The future of British luxury watchmaking can be found in the past via award-winning Struthers Watchmakers. The Struthers ethos is to use the best watchmaking in the world from the pre-1960s—the same traditional materials, methods, and tools of the past—to literally remake history in their one-of-a-kind timepieces.
From their Georgian workshop and studio, master watchmaker Craig Struthers and watchmaker and historian Dr. Rebecca Struthers work in Birmingham’s historic jewelry quarter in the north of England. With some 30 years of experience in horology between them, they have a particular passion for restoration, in which they both began their watchmaking careers.
Mr. Struthers has learned from some of the best vintage and antique watch restorers in Britain.
He has also apprenticed a veteran maker of chronometers—timepieces that meet especially high accuracy standards under a range of conditions—for the British company Thomas Mercer.
In 2017, Mrs. Struthers became the first in British history to gain a doctorate in horology. Her knowledge enables the couple to not only restore important timepieces but also to make thoughtful, custom or “bespoke” watches based on historical design. Their specialty is to salvage and renew vintage and antique English, American, and Swiss watch movements from the bullion trade.
The Struthers are pioneers who preserve the past to advance British independent watchmaking. In each part of the Struthers watchmaking process, fine hand skills are of the utmost importance: from the hand-rendered designs to the finely finished wooden cases. Their first watch, “Stella,” won critical acclaim in 2013. The couple have also collaborated with British icon Morgan Motor Company.
Today, independent British watchmakers and their allied tradesmen such as engravers, silversmiths, watchcase makers, and for the finished product, box makers, are on the decline. If Struthers doesn’t have those skills in-house, the company strives to work with heritage craftspeople to preserve these trades.
Currently, they are developing their own watch movement, temporarily named “Project 248” (two minds, four hands, and an 8 mm lathe), which will revive and refine a long-forgotten late-19th-century English lever escapement, the part of the watch that enables the measurement of time and makes the classic ticking sound.
Read the Struthers story of how serendipity brought Rebecca and Craig together in traditional watchmaking and marriage—and how one of them realized a dream.
The Epoch Times: How did you get started in watchmaking?
Rebecca Struthers: I think I was 17 when I first started out to train as a jeweler and silversmith, and they taught watchmaking at the same university. I’d never heard of watchmaking before as a career. I didn’t realize it was an option, but it brought together everything that I love about making things—the science, history, and technology—and I just fell in love with the subject.
Craig Struthers: I was about 34 at the time. I’d done a lot of different jobs, and one day I just decided I was meant to do something else. I did an aptitude test and horology came up on the list. I wasn’t quite sure what it actually meant, and then when I discovered it was watchmaking, I was quite surprised there was a career in it. So basically, I just went back to university for three years, which is where I met Rebecca.
When you put everything you’ve learned in real practice into making something, there’s a bit of art in it and also your heart, obviously, because if you give up, it’s not going to get made. And the art side of it is what interested me about watches, not so much the science and technology.
As humans, we create fantastic machines and the technology we’ve got is phenomenal, and it’s also added things to the watch industry that couldn’t be done by hand. That’s incredible. But for me and Rebecca, we’re looking back; we’re trying to reproduce things that already have a 100-year-old ethos about them, but we introduce a few new materials.
I think the vintage market has gone uphill, a massive climb in popularity. In collecting, the prices have really gone from strength to strength.
We all buy something that’s mass-produced somewhere in our lives, but I think people are trying to get back to humanity. There’s something about the provenance of something that was made in the past, which is very different from something that was made just yesterday.
The Epoch Times: What’s involved in your roles?
Mrs. Struthers: We always say that we very much work as a pair; on our own, we’re good watchmakers, but together we make one very, very good watchmaker. We’re like two halves of the same character, really. I’m more on the research and development side of things, doing a lot of design work and figuring out how to make stuff. Craig is a bit more on the practical side of things.
The Epoch Times: What have you learned through working together as a married couple?
Mrs. Struthers: We very rarely argue about anything, and I think it’s because we have such opposite skill sets that we’re not trying to do the same things at the same time. I think if we were both skilled in the same areas, that would create more friction. A lot of what we do is in a tiny little bubble, and you can be seated a matter of feet from someone for a whole day and barely even speak to him. So you’re working in this tiny little world through magnification of this little object. It just kind of absorbs you, and time flies.
Mr. Struthers: I suppose for a lot of married couples that work together, there’s going to be the tensions and the problems you have at work, but at least you both understand them, so maybe that’s a good thing.
The Epoch Times: Please tell us how your work is a “fusion of heritage, fine craftsmanship, and 21st-century technology” as mentioned on your website.
Mrs. Struthers: When we first started the workshop, we did it on a very limited budget as we didn’t have the kind of capital behind us to really go in all guns blazing. We could only afford vintage and antique tools, so we were quite limited in what we could do. We had to rely on a 1940s traditional watchmaker’s lathe. From there we grew, and now we’re expanding to the point where we continue investing in vintage and antique machinery, and even though we’re getting to the stage where we could afford to get more modern equipment, it’s kind of …
Mr. Struthers: … not really us.
Mrs. Struthers: It’s such an integral part of how we work. So we have this very traditional approach ourselves where we’re looking to the future. But there’s no point, in our minds, to just remake things that have already been made. We have to use this technology in traditional watchmaking, but we use what’s going on now to improve and refine our processes, whether that’s new developments in materials, in metals, or in things like silicon. For us, it’s about how to incorporate new technology in a way that doesn’t compromise this kind of natural evolution we’ve had through using traditional machinery.
The Epoch Times: Please tell us about your hand-rendered illustrations.
Mr. Struthers: I’ve accidentally realized a dream because I’ve always wanted to be an illustrator, but it was very difficult to get into and make money in.
Mrs. Struthers: Neither Craig nor I know how to use computer-aided design (CAD), which is how the majority of modern watch designers work, so we didn’t have that knowledge. But we could draw, so we started with that, and clients love it. And again, we wouldn’t change it.
Now, our mentee is skilled in CAD so we’ve got that in-house, but in a different way. So we still start with the drawings and then pass them on to her.
Mr. Struthers: The illustration is something I never thought of as an extra part in the whole process, but people are actually asking for the artwork, and it’s an important part of the watchmaking.
The Epoch Times: What’s been your most interesting commission?
Mrs. Struthers: They’re all interesting for different reasons. When we say “bespoke,” we really mean bespoke. We will design from scratch a completely worldwide one-of -a-kind piece for a client.
One of our first bespoke pieces was a lady’s diamond-set watch that was designed around 118 diamonds from the client’s pair of earrings, and that was incredibly, technically challenging. I’d done some jewelry work before, but I’d never worked with that level of stone setting and then having to make a functioning watch around that. I really enjoyed the challenge of working within those parameters.
The most recent pocket watch commission we’ve done, I really enjoyed too, but on a completely different level. It was a much larger piece, but that meant that you could work more into it and work more complications into it and rebuild more parts for the movement itself.
We’re very international with our inspiration, I suppose, because we began our work in restoration. We’ve handled the best part of 500 years of watchmaking from Europe—Switzerland, Germany, England, France—and the United States, and you really get to cherry-pick when you’ve seen the best inventions from different countries, their manufacturing processes, and finishes as well. It’s a real privilege to have had that experience and then try and bring it all together in a single piece.
Mr. Struthers: As much as I am in awe of what has been done with the industry now in terms of technology and development, when it comes to us looking for inspiration, it’s always going back a long way. Although there are some very cool and beautiful pieces from the 1960s, I feel that from 1850 to the 1950s was a real golden era of English, French, German, and Swiss watchmaking. I am not saying it’s the best by any means, but for me, it’s a really interesting period and aesthetically pleasing, from the movements, some of the cases, and things like that.
Mrs. Struthers: From 1750 to 1830 is my favorite era in watchmaking. It’s a really interesting point in the evolution of watchmaking when we go from the English cottage industry when watches were incredibly rare and expensive, through to them becoming more affordable accessories when the Swiss and American industries began. It’s a really interesting point when you get all this development, but still in a very traditional way and a very hands-on way. And that’s the most practical route, in my mind, to achieve the kind of watchmaking that we want—something that is very hands-on but also very practical.
The Epoch Times: When your customers come to Struthers, what are they looking for?
Mr. Struthers: They want something that’s different. They’re not looking for a brand. They’re not looking for an investment. They’re looking for something where they can sit down with some makers and produce something from nothing. And whether it’s a 6-month or 2-year project, they just love the process, and they become part of the Struthers family; once they’ve commissioned something, they’ve kind of joined the club.
I think that you can go and buy something from a store, but that’s a very simple transaction: You just pay your money, and you’ve got that piece. It’s very quick and efficient. Some people want something that takes up more of their time as a project. It’s not just a project for us; it’s a project for them as well. Maybe they couldn’t actually make it themselves but because they’re involved in it, it becomes a part of them as well.
The Epoch Times: Can you tell us how you are preserving traditional watchcase making for future generations?
Mrs. Struthers: There’s only two or three traditional case makers left in the UK.
Mr. Struthers: We started off making our own cases. Rebecca has some goldsmith and silversmith skills so she taught me. Then, I thought it would be nice to find someone else involved in case making to share skills with and to perfect some of our work. We swapped a few case-making skills with this guy, and we liked what he did, and that’s when I asked him to train me.
The way we make cases gives them their character—as opposed to cases being made by a fantastic computer numeric control machine, usually called a CNC, that can do the whole thing in one go and is perfect. For us, that kind of misses the point. I think it’s important in our case making to keep it hands-on and to keep that element of imperfection.
The Epoch Times: And you have an apprentice watchmaker.
Mrs. Struthers: The apprenticeship will be about three years. She’s on a degree course at the moment, studying horology. The problem we have generally in watchmaking, both in the UK and internationally, is that a course will only take you so far. Usually when you graduate, you’re at a technician level, and then if you go and work for one of the big brands, all you’re ever going to do is change movements, change batteries, diagnostics, and so on, really run-of-the-mill stuff. There are very few opportunities for graduate watchmakers to work with someone who will take them to the next level, so that bridge between being a technician and becoming a master watchmaker is a really hard road to go down as there are so few people making things now.
The Epoch Times: Is there anything you’d like our readers to know about watchmaking?
Mrs. Struthers: There are so few artisan watchmakers left, and the general thought and assumption about watchmaking is that there are all these big brands making huge sums of money and large numbers of watches and that there aren’t these hand skills left. It’s not until people get out to our workshop, and they realize that we’re not just two designers that are sitting behind a computer doing stuff.
Mr. Struthers: I had this impression that in Switzerland they had this huge workforce and the availability of watchmakers and skilled people was plentiful, but having spoken to independent watchmakers in Switzerland and other areas, they seem to have the same issues now. It’s almost a worldwide thing. It’s not just something that is happening in the UK, I think. I can’t really say I blame technology. I think it’s just everything is evolving, and in some ways, I suppose, it’s made these skills more important because if everyone was still using these skills, maybe it wouldn’t be as desirable.
The good thing is not just to rely on the technology. If you mix technology with hand skills, then you don’t lose either, and then hand skills can still put that human touch to something. And I think that’s a good place to be; that might be the ideal situation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.