Interview with Robert Loomes

by Michael Sherrin 0

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Robert Loomes has been making headlines in the horological world recently, having debuted his 100% Made in Britain watch at this year’s SalonQP. Having briefly met the man behind the name at the event, I caught up with him and his team at their HQ in Stamford, Lincolnshire.

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MS – So, did you have a good weekend (at SalonQP)?

RL – Yes, it was really enjoyable. This year 5 of us went for the first time and it seemed all we did was smile, shake hands and talk (to people attending SalonQP)!

MS – I understand you held a seminar whilst there?

RL – It was actually the first talk of the weekend. We basically covered a little history of the business (Robert Loomes & Co), and in turn how we got to where we are today & how it gave us the tools to make our own movement.

MS – It really is a fantastic achievement, you must be extremely proud.

RL – We really are, it’s all down to dedication. You have to just keep trying. We had at times what felt like extraordinary set backs. We started off with one idea on how it would be and ended up with something completely different!

MS – So how long, from first thought to completion, did it take you to make?

RL – To be honest, if you asked most watch makers they would all say they want to make their own movement, to see if it’s possible. When you first start working with them you begin to wonder if it’s possible. I have a friend who is director of an engineering company who, after a long day at work, will go to his shed and switch off by working on his watches.

We worked with Nottingham University to see how to go about the whole process and the original modelling of designing a movement. Our technical team leader was actually there, and with a 40 minute lunch break everyday decided he’d try and make his own watch with the tools over the next 25 years! So you know it’s doable, in the same way that we’re in Stamford, it’s a sleepy little market town, it’s has had a watchmakers since the 17th century. But can you manufacture it? Some would argue the skills have been lost (quite clearly they haven’t).

Our’s is a strange half way house in the fact not everything is entirely hand made, but we’ve farmed out to local specialist machining companies (within 100 miles) to make small batches of various movement components, such as 50 escape wheels or 200 of a particular screws and reunite that with making the plates here, at a rather slow 3 at a time as a kind of batch production. We can also do the balance cocks with half a dozen on a plate. The whole question of whether you can manufacture it drove the whole thing, even if it is with a very slow assembly process.

MS – You don’t tend to turn out that many watches annually, do you?

RL – Well if we concentrated in this (new movement) and worked as fast as we could go we could just about do 25 in a year, and that’s what set us thinking we’d do 12 gold & 12 white gold. We won’t necessarily achieve that, but theoretically that’s what we could do.

MS – Moving forward, I know a lot of your watches house N.O.S, modified Smith’s movements. Once those dry up, do you think you’ll replace these with your own movement?

RL – I don’t know, I mean I’m focusing so much on making THE watch, it’s taking up huge amounts of time. The prototype movement had about 1,000 hours put into it, and you begin to wonder if each movement takes that much time then you’re not on such a good deal at ¬£28,500 (per watch). However, like other kinds of manufacturing, the optimistic intention is that when we get to watch number 15 or 20 we will have more than halved that time and we will be able to draw on experience (of each previous watch). You’re not the first person to ask what’s next, but next will only be informed by what we’re doing (when it comes to it).

MS – It’s certainly sensible not getting too ahead of yourself, but do you think you’ll possibly consider housing the new movement in a steel case?

RL – I really don’t know, but like everything we do it will be customer driven. We tend to talk to them and ask them what like, don’t like and what would be appropriate when we try something new. That’s certainly what drove a few people to put a deposit down as soon as we suggested we’d release this watch, even before seeing any pictures, as they had absolute confidence in what we were trying to achieve. It’s not quite Kickstarter, but it gives us a lift knowing we have the foundations to start.

MS – As it stands, you only sell your watches directly to the people who come and visit yourselves here in Stamford. With the exposure you have achieved recently, do you think you’ll continue with this trend?

RL – I think so. The best analogy somebody came up ‘if you want a nice pair of sporting shotguns you’d go to your gunmaker, you’d have a look at a few things they’d made or were working on for someone else and you’d say can I have mine like this one please and can I see how you do you do this?’. The full ‘mini factory tour’ before saying yes I’ll have one and when can it be ready is a very intimate way of doing business. You don’t forget that experience, and you won’t look down at it in 2 years time wondering if you still like the look of it, you’ll look down and remember every about the purchasing experience.

And if it does go wrong, which inevitably things do, you don’t have to worry about sending it off to a service centre to then send it off wherever else. You come in here and say it’s not working because X,Y & Z, we can look at it, take it apart and with everything we need within the building it’s right under our nose. It’s our lifetime ability to be able to look after these beasties.

MS – I’m sure many people will be wondering, do you work on every watch you turn out here?

RL – At the moment, yes. I have to say the guys do pull me leg, because whilst I think my theory knowledge is good, in order to be a good watchmaker you have to do it as a full time job. It’s the hand to eye coordination, steadiness and working in an incredibly small platform, essentially 2×3 inches is what you’re staring at, if I do that for a couple of hours I’m shattered by the end of it! So when the guys do it for an 8 hour day I’m hugely impressed.

Most of the watchmakers who come here ask me ‘do you mind if.. of an evening I fix my friend’s watch or have a play with something I’m working on’, and I say it’s not a problem at all, but it’s very rare that people actually do it as it’s such a demanding job that after 8 hours they’re also shattered. But for our guys I think it’s enjoyable because they are genuinely building things, making stuff, doing stuff. It’s the exciting end of watchmaking, if there is one.

MS – It’s a gorgeous setting here in Stamford, isn’t it?

RL – It’s stunning. We came here because it’s a gorgeous market town in the middle of the country. I can get in the car and drive down to London and it’s not too much of a sweat. There’s not only the convenience of it, but a charm that what’s in front of us is the old Great North Road, the main road from London to York, and we’re exactly half way between. Many of the buildings in Stamford are old coaching inns, the town’s had a long history, this building goes back to 1588. That of course means it’s quite fun, when we go around the building you’ll realise how challenging it is to work in an incredibly Dickensian building, but we think it lends itself to what we do.

MS – So what do you think you would have done had you not become a watchmaker?

RL – Oh, I have no idea. I’m probably doing this as I had absolutely no idea. I tried joining the Army, that wasn’t quite for me. I went to university for a year doing English, didn’t quite enjoy that enough, and my father said ‘look, you can’t do nothing, you might as well come and work for me until you decide what you’re going to so’. Five years later I was still playing with clocks & watches and I though ‘oh, maybe this is my thing’.

The longer you do something and the better you get at it, that’s where your enjoyment comes from it. It really does enthuse me, I wake up and think of a new way to doing something or making something and I come into work, you talk to the staff and they’re really excited by it as well. It is good fun.

MS – Out of interest, what was your first watch, do you recall?

RL – What, my own watch? I’ve got a strong feeling it was probably a Timex, and I optimistically hope it was out of the Timex Dundee factory because Timex continued making watches until 1983/84 I think, it was the last proper watch factory to close down in the UK. When we were working on our movement we would talk to people who worked there. In fact one of the guys, who was head of technical problems, was a tutor at the Horological Institute for the next 30 years, and so if you ever had a problem with trying to work out how to harden a balance staff you could just call him up.

He always joked that Timex went down the route of cheap mass manufacture in a mechanical movement that was doomed in the 70s & 80s, but we had all the skills, all the staff and all the machinery that we could have been making luxury watches. It was all there, just nobody had the confidence to keep putting money into, what they saw at that time, a losing project.

MS – Can you see something of a renaissance in British watchmaking now?

RL – Yeah, I think without question is the answer. There are quite a few companies who are moving in the direction of wanting to bring out their own movements. As far as we see it, our idea was effectively to prove you it can be done, to say yes you can manufacture every bit of the blasted thing here if you want. I think that’s given a lot of other people an extra boost of confidence and enthusiasm, I hope. I do think so.

It’s very apparent that Robert himself doesn’t see this operation as a one man show, it truly has a family dynamic running through it at every level. Working in such a small but skilled team means they can all hone their skills and continue to develop the business.

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Walking around the workshops, it’s amazing observing exactly how everything is done. In particular I was fascinated to see how the enamel dials are created, and how even at this high and refined level of manufacturing, you cannot get it perfect 100% of the time. This transparency with the customer is one of the areas Loomes excels fair beyond any of his competitors.

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Admittedly the asking price for his latest innovation (¬£28,500) is much, much higher than his entry level timepieces, but one mustn’t forget that along with a gold case, every single part of this exquisite watch is made in Britain. As his partner Robina so rightly said, ‘If the past century was about globalisation, this century is about localisation’. This philosophy is just what makes Loomes & Co so excellent at what they do, and will continue to do them in good stead over time. You may have to pay a premium for home grown horology, but it’s worth every penny in my book.

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As well as manufacturing wristwatches, it’s also worth noting RL&C are watch and clock restorers. Everywhere you turn in the higgledy piggledy workshop you are greeted with countless clocks that are either not working or are aesthetically damaged. The restoration processes used to bring these grand time tellers back to life are nothing short of miracles. There was even a Rolex enamel dial being worked on. When I questioned why the owner had chosen to come here and not go to Rolex themselves, the answer was simple; Rolex couldn’t do it. Surely that goes to show just what a special place this is.

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Robert Loomes isn’t exactly the most famous son of horology, but he certainly is one of the most talented. He and his team are bringing back the magic of British watchmaking, and I do sincerely hope it’s the start of a revival. He’s proven it can be done, now the baton falls to the others to follow.

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