AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER SPEAKE-MARIN
Conducted at his atelier in Rolle, Switzerland in April, 2004
RD = Ron DeCorte
PSM = Peter Speake-Marin
RD Peter, tell me a bit about how you got interested in horology, specifically watchmaking, what age, where you started out….What prompted you to start playing around with little mechanical devices?
PSM I started at the age of 17 in 1985, through a kindly careers teacher who dug out from the bottom of a cupboard a dusty prospectus for a course in horology at Hackney college. At that point I had no idea what horology even meant. I had been searching for an apprenticeship in jewelry to no avail and approached the careers teacher in an earnest bid to find some kind of direction. I found it.
RD And after watchmaking school what did you do?
PSM After Hackney I went to WOSTEP where I specialized in watchmaking. Hackney had been a general course in Horology covering watches through to turret clocks. Following WOSTEP, I found my first commercial job in after sales service at Oxford with Watches of Switzerland, a large retail chain.
RD When you were in Oxford, what kind of watches were you doing?
PSM It was a real menagerie of work, everything from Tissot to Rolex and all the brands in between, but nothing really pre-1960. I worked very quickly, and I got bored very quickly….by the repetition. So I left after 6 months.
RD What then?
PSM I was offered a position as the Piaget watchmaker in London’s Old Bond Street. Their existing watchmaker had just moved to Asprery’s, and they needed somebody quickly. I was really too inexperienced to work on their calibers, but the company was desperate for somebody, so they took a chance on me with the view that I would either sink or swim. I managed to swim well.
However I remained a young guy wanting to learn as quickly as possible and always impatient, wanting to do something different. So another 6 months passed, and inspired by all of the stories from the older watchmakers I was working with, I moved again to the south of England to Omega. I tend not to mention this because I lasted around 1 month. Omega was a good company, but not the company that it was in the generation of my fellow workers, and there was nothing there for me.
One of the reasons I liked the idea of watchmaking was that it opens doors with respect to employment in other countries. There is always a demand for qualified people, and since I was a kid, I wanted to travel and in particular live in the States. I had been told about a company based in the north of England… if you worked for them for a period, I forget how long, you could then gain a permit to work in America. I had an interview to meet with the man responsible in, I think it was Manchester, but between leaving Southampton and staying in London on route, I stayed with some friends which lead to an accident preventing my arrival in Manchester.
The accident was in the form of my friends’ local pub, and in the best English tradition and that of being young and stupid, we all became somewhat inebriated… hammered might be more apt an expression. Despite the hangover, I don’t regret the event. As a result, one of the guys I was with told me about an antique watch dealer in the Piccadilly Arcade named George Somlo who was looking for a watchmaker to set up a workshop and provide an after sales service for his clients, as well as restoring George’s own watches.
I went to the shop on Monday. I think they were closed. It was a bank holiday, I’m not sure. I phoned him up, and met him the first day that he was open. He offered me a job straight away. Two weeks later I returned and started working. Within the first week he gave me the combination for the safe, the alarm system code, the keys to the shop, a higher salary than anything I had ever earned up to that stage, and a blank signed check to put together a workshop. I stayed there for seven years.
RD So you started there about when?
PSM About ’89.
RD So you were there till the mid-‘90s?
PSM Until ‘96. I had to design my first workshop in a small bureau on the first floor in the arcade above the shop. I then fell in love with watchmaking, I touched everything from original Breguets from the early 19th century through to Arnold, Graham, early Pateks, early Cartier with European Watch and Clock Company movements by LeCoultre, before Jaeger LeCoultre – the really early pieces – I mean absolutely beautiful watches, as well as early Rolex, Vacheron…. If you name a house, we restored examples of their watches. Everything that was collectible we did, and with the diversity and variety, it was very difficult to get bored. At that same time, I not only restored them, I learned about them. I learned how to authenticate - what was right and what was wrong. When it came to all of the repeaters and perpetual calendars, I sold these watches directly to our customers because the salespeople weren’t sufficiently technically knowledgeable, and these were highly technical products. So I would then go downstairs, and I developed my own clientele.
RD So these were watches that you had restored –
PSM George bought them from all of his different sources that he developed over 20 years. And then I went through and restored them, made them – took them back to what they should have been. Sometimes it was easy. You just cleaned and polished the case and put them back together because they were so well made and had been respected. Other times they had been abused, and you had to reconstruct parts which were missing, you had to work out how it was done originally, and then match the original style.
I always said at the time I think I had probably the best job that anybody could have had. It’s something that you never get bored of because you never see everything, and there’s always different watches coming in. A lot of the collectors that I knew were eccentric - real individuals.
RD They weren’t the typical customer that walked in….
PSM Not all the time…. They wanted something unique and different. I think a lot of these people had contempt for sales staff in general, but anybody who has specialized knowledge and was passionate for their subject, they respected, which is why I always had a good relationship with these clients. And it’s one of the aspects that when I left Somlo’s, I left England and went to Switzerland, it’s one of the aspects I missed the most - the human contact with these kind of people who were equally passionate for the subject. So London gave me a lot, and George Somlo I will always be grateful to for the opportunity, the trust he laid upon me. All of the influences that I have as far as design come from there – they don’t come from the period after, when I came to Switzerland and I was in modern watches. I learned about specialized modern watch manufacture and touched upon design.
RD Where? Here in Switzerland?
PSM Yeah. I mean when I say about design, I mean about how to use programs, not how to design but how to use CAD.
RD When did you come to Switzerland?
PSM 1996. March of ’96.
RD And you came with a job already lined up?
PSM I had this great job in London, but I had always wanted to live abroad as I mentioned earlier. When I found the job at Somlo’s, I found another dream, a different kind of dream. But still I’d always wanted to get off of my island and have other experiences. And after seven years at Piccadilly, that feeling had never gone and I knew that it never would go. At the same time I was offered a position – I came over for the wine festival, and met an old friend who offered a position working for Renaud & Papi. No real responsibility. 100 percent at the bench working with complications. You never learn everything in restoration. But in the seven years I had covered a huge arena of companies, of periods, of complications, even down to Ingersoll Mickey Mouse watches. You touch everything, and eventually the learning curve tapers off considerably.
Somehow when that offer came along, I had taken that restoration department from being just myself to five other watchmakers to developing a network of other artisans specialized in dial restoring, bracelet repairing, case repairing, making special sapphires, making special crowns. I’d actually got to the point where I’d actually achieved everything as far as the company needed, and it was getting bigger, it was time to start dividing it, taking the workshop out of the shop and to allow for much needed space I would no longer be able to repair in the shop, which meant I would work entirely in the workshop. And somehow it felt as though I was coming to a natural end. I had trained other people to carry out all the various characteristics of my job.
And when the job offer came from Switzerland, it felt right. I handed over my position to two other guys. The company changed for the better. And I came to Switzerland, and I kind of took a step back because I went from having a position of responsibility and authority to being a fairly straightforward watchmaker in a watch-workshop of about 15 people at a bench. And then I discovered regardless of all the experience I had in restoration, I had an awful lot more to learn, and I actually had to swallow a lot of pride because there were guys who were younger than me who were far better at that particular job. They hadn’t restored watches, worked on how to make new parts, how to make balance staffs and stems as a standard daily activity. But when it came to assembling tourbillons, flat polishing to high tolerances, doing everything that you had to do to make a high-quality modern watch, they were ahead of me…they were way ahead of me, which was great because I then started to learn over. That was at Renaud & Papi I started on tourbillons, specialized in reglage, I spent a little while in product development towards the end as well as training, and training was one of the elements I think I liked most. When you have enthusiastic young people that want to learn, who are receptive.
RD This was all at Renaud & Papi?
PSM That was all at Renaud & Papi. In Le Locle.
Right. And then after four years at Renaud et Papi, I hit the same thing that I always did. I found that I’d covered most the departments I wanted to work in, and I was becoming restless– even towards the end of my time at Renaud and Papi, I had already started to build my first watch, the pocketwatch tourbillon.
RD That was the watch that we reviewed?
PSM Yeah. I had already started buying equipment, not because I wanted my own workshop, because I didn’t want my own workshop, but if you have your own pointer and your own lathes and your equipment, it’s like a form of insurance. It doesn’t matter what happens in your life. If you’ve got the tools, you can work. And when you are in Le Locle, tools come along very, very cheaply. And to say no to a 102 Schaublin with milling attachments for a few thousand francs would be mad. So I bought it, and I stuck it away in one of the bedrooms in the apartment.
I had an early version of AutoCAD which I knew a little how to use and started to put together the basic layout of that watch. I calculated that it was roughly one-and-a-half-thousand hours before I got the thing virtually finished during evenings, weekends and holidays. It was like a further education. If it was a commercial product, it would be one of the most expensive watches ever made. When you add up all the hours, it’s just not realistic, that was never the motivation for making it.
RD At some point you moved to Rolle?
PSM After leaving Renaud et Papi in 96 we moved to Rolle. This was partly influenced by Daniela - she wanted to get out of the mountains and get closer to a larger civilization, however it was simply the right time to move on. Within the first few months of moving here, I was able to put some solid time into the pocket watch, and I finished it.
RD So you started it at –
PSM Yes, I started building it whilst living in Le Locle in a converted bedroom.
RD And then finished it later in Rolle in your own atelier?
PSM Yeah. I finally finished it here, assembled all the components, and it worked, which may sound obvious, but after having spent so much time making the piece it was only in the final stages that I had it in a working state. I had no idea what the thing was going to look like at the end. I only knew the initial technical specifications, there are certain technical points which are fixed, the positioning of the wheels and the positioning of the axis for the tourbillon. But I didn’t really know how well it was going to work. I used two barrels to compensate for the weight of the cage, but ultimately that wasn’t necessary. So I was able to use weaker mainsprings to reduce the amount of force in each barrel - the section of most wear in watches. The final result was a clean, smooth transmission of power through to the cage. Not essential, but technically it’s a nice touch.
And then when I finished it and cased it up, I had it on my bench for six months initially. Toward the end of this period I picked the watch up with fresh eyes and was actually in awe that it was me that made the thing.
RD So it was a work in progress over a long period of time.
PSM Over a very, very long period of time.
RD So it was evolutionary.
PSM It was certainly evolutionary, and I would never want to repeat the process in the same fashion. I’ve developed my style as a result and now have far more efficient means of designing through powerful cad programs. Trial and error on a monitor is far more effective than with a file and a piece of steel.
RD Will you sell it?
PSM It’s not for sale.
RD Right. I do that myself. You make the first watch, and it’s your watch.
PSM Yeah. At a point when I needed cash, I would have sold it. But business has evolved and it is worth more to me to exhibit as the mother of the watches that followed. One day maybe I will sell it, who knows… but not for a while.
RD Right. And the children being such as the new Piccadilly watches.
RD And is that your newest wristwatch, the Piccadilly?
PSM After the pocket watch, I made the minute repeater tourbillon This was an opportunity that I had to buy a kit like the type I was building for other people.
I refinished the components and built the watch to my own spec and style. I needed to show people what I was capable of. I don’t have the money to be able to spend thousands of francs on publicity. However as a result of making this example I was fortunate enough to be given a fair amount of coverage.
The pocket watch helped me to find my direction, it motivated me to carry on, and everything that I’ve done since that has my style, resulting from this watch. So I took the aesthetic elements from the pocket watch, simplified them. In developing the minute repeater tourbillon, I developed the case, and in that case you have what I have now the range of straightforward, simple, automatic timepieces –
RD Which is the Piccadilly.
PSM Which is the Piccadilly, which is a progression from the pocket watch and the minute repeater.
RD Do you have many ideas –
PSM I have a thousand ideas.
RD But nothing really in the works?
PSM Getting back to reality, to be able to do what I want to do, which is to develop my ideas, to develop new movements, to develop new complications, you need money. Banks in this country are not very open to helping people who have aspirations like I have, and probably for good reason. So I have to become fairly entrepreneurial. How do I actually get to the stage to achieve the goals that I want to achieve? So taking the basic Piccadilly, I developed a line of simple wristwatches based on ETA, but by taking the basic clay of the ETA, changing it, replacing components, changing the aesthetic of it to fall in line with my style and my quality. Through these watches I have a building base for the future. I originally designed nine different variations of the Piccadilly in different materials, with dials in enamel as well as in 18 carat gold, which I hand engraved and hand finished in different layers, which are exactly my style. These are something which is relatively straightforward to actually execute. And out of those nine pieces, I’ve sold examples of every one, and I have more orders for pieces. And that’s where I’m at now.
This is like the new step one. And then from these watches I can generate enough capital to be able to start to develop other watches.
RD So the Piccadilly is in a lot of ways the financial foundation for the future?
PSM That’s the idea. I have so many ideas that I would like to execute but I need to control myself in as much as finishing one project before the next and also structuring them in an order of complexity. So I start now with the most simple type of piece, an automatic wristwatch which gives you the minute, hour and second, then I will gradually work through making pieces which become slowly more complicated. Later on in this year I will have a calendar version come out. I’ve already had other commissions from the basic Piccadilly, but in different variations. And as long as it falls into line with what I want, what I like, then I’m happy to go ahead and I do that.
RD In other words, customized –
PSM Customized, custom-made pieces. Most of them have come from Japan, but there’s been one or two which have come from America as well. So I see a natural progression. Hopefully if all develops as I hope it will, within about a year I hope to be able to take on a couple of watchmakers to whom I can distribute the work for the simple pieces, so I can then concentrate on development. So it’s fairly methodical, but it’s the only way that I can see that I can guarantee any kind of solid future without taking on investors. I would like to realize my ideals, but at the moment where you have investors, you lose freedom. My motivation is not for the financial success that can come with a BIG brand. It’s being able to have enough money that provides the choice to be able to realize those dreams, those ideas that I have.
So that is why I’ve taken the hard road to remain completely independent. If my goals were simply to become a successful watchmaker, a famous watchmaker, I wouldn’t be in this workshop working the hours that I do –
RD Just you and your wife.
PSM Just myself and Daniella, working on a knife edge the whole time just to get ahead like so many independents. However, it’s much easier now than it has been because people are already beginning to see what I do. They appreciate it. Regardless of the fact that the base movement is ETA, when they understand what I put into it and when they understand… when they see what the final result is, it doesn’t matter. I believe in the product that I make. I believe in the watches that leave here. And I would much rather have that and look at you straight in the eye than I should have something which is a big compromise because I have to produce 500 watches every month to be able to appease the investors.
RD So for the future?
PSM One step at a time, and maybe in 20 years I can look back and I will have realized those goals that drive me today, maybe you could come back then and we can unplug a bottle of scotch and we can laugh at what did or did not happen.
© Copyright Ron DeCorte 2004
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