You might not necessarily have thought that the nouveau riche of China had much concern with the Isle of Man – although the tourist board could no doubt make a convincing case for them doing so. Nor would you necessarily have thought that a tiny manufacturer on the island would be engaged in exporting luxury timepieces to the Far East.
Indeed, industry and the island might seem, to the uninitiated, incompatible. The place is, after all, best known as a summer retreat for those residing in North West England, the setting for the TT motorcycle race, and a haven for cats with curious tails.
But manufacturing tales are also to be found, if you know where to look. In cottages with industries, for example, one of which houses Roger Smith’s watchmaking business. The state-of-the-art five-axis milling machine in Smith’s workshop is an indicator that he is prepared to use modern technology but the beautifully maintained lathes and Swiss watchmaking equipment from previous centuries are more in tune with the spirit of the business.
Much of that equipment once belonged to Smith’s mentor, Dr George Daniels, the finest English watchmaker of his generation. Daniels painstakingly taught Smith the art of horology as it was practised in the days when making a single pocket watch by hand would involve the watchmaker and 34 separate trades.
Daniels’ tutelage had a profound effect on Smith, who began to dream of creating his own watches built to the standards of English watchmaking in the 18th and 19th centuries, before mass production.
Smith says: “I’ve always been keen on the manufacturing of watches rather than just repairing them, and working with George opened up a whole new world.
“It just seems to draw you in. But there was a lot of naivety. I thought it would be simpler than it was, and in a really short space of time I’d be making great watches. Twenty years later, we got to the level of quality and standard that I desired.”
“Quality” is perhaps an overused word in the engineering industry but for Smith – and customers paying upwards of £80,000 a watch – it means everything. He has mastered a set of technical disciplines and manufacturing, design and finishing processes derived from the classic English watchmaking techniques, and it is this, he says, that makes his watches unique.
Components can be made from a range of materials including gold, steel and bronze to tolerances of 2-3 microns. Each component is finished and polished entirely by hand. In fact, Smith estimates that 80-85% of the work that goes into one of his watches is by hand. Lettering is engraved by hand, and the best paints and lacquers are used with the aim of creating a “thing of beauty,” says Smith.
Build time for a single watch – Smith has a team of four – is six to eight months, and the customer base includes not just China, but also the US and the UK.
If the venture seems crazy, Smith says it is born out of a desire to revive skills long-since lost. “It’s just a different approach,” he says. “These watches are made to order and it’s all about the handiwork – the skill of the craftsman sitting there.”
The supportive environment for business on the Isle of Man has been critical to making the workshop a reality, he adds. He has been able to take on and train locals. And he has taken advantage of the grants the government makes available to help buy equipment. “Without that assistance we wouldn’t have been able to do what I wanted to do – in fact, we wouldn’t have survived in England.”
The business could grow if Smith took on another watchmaker but he says he has no desire to see it explode. “I always say, if you ever hear that we’re making 50 or 100 watches a year, the quality will have had to have lessened – and I’m simply not prepared to do that.”
Across the island near the capital, Douglas, Sakkie Meeuwsen has overseen the development of a biomedical business that is taking on some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. Meeuwsen is managing director of Bodystat, which is involved in body composition analysis using bioelectrical-impedance. This provides a safe and reliable means of determining body composition – fat, muscle mass and water.
Many Bupa hospitals use equipment developed by Bodystat, as does the NHS and other healthcare services around the world. Appropriately enough for such an ambitious venture, Meeuwsen has recently completed the construction of his own headquarters on a plot of land on a hill at Ballakaap. But the firm has been in business for 22 years.