"Knight's Shining Arbors"
This article by David Fickling is taken from International Watch, issue 55, pages 64-67, October 1999.
It has taken three years of painstaking work to create David Knight's K2, a unique, hand-made pocket watch that is part horology, part sculpture.
Watchmaking is now such a professionalised industry that it can be hard to relate to the qualities of craft and artistry that sustained the first horologists. The quest for precision has created watches that are ever more technical, dependant on miniaturisation and micro-engineering: in the creation of an accurate chronometer, there is little room for whimsy or individual expression.
The result is vast companies like ETA turning out thousands of ébauches for watch companies that can no longer afford to compete making their own movements. Even a genuine manufacture like Patek Philippe completes around 60 watches a day, a figure low enough to merit some boasting about Petek's unusually careful workmanship. This means that while watch cases often show a stunning variety of new and unusual styles, movements tend to be similar from one watch to the next: the product of centuries of fine-tuning, their components cannot be altered without adversely effecting their timekeeping.
So it is refreshing once in a while to discover a watchmaker who sees the movement as a work of art rather than a piece of technology, hand-making bizarre, idiosyncratic watches that are large, impractical, and absolutely beautiful. David Knight's designs hark back to an almost forgotten era of horology, when a watch was as much about entertainment, philosophy and narrative as it was about telling the time.
They are imbued with the spirit of the seventeenth Antiquorum this April (see IWW52): witty, grotesque, and endlessly fascinating.
David Knight came to watchmaking late, and almost by chance. After a five-year apprenticeship, he set up business in the early seventies as a watch repairer working extensively for Rolex and Omega. He often dreamed of making a watch of his own, but pressures of the time and money meant his ambition remained unfulfilled until the beginning of the nineties. The story is a familiar one to watchmakers: with ever-increasing popularity of quartz movements, David Knight found work drying up until there were simply not enough clients to sustain a business.
In 1992 he found himself on income support, a situation that would be disastrous to anyone without considerable resources of aptitude and application. Knight took the opportunity to apply the skills he had been honing during 30 years in the watch industry, and set about creating the K1 the first sculptural watch completed in 1996. Having spent most of his working life living under the shadow of the quartz explosion, he had always made efforts to diversify his skills away from conventional horology, and for many years he had practiced lost wax metal casting, a technique that allows complex forms to be cast repeatedly from single moulds.
"The decision to take up casting was a career move not a hobby", he explains. "I'd never consider myself to be artistic, so initially I cast only machined shapes. It never crossed my mind that I could make figures myself."
His attitude changed when he attempted his first carving, almost on a whim. A long-standing fan of martial arts, Knight sculpted a medallion with the likeness of a fellow Karate club member, and was surprised by the quality of the results. From that point, the idea of creating a sculptural watch took hold of him, and the result was the K1 (K standing for Knight).
Its essential characteristics were the sculpted bridges and cocks supporting the skeletonized movement and the unusual egg shaped case holding it. The cocks came in the form of little men holding the components in place, trying to steady the movement amidst the whirring gearwheels and springs. Originally conceived as slaves led on by a man with a whip, they soon became Greek gods inventing time, complete with scrolls, dividers and compasses; but the technical difficulties of both.
designs meant that the final version was far simpler. With figures like robust workmen operating a vast machine, it was exhibited at Goldsmith's hall.
"When you look at the finished watch, it does look quite static", admits Knight, "but that first watch was tremendously difficult - it was like climbing Everest. After that I knew what I could do, so the new watch is much more adventurous."
Indeed, it represents a huge leap forward from the first model. Firstly, it is much smaller - the figures are less spread out and integrated much more closely with the movement, it is also more complex, with the figurines involved in a narrative suggested by the very structure of the movement itself.
In contrast to the little men of the K1, this watch is filled with young girls and birds in flight. The main spring sits in a chariot pulled by a swan, supporting the lower jewels while the uppers are attached to smaller birds in flight. Girls run along either side of the movement, completing the bridges and holding the flying birds; at the top of the movement two more girls reveal the escapement from beneath a gilded cloth.
The overall effect is magical. In contrast to the K1, whose movement had been at pains to hold itself together, this is a watch that is running away with itself: "it is as if the figures had picked up all the moving parts and are about to disappear with them", comments Knight. The cast figures are all of gilded brass, the swan standing out because of its reddish colouring; blued steel hands come in a spade-shaped design of Knight's own devising, and the chapter-ring is marked with large Arabic numerals.
"Everyone liked the K1, but it was not as commercial as the new design" he explains.
When he first created the K1, dealers had initially valued it at a desultory £2,000 - an estimate that jumped to £15,000 within a year. But with only one model, it still seemed a poor return for three years' work and 4,000 hours of labour, so Knight decided to make the K2 in an edition of five pieces. He now hopes to sell one of them at Antiquorum New York on 4th December, although its place in the sale is still to be confirmed.
More commercial it may be, but it certainly does not pander to the prejudices of the market: as with the K1, it is very much Knight's personal vision that is embodied. A born iconoclast, he admits that "if someone makes something one-way, I want to make it another", and is impatient of horological conventions. "Watchmaking is minimalism", he says; "you can't be sculptural or elaborate because that might effects the accuracy - but I think the look of the thing is more important than how well it tells the time."
Convention decrees that screws are always blued to the same colour and corners are always square, but David Knight prefers to leave such elements in a more natural state. "Corners look better cut round, and its nice to leave the screws blued to different shades. Accuracy is not the point of the exercise: if you want accuracy you should buy a quartz", he adds. That said, there are always limits: a curly arabesque added to the escape leaver of the K1 had to be removed after its weight seriously hampered the watch's accuracy: and he admits to secret ambitions towards making a sculptural chronometer.