There hasn't been a mechanical wristwatch made in England since Smith’s closed its factory half a century ago (geographical pedants know that the Isle of Man is not in England) so when Charles Frodsham introduced its new Double Impulse Chronometer watch in 2018, it marked the return of watchmaking to the country which played the most important part in its development.
I have known the guys behind Frodsham for over a quarter-century, but that is a mere blink of an eye compared to the 184 years since Charles Frodsham founded the firm and 175 years since they became England’s premier maker of chronometers after purchasing the firm of John Roger Arnold. The Victorian era was one of consolidation among the great English watch and clock makers and by the end of the 19th century, there were just two great firms trading in London – Dent and Frodsham. Dent built the clock in the tower of Pugin’s new Houses of Parliament, while Frodsham built chronometers for the Royal Navy and regulators for astronomical observatories around the world.
Through two world wars (including being bombed out of their premises in 1941) and the austerity following them, the firm continued production, but in the mid 1990s it was purchased by Philip Whyte, one of London’s leading dealers in marine chronometers and precision timekeeping.
He brought in as a partner Richard Stenning, who had previously worked for seven years in the watch and clock department at Sotheby’s. Prior to this he had studied horology at Hackney, under Peter Roberts. By then, the Frodsham business specialised in buying and selling timepieces from their premises in St James and servicing & repairing them from their workshop in Heathfield, Sussex.
The firm came swiftly to the conclusion that they needed to get back into manufacturing, but whether to make chronometer desk clocks or a watch?
Although Frodsham’s history had been based on chronometer clocks and precision regulators, by the end of the 19th century it had been regularly winning awards for its watches, one of its tourbillons achieving the highest marks ever attained by an English watch at Kew observatory, in 1906. So, it was an easy decision to go ahead with a watch.
Breguet filed a patent for one in 2003, while Christophe Claret unveiled his Maestoso watch in 2014, but the first company to actually introduce a detent wristwatch was Urban Jurgensen in 2011. I was present at the launch of the watch and listened as Jean-Francois Mojon & Kari Voutilainen explained the procedures and modifications needed to make this delicate mechanism work in such a hostile environment. They told how the project had begun when the firm was under the ownership of Peter Baumberger and that the initial research had been done by the firm’s technical director, Derek Pratt. Neither of whom, unfortunately, lived to see the launch of the Urban Jurgensen detent watch.
One of the three prototypes was left exactly as it was when produced, for comparison with the other two which underwent a huge number of iterations. Initially, the escapement geometries were made to George Daniels’ original designs for a pocket watch, but subtle changes were incorporated into the wristwatch version, for example a change in the roller diameter and the position of the secondary locking jewels. They experimented with different materials for the escape wheels; many were tried and rejected before they finally decided on titanium. The dynamic workings of the escapement are very different to any theoretical modelling. The variables measured included wear, lubricity, how quickly the escape wheel released, how quickly it accelerated, and its terminal velocity at the point of impulse.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the movement is the asymmetric three-armed balance bridge, which combines exceptional stability with an almost unhindered view of the balance assembly. It was not always this way. Over the development period, the bridge was tried with two arms and also as a simple balance cock. It takes an astonishing 11 hours of hand polishing to achieve the desired finish.