David Walter is a horological one-two punch. Not only is he an accomplished and acknowledged clockmaker but also a professional watchmaker. Training at a very young age, Walter has been recognized nine times by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors for his clock-making accomplishments, and he has worked for prestigious watchmaking companies in London and Europe, including Omega Watch Co.
Working and studying in the industry for his entire life, Walter is a wellspring of knowledge about the history of watch and clock making. During our phone interview I learned a great deal about the technological and cultural shifts in time, especially in the watchmaking industry. Walter was a watchmaker when the quartz crisis struck in the 1970s. His firsthand account was enlightening as he witnessed the value of Swiss mechanical watches plummet, entire watchmaking towns and factories shutter, and the proud tradition of watchmaking wither. In fact, Walter began working in clocks because it looked like a more stable job choice—what a contrast to today when mechanical watches make up the lion’s share of global wristwatch profits and clocks and clock making seem to be endangered!
Walter has created many unique and beautiful clocks and watches during his career. His latest achievement is the Platinum Watch. Inspired by great horologists, such as Breguet, George Daniels, and F.P. Journe, Walter handcrafted this opulent piece with the same attention to detail, obsession with quality, and individuality. In the following Q and A, Walter discusses this piece, his background as a clock and watchmaker, and shares his thoughts on the new smartwatch revolution.
What got you interested in horology?
DW: I always loved mechanical things; small mechanical items attracted me more than large items and I was good with my hands at school. I had thought to be a precision machinist because I liked turning; however, my father asked me if I would like to become a watchmaker and he had already taken steps to find an apprenticeship. I agreed to try and liked it; it was a six-year apprenticeship.
WN: Before you started your own company, what type of horological work were you doing?
DW: I was working for Omega, servicing the chronographs and chronometers and any other “problem” watches that came in. This could mean a rusty watch with water damage or a watch that others could not get to function as it should.
WN: You have backgrounds in both clock and watch making. Do you have a favorite? Which one led to the other?
DW: As an apprentice you begin with clocks to garner experience with big timekeepers that are less likely to be damaged in a learner’s hands. The mechanical theory and function of clocks and the assembly logic are similar to watches, so it is a good learning experience. After about a year, and proving myself capable with clocks, I then was introduced to pocket watches and small travel clocks with lever escapements, then larger wristwatches, culminating in ladies’ watches and higher-quality watches.
The goal was always to be working on watches. I learned to like both good watches and good clocks. That opened new doors for me, which would not have happened if I was a watches-only person. In the late 1970s the watch trade was in poor shape and the future did not look very good, so I made the decision to fully apply myself to antique clocks. There are enormous numbers ranging from quite simple to exotic clocks made by Tompion, Dent, Breguet, Le Roy , and many others. My own company undertook restoration for clients, and I also purchased, restored, and sold many high-quality clocks.
WN: When did you first decide you wanted to attempt to recreate these unique Free Pendulum and Double Pendulum clocks? What drove you?
DW: It was in 1978 that I decided to design and create my own horological examples. Years of working on antique pocket watches prepared me for this as I made parts that were missing or broken or made a new timepiece. Much skill and expertise are required that a repairer will not normally have; finding the appropriate tooling was difficult because access to the Internet was not available yet.
The (D)W5 Free Pendulum clock came about when someone asked me if I could make it for him. I have always pursued precision over simply decorative clocks, so it was also an excellent challenge because no one at that time had succeeded in making another one of Philip Woodward’s W5 clocks.
I first saw a photograph of Breguet 3671 the Double Pendulum clock in 1978 when I got my copy of The Art of Breguet by George Daniels. I have never personally seen the clock. There are three clocks in the book that took my attention: the Table Tourbillon, the Three Wheel clock, and the Double Pendulum clock. I have made five Double Pendulum clocks each with more and new complications, a Three Wheel clock, and I am halfway through making a Table Tourbillon with Co-Axial escapement.
The challenge to make something new and different has always been a great incentive, and to this end, the last clock I made included a Janvier-style wandering moon, which only Janvier and I have ever used. This superb display rotates around the dial in one lunation, shows no moon, full moon, and of course, all the phases in between, waxing and waning, the angle of the moon to the sun, the age of the moon, and time until the next new moon. This same clock also displayed an annually rotating planisphere of lapis lazuli with 22-karat gold stars fixed in the correct locations.
WN: Where do you get your inspiration for these watches? Are there certain wristwatch brands you admire?
DW: The inspiration comes from seeing so many watches that are clumsy, unbalanced, or not aesthetically pleasing. I see not only what was done right in these watches but how I can do it better. Fusce non pretium tellus. Curabitur hendrerit nisi ligula, eu porttitor augue bibendum a. Phasellus viverra maximus nunc, eu iaculis nisi. Suspendisse est lacus, interdum nec sem nec, sagittis viverra odio. Proin malesuada turpis quis nunc rhoncus, non imperdiet ex tempor. Mauris egestas eros nec quam mollis porta ac ut turpis. Pellentesque ut porttitor risus.
I can sum it up this way: “An independent watchmaker creates a watch that is his vision of what and how he feels a watch should look.”
Most of all I admire the independent watchmakers, such as George Daniels, Roger Smith, Derek Pratt, Phillipe Dufor, and Vianney Halter. The brands I particularly admire are F.P. Journe, whose watches are uniquely designed and made in house at Geneva. Of the bigger brands my favorite is Lange of Germany followed by Ulysee Nardin and Jaeger leCoultre.
WN: What parts of the Presido and Platinum watches are handmade?
DW: The engine-turned silver dials for the Presidio and the DW bespoke hands are all made by hand one at a time.
The Platinum watch is the world’s first all-platinum watch in which the case and the movement plates are .900 platinum; it will have a special engine-turned silver dial with DW-style blued steel hands. I make the plates, cocks, bridges, screws, ratchet click, and hands. The platinum case has a coin edge with protective bezels, a domed sapphire crystal covering the dial, and a display back with a flat sapphire crystal, and of course, the watch will be in a unique presentation box made of American woods with an engraved silver plate on the lid.
WN: Are you planning to develop more wristwatches? Do you have set goals with the direction of your company?
DW: Yes, I have several more designs planned for the future. I want to see the USA back on the horological scene, making as good or better watches than what comes from overseas.
WN: What do you think of this new digital revolution of smartwatches?
DW: Well....... the new digital watches are not all that new; a similar thing happened in the 1970s. I don’t own a smartwatch but I do see their appeal. They are still throwaway items, but mechanical watches are not and can be serviced in the future. I think the name smartwatch is misleading, because they are far more than a timekeeper; a wrist minicomputer might be a better name. If these watches are smart, are mechanical watches dumb? I don’t think so! Smartwatches have a time display, which makes them a watch. I suggest they should be called digital timekeepers.
To learn more about David Walter visit his website at davidwalter.com.