Thursday, August 4, 2011

In conversation with Master Watchmaker Peter Roberts

(photo by JPVFX)

The golden age of England (and specifically London’s) dominance as an international watchmaking centre was during the 17th to 19th centuries. The achievements of clock and watchmakers such as Daniel Quare, Thomas Tompion, John Arnold, George Graham and John Harrison, and the increasing importance and growth of the watchmaking crafts, lead to the establishment of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in 1691. Prior to that, because clock making involved working in ferrous metal, clockmakers within the City of London tended to be freemen of the Blacksmiths’ Company.

The last decade or so, in particular, has seen a resurgence in English horology, with the mighty elder statesman George Daniels, the greatest living watchmaker, an inspiration to many of these, such as his protégé Roger Smith.

One other renowned name that has been a force behind this English watchmaking revival has been that of Peter Roberts. Peter qualified as a Fellow of the British Horological Institute in the early '70s, becoming the first student from the UK to attend the original WOSTEP course in Neuchatel. He has  worked with IWC in Schaffhausen, Rolex in Geneva and the U.K. (he still occasionally instructs on Rolex courses), and spent 13 years teaching at the Hackney Watch School in London, where his pupils included Stephen Forsey and Peter Speake-Marin. Peter also advised the re-invigorated Dent brand, but is now Technical Director for the young vibrant aviation inspired Bremont brand.

In late June, watch forum ATGV hosted a fabulous event at Skylon Southbank, with Giles English and Peter Roberts from Bremont and Peter Speake-Marin all attending. It was a great opportunity for one of us to meet and have a chat with the legendary Peter Roberts, who kindly agreed to an interview.

JP : What was it that got you into watch making?

PR : My father was a bit of a watch collector. On his bookshelves I found a copy of Donald de Carle's "Practical Watch Repairing". I read this when I was 15 years old and was hooked!

JP : You taught at Hackney College in the 1980s-90s. Can you tell us a bit about your time there. How did you become a teacher?

PR : My wife and I were in a pub one day and bumped into one of my old college lecturers who suggested I would be ideal for a new position that was available. This was not something I had considered, as I would need to qualify as a teacher (i.e. back to college). He was very persuasive. I qualified into teaching, and never looked back.

JP : Whilst teaching there, do you remember any notable students?

PR : In the 13years that I was teaching horology, I taught many excellent students, some with wonderful ability and many who have gone on to become fine watchmakers, it would be unfair to name them individually.

JP : In terms of English watches and watchmakers, two of us own Peter Speake-Marin watches. Peter was one of your students, what's unique about his pieces?

PR : What I like about Peter's watches is that although he has gone his own way with his design ethic, he has still kept to the traditional elements of good horological mechanisms, beautiful quality of finish and a final piece that is uniquely his.

JP : What do you think of the future of U.K. watchmaking?

PR : U.K. watchmaking is looking pretty good at the moment, and I find there is now a better understanding around the world of Britain’s huge historical contribution to horology.

JP : Movements are an all-important part of a watch (some say the only important part). What is your favourite movement (or movements) and why?

PR : As a watchmaker I get the pleasure of taking watch movements apart that the owners pay vast sums of money for, and maybe never see. Some of my favourites are : Patek Philippe calibre 12, IWC calibre 89, Longines calibre 30CH and there are many more. Why do I like them? Superb engineering design - aesthetic beauty, finest quality of finish - they don't come better than these.

JP : Is there any one watch brand you admire?

PR : Having worked with Rolex for many years, this is the brand we all have to admire.

JP : As technical director at Bremont, have there been any new challenges working with this new brand?

PR : Working with Nick and Giles at Bremont is so exciting. We have new challenges daily!! New ideas, new materials, new ordeals that our watches must withstand. It is never ending.

JP : How much of a Bremont watch is British versus say, Swiss?

PR : We are a totally British brand with concepts, designs etc all our own. We have workshops in Switzerland which I oversee, but wherever possible our production is U.K. based. 

Bremont MB-1

JP : As a constant traveller, I enjoy the fact that the Bremont watches are very sturdy in construction; they can take shocks and are anti-magnetic. Is there one technical advancement you are particularly proud of?

PR : I am very proud of the MB watch. This watch is much more complicated to manufacture than it looks - the anti-magnetic cage floating in a shock resistant ring surrounded by the unique "roto click" bezel was very hard to design and is extremely expensive to manufacture and I am very proud of my design input on this watch.

One thing I am extremely proud of is the Bremont Marine Clock. This clock was conceived and designed the old-fashioned way with pencil and paper on my kitchen table at home! The whole manufacture and construction is made in the U.K. This is a unique and complex clock that we are very proud of.

Bremont Marine Clock

JP : Of the current Bremont model range, what is the piece you wear and what do you like about it?

PR : I usually wear an ALT1P black dial - perfect, serious aviation chronograph.

Bremont ALT1

JP : Are there any exciting future Bremont projects you can tell us about?

PR : There are. Watch this space!! Good to hear from the Sydney Tarts - Hope to see you in Sydney one day soon!!

JP : Thank you for taking the time ;-) to talk to the Sydney Tarts, and we hope to be able to welcome you to Sydney sooner rather than later!



Anonymous said...

Go JPVFX!! Go The Tarts!!!! GO Bremont!!

kewpie said...

i have a massive soft spot for aviation inspired watches! thank you for sharing!

Head Tart said...

Hey Julian , great post , well thought out questions , always been a fan of the IWC Cal 89 but suspect the ALT1 chrono has the umbiquitous Valjoux 7750 .
Are you interviewing the Sterns next -:)

initialjh said...

Good call on the cal 89 and the 30CH. I've soft spots for both!

well done JP love this blog!

Anonymous said...

Hi JP,
Great post mate.
Most interesting and you clearly associate with the best horological people!
The Bremont productions look very interesting.

ATG Watch Forums said...

Good to see you chatting... Peter is a lovely man and very genuine....who has been very good to me..and shares my love of Tri Compax chronographs


Anonymous said...

Top post, Julian. I love the question about the movements. Always interesting to hear a watchmaker's point of view on what they think is a good movement. It sounds like you had a great chat and Peter seems like a great bloke. Convince him to come to Sydney and we can give him a Tarts welcome. Bremont watches are becoming very appealing to me and this has spurred me to find out more about the brand. Many Thanks! Best, Tom.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jp for a great interviewing and giving us an insight into Peter Roberts. Like Tom, I hope that we can welcome him to Sydney one day.