#LookCloser – A Conversation with Birchall & Taylor (Part 1)

Introduction

FurryWristAbroad (FWA):

The field of horology and watches is vast and complicated. This leads to oversimplifications, confusion, and generalisations. In many cases it results in just not caring enough to learn about more obscure and smaller independent watch brands. There are the most common consumers who are looking for a watch that simply works, or those who view them as a fashion accessory. Then there are those who spend a considerable amount on a watch, who purchase a timepiece as a status symbol, or who wish to commemorate a milestone. Lastly there are those who are enthusiasts who have an in-depth view and knowledge about the industry, yet even with their extensive comprehension and grasp of the field, this group has shown an unexpected level of unawareness and cognitive indolence when it comes to smaller and independent brands. 

It was when speaking with a large group of horology enthusiasts that I decided to conduct this interview with Toronto-based independent watchmakers Birchall & Taylor. For a group that spends a lot of its spare time scouring the Internet for information on the field, I was shocked to hear some either discount the brand, falsely claim that the watch was assembled with cheaper parts than it clearly was not, or severely undervalue their work and their first watch, the Reference 1.

As their second model is about to be released, on a beautiful afternoon in May, I made my way over to Birchall & Taylor’s exquisite workshop, and we went over what made them get into watchmaking, and all the work that goes in to their watch. Their new watch is called the Reference 1-R. The R stands for “revised” and it incorporates many new features such as a more in-depth dial and hand finished hands.

(PSA) This is not a brief interview that you can skim through while waiting for an appointment, and as a result it will be in three parts. First we will go into the background of the watchmakers, then we will go a little further into their operations and their watch, and lastly we will look at the Reference 1 itself and the wonderful workshop in which Birchall & Taylor call their home.

*all pictures taken by FWA.

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Part 1: The Background & History Behind the Watchmakers 

FWA: What are your earliest memories of when you knew that you liked watches, and that you took an interest in timepieces?

Charles Birchall: I inherited my grandfather’s Longines. The Longines had the misfortune of being the first watch I ever opened, I spent about 8 hours hunched over it, that was when I knew that this was something that I wanted to pursue. Despite the experience I wish I would have taken apart a less important watch.

FWA: Have you ever considered restoring that watch?

Charles: If I can find all the parts I will.

FWA: How about you, Brad? (chuckles)

Brad Taylor: You should restore that watch! I got into watchmaking when I took apart a Seiko Monster. It blew my mind seeing the movement, something so small, so intricate, it was something I found really beautiful. I dabbled in being a watch enthusiast by frequenting forums like Watchuseek. That’s actually where I made a thread where I asked about watchmaking schools, which led to me going to Switzerland for a bench test.. 

FWA: What watch do you wear on a daily basis and which watch has the most meaning to you?

Brad:  Most days I wear our Reference 1, another favourite is a vintage Zenith, time only, which has the first directly driven central seconds hand movement inside. It’s the 133.8 which is a bumper automatic. I restored it during my time at watchmaking school from two donor watches from eBay – it has a lot of sentimental value.

Charles: When I’m not wearing the Reference 1, I wear something quite different. It’s something that I bought which is quite light-hearted. It’s a 1999 Air King, but a Domino’s Pizza edition. At the 6 o’clock you have the Domino’s logo quite prominently displayed. Originally I thought it was funny and tongue-in-cheek, but I love the design. It’s very simple.

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FWA: What was the first moment like when the two of you met at the Korpela and Hofs Watchmaking School? Was there an immediate sense of relief to have another Canadian there? Or did it spawn any healthy competitiveness amongst you two?

Brad: There was really not any competition between us. It was nice to have someone from a similar cultural background, especially when you’re living in the middle of a tiny town and you don’t speak the local language.

FWA: May you give us an example of what a really hard exam was like at watchmaking school?

Brad: One of the first exams is making a brass puzzle piece, which ideally fits into another puzzle piece. The tolerances on that key were 5/100ths of a millimetre. All filed by hand. We had eight hours, and you have just barely enough time to make one or two, and we had to hand in our best set. Later in that term of micro-mechanics we did balance staff turning (cutting material off a spinning part with a sharp graver), which may be one of the most challenging facets of watchmaking.

Charles: Yeah, extremely difficult. You’re turning to the highest level of precision, and it’s something that in its entire length is just a few millimeters. The pivots on either end have to be accurate to a few microns (1/1000ths of a millimeter). Just about everything in the balance staff is a challenge.

Brad: The finishing of the balance staff has to be at a very high level. It’s really challenging and rewarding.

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FWA: Brad, you had mentioned before that you always enjoyed taking things apart and being mechanically inclined as a child. Did either of your parents or any of your other family members share your interests, and how did they nurture your need to explore how things worked?

Brad: That’s an interesting question; my father’s really handy, but not professionally.  He’s a golf instructor, and my mother works in policy development. Both of my grandfathers were engineers, and I suspect that’s where a lot of my inclination came from. Ever since I was young whatever my parents would buy for me would be disassembled in pieces on the floor moments later, I would spend all my time in the garage building things, mostly out of wood, and sometimes out of concrete where I would pour random concrete blocks. It was a mess. I would solder, I would make potato cannons. All kinds of fun stuff like that, but the idea of playing with metal always seemed like a dream. The ability to manipulate this material that is so hard, and so challenging to work with.

FWA: Charles, for you growing up, did you have any influences nurturing your mechanical interests?

Charles: Not from my parents, it’s never something that they were inclined towards, the same with my siblings, although my grandfather was an engineer at General Dynamics in Quebec. So we have that lineage again; it skipped a generation, it seems. My parents were very encouraging and very patient, and that’s as much as you can ask for. Like Brad, I came upon watchmaking as an aspiration to work with metal.

FWA: Charles, you have a massively interesting background in which you grew up abroad and were exposed to many different hobbies and aspects of life. As a child and when you were younger, were there any other interests that sparked your desire to become a watchmaker? Or did you know right away at a certain age?

Charles: When I was a kid living in the Bahamas, my neighbour and I would frequent the hardware store and make all sorts of things from random parts. We would make little boats that we would attempt to sail in the ocean, and once we made a little box car to go down hills with. That evolved into working on bicycles and computers. In terms of something being directly related to watchmaking, there was nothing near as challenging like that.

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FWA: For both of you, what was your favourite or weirdest random job on your way toward becoming a watchmaker?

Brad: I had a variety of jobs growing up. My parents made sure I was working since I was 16. That would either have been at a garden or grocery store. Then I ended up doing some graphic design, to doing co-op at a garage working on cars. I have also done demolition and construction. I did not have a job that I fell in love with before watchmaking. I have always made an effort to explore anything which I might just have a sliver of interest in. That’s when watchmaking came together by taking apart that Seiko. It all made sense then. Ever since that day I have been living and breathing watchmaking. I’ll be here in the workshop all day, then I’ll go home and watch videos or listen to a podcast on watches or watchmaking. Then before I go to bed, I’ll hop on Instagram and all I am looking at are watches. The hunger and passion has not died down even one percent in all this time. It’s only gotten stronger.

Charles: I worked for a contractor here in Toronto, and through that I really got experience seeing a job through to fruition, and seeing a project through to the end. Lots of jobs from building decks to putting up drywall, or small renovations. It was addicting to see and build a project and see it through to the end. This included all the different aspects from getting the parts, to dropping things off at the dump. That job really got me thinking about pursuing a career in which im working with my hands.  

FWA: What do you guys miss the most from your days in Switzerland? (student life/cuisine/the environment/the people etc.)

Brad: I would have to say the chocolate buns (chuckles all around), or pain au chocolat. So in the morning, there was this very cheery Swiss lady, who would welcome you with a very loud and incredible “Bonjour!” and wake you right up. It was some of the best pastry I ever had in my life. So on the way to school in the morning, I made it a habit.

Charles: For me it was the little weekend trips, and just being in the middle of Europe. You could get in the car, get on the train and be somewhere completely exotic and out of a picture book in no time.

Brad: Being in the middle of the industry was really nice as well. Being able to drive ten minutes to go to a specific tool shop, you can’t exactly do that in Toronto.

FWA: You have to build the tool shop yourself?

Brad: Basically yes. A lot of the machines are there in Switzerland. The reason why we wanted to do this in Toronto was because we really like Toronto, and we think we can pull it off here. It is however a lot easier to open up a workshop in Switzerland where the machines, partners and knowledge are domestic.

FWA: Watchmaking school is not the run-of-the-mill or average answer a teenager gives a guidance counsellor when asked what he would like to study. What were the reactions of your parents and your friends? 

Brad: I was in school for marketing and business administration, which obviously came into use given our current situation. I also had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished high school. Part way through college is when I took apart that Seiko and was like “Oh no!” (everyone in the room breaks down into laughter). I kind of decided after drinking at a house party in Waterloo at my friends’, and I said “I’m going to go to watchmaking school,” and I am a man of my word. I did my best to find out where to go, did my bench test at our school and got accepted. My parents were a bit confused. They didn’t understand how I would get a job when I returned. It was a relief for everyone when I came as I had a few companies competing for me.

Charles: I was halfway through my political science degree, and I had gone for the bench test in Switzerland. I got back and I was given the offer to attend, I told my guidance counsellor, and she (like many others) responded by asking, “Oh, is that still a thing?”. Once they learned about it and how rare it is, just like my parents, they were then turned on to it.
But it’s funny, I had never heard from Brad about him deciding to go into watchmaking when he was drinking, because that is when I made the decision as well. (Laughs) I was at a party, and I met this Swiss woman whose brother was in the watch industry. I was talking about it and she said “Yeah, I should definitely do it.” (More laughs)

FWA: That was after a lot of deliberating and learning a bit more, but it was still in the infancy of learning about watchmaking. So it’s really funny to hear that from Brad.

Brad: That we both declared it when we were drunk.

Charles: I also do not go back on things that I promise when I am drunk either.

Brad: Nope. (More laughs)

Charles: …To this day!

FWA: Advice for young people wanting to get into watchmaking? And exploring all other career options does not count.

Brad: Learn as much as you can about watchmaking before you step into the wormhole. We have had a handful of visits to the workshop by people who were thinking about it and wanted to get a better idea of what’s involved.. It’s great to be able to provide that experience to someone close by. Watchmaking schools are very expensive. At the same time, if it is something that you are very compelled to do, then you are going to do it. You have to love it. If you do not love it, there are much easier ways to make a living. But if you love it, there is no better way to make a living than watchmaking.

Charles: Really sate your curiosity first and try to open up a watch and work on it, or buy as many books as you can…

Brad: … Not your grandfather’s Longines

Charles: Learn everything that you can, for you have to be committed. You are learning something that is so specific and you cannot apply the knowledge elsewhere afterwards, and there’s not necessarily a related plan B if you’re all in. 

Brad: I’ll add to that. There are jobs for people who want to be a watchmaker. If you want to be a watchmaker, you should not have trouble finding a job. The average age of a watchmaker is now around 60 in North America. If you are interested in it, there will be demand.

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FWA: If you had the chance to clear up one major misconception about not only being a watchmaker, but an independent watchmaking brand, what would that be?

Brad: As a general watchmaker, the amount of work that goes into a regular service is often misunderstood by the public. Some of the watches that I have seen come in at my old job had been so abused – all in an effort to save a few hundred dollars by the owner. The cost to restore the damage is often very high as well, and sometimes impossible on what may be a sentimental watch. Like other small watch companies some may assume that because we source many of our components that our watch is not as good as a much larger, in-house brand’s watch. The watch industry has been sharing intelligence, machinery and components since it began, many of the most illustrious brands source specific components from companies we work with. The watch industry has historically never focused so much on everything being done in one location, in fact this leads to lower quality and less specialization. At the end of the day it is about the quality, it’s there or it isn’t.

Charles: Many do not know about the level of effort and time that goes into our polishing and the production of the Reference 1. As Brad said we source some components, but nothing leaves our workshop without passing through our hands. Just the watch case takes us 10-12 hours to polish, including at least 2 hours of finishing in between the lugs, creating a horizontal grain only possible by hand – or welded lugs.

FWA: Overall I have observed that a lot of watch enthusiasts look at the watch and because it is a relatively elegant design, they mistake it for something simple. In reality, hundreds of hours go into such a watch in terms of polishing and putting them together in such a highly cultivated and graceful manner. In many ways, someone looking at your watch and underestimating its brilliance underscores just how much of a superlative design and execution this Reference 1 is. 

FWA: What has been your favourite moment in the industry since you got involved with it? Whether this is a technological advancement in watches or watchmaking? Or something else that you feel has made an impact for the betterment of the industry?

Charles: The rise of brands outside of Switzerland, small or otherwise. People like us who have taken the initiative to pursue watchmaking in their hometown and where they are from. 

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FWA: What’s your favourite and least favourite aspect of doing trade shows abroad? How are Canadians generally received in the industry?

Brad: I think for a lot of people seeing Canadians in the industry can be a bit confusing. Canada has a brand of maple syrup and beavers and we are doing something quite a bit different. At the end of the day it’s about the watch, not it’s location. The notion of ‘location based manufacturing’ can be confusing, even ‘Swiss Made’ — many of the watches in Switzerland are made by the French, noted by the traffic jams that would occur daily in our old town near the border. We gladly invite comparisons of our watches against the best in the industry, no matter the location. When they look at the watch they then start to understand what we are about. At trade shows my favourite thing is hearing opinions from those who have never heard of the company or seen our watch in person. My least favourite thing is standing the entire day and often missing lunch as things get so busy. It’s very tiring but it’s only for a few days in a row and entirely worth it.      

FWA: The two of you like to mingle with the enthusiast community and it shows. Within this community, what was your favourite moment?

Charles: A fellow RedBar member and I bonded on an author we both like –an author who speaks a lot about watches, and works watches into his work. It was one of his books that inspired me to start collecting watches and further learn about watchmaking. The author is William Gibson, and the book is called Virtual Light. 

Brad: It’s just been nice overall to spend time with people who share your interests, incidentally many of us share a lot of similar obsessions: cars, whisky, cigars etc. When we make something new it’s also great to get in-person feedback. It’s very motivating when people are excited about what we’re doing, especially after working for many weeks in the workshop beforehand.

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TBC.

In Part 2 we will go deeper into the daily operations of a modern independent watchmaking workshop and how it works. 

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