Dr. George Daniels (19 August 1926 to 21 October 2011), was generally considered to be the world’s greatest horologist during his lifetime. He was the only watchmaker ever to have received a CBE and an MBE for his services to horology.
Daniels was born on 19 August 1926, in Edgware, North London, one of eleven children. Like Clint Eastwood when asked how was his childhood, Daniels’ could best be described as short. His father, a carpenter by trade, was a violent drunk and the family constantly struggled for money. When George asked his parents for details of his birth and background he was met with abuse. Later, when he applied for a passport, he discovered that not only was he illegitimate but that he had no birth certificate.
Daniels’ enduring passion for watches began when he was just five years old. He happened to find a cheap wristwatch lying on the ground. ‘I managed to get it open and I was intrigued with the workings,’ he recalled. ‘It was like seeing the centre of the universe. I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do; I wanted to spend the rest of my time with watches.’
By the age of fourteen, Daniels was forced to leave school to look for work. He began his career in a mattress factory, every moment of his spare time was spent learning what he could about watches. Imagine if he had decided to dedicate his life to the design of mattresses, he would have no doubt created the world’s best bedding solutions. However he left the mattress factory after just a week to become a grocer’s errand boy. He then found employment in a garage specialising in re-treading car tyres. Using what he had learned from watch books, he began to make extra cash for himself by repairing clocks, and watches. He even went from door to door ask householders if any watch repairs were needed.
Daniels was virtually unique among modern watchmakers in that he taught himself every process involved in the hand crafting of a watch. This included the challenging metalwork required to make the case and dial. For this he had to master the making of watchcases and learn how to engine-turn so that he could make the dials.
In his lifetime Daniels made 37 watches completely by himself, and that does not include the many prototypes. Later in life he also developed a series of 50 wristwatches with British watchmaker Roger W. Smith, who was Daniels’ protégé.
Daniels’s watches are easily recognisable by their clear and clean dials, which often feature subsidiary dials interwoven with the main chapter ring. Breguet’s approach to watchmaking has had a strong influence on the body of Daniels’ work, indeed Daniels was considered a world expert on the work of Breguet. Daniels’s first watch was sold to Sam Clutton for £2,000 in 1970 and it’s believed he bought it back from Clutton five years later for £8,000.
When he joined the British Army in 1944, his watch repairing talents were able to earn him extra income and a few beers among his army colleagues. He left the army in 1947 with a gratuity of £50, which he spent on tools. He secured a job as a watch repairer.
Daniels enrolled himself in night classes at Northampton Institute – now known as City University, London . He paid £2 a year for a three-year course. He attended night classes three evenings a week after work. When he passed his final exams in 1953 it was the end of his only spell of formal training. He was accepted as a Fellow of the British Horological Institute.
His talent caught the attention of some of the top watch dealers and collectors of the day including Sam Clutton, a well respected watch dealer, noted collector and fellow vintage car enthusiast who turned Daniels’ attention to the great French watchmaker Breguet.
Daniels earned a good living from the repair and restoration of Breguet watches throughout much of his career. By the 1960s, after a visit to the House of Brequet in Paris, Daniels soon established himself as one of the world’s leading experts on Breguet. In fact the works of Breguet became his obsession. He was often called upon to advise upon the authenticity of Breguet’s timepieces.
Another passion of Daniels was the desire to overcome a fundamental design flaw in the traditional lever escapement, which was its need for lubrication. Whole volumes had been written on the subject of how best to keep the escapement lubricated. It resulted in a change in performance over time as the oil degraded – the effect being, in Daniels’ words, ‘a bit like driving uphill with the handbrake on’.
Daniels had been aware of the problems almost from the start of his watch repairing career, and it was a problem which had puzzled and perplexed watchmakers for centuries. Daniels’ ingenious solution was the coaxial escapement, a deceptively simple-looking arrangement of cogs and levers, which virtually eliminated the need for lubrication by significantly reducing sliding friction, thus ensuring greater accuracy over time and reducing the need for servicing.
Upon presenting his solution to the watch industry in 1976, the watch world was sceptical. But by the 1980s a major player in the Swiss watch industry, Swatch Group’s chairman Nicolas Hayek endorsed the concept and adopted it for Swatch’s Omega brand. In 1999 at the Basel Watch and Jewellery Fair the company unveiled its first mechanical watch featuring Daniels’ co-axial design. The event was so significant it was hailed as new era in mechanical watchmaking.
The coaxial escapement has been used by Omega in its high-end timepieces since 1999.
From 1969 to the mid 1990’s, Daniels created more than 20 exquisite pocket watches. It took Daniels a year to complete each watch, personally making them by hand. These pocket watches featured grand complications, including a tourbillon minute repeater with perpetual calendar, equation of time, phases of the moon, thermometer and power reserve display. Each watch was made purely on the principle that it was an advancement in horology, and he would only sell the watch once he was convinced he had achieved what he had set out to do.
Daniels specialised in making watches for connoisseurs and collectors, featuring cases, dials and movements clearly recognisable as his designs, and which incorporated unusual design features to add to their appeal. It didn’t take long for several keen collectors to approach Daniels for his custom made watches, each of which became much sought-after collectors’ items, fetching prices in excess of £100,000.
To celebrate his 80th birthday in 2006, Sotheby’s and Bobinet (the antique watch dealer) held a retrospective exhibition featuring every watch Daniels had ever made, all except for one which is on exhibition at the British Museum.
Daniels is unquestionably the most important British horologist of the last 250 years. He ranks right up there among the greatest British horologists of all time: Thomas Tompion, Thomas Mudge, John Arnold, George Graham, Thomas Earnshaw and John Harrison. Together they form a horology supergroup, all from the British Isles.
Daniels was not only a gifted craftsman who made some of the world’s most desirable watches, he was also an expert and connoisseur of vintage cars and was held in immense respect throughout the vintage motoring world.
George Daniels signature watches
Examples of pieces made entirely by George Daniels during the past sixty years demonstrate his skill as a horological designer and inventor. They range from a marine chronometer which was George Daniels’ first horological attempt in 1953, to the famous pocket watches and wristwatches of later years including tourbillons, both one- and four-minute, chronographs, equations and repeaters, and the millennium series, first launched in 1998 to celebrate the acceptance of the Daniels Co-axial escapement by the Swiss watch industry, and were made using the first movements to contain the Daniels Co-axial escapement that came off the Omega production line.
A George Daniels timepiece is considered to be highly prized among watch connoisseurs around the world. His timepieces have thus become extremely precious and rare items. When Daniels died many of his pieces were put up for auction. It was one of the most significant watch auctions in decades.