Frodsham Makes a Wristwatch

George Daniels, whose Co-axial escapement has been used by Omega for almost 20 years, didn’t necessarily consider that escapement as his best. He used the Double Impulse Chronometer in many of his masterpiece pocket watches, including the “Space Traveller”.

This was his development of Breguet’s échappement naturel, doing away with the geared connection between the two escape wheels, allowing each wheel to be driven by its own train. Aware of its limitations, he never tried to combine it with his other favourite complication: the tourbillon. He firmly believed that it couldn’t be miniaturised sufficiently for use in a wristwatch.

Daniels’ great friend, colleague and rival for the title of Britain’s greatest watchmaker was Derek Pratt, the technical director of Urban Jürgensen.

They would spend hours on the phone, talking through horological problems and exchanging gossip, Daniels on the Isle of Man and Pratt in Switzerland. Pratt had always admired the Double Impulse Chronometer escapement. During one of these chats, Daniels mentioned the “insurmountable difficulties” of combining it with a tourbillon. Pratt loved a challenge, so he decided to see if he could surmount those difficulties. He did, and his Double-Wheel Remontoir Tourbillon is now on display in London’s Science Museum, in the collection of the Clockmakers’ Company.

While producing his copy of Harrison’s H4, Pratt often visited London and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where the original is housed. During these visits, he would frequently drop into Charles Frodsham & Co., the world’s longest continuously trading chronometer maker, to discuss horology with the owners.

At the turn of this century, owners Philip Whyte, Richard Stenning and Simon Frodsham began to discuss the idea of producing a chronometer wristwatch. They looked at a spring detent escapement for the movement, but, after prototypes had been made and tested, it was decided that the problems were too great and the idea was dropped.

On one occasion, Pratt suggested that the Double Impulse Chronometer escapement might solve Frodsham’s problems. Daniels had always said the movement would be a technical challenge to miniaturise into a wristwatch, but this observation was made in the 1970s and in the interim, new machines emerged that could produce parts to finer tolerances than were around 30 years ago, while the acceptable size for a man’s wristwatch had grown since the relaunch of Panerai in 1993.

Around 2005, Frodsham disclosed its plans for a wristwatch. I placed a “teaser” on Timezone and periodically dropped in on Frodsham over the years, but kept hearing the mantra: “We will show it to you when it is ready.”

Frodsham developed and funded the watch from its own resources, with no external investors nor management consultants. Much of the investment came from work on projects undertaken for clients and friends. Frodsham completed Martin Burgess’s Regulator B, his development of one of Harrison’s precision clocks. The clock was finished in 2014; the following year, it was certified as the most precise mechanical clock in the world by The Guinness Book of Records after running for 100 days, at the end of which it was 5/8 of a second slow.

When Pratt realised that illness would prevent him from finishing his replica of H4, Frodsham took on this project, too. Another client asked the firm to build a replica of Harrison’s H3 for the National Maritime Museum’s Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition in 2014. These tasks provided income for the firm to invest in the development of the wristwatch, while allowing it time to run prototypes and observe areas of concern. Because no external investors could apply pressure for a return on their money, Frodsham had time to experiment, to fail, to recover and to learn from those failures.

The Real Deal

Charles Frodsham founded his firm in 1834 and it soon became one of England’s premier chronometer makers. After the death of John Arnold’s son, Frodsham bought his firm and renamed the business Arnold & Frodsham. He took over the remaining stock of the Arnold family and continued to sell it; when this stock was depleted, he introduced his own new calibre, but continued to use the Arnold numbering system. For his best pieces, he reserved the mark “A.D.Fmsz”, standing for “Anno Domini 1850”, created from the numerical positions of the letters in “Frodsham,” with the addition of “z” for 0.

Over the years, Frodsham absorbed other London watch and clock firms, among them Vulliamy. After this acquisition, Frodsham became Keeper of Her Majesty’s Clocks and soon obtained its first royal warrant. Toward the end of the 19th century, it was making sidereal regulators, marine chronometers and watches. By the 1930s, the chronometer business had almost completely dried up but Frodsham had a flourishing trade in servicing and repairing chronometers while continuing to sell clocks and watches. Frodsham’s contemporary workshop near Heathfield, Sussex, started with just Roger Stevenson occupying the premises. It has now grown to six staff members; prior to the wristwatch and the above-mentioned commissions, the principal work was restoration.

With no recent history of making wristwatches and a blank sheet of paper, Frodsham was not constrained in any way. It could consider every available technology and process. Though zirconia ceramics have been in use for around 20 years as a case material, Frodsham is the first to use the material for a dial. Physical Vapour Deposition (PVD) has been around for so long that it is almost a cliché to see it used on cases; Frodsham uses it to print tracks and text on the dial.

Feeling Blue

A perfect example of using the latest technology to achieve the desired result, PVD is combined with the classic watchmaking technique of flame-bluing for both the hands and the applied numerals. The watch is available with either Roman or Arabic numerals and, because the dial is machined from a solid piece of ceramic, its surface is absolutely flat, unlike an enamel dial where the enamel “falls away” at the edges of the holes for the applied numerals and hands.

This perfect fit of the numerals to the dial also enables them to appear to float above the surface of the dial, aided by this micro-abraded ceramic that neither reflects the light, nor absorbs it. It is a purely neutral platform that provides a base for an instantaneous visual reading of the time.

Although the hour and minutes hands are of equal length, they are instantly differentiated from each other by the shape. The minute track, also printed by PVD, is set about 5mm from the edge and the numbers are applied between the edge and the track. The tips of the hands appear between the two lines of the railway tracks.

New materials and techniques aside, the construction pays homage to 18th- and 19th-century enamel dials. It is made from two separate plates machined to a thickness of only 0.45mm. The upper bears the minute track, signature and applied numerals and is drilled at the 6 o’clock position for the huge seconds track, printed on the lower plate. This permits the seconds hand to sit below the dial surface, which enables the hour and minute hands to sit close to the dial as they don’t have to clear the seconds hand. The two plates are secured by a metal bezel, as in antique pocket watches, keeping the case to a respectable 10.7mm high. Its diameter is 42mm, but the short, integrated lugs make it feel much smaller on the wrist.

Made completely in-house, the case is offered in stainless steel, 18K rose or white gold or 22K yellow gold. As a matter of historical interest, in England, this 22K standard was known as “Crown” gold since 1526, and all gold watches would have been of this purity until the re-introduction of 18K in 1798.

Frodsham overcame the problem of high carat gold’s softness by rolling the gold more intensively than is the norm, and making the case from one piece of metal, avoiding soldering or brazing. It has a slightly domed sapphire crystal covering the dial and a flat sapphire revealing the movement; a gasket between the caseback and body, along with twin “O” rings in the winding crown, guarantees water-resistance of 30m. Anyone swimming while wearing this, or any other ultra-fine watch, however, is not right of mind.

The crown’s position at 2:30 instead of the standard 3 o’clock, has the benefit of increasing comfort by preventing the crown from digging into the back of the wrist. It also provides some protection for the crown, in the same way as does Seiko’s placement of crowns on its dive watches at 4 o’clock. Although there are practical reasons for placing the crown here, the main reason is dictated by the design of the movement.

Twin Drive

Here we come to the amazing Daniels Double Impulse Chronometer escapement. Essentially comprised of two completely separate drive trains, each with its own escape wheel rotating in opposite directions and locking on a centrally-positioned titanium detent, it has the additional benefit of being completely lubrication-free as there are no sliding actions. The detent is made completely in-house, incorporates three jewels and weighs less than 5mg. Its large free-sprung balance has a self-compensating balance spring with raised terminal curve, and a proprietary shock protection system with fixed jewelled bearings.

All 43 jewels come from Frodsham’s own old stock, a fact not inscribed upon the movement, nor are the number of adjustments – unlike in Swiss watches. Frodsham tells me that that this is to keep the movement as plain as possible because the maker is essentially discreet and expects that the watch will appeal to a similar group of owners. I can, however, reveal that the watch is adjusted to all 6 possible positions in three temperatures, over a period of a month until the watchmaker is satisfied that it can run consistently at a respectable rate.

The only engraving on the movement is the name of the company and its location, exactly as it was in the days of the first Mr Frodsham, along with the A.D.Fmsz mark and the serial number. I mentioned that Frodsham continued using Arnold’s serial number sequence: this is still the case, meaning that the movements are numbered in the 0107XX region. This may confound collectors who want specifically low numbers, but it will appeal to collectors who appreciate heritage and continuity.

Frodsham’s iconoclastic approach continues with the selling of the watch, the prices and even the strap. Only available from their premises in St. James’s, the watches’ raisons d’être is the phenomenal movement and dial, the cases almost secondary. Thus, the difference in price between the steel and gold watches is simply the additional cost of the gold used in making the case. The steel cased watch costs £68,500, plus local taxes; white or pink 18K gold adds only an additional £4,500 and even the 22K yellow-gold one is priced only £1,500 above the 18K versions.

Indicative, too, of Frodsham’s rethinking of the business is the strap proposal. When the watches are ready for collection, clients visit the shop and have their wrists measured. They choose a strap and, before fitting, a single hole is punched to suit exactly the client’s wrist. Another hole is punched to either side of that hole to allow for changes in the client’s wrist size or the climate. The holes are punched in the straps by a special machine, designed and constructed in-house by Frodsham. The buckles are also made in-house, and, while the straps aren’t made by Frodsham, they make a strong statement about the company’s unique approach.

I am not alone in being enamoured by the Frodsham wristwatch. No more than every three years, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers awards a prize for “innovation, ingenuity, elegance, the highest standards of workmanship and precision performance in the craft and science of time and timekeeping.” The prize is worth £20,000 (the exact sum offered for the solution of the Longitude problem). Just after I sat down to write this, it was announced that Frodsham had been awarded this honour. Fittingly, the award is named “The Derek Pratt Prize.”

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