Engraving is a fairly niche profession. How did you start on this path?

I’ve always been artistic, but my first loves were drawing, painting and fashion and I studied Art and English at A-level in order to get in to Central Saint Martins. But just before going to university, I changed paths when my uncle – who worked for British gunmakers James Purdey & Sons – showed me a Purdey catalogue. I was immediately drawn to the intricate engraving showcased in the catalogue and, noticing my interest, my uncle said that the company might be looking for an apprentice engraver. The rest is history. I am honoured to say that I am the only Purdey-trained engraver of the past 15 years.

What did the apprenticeship involve?

A lot of people these days are taught the skill in all kinds of different ways from classroom-based learning to on-the-job experience. But the traditional way – the way that I learnt – is to work day-in-day-out with a master engraver, who has many, many years of experience.

Engraver artist Johnny King Nerd Dowell (Image ©Revolution)
Johnny's work from while at Purdey (Image © Johnny Dowell)
Johnny's work from while at Purdey (Image © Johnny Dowell)
Johnny's work from while at Purdey (Image © Johnny Dowell)
Johnny's personal Speedy with Snoppy engraved on the caseback and bracelet buckle (Image © Johnny Dowell)
You were at Purdey for 15 years. Tell me about this.

The Purdey brand or, more factually, the Purdey hand-made, luxury product, is unlike most other products today. It is very similar to watchmaking in so much as many of the processes still used today are over 100 years old. Everyone involved in the different disciplines has to work as a team in order to bring the elements together and create one finished piece. Literally hundreds of man hours are spent producing an item which is a true one-off.

Do you specialise in certain types of engraving, materials and objects?

My speciality I suppose is working with mild steel, simply because that is what I’ve worked with for the past 15 years. It’s the perfect middle ground – not super soft and not rock hard but somewhere in between. But engraving both guns and watches allows me to work with all types of steels, gold, silver, platinum, titanium and, of course, bronze.

You’ve now created your first watch with Revolution – an URWERK – but when did you engrave your first watch case?

It was quite a while ago. Jaeger-LeCoultre asked me to engrave two Classic Reversos for a client. Sadly, I didn’t take any photographs of the pieces because I didn’t see the bigger picture at the time and had no idea how important each and every bespoke watch is. I really regret that decision now as they were my very first ones and yet they are unsigned and undocumented. Who knows, maybe the owner will read this and send me a picture.

How easy was it to move from guns to watch cases?

The transition was a strange one at first and I did have to adapt. The biggest difference is the size of the canvas – a watch case is obviously a lot smaller – but when you come down to the basics, it’s actually very similar. Both guns and watches are expensive products so there is a huge amount of pride in working on them. It has been an interesting change, but one I have welcomed with open arms.

Engraver artist Johnny King Nerd Dowell (Image ©Revolution)
And you have now joined Revolution full-time. That is embracing the change in a really big way.

Well it helps that I’ve always loved watches. Even at a young age when I couldn’t afford them, I always pored over magazines looking for the watches I would love to own, so the chance to work with Revolution, Wei and the team and to expand the repertoire of watches I have worked on is amazing. I get to spend my working days learning more about something I have a genuine interest in and that was a chance I just couldn’t pass on – I guess you could say that the decision was kind of made for me. It was a no-brainer and I didn’t really have to think about it – does that makes sense?

Another big part of it for me was working with Wei Koh. He is open-minded and doesn’t believe in only one way. He sees an engraved watch as so much more than the traditional scrolls and understands that it can represent something contemporary too, something cool, funky even. He seems to like my work and realises every engraver has his or her own style. He is open to pushing the boundaries of engraving beyond the norm, seeing it as art in the same way as a painting that you hang on the wall. And, as with art, a single dot on a canvas shouldn’t be any less captivating than a painting that has taken months to complete. The feeling and thought behind each piece means just as much as the engraving itself.

You have been engraving some URWERK UR-105 watches. What are the challenges and what have you most enjoyed about the project?

First of all, Felix [Baumgartner] and Martin [Frei] of URWERK are geniuses and what they have created in the past 15 years are futuristic, imaginative and super-cool timepieces, unlike anything I have seen in the watch world. The most enjoyable part of the first URWERK x Revolution collaborations is that the canvas of the URWERK watches is very generous. The biggest challenge is simply putting something on the case that is as cool as the watch itself.

Tell me about the process?

The process always starts out with sketches, you’ll find yourself going back and forth until the artwork fits perfectly in the desired space. I always cut all of the outlines of the artwork before doing the shading. The most important consideration for me is the material of the watch and the most challenging material I have worked on so far is Grade-5 titanium, which was for the Linde Werdelin Crazy Universe I created with Morten [Linde] and Jorn [Werdelin]. All my tools had to be changed to stop them from snapping.

Engraver artist Johnny King Nerd Dowell (Image ©Revolution)
URWERK UR-105 Bronze Samurai (Image © Revolution)
URWERK UR-105 Bronze Samurai (Image © Revolution)
URWERK UR 105 Bronze Samurai (Image © Revolution)
URWERK UR 105 Bronze Samurai (Image © Revolution)
The URWERK x Revolution UR 105 Bronze Samurai on the wrist (Image © Revolution)

SHOP

UR-105

Bronze Samurai

What has been your favourite watch project to date?

I’ve had a few actually, the Rolex and Patek Philippe’s I worked on with Bamford Watch Department are pieces I am incredibly proud of, the Linde Werdelin Oktopus Reef and Crazy Universe are also special to me because it was great sitting with Jorn and Morten and creating something very non-traditional as far as engraving goes. And my personal project – the Omega Snoopy Schumacher – is really special to me, because I love the fact that I have my own one-of-a-kind watch now, one that I created for myself. Omega’s President and CEO Raynald Aeschlimann sent me a personal message to congratulate me and let me know his feelings, which was incredibly cool.

Is there a project you would really like to work on?

After doing the Omega Snoopy Schumacher for myself I can’t stop thinking about doing some kind of official limited-edition set of Snoopy Omega Watches. I also like the idea of engraving KAWS and Keith Haring-themed Jaeger-LeCoultre Reversos as I love both of these artists. And I have an idea for a Richard Mille “flower power” themed watch too!

Your work is painstaking and there is a huge demand. Do you see a time when you will take on an apprentice?

I’d love to teach someone one day as I’m so grateful that someone taught me, so why not?

And what does the future hold for you?

Who knows? I never imagined being where I am now but here I am. I feel very honoured to now be moving into a completely new world – one that has always fascinated me. Working with you guys has already made me realise how little I actually know about watches – and I mean that in a really good way.

Engraver and artist Johnny King Nerd Dowell (Image © Revolution)