Timepiece Chronicle

In-depth, passionate and entertaining articles that explore the stories behind great watches

Interview With A Clockmaker: James Harris of Harris Horology

Interview With A Clockmaker: James Harris of Harris Horology

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James hard at work on the clock. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

James hard at work on the clock. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

At some point whilst browsing a watch catalog or gazing through a boutique window, every appreciator of watches has daydreamed about starting a watch brand. It might be for the simple pleasure of seeing your name engraved on the dial of a watch or more grandiose machinations of turning the industry on it's head with wondrous never-before-seen designs and movements. Now more than ever these dreams can be made a reality with everyday a new kickstarter is raising funds or an in-vogue micro brand that everyone is raving about.

There is something to consider about the new Louis Brandt's and Eduard Heuer's of this world that whilst they might be crucial to the design process and might have the business acumen to force their brand to market, they very rarely will be placing steel upon steel and creating mechanical life. This is not to fault any creator of a brand as we're often told that true watchmaking is a lost art and that if you aren't born in a sleepy Swiss hamlet then the chances of learning these skills are very small. Despite this there are establishments around the world in former bastions of horology that still educate tomorrows watchmakers and one of these places is the Birmingham City University's School of Jewellery.

James Harris is a graduate of the BA (Hons) in Horology and recently started his own watch and clock making business, Harris Horology. At present James prefers to refer to himself as just a clockmaker as his first prototype watch, the Hilhouse, is still an ongoing project with The Woodes Flying Tourbillon Clock being the first timekeeper to be offered by Harris Horology. I had the opportunity to ask him about his studies in horology and the future of watchmaking in England.

Designs for the Woodes Flying Tourbillon Clock. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

Designs for the Woodes Flying Tourbillon Clock. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

TC: What inspired you to become a watchmaker?

JH: I actually sort of fell into it; I originally aspired to study astrophysics decided I needed a break from education. I had worked for a jewellers since I was 16, which had sparked an interest for watches; and while researching the idea of learning to make fine jewellery, I happened across Birmingham City University's School of Jewellery. I spotted they also taught Horology, a word I only sort of recognised. I read up on the content and realised immediately it was for me. Not having any real prior watchmaking experience I was lucky to really fall on my feet into a subject which I now passionately live and breath.

TC: Could you briefly explain where you studied and how you became aware of the course?

JH: As mentioned before, I chanced upon the course on the BCU website. The BA Horlogy in taught in Birmingham School of Jewellery, the largest school of its type in Europe, which is still in the original building from 1890. It was originally opened to train jewellers and silversmiths for the booming jewellery quarter. I'm not sure how long horology has been taught there but have heard it's over 100 years. Today the school teaches both fine and contemporary jewellery, silversmithing, and gemmology, as well as hosting the JIIC (Jewellery Industry Innovation Centre) which is an industry leader in 3d design and additive manufacture. Having all these skills under one roof means we all get to learn skills I can't imagine we'd normally learn from other trades.

TC: What is the biggest misconception about watchmaking and your degree that you've come across?

JH: For those not in the industry, I'd say most are surprised that it's even something that's possible to study. Of course I usually have to explain what horology means first! People are also surprised to hear how much work is actually involved in the course; I had several comments from friends studying for Masters Degrees about how busy I always sounded! 

From those people in the industry, many don't expect the breadth of things we covered. As a full degree the course is three years, giving us an extra year over courses like wostep. As well as the skills you would expect such as servicing and micromechanics, the time is filled with a lot of contextual learning and research, regarding art styles or recognisable styles of design both in cases and movements from different countries. As mentioned before we're in a school where many trades and skills are taught in this is worked into the sylabus, with classes on case manufacture, enamelling, and even the highly revered engine turning. We also learn a lot of design work using both traditional drawing and CAD/CAM; instead of an essay we design and build a clock where these skills become invaluable! The degree is brand new, and only one year-group has graduated, but the general reception is surprise at how capable we are to turn our had to any horological trade, which is certainly nice!

Technical drawings for The Woodes. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

Technical drawings for The Woodes. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

TC: What is the most difficult aspect of being a watchmaker? Ability to understands the maths involved? Having the dexterity to actually construct the piece? Designing it?

JH: As currently I've not yet made a watch I'm going to refer to myself as a clockmaker for the sake of this question; all the elements have their challenges in their own way, but I think the part that really takes skill and makes one person stand out is the ability to bring everything together successfully. If you have a bad grasp of the maths, science and engineering you'll struggle to design something appropriate. Similarly without a good eye for design it won't be much to look at. Then finally, once you've managed to jump those hurdles, you have to have the skills to actually make the thing correctly! Clockmaking is far more forgiving that watchmaking as the mechanical tolerances are much larger. Were I to try making a watch movement from scratch I'm certain the actual construction and machining would be the biggest challenge

TC: There seems to be a big surge of micro brands appearing, either self-funded like Oak & Oscar or using crowdfunding to gain capital. What are your thoughts on these watch brands ( I refrain from calling them watchmakers) and do you think these brands add value to the watch industry?

JH: It seems that every few days there's a kickstarter for a new watch. Most of those that I see are a relatively generic minimalist style watch produced in china with a Chinese quartz movement. These watches aren't anything new and don't really push any boundaries. There are, however, plenty of independents and small brands round the world doing some really great things, and making some inspiring stuff. I think they aren't so well known because they're busy doing watchmaking rather than marketing. I wish those doing kickstarter campaigns would follow in the shoes of Hajime Asaoka. I believe he trained as a product designer and was once asked to design watches, presumably just the cases. He got interested and read Daniels' Watchmaking, and now designs and makes his own beautiful watch movements.

The Woodes. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

The Woodes. Photo courtesy of Harris Horology.

TC: If you could change one thing about the watch industry/community, what would it be?

JH: The thing I really can't stand is watch brands using lost heritage in advertising. There are very few brands who have anything left from before the quartz crisis, and a large number of well known brands such as TAG do little more than design cases, dials and hands. Their rich history does nothing more than inspire the designs, and to me that's very misleading. I appreciate brands like omega who are now back on the horse and advancing watchmaking. Of course, they still talk about their history but they've at least tried to carry the torch as it were.

TC: Who do you think, for better or worse, is the most influential person currently in the watch industry?

H:  would say that it's inarguably still got to be George Daniels. There's no other person who's made such a difference in inspiring so many people around the world to create something or innovate. If you made me choose someone alive, I would say Max Busser is doing a good job of bringing creative and independent watchmakers into a wider audience.

Around this time last year, Roger Smith wrote a wonderful open letter about the state of British Watchmaking and without ever mentioning the word "Bremont" yet everyone who read it knew exactly who he was talking about. What is your opinion on the state of British Watchmaking and Bremont in general? 

s a watchmaker it's hard to to agree with Roger, but he does find himself in a very lucky position. He also does a very different type of watchmaking, where the low numbers mean he's able to have complete control over everything. I know Bremont say they're now building parts of the movements in the UK but I'm sure they could be bringing things across more aggressively. The same could be said for a large number of 'British' brands, but I am sure it's a very difficult thing to build up from scratch. It's so so easy for us to say there's not enough being done in the UK but it's another thing entirely to do something about it. It's still early days for the British watchmaking renaissance, and I think good things will start happening soon. (Editors note: Since answering this question James attended Salon QP and saw that Bremont is now manufacturing more of their cases and parts in the United Kingdom)

Finally, what watch are you wearing right now?

An Omega Planet Ocean. It's the watch I've liked since before I was into watches and so something of a grail watch, I guess!

I'd like to thank James for taking the time to answer my questions and for permission to use his photographs. To see more about his work then head over to www.harrishorology.com or follow him on Facebook & Instagram

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