20 November 2015

Crazy, beautiful, clever and classical: the watches of SalonQP


I always think that one can chart the point an event becomes a real fixture on London’s social calendar from the moment many of the women arriving at it begin stopping by the advertising boards outside to pose for pictures. “Reasonable chance of Tatler exposure”, they think.

In the case of SalonQP, the luxury watch exhibition now held annually at the Saatchi Gallery in London, that event horizon has been well and truly passed. This year the dresses on preview night were as eye-catching as many of the watches, and in some cases smaller.

But whilst QP Magazine’s flagship event is now a must-swish-through for the smart set, it remains nothing less than unmissable for horology junkies. Despite its size and success, SalonQP retains its unique atmosphere in which visitors can lay hands on the watches themselves and get to meet makers without any formality.

CapX visited the preview night last Thursday. Below are my personal highlights of the show; the watches I think you shouldn’t miss.

   1    Roger Smith, Series 1 to 4


We may as well start near the top. Roger Smith is the leading name in the momentous rebirth of British watchmaking (see CapX Weekend in a few weeks’ time for more on the rise of the Brits), hand-making a small number of pieces in his Isle of Man studio each year (80 since 2001, to be precise).

He is undeniably Britain’s greatest watchmaker, which is why when you’re through the waiting list you’ll need somewhere around £200,000 to get on even the lowest rung of the ladder of RW Smith wearers. This is true exclusivity: based not so much on price as on the fact that Smith can physically only make so many pieces each year. Mr Abramovich would need to join the queue like everyone else…

Smith used SalonQP to update his original Series 1, and the Series 2 which followed, with new movements, and to launch two entirely new watches, the Series 3 (with date) and the achingly lovely Series 4 (with triple calendar).

He learnt his trade under legendary watch-maker George Daniels, perhaps the greatest exponent of the craft of the modern era and a man whose vision can be found today in the game-changing Co-Axial escapement he created in the late 1970s. Like young Skywalker to Obi Wan, Smith has risen to the challenges of having such a respected teacher, and his original Series 2 was used by the British government as part of a global touring exhibition promoting the best of British; and understandably so, being both exquisitely made and the work of a real master.

   2    Autodromo, Group B


From £200,000+ to under £700 for our next highlight.

The link between luxury watches and cars is as old as the hills. Spend any time amongst enthusiasts of either and you’ll find these passions are almost interchangeable.

Since its formation just a few years ago Autodromo, the child of Brooklyn-based designer Bradley Price, has managed to produce a steady stream of well thought out, contemporary but somehow classically stylish offerings, all paying homage to automotive roots. But rather than focus on the more typical periods of automotive nostalgia of the 50s, 60s and 70s, Price has chosen to go unashamedly 80s with the Group B.

As some CapX readers won’t need reminding, Group B refers to what for many was the golden period of post-war rallying, when cars were effectively prototypes wearing a mere disguise of a body shell to make them reminiscent of less insane road-going offerings.

Monster horse power, space-age materials, giant turbos, no weight, no limits. Speeds went stratospheric, everything went very sideways; it was the perfect automotive metaphor for the “grrrrr” excesses of the 80s until a number of crashes resulted in spectator fatalities and caused Group B to be castrated in 1986.

I wasn’t sure about the GpB automatic when I first saw it but in the days since I’ve reconsidered. It’s got under my skin as I’ve “got” what they’ve done and, once I got it, I loved it.

In keeping with the GpB ideal the 39mm case is constructed of both stainless steel (outer) and titanium (inner), reducing weight. The dial, unashamedly bold in various colour options (blue, white, yellow and red), is inspired by the instrumentation of a fire-breathing Lancia 037 GpB car of the period.


The 20mm nylon strap (straps, actually, you get two, in different colours, in the numbered metal box the watch comes in) also carries a stitched “Autodromo” logo in yellow on the inside to resemble a racing harness, an impression cemented by the fixed lug slots which remind one of the harness gaps in a race seat. Inside is a Miyota 9015 movement, providing proven performance and plenty of robust surety given the price point.

If all of this sounds to you like the watch screams “cars!”, you’d be pleasantly surprised when you put it on. The overall effect is far more subtle than you might think.

   3    Harry Winston, Opus 14


It’s quite mad, it’s the size of Wiltshire and it costs £275,000. It’s also a watch which, even if I could afford it, I don’t think I could possibly carry off (who could?). But it is gloriously, unapologetically, fun; not to mention a very clever, beautifully made thing which makes a lot of people smile. A watch inspired by a 50s juke box has to be a show highlight based, if nothing else, on its sheer ingenuity and refusal to obey any rules whatsoever.

The company is now owned by the mighty Swatch Group and one gets the feeling that Swatch sees Harry Winston as the place where it can get away from boring everyday focus group constraints like “will it sell?” and “is there a jacket on Earth it will fit beneath the cuff of?”. The Opus 14 is Swatch’s supermodel mistress – expensive, impractical and, frankly, probably impossible to live with, but still somehow enticing.

To start describing the watch’s technical specifications and unusual features would be the work of ages, but it’s delightfully unhinged and you can read more about it on the company’s website.

   4    Satoshi Hiraga/Grand Seiko


My fourth highlight isn’t really a watch, or at least not only a watch, but a man; Mr Satoshi Hiraga, a Seiko Master Watchmaker. We’ll be carrying a feature on Seiko soon, but it may be that the company long-adored by watch fans but (wrongly) assumed to be “everyday” by the average punter is finally coming out of the shadows in the luxury sector.

All Seikos represent better value cog-for-cog than just about anything else in their price band (selling most strongly between £200 and £800), with a relentless focus on quality, in-house manufacture and great innovation; but at the top of the tree sits the watch world’s best kept secret, Grand Seiko (GS).

Starting at around £5,000, GS watches present performance, finish and component quality which is up there with vastly more expensive Swiss and German rivals, often significantly better in fact. Despite being 55 years old this year, GS has only recently begun to market itself internationally and supply pieces in any numbers outside Japan. It’s only a matter of time before it enters the wider public consciousness.

At SalonQP, as well as bringing most of the GS range, Seiko bought Mr Hiraga, a craftsman honoured only this month by the Japanese government for his skills. Usually found in the company’s exclusive Shizuku-Ishi Watch Studio high in the mountains, surrounded by Alpine scenery, he could be seen at the Saatchi Gallery stripping and assembling a GS Hi-Beat automatic. It was mesmeric watching this quiet, unassuming man work with minute pieces of metal, sprung alloys and wheels, and his simple, unassuming little bow when greeted with a round of applause afterwards made very clear that for him it is not about Mr Hiraga, but about Grand Seiko.


The man is like the watches he makes; not concerned with showing off, but with a relentless drive for quality. What a privilege to see him work.

   5    Bremont, Jaguar models Mk1 & II


None of the new generation of British watch companies can claim to have made the leap from niche to mainstream like Bremont.

Brothers Nick and Giles English, both motoring, bike and aviation nuts, have created a brand from nothing which within a few years has found itself with boutique outlets in the right parts of London and New York and become one of the mainstays of the luxury watch market.

Talking of mainstays, Bremont is also now the official timing partner of the Americas Cup yacht race. It’s very much arrived.

One of Bremont’s key drivers has been clever partnerships with companies which extend its brand proposition such as Norton motorcycles, Martin Baker ejector seats and, the latest of these, Jaguar, with whom it cooperated to make a series of limited editions last year, and then a more widely available “core collection” in this year.

The Jaguar watches weren’t launched at SalonQP (they arrived at Basel in February in fact) but remain one of my highlights. They offer something different in terms of feel and image to their Swiss rivals; and that undeniable “Britishness” really works.


The MkI runs Bremont’s BWC/01 movement whilst the chronograph MkII takes an upgraded Valjoux to chronometer level. Both dials are inspired by the tachometer from a Jaguar E-Type but the real cherry on the cake has to be inside, where the winding weight resembles the lightweight steering wheel from Jaguar’s iconic 1960s creation. It’s beautifully done.

To my shame I spoke less to Jaguar design legend Ian Callum (who was on the Bremont stand for the show) about cars than I did to Nick English about off-road motorcycling (he was just back, battered and broken, from an expedition in Morocco).

I harbour secret hopes that Nick’s passion for dirt riding will one day see Bremont make a Paris-Dakar watch, and on that day I take a hammer to my piggy bank.

James Clark is a communications consultant and journalist.