Sixteen years ago, two young men born and raised in the Swiss watch town of La Chaux-de-Fonds and working in the watch industry teamed up with the notion of getting their own watch brand. The question confronting Eric Loth and Pierre-André Finazzi was which brand? The Swiss names they wanted, they couldn’t afford. The French brands they could afford, they didn’t want.
On a lark, they decided to look into British watch names. They took what amounted to a horological field trip to England and discovered a rich chapter of watch history they didn’t know existed. The two Swiss were shocked to learn that the mechanical watch as we know it today was essentially an English invention.
Loth and Finazzi founded British Masters in 1995, having acquired the rights to use the names of several of Britain’s most acclaimed, albeit now obscure, master watchmakers. Today, British Masters, headquartered in La Chaux-de-Fonds, is run by Loth (pronounced Lote). (Finazzi left the firm and created a British master-inspired firm of his own, Ellicott SA, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, named after John Ellicott, 1706-1772.)
Loth’s British Masters has two brands: Graham and Arnold. Graham is George Graham, Honest George Graham, as he was known, one of the most illustrious (and apparently one of the nicest) watchmakers in British history. “It was George Graham,” writes Harvard historian David Landes is his magnificent book on watch history, “Revolution in Time,” “who, more than anyone else, was responsible for Britain’s horological preeminence in the first half of the 18th century.”
Graham was born to a Quaker family in 1673. His father died when George was very young and he was raised by an older brother. At age 15, he entered a seven-year apprenticeship to a London clockmaker, Henry Aske. The quality of his work as an apprentice caught the attention of the famous Thomas Tompion, considered the father of British watchmaking. Tompion invited Graham to join him when his indenture ended in 1695. Graham did. He began with Tompion as a journeyman for two years, as required by the Clockmakers’ Company, then as Tompion’s protégé, he joined not only the business, but the family, marrying Tompion’s niece.
Tompion, who co-invented the cylinder escapement, died in 1713. His long list of contributions to horology and science (The Encyclopedia Britannica calls him “the man to whom watchmaking owes perhaps most”) earned him the honor of a burial in Westminster Abbey. In his will, he left his business and the bulk of his property to Graham and his wife. The following notice appeared in The London Gazette the week after Tompion’s death:
George Graham, Newphew [sic] of the late Mr. Thomas Tompion, who lived with him upwards of seventeen years and managed his trade for several years past, whose name was joined with Mr. Tompion’s for some time before his death, and to whom he left all his stock and work, finished and unfinished, continues to carry on the said trade at the late Dwelling House of said Mr. Tompion at the sign of the Dial and Three Crowns, at the corner of Water Lane, in Fleet Street, London, where all persons may be accommodated as formerly.
Graham inherited not only Tompion’s business but his mantle as England’s top watchmaker. “His manual dexterity was remarkable and his precision of construction and thoroughness of work unrivalled,” notes the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Two years after Tompion’s death, Graham invented the dead-beat escapement, which eliminated all recoil, producing an unprecedented degree of accuracy in clocks and watches. It became the standard for the next 150 years. He also perfected the cylinder escapement designed by Tompion. Professor B. Humbert, of the Horology School of Bienne, in his 1990 book “The Chronograph” calls Graham “the father of the chronograph” because he was the first to construct a horological mechanism – it was for a clock – capable of measuring the duration of an event.
Graham was a member of the British Royal Society and was considered a brilliant mechanician and maker of scientific instruments. One of his inventions was the mercury pendulum, which eliminated the negative effects of weather on clocks. For the royal astronomers Edmond Halley and James Bradley he made astronomical instruments.
Graham was known for his generosity. On the occasion of his death in 1751, The Gentlemen’s Magazine noted that “He was generous. He frequently lent money, but could never be prevailed upon to take any interest.” In his will he left money “to the Poor of the Clockmakers’ Company.” “His principal view,” The Gentlemen’s Magazine continued, “was not either the accumulation of wealth or the diffusion of his fame, but the advancement of science and the benefit of mankind.”
Graham was buried in Westminster Abbey right beside his mentor Tompion. The American historian of science, Clarisse Doris Hellman, in an essay on Graham, observes that “Burial in Westminster Abbey was an honor not easily won at that time by a member of the middle class, and the grave of Tompion and Graham is a testimonial of the esteem in which they were held and of the growing interest in scientific matters.”
At the grave, a stone slab bears this inscription:
Here lies the body Mr. Tho Tompion who departed this life the 20th of November, 1713 in the 75th year of his age. Also the body of George Graham of London, Watchmaker and F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society] whose curious inventions do honor to ye British genius whose accurate performances are ye standard of mechanical skill….