As we paused for pastries from the first half of the interview, we further settled into the discussion about their daily operations and their first watch, the Reference 1. We briefly also went over their new upcoming model the Reference 1-R and their goals with the watch. At the time only a prototype was available and it was really impressive. The depth of the dial and how the sub-seconds at 6 o’clock steps away from from the rest of the dial adds a dimension to the watch that I had not seen within this price range. The beautifully ventilated workshop hummed with soft classical music as we indulged in some sweets before returning to the questions. Workplaces of many variants all try to achieve a welcoming aura in hopes of making the employees and visitors feel at home. While we finished the box of pastries, I realised just how well thought out this space was, and how comfortable it was. As one enters, you are welcomed by a small meeting area with a couch, coffee table, and two chairs. To your left as you enter there is a bookshelf lined with books on the industry. Just above it is a small liquor shelf with their trillium corporate logo hanging on top.
With such a welcoming and well thought out space, this instantly led me to the first question as to their day-to-day operations, and that was of health hazards which arise from years of being a watchmaker.
Part 2: Operations and the Reference One
FWA: It does not take too much of an elaborate imagination to realise that there are hazards to your occupations. These being repetitive strain injuries that others such as dentists suffer from being hunched over their tasks and having to perform very delicate and precise actions. Did they cover this at watchmaking school and how does it affect your daily grind?
Brad Taylor: Proper bench height is very important and it was discussed immediately in school — having your bench at your shoulders, having your torso and your back upright. At the end of the day you will see most watchmakers, unfortunately, do not have the best posture, for a lot of it has to do with the benches. All of our benches have armrests, which are really important for comfort and circulation when one is spending a lot of hours at the bench. Charles and I are both pretty tall and the height is really important as well. Our benches are around 43 inches (1.1m) from the ground.
FWA: Being a two-man operation, both of you must share in a lot of the tasks and duties that go into a watch. Since you have known and worked with each other for so long, is your workflow regarding the watchmaking pretty streamlined? Or do you two occasionally mix things up so that each of you essentially get a hand on everything that goes into not only putting your watches together but also doing the final quality assurance?
Brad: Production-wise we both do everything. So, Charles can take a watch from the materials that we receive into a completed watch, and so can I. At the end of the day, if either one of us is away for the week, the other can work without waiting for someone else to complete an operation. We do prefer different tasks and split things up as orders come in. There are so many different things to do when you’re making a watch. Whether it be finishing, cutting parts for the new hands, assembly, and regulation, we’re never stuck doing the same thing every day or week.
Charles Birchall: And if we were not at the same level when it comes to production, there would be constant roadblocks.
FWA: What has been the most recent example of a great shared moment while in the workshop, and one while either at a trade show or when meeting enthusiasts?
Brad: Finishing and then selling our first watch was a moment I’ll never forget. Completing our first hand-finished hand was incredible as well, very few watch companies put so much emphasis on their hands. Being published on Hodinkee was incredible for us. We were in contact with Stephen Pulvirent and we sent a watch down to New York so they could check it out in person. It was a great feeling since we’ve been reading Hodinkee together in watchmaking school.
Charles: Making our first set of hand-finished hands took months, it was amazing to see it come together. Being in Hodinkee was one of the dreams for us and to have it happen so soon was surreal.
FWA: When speaking to other independent watchmakers and some microbrands, their biggest challenge is communicating their designs to their foreign suppliers, and then the challenge of quality assurance. Since Birchall & Taylor work with mostly Swiss companies, what is the biggest challenge in having such a large part of your business relying on those who reside in Switzerland?
Brad: I would say that we haven’t had issues because we are very particular about what we want, and we work with the best companies in the world. Challenges could arise when you do not work with the best. We design everything ourselves and our own technical drawings. We send off the exact part we need in a 3D file, and it almost always comes to us in the exact specs we designed, or we discuss any changes required and run a second batch. We also do not outsource any aspects which we believe shouldn’t be. We finish our cases ourselves because I do not think we could trust anyone to finish our cases to our quality and standards. The quality of our polished and brushed surfaces are as good as we believe that you can get even though we are still always trying to improve. I don’t think we could trust that with anyone unless they were in our workshop.
Charles: I think you’re right; I’ve never given it much thought but we could never outsource our polishing. It would result in a lot of back-and-forths.
Brad: This also means that if one of our clients scratches their watch, we can polish it and have it back to them in a reasonable amount of time. We also do all our warranty work here, for instance, if there is a mechanical issue. I think it’s unacceptable how many larger brands insist on watches being sent back to Switzerland for servicing and waiting often many months if you have purchased a high-end watch. We are also open to working with qualified watchmakers local to our clients around the globe.
FWA: You have said in the past that you had set out to make the essential dress watch in terms of design and size. Can you walk us through what lead you toward the Reference 1? Whether that being sleepless nights of design work, inspirations taken from those who came before you?
Brad: I brought a dial design to Charles when we were starting the company that was very classical, understated and would look great on enamel. He liked it and we started talking. We’ve always had a sort of checklist that we never actually talked about in watchmaking school that was inspired by some of the best such as Philippe Dufour. We got to tour his workshop when we were just starting school, which was an incredibly inspirational experience. That checklist for us was for a 3 hand dress watch with a 38mm case, a light-coloured enamel dial, and a hand-wound or micro-rotor movement. Not a full rotor, for it obscures the finishing of the movement.
Charles: In terms of inspiration and the form of the watch, a few dress watches we liked from the 1950s provided some case design ideas.
FWA: What made you decide to go with the grand feu dial, and what drew you to working with Donzé Cadrans for the dial? Were there other options that you considered that still seem like a viable choice for future watches?
Brad: Enamel for us is such a deep and rich material. The colour is not something that you can match with anything. Also, the fact that it does not fade is important. We would love for our clients to hand down their watches in 50 years, and they will look just as good as the day they bought them. That would be ideal, not like the manufacturing faults that are so prized for some very collected brands in the vintage aftermarket. Also, the back shows the exposé of the incredible feat of precision mechanics and engineering, while on the front you have an enamel dial which was baked in a kiln at 800 degrees celsius. 70% of them are destroyed due to imperfections such as tiny cracks or bubbles, but if they are made properly, they will never fade. It’s almost a contrast of one side having an artisanal process of making the dial, and on the other, you have some of the most demanding precise mechanical work, with hand-finished precise bevels.
Charles: A lot of people think that watchmaking is a dying art, but watchmakers know that enameling is truly a dying art, and there are only a few houses making it, even fewer that are doing it to the level of Donzé. What goes into it, the time that it takes, it’s exciting as watchmakers to see something so painstaking happen as well.
Brad: When we last met with Donzé it immediately felt right. The quality of what they are producing is fantastic.
FWA: There is no denying that the Vaucher movement used in your watches is absolutely stunning and that it is a great movement. Even people who consider themselves to be well-read on horology and are enthusiasts do not know this about the Vaucher movement. What attracted you to this movement?
Brad: It utilises a micro-rotor and it is ultra-thin at 2.7mm thick. The 48-hour power reserve, it’s hand-finished, it has radial Côtes de Genéve from the balance… I think even most discerning collectors have trouble complaining about this movement (laughs).
There is the notion of in-house, but we are not at the point where we can make our own movement. We hope to one day. In the meantime, we will continue to work with one of the best watch manufacturers in the world.
Charles: The finishing on the movement is also very well executed. It was important for us to visit them in Fleurier and see it for ourselves.
Brad: We usually have to purchase a handful of movements from them at a time. We managed to purchase just one under the condition that we wanted to inspect it. So we purchased it from them, drove back to our old school’s workshop, disassembled it immediately, took it all apart, and we were really happy with it. Everything was built really well. It does everything that we could ask for and it’s been revised over the years as any movement should be. When making an in-house movement lots of testing needs to be done, and often many revisions are required to produce an efficiently running movement.
Charles: We wouldn’t have gone through with it if they didn’t let us do that. We really had to see for ourselves the quality.
FWA: Many are firm believers that when it comes to watches, steel is the most precious metal due to practical standards. Have you received any requests to make watches in other metals, and do you see B&T offering different case materials in the future?
Brad: I think steel made sense because of the cost. It is really expensive starting a watch company. We are just two watchmakers; we are not two businesspeople who got together and decided to launch into this. From a material perspective, it really is a fantastic material. It is much more scratch-resistant than gold or other precious metals. It has a good weight to it, and it has a really nice colour when it is properly polished.
It is likely that in the future that we will make watches with precious metal cases.
FWA: Lastly, any plans on making a high-accuracy robust quartz dive watch?
(The room is filled with chuckles as my hopes for such a watch made by these two gentlemen fades.)
In Part 3 we will go over the workshop and the Reference 1 and the new Reference 1-R.