British watchmakers Craig and Rebecca Struthers unveiled the prototype of their first in-house movement for London Craft Week in May. Calling the calibre “Project 248”, the Struthers say that the name refers to the movement being designed and made by “two minds, four hands and an 8mm lathe”.

Having only opened their first workshop in 2012, the couple has already received much recognition, Rebecca earning a doctorate in horology and acquiring the honour of “Woman of the Year” in the 2016 Women In Watches Awards. The inspiration for creating their first movement came from a chronometer maker who served as Craig’s mentor after he finished training at the School of Jewellery, Birmingham in 2007. He told Craig, “there is no reason you can’t make a watch movement on an 8mm lathe,” which the Struthers have now set out to prove.

“Craig and I trained to be watchmakers and if you want to truly call yourself a watchmaker you have to make a watch,” Rebecca says. “For us, this has only ever been about putting everything we have learned into practice and proving our abilities in our own discipline.” Returning to the old ways is the only path the two could have chosen.

Now husband and wife, the pair met as student watch restorers at the School of Jewellery, Birmingham, where Rebecca recently became the first watchmaker in British history to earn a PhD in horology. Both are scholars of the history of watchmaking, Craig noting that they are most fascinated by the period 1850-1950, citing Swedish-born, London-domiciled clock- and watchmaker Victor Kullberg, Frodsham, Waltham and Hamilton, and their efforts during an era when watchmakers were moving toward mass production.

The skills Craig and Rebecca have learned in jewellery-making, silversmithing and restoration, through both their studies and practical work experience, are invaluable to the two-person team.
The skills Craig and Rebecca have learned in jewellery-making, silversmithing and restoration, through both their studies and practical work experience, are invaluable to the two-person team.

Back to the future

Project 248, redolent of the period, is a manual-wind, English lever escapement, time-only calibre, which Craig describes as: “So basic that we can add to it as time goes on. It’s a movement that’s kind of ’English’ in its description, but we’ve given it our treatment and probably set it forward about 30 years, without losing any of its originality.” Truly a case of back to the future, as this would date the new movement conceptually as emerging in a parallel universe in 1910.

Fortuitously, Craig had acquired a set of apprentice tools for making an English movement, which inspired him further. “I’ve got something from someone who made every single tool by hand, and they’re impeccably good. Unbelievable – turn of the last century. If you look at it, you can see what students used to have to do.”

Its age coincided perfectly with the period that corresponds with the time to which the Struthers wished to return, “back to around 1880”. Its English lever escapement is almost a political statement, the company noting that it was “an invention left untouched from the early-19th century with the Swiss lever, along with the Swiss industry, taking precedence.”

According to Craig: “This isn’t about creating a timepiece that’s accurate to within a few seconds a week; it’s about bringing back the magic of the peak of our industry that inspired us when we first started training to be watchmakers. The English lever has missed over a hundred years of development and refining. We are already working in new materials and using 21st-century technology to bring this piece of horological heritage back up to date.”

“As watchmakers, it is incredibly important for us to find our own identity,” Rebecca adds. “Starting our journey in 1880 is allowing us to find our own path and develop a watch that will become uniquely ours.” Having moved back to Birmingham after working in London as “Struthers London”, the couple’s movement will be signed “C. & R. Struthers of Regent Place, Birmingham” – the first movement made in the city in nearly a century.

The Struthers have been working on Project 248 for 18 months, and the intensity has been a challenge for the two-person team. “It’s not just time-and-hours, it’s getting to a certain stage through trial-and-error,” says Craig. “We have a goal of what we want it to be, and you can put weeks into just one thing. If it’s not quite right, then it’s back to the drawing board. We obviously don’t have anything like CNC here, so it’s very much based on hand skills and ideas, which is sometimes good, because you just get on and do something without having to develop the design and see if it works in drawings and things like that. But on the other side of the coin, you can spend hours on something that might not work in the future.”

The skills Craig and Rebecca have learned in jewellery-making, silversmithing and restoration, through both their studies and practical work experience, are invaluable to the two-person team.

Blank canvas

“Essentially, we just had to start somewhere, so that’s really what it is,” he continues. “Not necessarily because we need to do it, but because it’s something we feel is going to teach us a lot about the deeper, more complex side of watchmaking.”

Is this, then, just a “think tank” effort, or are there plans for it to be a production calibre? “As with everything we do, it’s very small numbers, but it depends who’s interested, do they want to get involved and take it on to the next level. Then, yeah, it’s available commercially. But I think the initial goal for me and Rebecca was to see what we could actually do with what we have, the equipment we have and move on from there. If others are interested, then that’s even better because then we have another push to complete something.”

At present, the project is completely the Struthers’ own. “The only outside help we’ve had so far is spark erosion. With saw piercing, you’re sat at your bench, sawing out circles. But instead of sawing out sheets of German silver, we have it wire-eroded, which is something I really like. Because there’s only the two of us, if we are sat there sawing, it’s time wasted. It’s nice to have a design and have it wire-eroded and then you have a really nice blank from which to start.

“The important thing, though, is that we could still saw it out. I think lots of people go from desk design to CNC and they wouldn’t know what to do with saw piercing. We’ve got both sides. Just because the plate blanks are wire-eroded, doesn’t mean it’s not a handmade watch. You’ve basically got a piece of metal and there’s nothing you can do with it. You can’t do any surface work, you can’t do any recessing – it’s basically just a 2D-shape.

“Also, what we’re trying to do, is work with local, dying trades. We used to saw out our dials as well, and then we found a drop stamper, and it is literally like walking into 1890 in their workshops. And we love that because, although it’s time-consuming, to give them just a radius to stamp out of silver for our dials, it saves us just a little bit, but that gives us more time for watchmaking, and I think that’s what’s most important. 8mm lathes, 6mm lathes, jig-borer – it’s all very old equipment.”

The Struthers are refreshingly transparent about their project, not claiming to make things like mainsprings. “One of the things we’re trying to do on Instagram is show what we’re making all the time,” says Craig. “We don’t always get the chance to do that but, moving forward, we’d like to show more photographs and videos.”

Relying on age-old techniques to create their English lever escapement, Craig and Rebecca have turned the clock back to the days of real hand-made craftsmanship.

Best of the best

When asked about what percentage will be UK-made, Craig says: “We’re making the plates, wheels, pinions and case. We’ll likely source the jewels, hairspring and mainspring from UK companies or our large stock of vintage and antique watch parts. The balance and escape wheel are still undecided. We’re not hung up on the British thing. We’re using German silver for plates, our lathes are German – Rebecca and I are obviously British – but if I found, say, that the best engraver in the world was in Italy, I would definitely use them.

“I feel the British thing is a little over used, like ’bespoke’. The percentage being done here is enough, and I don’t want to chase it as an ultimate goal.”

The basic design came, Craig says, from “both of us. As you’re well aware, we look back rather than forward which, because we deal with such small numbers, we can afford to do.

I’m not really inspired by modern watches or cars. Don’t get me wrong: technology is very important and we need it, but Rebecca and I are very lucky in that the equipment we have might be old but we have free reign to do what we like with it.

“You can say our lathes are modern, being 1940s, but spark erosion is probably the most modern thing we’ve ever used. I’ve used it in restoration in the past and that gave me the idea for speeding things up. The theory comes a little bit from Rebecca’s research, and looking at my collection of English movements and how they are made. The history of those is interesting in finding how far they went with machine-made products, it tailed off again, and that was it. We’ve tried to pick it up from the tail-end of the 19th century.”

Scheduled for later in 2017 is the addition of an adaptation of Breguet’s parachute shock setting, an in-house train and keyless work. The final unveiling of the new, improved Struthers English lever escapement is planned for 2018. And if you’re interested in a sure-fire investment, when it comes to identifying a watch the Struthers have a reputation for naming their first pieces after the person who commissions them. Even Paul Newman earned his eponymous timepiece after the fact.

Craig Struthers at his watchmaker’s bench.
Relying on age-old techniques to create their English lever escapement, Craig and Rebecca have turned the clock back to the days of real hand-made craftsmanship.