When he went looking for someone to make sapphire crystals and ruby jewels for his boutique brand, British watchmaker Robert Loomes discovered a company in north London that specialized in making unusual lenses for cameras. The machines they were using to polish those lenses, he realized, were originally designed and used for making watch crystals 70 years ago. Loome immediately contracted the company to make his parts, because he doesn’t miss an opportunity, especially when it has to do with unorthodox production.
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Loomes’ company, Robert Loomes & Co., makes gorgeous watches in small, limited editions of 50 or 100 pieces. They contain new old stock Smiths movements, extensively reworked and signed, simply: “Robert Loomes, made in England.” The Loomes name is as good as a crest. Watchmaking is in Robert Loomes’ blood, and so is England: His father, Brian Loomes, wrote several definitive texts on the subject of antique clocks; but the family traces its watchmaking roots farther back, all the way to the 1600s, to one Thomas Loomes.
Thomas was a bit of a rogue as well as a member of the 17th century British watchmaking establishment. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London at one point for selling watchmaking secrets to the Dutch. Robert hasn’t been imprisoned; but he has joined the growing cadre of watchmakers who are pushing British manufacturing and horology as far as possible. Like Christopher Ward, Roger Smith, and the brothers English, Loomes is leading by example with ingeniously resourceful small-scale production techniques.
The first batch of 100 Loomes & Co watches sold out quickly; their current offerings include the 100 piece limited edition “White Robin,” with a 39 millimeter stainless steel case and enamel dial at £9,800. The “Red Robin” is another current limited edition. This one is 50 pieces in 18K rose gold, which sells for £17,800. Both watches are also available in a 30 millimeter ladies watch, limited editions in the same quantities as the men’s, for the same prices.
Loomes joined the family business in 1988, apprenticing with his father and David Swindells, FBHI (Fellow of the British Horological Institute), a man whom he “watched in awe as a teenager when he crafted a pallet fork with his bare hands.” That may not sound like much, but it’s the horological equivalent of a mountain man killing a grizzly with his bare hands. Loomes struck out on his own five years later, eventually founding Robert Loomes & Co. He leads and manages production; the rest is left to his wife and business partner, Robina.
When he started the company, Loomes ignored the conventions of German and Swiss watch manufacturing to build his own custom CNC machines. He intends to perfect them. In his own words, he “soldiers on obsessively designing components here and tweaking our capabilities and capacity with nary a glance at the Swiss.” His custom-built machines are tailored to the nature of Loomes & Co.’s work and to the volume of their production, saving him several hundred thousand dollars.
By Loomes’ account, “Nobody in the world does [this technique] as well.”
While Loomes is still tapping his large reserve of new old stock Smiths movements, his current R&D efforts are aimed squarely at eventually producing his own in-house calibers. In fact, he now has the capability to do everything in house except for a couple of springs and some non-metal components. Manufacturing a watch movement isn’t the big challenge. That’s relatively simple. Scaling up manufacturing to make many movements with interchangeable parts? That’s hard.
Loomes likes the challenge, but remember, his is a small brand that sells fewer than 100 watches per year. That’s less (way less) than Christopher Ward makes, but more than, say, Roger Smith (about ten or twelve). And there’s the rub: at those volumes, Loomes’ R&D budget is tight.
Loomes has had to get creative. He has received funding from the European Union, which grants funds to companies that do groundbreaking work. Loomes & Co. had to submit parts to prove they are doing so, such as a balance carved from a single block of Invar. (Balances are normally made of three parts riveted together.) By demonstrating such capability, the company not only showed they were doing groundbreaking work, but that they were furthering the cause of British manufacturing in other industries too. And earning their R&D budget, to boot.
Besides increased CNC machining capabilities, the R&D has paid off in other ways. Loomes & Co. created a method of hand enameling their dials in white glass with colored glass inks. By Loomes’ account, “Nobody in the world does [this technique] as well.” Other innovations trickle out too; for example, their method of dial manufacture creates integral dial feet, rather than feet that are soldered on.
Despite Loomes’ disinterest in Swiss and German watchmaking traditions, he and other British watchmakers have their opinions. Loomes is a friend and admirer of Chris Ward and his company; they share the belief that they offer customers a better value by selling directly rather than using conventional distribution channels. Loomes calls this “selling through the workshop door”.
These new approaches are what keep Loomes and his small company in competition with more mainstream firms. In his opinion, they “perfectly exemplify the kind of ingenious approach that newer British brands bring to the industry. It is about being clever and spotting opportunities.” This is where small-scale horological visionaries, like Loomes, pick their battles. And it’s where they win.