Father time: Why George Daniels is the world’s best horologist

George Daniels was never officially born: a suitably mythic start for the man now known as the world's greatest watchmaker. But the 84-year-old's opinions are real enough: he denies his daughter exists, thinks people who buy vintage Rolexes are fools, and God forbid you ask him to make a piece if he doesn't like you...

George Daniels is one man for whom you definitely don't want to be late – which is why I am knocking on the back door of his grand white house at 2pm on the dot. Perhaps I needn't have worried: the grandfather clock in the hall doesn't seem to be telling the right time and Daniels himself later reveals he often doesn't wear a watch – not quite what I was expecting from a man frequently described as the world's greatest living horologist.

But, then, Daniels is used to waiting. Despite having "played with watches" since the age of five and spent his working life in the industry, he was more than 40 by the time he made his first timepiece, and hit his stride when most would think of retiring – a concept the 84-year-old fails to appreciate. "What would I retire from?" he asks, showing me the enviable collection of classic cars he has built up at his home in Ramsey, in the north of the Isle of Man.

We meet the week before Daniels, who already has an MBE, is due to travel to Buckingham Palace to collect a CBE for services to horology. He is one of few people in the world able to make a watch completely by hand, and his co-axial escapement (the part that drives the timekeeping mechanism) is often hailed as the greatest development in his craft for almost 250 years; since Englishman Thomas Mudge invented the detached lever escapement in 1754. Daniels' revolutionary mechanism reduces sliding friction and is immune to the usual deterioration of the lubricant, which can affect timekeeping.

Sitting in the drawing-room that houses some of the art collection he has bought at auction, and sipping an afternoon beer, Daniels is pleasant yet guarded. He is happy to talk about his career, but not his personal life. When I ask whether he has any children, he replies in the negative, yet later I discover that he has a daughter, Sara, from his marriage to his now ex-wife Juliet. I call to ask why he didn't mention her. Daniels, who lives alone, tells me he is "not very pleased with her" and no longer counts her as part of his life.

His reticence in discussing his own upbringing is perhaps understandable. Born in 1926, life with his parents, eight sisters and two brothers in Edgware, north London, brought few happy memories. His carpenter father, expert at building radios, was a violent drunk and the family struggled for money. In his autobiography, All in Good Time: Reflections of a Watchmaker, Daniels reveals that his mother, with whom he was never close, wrote to him two years before her death in 1991 to apologise for the "miserable home life".

When he asked as a boy where he was born, he was met with abuse and later learnt on applying for a passport that he had not officially been born and had no birth certificate. The reason? He arrived before his parents married.

But, however unhappy, his childhood did provide an experience that was to influence the rest of his life: as a five-year-old, he found a cheap wristwatch in the street. "I managed to get it open and I was intrigued with the workings," he explains, in a quiet, rasping voice. "It was like seeing the centre of the universe. I knew that's what I wanted to do; I wanted to spend the rest of my time with watches."

He carried this fascination with him when he served in the Army during the Second World War. In 1945, he was posted to join the 2nd Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment in the Middle East, and fondly recalls learning to swim in the Suez Canal. In the barracks, his tinkering with timepieces proved lucrative, and he earnt enough money mending fellow soldiers' watches to not have to draw any pay for two-and-a-half years.

Once back in England, Daniels used his savings to buy tools and started work with a watchmaker in Edgware, attending evening horological classes at Northampton Polytechnic, now City University London. Once he set up his own watch-cleaning and repair business, he ploughed through 16-hour days at a workbench in his lounge, spending any free time indulging his other passion – restoring an old Bentley. Frequently, his only company was budgerigar Henry, who sat on his shoulder while he worked.

A chance meeting in 1960 with fellow car and antique-watch enthusiast Sam Clutton led him to expand his business and Daniels had soon built up a reputation for restoring clocks and watches for collectors. Four years later, he married Juliet Marryat, the daughter of one his clients. Obsessed with horology and spending his free time racing classic cars, he admits in his memoir that he "was not a good husband or father".

However, his dedication to his career paid off at the end of the decade, when he realised his dream of producing his own mechanical watch, teaching himself the skills to make the components at a time when nobody was creating pocket watches by hand. He sold the piece to Clutton, who showed it to other collectors. Orders, however, did not come flooding in. "I was very selective," recalls the single-minded Daniels. "I never made watches for people if I didn't care for them."

Such caring is essential when you consider that even a relatively simple watch takes a horologist a year to complete; what's more, the work is consuming, requiring great concentration for long periods of time. "When you make something as small and complex as a watch, you can't do a little and put it down and come back the next day and do a bit more," explains Daniels. "You work until you are exhausted, then pack it in for the night and start again the next day, always working to maximum capacity, or the watch wouldn't get done."

Soon after finishing his first watch, Daniels turned his attention to improving the technology. But when, in 1976, he created the revolutionary co-axial escapement, he faced a surprising amount of scepticism from the industry, and his invention only came into commercial use in 1999, when Omega introduced the mechanism into its high-grade watches.

He is now working with 40-year-old protégé Roger Smith on a 35-piece series to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his invention. The pair hope to make eight watches in 2011 – with the help of a team of seven craftsmen – and subsequently 10 a year. Each watch, carrying an eye-watering price-tag of £142,000, will be hand-made from rose gold. There will also be four separate sets of four watches – rose gold, platinum, yellow gold and white gold – at a mere £720,000 per set.

While the prospect of such a line-up of bespoke bling might leave many a footballer and rapper weak at the knees, Daniels' pieces attract buyers with a genuine interest in timekeeping and an awareness of his global reputation.

Daniels himself dismisses the celebrity fashion for statement diamond-encrusted watches as "nonsense" and is "completely indifferent to the modern conception of a watch". He is also rather bemused by the vintage market: "It seems not to matter to some people that they can go to a Sotheby's auction and buy a second-hand Rolex for £15,000 when up the road there's a shop that sells new Rolexes for a fraction of the one they have just paid a fortune for." Yet that bemusement does not extend to the world of vintage motorbikes and cars: Daniels boasts a collection that includes a 1907 Daimler built for the Earl of Craven. Until recently, he maintained and raced the cars across Europe, but has now been "warned off by the RAC. They think I am a bit too old for it."

Despite moving to the Isle of Man in 1982 for its low taxes, Daniels claims there is little money to be made in watchmaking – though his substantial Georgian home, complete with trade entrance and sweeping drive, suggests otherwise.

Entering the separate single-storey workshop overlooking the gardens is like taking a step back in time: it is packed with the old-fashioned machinery Daniels needs to make watches by hand. A small tin box – the "graveyard" – sitting on his workbench is testament to his perfectionism. It is full of discarded hand-made components deemed not up to his standards. He is not sentimental about pieces he labours over for months, but strives to make improvements in every new watch he sculpts. "It's very interesting that of all the watches I have made, I don't remember making any of them," he says. "It was all so easy. It just flowed from the tools and the work seemed to make itself and I think that's the secret of a good watchmaker. You have to do your fundamental work almost unconsciously and keep moving forward."

When I ask what he thinks of the title of "greatest living horologist" with which he is often bestowed, his answer is, perhaps, a tad immodest. "Well, I've thought about it very carefully and I came to the conclusion that it was true," he says with a smile. "Most of the things I have done haven't been done by other people, on the whole, and the watches do set a new standard, so why shouldn't I accept the accolade? I am not a great believer in hiding your light behind a bushel. I accept that it's a compliment and I'm very pleased about it."

Yet, such swagger isn't obnoxious arrogance. Daniels is a man with justified confidence in his work. But can he stay on top of a changing game? He predicts "a new phase of electronics" for watchmaking, with pieces "telling you everything you want to know, including your grandmother's birthday" flooding the mass market. But he is confident, too, that the mechanical watch will never disappear. "It's an art form in itself," he insists. "When you consider the mechanical watch, it has historic, intellectual, technical, aesthetic, amusing and useful qualities. That is a lot to find in a small package."

A revised edition of George Daniels' memoir, 'All in Good Time' (Philip Wilson, £35) will be published on 30 September

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