Until today I’d never heard of anOrdain, a Scottish watchmaker that’s doing things the old way, using skilled people to actually manufacture watches. OK, spoiler alert, they are using Swiss movements, so this isn’t a totally in-house, soup-to-nuts operation like Patek Philipe, but Rome wasn’t built in a day so give me a chance to tell you more about what they are doing, and why it makes their watches worth the £1500 asking price.
The first wee detail is that they’re making their own hands for their handsome and devilishly elegamnt timepieces. That doesn’t impress you much, and yes I can feel the *sigh* online, but let me tell you something as a person who has learned the tricky knack of using a Bergeon dial protector and tools to tease three hands off many watches, then ease the dial plate away from the movement in order to replace a defunct quartz engine; none of this detailed work is easy.
Let me go further and relate the tale of when I tried to `clean’ some vintage hands that had decaying lume inlay – yep, the inlay dissolved and I had some utterly useless skeleton hands…on my hands.
I only mention such DIY workshop shame to demonstrate that even after five years of tinkering with watches, there are no easy fixes, no substitute for well-versed skills – at every level.
So to learn that anOrdain are painstakingly cutting, finishing and then blueing their hands the old way, the hard way, which is inevitably a journey of trial and error, really speaks to me as a watch enthusiast. Because if you’ve never taken a vintage Swiss watch apart and tried to make it go again using some tools, petroleum ether and a selection of spares from eBay, then really, you’re not a watch fan.
Just try taking damaged hands off an old Rotary or Lanco and straighten them by using your hand/eye and dragging tweezers along their spindly bones, as you hold them up to the light. Then, for the first time, try stacking those hands back onto the cannon pinion without marking the dial, plus checking each hand has sufficient clearance so the hands don’t snag on the one below/above. It’s basic watchmaking, not even that really, just watch repair – but it takes years to get the knack of handling such delicate, intricate parts.
So I can understand what it takes to make something from scratch – like a set of hands – in a workshop, and how immensely satisfying it must be to see those watches go out of the door to their new owners.
ENAMEL IS ART
OK, this is the next reason why an Ordain is worth your hard earned money.
Long ago English pocket watches nearly all had enamel dials and this work was usually outsourced to a local enameller and his apprentice. If you brush your fingertip across a 19th century Thomas Russell dial, you can feel an uncanny smoothness – and please don’t attempt to clean up vintage dials with any kind of solvent, it generally separates that beautifully fired coating from the dial plate in double quick time.
Mostly, that enamelling art has long since died out, which is why restoring a classic pocket watch is extremely difficult – easier to find a mint dial and fix it to the movement, assuming the dial feet haven’t solidified themselves in situ over a century of use of course.
Now Seiko love to do enamel dials, because that ancient craft is very much embedded into the Japanese tradition of achieving perfection within one discipline. Seiko are keeping that flame alive, if you’ll forgive the pun, and an Ordain are attempting the same thing with their wonderful fume dials, where vitrified glass and powder converge in fire to create a dazzling wave of colour on the watch face.
an Ordain discovered the marriage of enamelling and the fume effect by chance, and then set about making it a manufacturing USP – here’s the word from their blog;
`Fumé quite simply means smoked, and is used to describe a dial that gradates from a solid hue in the centre to a dark rim. The effect is striking, and suggestive of a fuliginous patina that evokes a sense of age. We appreciated the parallels between our fumé dial, which sprang from a mistake, and the phenomenon of tropical dials, so named for their years of UV exposure which lends a bleached appearance – of interest to us, as it proves how a moment of happenstance can establish itself as a meaningful and distinct artifact.
To recreate our fumé effect in a reliable way and without warping the underside, we started to design a metal blank on which to enamel. Designing it was fairly easy, finding someone willing and able to make it was not. Eventually we prevailed, and were off to Birmingham, as Struthers Watchmakers had provided us with a contact.’
As the Scottish factory notes, the fume effect is something that captures the eerie skies of the Northern Lights, the ripple of water, or odd mists that swirl and lift from the lochs on certain mornings. This is how art meets manufacturing process, and the world of watchmaking, from giants like Seiko to minnows like an Ordain is all the better for it imho. Why? Because we buy into a watch brand because it does more than just tell the time, don’t we?
Professor Neil Oliver was recently on Talk Radio, discussing how we need to celebrate – and appreciate – those who can do things with their hands, as much as we applaud those who gain degrees after three or four years at Uni. He’s right, because for all the inspiring creativity and glamour of our arts sector, or the Midas-like riches that celeb sports stars/actors/Instagram influencers people can win, Britain also needs to re-boot its manufacturing mojo, create 1000s of jobs, and then sell the end products of that highly skilled production around the world.
Whether it is an F1 engine, a new Dyson, 10-speed racing bicycle, or a bespoke wristwatch, it’s all about the craft. Always.