From learning his trade at Rolex to becoming Head Watchmaker at Breitling, Tony Williams’ life in watches now sees him reside as Lead Watchmaker and Head of Technical Development at Watchfinder. Despite the firm’s thoroughly modern approach to the watch market, this British company is not only paving the way in pre-owned watch sales, but also the preservation of the art of watchmaking…
Calibre: Is there still an interest in becoming a watchmaker from the younger generation in the UK?
“There is, but you have to create a training programme that younger people want to be a part of, and we have seen that if you build it they will come. We’re now nurturing young talent and passing on these skills through a combination of classical and modern training, offering full apprenticeships for deserving candidates. The UK is at the forefront of this drive to train watchmakers, and we’re particularly proud our apprenticeship programme. Not only do our customers benefit from the exceptionally trained workforce, but the history and art of British watchmaking carries on.”
Calibre: Do you think the history of watchmaking in the UK has been appropriately documented?
“Not really. We were at the forefront of watchmaking in the 17th and 18th century, but even long after this we were still key players. Most people assume my apprenticeship with Rolex must have been in Switzerland, and often don’t believe Rolex was training people like me in the UK in the early 1980s. Though the work of boutique watchmakers from Britain is well documented, I don’t think enough people know of our importance in the watch world to this day.”
Calibre: Where do you see British watchmaking going in the future?
“The UK is leading the charge in the pre-owned watch market, and as a result our continued commitment to superlative watchmaking is unwavering. Part of the legacy of Watchfinder is our apprenticeship scheme, and we have a responsibility as industry leaders to ensure the quality of work in our country remains paramount. The UK’s history in engineering, mechanics and avionics is second to none in the world, and no other country is pushing as hard as we are to keep watchmaking moving forwards.”
Calibre: Can you immediately see if someone has what it takes to handle such delicate machines?
“It is clear very quickly if someone has it or they don’t. We’re one of few companies giving full training in polishing and through this we can see straight away if someone has what it takes. From the way they hold the watch, even before it goes near the polishing wheel, you get an indication of their involvement with that piece of metal. The level of care and attention with which they polish, whether it be cases or bracelets, is a great display of their commitment to the craft. Not everyone has what it takes. The same is true of time spent in the parts department, you can’t hide any inadequacies when working with these minute components.”
Calibre: What separates a good watchmaker from a great one?
“Time and application, as well as an unwillingness to cut corners. We go by the old saying “‘Good enough’ isn’t good enough.” You’ve got to spend the time, and its apparent when people don’t. Perhaps the customer won’t notice, but you can guarantee the next person servicing the watch will. It’s the little things that make the big difference, and any craftsman should be proud of their work. If it takes ten more minutes to line up each screw head and make it perfect then you do it, that’s the way I was taught and that’s what every watch deserves.”
Calibre: In an increasingly throwaway culture, why is intricate mechanical work of this nature still in demand?
“There is no substitute for expertise. People who own these watches often do so not solely for their beauty or practicality but often for their stories and the emotions attached to them. These watches have been handled by truly skilled individuals, committed to excellence and with a passion for the product. This radiates through the watch itself and that is a huge factor for customers, seeking a true connection to something mechanical in an increasingly digital world.”
Calibre: How did you get your start in watchmaking?
“I had an interest in micromechanics from a young age and used to spend my time building lots of models cars, planes and things like that. My father had a watch repair shop and I started tinkering on old movements from the age of 12. Things progressed from there, and I applied for an apprenticeship at Rolex and was accepted before I had even left school.”
Calibre: What was entailed in a watchmaking apprenticeship in those days?
“We were not set loose on watches straight away, and spent three months in the parts department literally learning what each part did. Fortunately, my time working at my father’s shop had given me an advantage and I had an understanding of the componentry already. From there I spent three months in the case department, learning polishing techniques, a key skill which is rarely taught today.”
Calibre: Were you finally allowed to get hands on with some watches after this?
“Not quite – we were moved onto clocks next. Britain has a deep history with clocks and they make perfect training pieces. After that we were finally let loose on wristwatches.”
Calibre: How was your time as Head Watchmaker at Breitling?
“I spent a lot of time working on efficiency of the production line. There were certain calibres being sent off to Switzerland for repairs which caused huge customer delays, so I sat down the team and taught everyone the best techniques to repair them in house in the UK. It was crazy to me to have talented British workers not working on these. Having the correct working culture is especially important in this environment, teaching the right values can have a huge impact on the quality of the work. I also put emphasis on building up the polishing room as the importance of this on the final product can not be underestimated, as well as restructuring the parts department. It was all about passing on what I’d learnt myself being hands on with watches from a young age to give the best experience for the customer.”
Calibre: That experience must have proved incredibly useful when starting with Watchfinder.
“Coming in as Lead Watchmaker but also Head of Technical Development meant that I had to not only think of the short term but also the long term infrastructure. Given the sheer quantity of watches we handle, instilling classical values in a modern watchmaking environment was really important. Starting with two watchmakers and three polishers we’ve built our service centre into a multi-accredited facility with the highest quality standards. We never stop learning and never stop pushing for perfection, and to do that you need the right attitude and the right team around you.”
Calibre: How do you and your team keep up with the latest developments in horology?
“Fundamentally, a watch is a watch. Once you have a true understanding of the fundamentals and have spent thousands of hours working on variety of complications, it’s a question of spending the time to understand the latest technologies. Nowadays that requires a lot of time on my side, as we deal with such a breadth of manufacturers here.”
Calibre: How is watchmaking different today from when you started?
“The training my father and I received was classical, very thorough and we were not rushed. We had to know how a watch worked part for part, whereas nowadays with modern technology intervening there is far less training in the understanding of the full timepiece. Modern watchmakers are more often than not trained for a specific task, rather than the full spectrum we teach.”
Calibre: As arguably one of the most accredited technicians in the UK, how does it feel to have major manufacturers give you and your team a stamp of approval?
“It’s a real badge of honour for us, they are not handed out lightly. There is no shortcut to accreditation, just consistent quality, so it gives out customers a great deal of comfort.”
Calibre: Are there any particularly memorable watches you have worked on?
“I worked on some Royal Rolexes in my early days — Prince Andrew’s Daydate, the Princess Anne’s Datejust, Princess Diana’s Cellini — and some celebrity watches like the boys from Wham! and Gordon Ramsay.”
Calibre: Has there been any particularly challenging watches to work on?
“The Jaeger 101 was a tough one, but that is what you’d expect with the smallest ladies watch in the world!”
Calibre: Which watch do you wear personally?
“As you might expect, I’m a vintage man. I’ve got three old Seikos, some Breitlings, a Mark 2 Omega Speedmaster and a few other things. I’ve also got a Casio G-Shock for the beach, you have to really!”
What to look out for in a pre-owned watch
As pre-owned watches continue to gain in popularity among first time buyers, Sam Beer, Senior Purchaser at Watchfinder, shares his tips on what not to do when buying a pre-owned watch.
“It goes without saying really but there are still individuals, especially those who are first time buyers, who are reeled in by less-than-professional dealers. Given the increased publicity around watches in recent years and well publicised examples of record prices, it is imperative to spend your money with an established and trusted firm. Look out for customer reviews as an indicator of real world response, and also research the level of aftercare offered.”
“It’s easy to think that the individual working on your watch prior to sale is infinitely qualified to do so, but this is not always the case. There are accreditations awarded to only the most skilled of watchmakers, and its important to know that your watch is receiving the correct treatment. The value of a watch can be changed drastically by incorrect procedures, so make sure that not only is your watch recently serviced before purchasing, but that this has been done by an accredited technician.”
Box and papers
“Only buy without box and papers if doing so from a reputable company who will have done all appropriate verification checks for authenticity. This can affect value by as much as 10%.”
“If done incorrectly, polishing can greatly affect a watches value. Be sure that if the watch has been or is due to be polished that this is done again by properly trained polishers. For more vintage watches, also be wary as polishing can be deemed a negative, character removing process on very rare pieces.”
Beware the Frankenwatch
“In vintage watch circles, the so-called Frankenwatch has become a scourge of the uninitiated. Built of period correct components, these watches are non-authentic despite their age appropriate components. The end result is a watch that didn’t exist previously, despite appearing vintage – yet another reason to buy from reputable firms. “
“Legitimate firms will offer warranties, a real indication that they believe in their stock. It should be a real red flag if this isn’t offered, and always check the level of cover offered.”
Six interesting watches from Watchfinder
JAEGER-LECOULTRE REVERSO LIMITED SERIES
A different take on the art deco hallmark Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, the platinum skeletisation of this limited edition model (one of just 500 produced) separates it from the crowd. What’s more, rather than the traditional dial being present upon flipping the case, with this special model the lucky wearer is greeted with another view of the beautiful movement. The gorgeous in-house calibre is a treat on the eyes, and despite the thickness of this timepiece there is plenty to see inside. The Reverso may have started as a 1930s sports watch, but this un-worn example is a modern marvel.
ROLEX EXPLORER 1655
A true classic that needs little introduction, the 1655 Rolex Explorer is a timeless tool watch. Despite the very loose nature of the ties to a certain Hollywood actor, this so called “McQueen Explorer” is a stand out choice for anyone seeking something slightly different but nonetheless familiar in the vintage Rolex field. Though it may be the little brother 1016 Explorers that have seen more limelight in recent months, the 1655 is an interesting alternative and one for the connoisseur.
PANERAI LUMINOR SUBMERSIBLE PAM00507
The smooth and slick appearance of more standard Panerai Luminors may not instantly elude to the underwater roots of these diving watches, but with this limited edition known as the “Bronzo” there is little doubt of its nautical roots. These PAM Submersible pieces are especially sought after, and thanks to the use of brushed bronze on the case and bezel there is no denying the underwater lineage of this 47mm beauty. Boasting a production number of just 1,000, this sea-ready rarity is sure to delight for years to come — especially as that bronze finish ages charismatically over time…
IWC PILOTS DOUBLE CHRONO IW379901
Beyond the iconic 1986 film, the words Top Gun are synonymous with excellence. As goes for any of the elite pilots fortunate enough to train at this US Navy facility in California, any timepiece worthy of this name simply has to be special. This Pilots Double Chrono features a stealthy black 46mm ceramic and titanium case made with zirconium oxide, with that special logo featuring pride of place on the rear. These special materials and features culminate to produce a distinctive, imposing variant of the classic Pilots watch.
OMEGA SPEEDMASTER DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
A heady mix of a classic Speedmaster style and cutting edge materials, this Dark Side of the Moon special edition is a captivating version of one of the most iconic watches ever made. From the chromium nitride found in the tachymeter to the zirconium present in the case, dial and bezel, this is a cutting edge variant of the Speedmaster. Breaking up the matte aesthetic with traditional white gold hands, this watch demands a second look, and for those in the know this is an untouchable iteration of the famous Omega.
AUDEMARS PIGUET ROYAL OAK
Though some modern Audemers Piguet Royal Oak models may be accused of sharing little aesthetic similarities to the purer models from the firm’s history, this example is a lesson in understated style. The monochrome dial is paired perfectly with the brushed steel case, allowing that octagonal design that so shook up the watch world when unveiled in 1972 to shine through without distraction. It’s often said that less is more, and in the case of this Royal Oak this is hard to dispute.