The revival of English watchmaking has a new ambassador in the form of Schofield Watches and its designer/owner Giles Ellis. And although the new Signalman may be German-made, its restrained design and quirky touches are very definitely British.
Giles Ellis's love of all things style-led naturally led him to look to a career in graphic design. But, never one to walk the easy path, the self-taught Ellis refused to be constrained by the guidelines of an employer and set up his own company in Henfield, West Sussex. At the suggestion of being a control junkie, Ellis smiles: "I am inquisitive and also very creative. If I need to know something I can't wait to be shown, I just teach myself. That is why clients come to me for things such as brand identity - I always go the extra mile to find the perfect solution and I never settle for second best."
Schofield founder and designer, Giles Ellis.
And with the graphic design business ticking along nicely, Ellis's love of craftsmanship and pastures new led him to seek out a fresh challenge and his second company Fifth Fret was set up to restore musical instruments - namely banjos, mandolins and ukuleles. "This was about seven years ago," says Ellis. "I learnt a lot from my father who was a brilliant woodworker and I have always had a love of antique Americana, hence the type of instruments I worked with. I concentrated on very high end pieces from all over the world and my house is still filled with myriad Victorian instruments reverberating on the walls."
As with so many other watch designers, Ellis also takes his sporting hobby seriously. "I love mountain biking," he states. "I started making my own components and when fellow bikers saw them they asked me to make pieces for them too - disc brake rotors and bash guards, that sort of thing. I went into bespoke manufacture but it is a very niche market and because UK manufacturing is so difficult and so expensive, the Far East is the only real alternative. However, there we are talking about minimum units of 10,000 so there is no real scope for a small business."
The first in Schofield's advertising images, based on an original photograph by FJ Mortimer FRPS, and featuring real people as opposed to models.
A learning curve
If Ellis's venture into the bike component business taught him a lot about the mechanics of manufacturing, another hobby - high-end audio - fine-tuned his engineering capabilities when he decided to make his own amplifier. Having grown up on the south coast of England, Ellis lived close to the B&W research centre and as a child had a penchant for raiding its skips for speaker parts, which he then reconditioned and sold on to fellow students. He put these skills to even better use when he created his bespoke amp. "It was a hugely enjoyable project and one that created the brand name Schofield," Ellis regales. "As I said earlier I am a huge fan of Americana and westerns are a passion of mine. I knew that I wanted to brand the amp and chose the name Schofield and the logo of crossed pistols because of the Smith & Wesson revolver of the same name that was used by Jesse James. Unsurprisingly, Smith & Wesson's lawyers prevented me from using the name with any logo involving guns - but then, as Schofield developed into an English watch company, the American logo really became irrelevant."
Ah, yes, the reason for our meeting… the watches, how did they come about? "I have always loved luxury and if I had the money I would wear, drive, live wherever I wanted. But as I couldn't justify the expense of a Patek Philippe Nautilus, I decided that instead of compromising I would make my own watch, just the way I wanted. Initially I was just making a one-off piece for myself but as time went by I became more invested and, besides, it is almost impossible to manufacture just one dial - the minimum order has to be 100 pieces. I don't mean this to appear arrogant, but I knew my design was good and I knew it would appeal to other watch lovers so I decided to go into limited production."
Emphasising reliability and timing, the Signalman's lighthouse theme is repeated in various elements of the watch.
It all started three years ago with a database judging existing luxury watch brands on their perceived value, with points awarded for categories such as caché, heritage and complications. At the same time, Ellis was also assembling a sketchbook that over time came to detail every element of his timepiece. The Signalman, as it was to become known, was designed to be every watch, something that would look equally at home when worn with a t-shirt or a business suit - neither dress watch nor sport watch but somewhere in between. "Some elements took ages, while others happened organically. The crown, for example, caused many a headache but eventually it was just perfect - sitting within the chamfer, which acts as a crown protector. The inspiration came from the jog wheel of a film camera and the tuner on an old transistor radio.
"I have a very good eye for detail and if a choice has to me made - no matter how small - then I put a lot of myself into making that decision. In the watch business there are thousands of these tiny choices to make and I make every one of them at Schofield. I feel that I have to be able to justify every decision personally, so if someone asks 'why is the date window so small?' I can be quite honest in my response that any bigger and it would spoil the symmetry of the watch. Everything is deliberately chosen to be the way it is."
A statement of style rather than fashion, Ellis suggests that simple elegance is often harder to achieve than an 'everything but the kitchen sink' design. "This is something I know from my years of designing logos, although it makes a stronger statement, simple is often harder to perfect. The correct use of negative space - what is left behind - is not an easy thing to achieve. Design has to be operated within constraints - a set of rules to work within. I tend to use mathematics like the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence, which is found over and over again in nature such as the pattern of a pinecone or sunflower."
Early incarnations of the Signalman from one of Ellis's many sketchbooks.
The perfect piece
Schofield has no investors and is financed entirely by Ellis, allowing him the freedom to create his ideal watch without the pressures to get to market. When it came to the tiny details, Ellis was as invested here as in the major decisions. For him it is all about quality and expensive, luxurious elements such as the double domed crystal, which eliminates aberrations around the edge of the dial and the choice of a highly decorated Soprod movement, even though the caseback is not transparent.
The watch represents British austerity - understated, subtle and well-made, but despite being a very English brand in terms of concept and design, the realisation and assembly are 100 percent European, with Ellis sourcing components from both Switzerland and Germany. "I spoke to dozens of engineers around Europe and had several plastic prototypes made up but nobody really wanted to get involved because the case shape was so unique and hard to make due to the particular angle where the bezel meets the lugs - basically the lugs are compound curves and there are angles in the internal corners and this is extremely hard to achieve." And although Ellis won't reveal the actual names of his suppliers, he is happy to declare 'Made in Germany' proudly on his dials.
The inspiration behind the Signalman is lighthouses. The back of the watch features an engraving of Smeaton's Tower - the third and most notable Eddystone Lighthouse - and the case is gently tapered echoing the shape of Smeaton's. The hands are wedge shaped and represent a lighthouse beam in reverse, a theme that is repeated in the power reserve and indexes. The sapphire is set 1/2mm below the bezel creating a tiny lip that takes on the form of a Fresnel lens, which is used in lighthouses. "A lighthouse is a metaphor for reliability and timing," says Ellis on his choice of logo. "And those are the exact values that a Schofield watch stands for." The resulting look is one somewhere between military and civilian - a theme echoed in Ellis's advertising and promotional images in which he recreates original images of seafaring souls using real people rather than models.
Schofield Watches ticks all the boxes, with its launch piece the Signalman GMT PR (left), and matte black DLC Signalman (right).
The Signalman is powered by the automatic Soprod 9335 movement, features an antimagnetic movement holder, is water-resistant to 500m and comes in two 44mm versions: stainless steel case or bead blasted, matte DLC-coated (German DLC with a hardness of 5,000 Vickers), limited to 300 and 100 units respectively. The watch features a GMT display and a power reserve indicator. No expense was spared in creating the dial, which is created from two riveted brass layers coated in copper oxide paint. The GMT function - which Ellis sees as essential for an English watch - is engraved to give depth with total legibility. Pre-order prices stand at £2,954 for the stainless steel version, £3,342 for the DLC.
And the next Schofield model is already in the pipeline. "The new piece will retain the design principles of the Signalman but will be very different. I intend to stay to small runs and to form a club-like relationship with clients. Therefore, if a customer has No.7 of the Signalman and No.7 of the new piece, he will also want to own No.7 of the third model, and the fourth and so on. I am also planning to make limited edition non-watch pieces for clients - already anyone who buys a Schofield is given a Romeo y Julieta cigar and Schofield cigar case as a 'welcome to the club' gift. Next year I will be making a humidor, which will be offered to clients and other exclusives will include special straps.
And if the reactions of SalonQP visitors are anything to go by, Ellis's attention to detail from design through to after-sales - "I'm a big believer in good after-sales service and plan to offer fixed price servicing. If a movement is broken I will replace it, no quibbles and no re-conditioning" - is sure to make his club one with a long waiting list.
Further information: www.schofieldwatchcompany.com