And it's Greatly to his Credit: Robert Loomes
By James Gurney
By sheer dogged determination, the timepiece produced by Robert Loomes remains an English watch, from its Smiths calibre 12-15 movement through its case, dial and sapphire and all the way down to its crown, hands and leather strap sourced from a very British cow belonging to a herd based 10 miles away from Loomes' Stamford workshop.
What to do if you want an English watch? The current success of English owned, created or inspired watch companies is truly heartening, but if you want your watch to be English made, the picture is a little less clear. Should you have the budget and patience then direct yourself to Roger Smith or Frodsham and you will (eventually) have acquired a watch that is not only English, but one of the finest available anywhere in the world.
However, should time and money not be available in unlimited quantities, then your pursuit of English-made needs tempering with a little compromise - you can have English content and inspiration, but you have to accept that the industrial bases for watchmaking are Switzerland, Japan and China. The simple truth is that these are the places where you have to go to source both the components and the expertise to put them together reliably and cost-effectively.
Robert Loomes is a well-known figure in the watchmaking world. He is a member of the British Horological Institute, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce and a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.
But what if you refuse to accept the industrial logic and want a watch that is pure John Bull, drives on the left and drinks warm beer? Then you need to find a kindred spirit. There is certainly a touch of Jorrocks about Robert Loomes, an impression created in part by his nice line in natty tweed suits and moleskin weskits and in part by the brio with which he explains his tale.
Where there's a will
As with any good adventure, the genesis and development of the Robin watch is a healthy mixture of luck, perseverance, inspiration and blind optimism, as I discovered on visiting the Stamford workshops of Robert Loomes & Co on a bright January morning - appropriately enough, arriving in Stamford is to step back a century or two, the area being almost entirely late medieval in character and the industrial revolution having almost entirely by-passed the town.
While Robert Loomes & Co was, and remains, principally a restoration business with a particular specialisation in restoring dials, Loomes acquired, almost by accident, a sideline in making small runs of watches based on components sourced mostly from Asia. Perhaps inevitably the ambition levels rose to the point where Loomes began to muse over what might have been had British watchmaking not breathed its last (in industrial terms) in the 1970s. This, combined with the experienced watchmakers that his company had in-house, led him to question whether former glories might be resurrected in some form or other.
What were musings solidified into an ambition to make an affordable, purely English watch built around 1950s Smiths calibre 12-15 movements (as taken to the peak of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary). The Smiths 12-15 was deliberately chosen as it is well understood, made of very high quality materials and has a good reputation among collectors. The Smiths movement also fitted with Loomes' vision having been developed during the Second World War as part of an effort to create an independent domestic supply of watches - the great majority of war-time watches having been imported from Switzerland, a supply that could not necessarily be relied on in the future.
At the heart of the Robin is a 1950s ebauche manufactured by Smiths of Cheltenham when the factory was the largest of its kind in Europe.
Loomes then set about sourcing the different components and planning the work that would bring them together as a finished watch. The movements were eventually sourced from Holland in cased-up watches, but as Loomes says: "The original Smiths cases were often poor things and were made with an obsessive attention to 'how can we make it smaller'. In fact tastes have changed and we wanted a larger case (39mm) in stainless steel with an exhibition back."
This decision lead to the hunt for a firm who could make the cases to a design Loomes had developed. Not surprisingly, most of the engineering companies contacted backed away from the opportunity to make industrially irrelevant quantities of components they had no knowledge of whatsoever. But in the end Loomes found a company in Sheffield that agreed to rent him both a lathe and an operator for a fortnight. With the operators experience and a few days testing, the three-piece design became a two-piece and the first English series-made cases to be produced in four decades were in Loomes' hands.
While the owner of the engineering firm signed up for a watch, the experience set a template for producing the other components: Loomes would identify potential suppliers, they would refuse on grounds of inexperience, inability and the ridiculously small numbers that Loomes was after. Loomes would then have to cajole, proffer cash and generally force their hands.
With a 39mm-diameter and at less than 12mm thick, the Robin is a limited edition of 100 pieces.
Not that the manufacturers were all wrong as Loomes admits: "The hands were sketched out and sent out to a firm of acid etchers in Cambridgeshire, who promptly turned the job down on the grounds that the tolerances we requested were too fine. Again, we got in the car, drove over and told them that we would pay the bill whatever the result. In fact they were right and it is impossible to acid etch watch hands in spring steel. However, we were happy to take delivery of the hands they did produce and to file, polish and blue each one by hand."
Similar persistence eventually garnered movement rings, stems, crowns and other components. "One exception was Bedford Dials whose main business was supplying instrument dials for luxury car makers," recalls Loomes. "The people there were simply able to do the job and their Managing Director, Jonathan Ricketts, was immensely helpful in perfecting and tweaking the designs."
There were still some major hurdles to clear if the Robin was going to be the purely English product Loomes was hoping for. One of the most difficult was the search for an English firm able to supply sapphire crystals. While most of the firms Loomes contacted declined on the quantity required or from fears that the requirements were unattainable, the few that agreed to examine the idea were suggesting costs far beyond the project's value (and Loomes, no doubt, knew exactly how cheaply and quickly a Japanese supplier might meet his order).
Frustrated by the lack of English watches passing through his workshop, Loomes's aim with the Robin project was to create a wristwatch where every part of the timepiece is manufactured in the UK.
Eventually, "a small optics business that manufactures lenses for satellites suggested that they might be able to do the work. A quick drive over to their manufactory left me spellbound. There in the workshops were 1940s glass polishing machines that had, once-upon-a-time, been used to cut and polish watch glasses. Clanking, Heath-Robinson style machinery had been honed and tweaked to achieve results of almost insane perfection and I knew I had found a firm I could work with. When the first sample arrived it came with an apologetic note from their sales manager saying how sorry they were as regards the optical quality. We couldn't find a single flaw."
Loomes' amazing persistence in seeking out suppliers should not, however, mask the work done by his team. The Smiths calibre 12-15 movements have been completely modified, both in terms of finish and decoration and in the mechanics.
Further information: www.robertloomes.com