapement, Omega released the De Ville Co-Axial calibre 2500. Today, the co-axial is used in almost every model they produce, which would certainly make the master watchmaker happy.

The watches made by George Daniels himself are very recognisable: they are hand-made with impressive technical elements. It was therefore safe to assume that the three watches due to feature in the November auction would be sold instantly. The Millennium and Anniversary watches that Daniels created in collaboration with his protégé Roger Smith sold at auction for 828,800 CHF (another record) and 693,000 CHF.

Another watch to achieve success at the November auction was by Philippe Dufour (in the picture above), currently one of the most respected independent watchmakers. The Simplicity from 2020, with an elegant, white-gold case displaying the hour, minutes and seconds at 6 o’clock, sold for 1,022,200 CHF. Philippe Dufour is a fierce defender of traditional watchmaking who considers it to be a dying art. He is a living legend whose watches are considered to be masterpieces. They are well-respected among collectors and often hard to come by.

The record-breaking prices that independent watchmakers are able to achieve is good news not just for collectors, but also for the industry itself.

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