George Daniels (1921 - 2011), a legendary horologist, created the one-of-a-kind Space Traveller I watch in 1982. And just yesterday, the watch was sold in London for over £3.6m (US$4.6m), breaking the world auction records of an English watch as well as of an independent watchmaker.
Many are familiar with luxury watch producers like Rolex and Patek Philippe but very few might have heard of the name George Daniels. To find out how his watch achieved such an extraordinary price, we must get to know the story of this outstanding watchmaker.
George Daniels Space Traveller I 18k yellow gold pocket watch
Born in 1926, George Daniels came from a working-class family in London, suffering through poverty and abuse in his early years. The only place where he found joy was in the mechanics of timepieces. In 1944, Daniels joined the British army and left in 1947.
With only £50 of gratuity in his pocket, Daniels bought some tools and became a watch repairer. He also attended horology classes at night to improve his skills. After a decade of hard work, in 1960, he finally opened his first watch repair and cleaning shop in London. Daniels was particularly interested in the works of the early 19th-century French watchmaker Bruget and soon became an expert on Bruget.
Daniels started out as a watch repairer
Draft of the Space Traveller coaxial escapement design
Meanwhile, Daniels became good friends with Sam Clutton, who was a vintage watch dealer. Daniels began to investigate into expensive handcrafted watches, and under Clutton's convincing, he embarked on a journey of watchmaking. In 1969, Daniels sold his first handcrafted pocket watch to Clutton for £2,000.
One of the most prominent achievements of Daniels was creating the coaxial escapement in 1974. Traditional escapements had to use lubricants but this eventually caused problems with accuracy as oil thickened over time. However, the coaxial escapement used radial friction instead of sliding friction, making lubricants unnecessary. This design was widely used in the 1990s Omega watches.
George Daniels (left) and American astronaut Eugene Cernan (right)
Throughout his life, Daniels only produced 23 watches, Space Traveller I being one of them. Created in 1982, the name of the watch pays tribute to the NASA Apollo missions.
Daniels expressed his interest in space exploration in an interview, saying that space technology is the world's most advanced technology and hoped to become part of it. He incorporated the mean-solar and sidereal times, age and phase of the moon as well as the equation of time indications in the Space Traveller I for the needs of astronauts.
Dial with Arabic numerals located on the right shows the sidereal time, dial with Roman numerals shows the mean solar time; second dials are located below
The backside of the watch opens up to its coaxial escapement
Space Traveller's design layout
Solar time is the time system that we use, measured according to the apparent time and the path of the sun, which means that a solar day is 24 hours long. Sidereal time is measured according to how long it takes for the sun to rotate a full circle which takes 23hrs 56m 4.1s.
As the Earth's axis of rotation is tilted, there is a time difference between the actual times of sunset and sunrise and the time shown on the watch. Therefore, the inverted fan-shaped dial on the watch shows the time difference, according to different seasons. The largest difference is 16 minutes.
Space Traveller II sold for £3.2m in 2017
With such a delicate and complicated mechanism, Space Traveller watches are unique in their design and extremely valuable. In 1982, Daniels sold Space Traveller I to a collector but quickly realised that he regretted it. In the following year, he produced another one named Space Traveller II.
The present Space Traveller I was first auctioned in Sotheby's Geneva in 1988 for CHF220,000 (US$222,987). 30 years later, its price has soared to over £3.6m (US$4.6m) which is almost 30 times its previous selling price.
As to where the Space Traveller II resides, the watch had been in Daniels' collection until his death in 2011. In 2017, Space Traveller II was sold in Sotheby's London for £3.2m, setting the auction record for an English watch at the time. The record is now replaced by Space Traveller I.
The most expensive English watch
George Daniels (1926-2011) Yellow Gold Watch With Daniels Double-wheel Escapement, Mean-solar And Sidereal Time, Annual Calendar, Age And Phase Of Moon And Equation Of Time Indications 1982 Space Traveller I
Lot no.: 143
Created in: 1982
Estimate: £700,000 - £1,000,000
Price realised: £3,615,000
Auction house: Sotheby's London
Sale: Masterworks Of Time: George Daniels, Visionary
Sale date: 2 July 2019
Lots offered: 143
Sold by lots: 84%
Sale total: £6,300,814