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The weird, wonderful treasures inside Europe's greatest watch museum

Among the Museum's holdings are a large number of pocket watches by Breguet, and it's saying something that despite their beauty and rarity, they're just one of the many highlights of the collection

Jack Forster | Bloomberg 

Photo: Hodinkee / Bloomberg

One of the wonderful things about London (one of the many, I should say) for an horological enthusiast is the presence of several museums with really extraordinary watch and clock collections and after having missed them while travelling, for various reasons, for many years, I was able to catch up on what I’ve been missing for the last few decades. One of the best places to visit is undoubtedly the British but another must-see is the Science Museum, which is located a stone’s throw from both the Victoria and Albert and the Natural History in Kensington. The Science Museum’s highlight for a watch enthusiast, is the Clockmaker’s Museum, which is the collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.

The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers was founded in 1631 and is still in existence and active today; two of its most famous Masters are the late George Daniels and (Talking Watches guest) Roger Smith. The Museum is a collection which the Guild began assembling in 1813 and it now numbers some 15 clocks, workbooks and other documents and watch ephemera, and over six hundred watches and other horological objects. I have to admit that before visiting the Science Museum and viewing the exhibition, that I had absolutely no idea just how large it was and how broad in scope; it easily rivals or exceeds what I’ve seen in horological museums anywhere in Europe (with the possible exception of the Patek Philippe Museum, although each has its own distinct strengths).

Among the Museum’s holdings are a large number of pocket watches by Breguet, and it’s saying something that despite their beauty and rarity, they’re just one of the many highlights of the collection.

As you might expect, English watches and clocks and their makers are very well-represented to put it mildly, and another high point of any enthusiast’s visit will definitely be the case devoted to a marine chronometer by Thomas Mudge; it’s shown along with the components for his extremely complex constant force escapement.

One of the most eye-opening exhibits, however, is the one devoted to George Daniels, whose work is featured in the final part of the Collection (the watches and clocks are arranged in chronological order so that you see the oldest first and the most recent last). This exhibit is a tribute to his work and contains not only a number of his pocket watches and wristwatches, but also, the very first wristwatch to ever have a co-axial escapement installed in it.

That watch is none other than a Patek Philippe Nautilus, converted to a co-axial escapement in 1981 at the request of Patek Philippe, by Daniels.

It was extremely exciting to see; I knew as many of us do that Daniels had made prototypes for Patek Philippe and even had a chance to handle one not long ago here in the office when Roger Smith paid us a visit (about which more in an upcoming post) but that one was a pocket watch, and I had no idea that the first wristwatch was a Nautilus, nor that it was in the Company’s collection, although had I troubled to trek over to Guildhall any of the times I’d been in London in years past I probably could have seen it. It has obviously not been worn with a great deal of concern for scratches; in fact the bezel is so scoured that when I first saw it I thought it had been diamond-set.

Despite evidence of hard wear, however, the exhibition notes say that Daniels wore the watch “continuously for ten years, during which time the escapement performed well, without the need for attention.” Patek, as we all know, ultimately declined to work with Daniels but their loss was Omega’s gain and after a long and sometimes frustrating period of movement development (and some teething issues with early iterations of their co-axial movements) Omega succeeded in industrialising the co-axial escapement, which now ticks away in hundreds of thousands of watches worldwide.

I can’t recommend the Collection strongly enough; not only is it one of the most wonderful horological collections on Earth, it’s chock full of the weird, wonderful and unexpected (including the above, which is a fuse for an early nuclear weapon, apparently on loan from the Ministry of Defence). The Science Museum is open daily, free of charge (though a donation upon entry is simple good manners).

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First Published: Fri, March 09 2018. 21:32 IST