Interview: Watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin
We sit down with Peter Speake-Marin as he shares with us his thoughts on the watch industry, his brand and Tai Chi Qigong.
It isn’t everyday that you get to sit down with a master watchmaker such as Peter Speake-Marin, to learn more about what makes him tick (no pun intended). So when we were given the opportunity to meet the man behind the Speake-Marin, there was little hesitation in saying yes. From his accidental foray into the world of watchmaking to his thoughts on the era of independent watchmakers, we bring you our conversation with the man himself, Peter Speake-Marin.
Tell us about how you started out in watchmaking and what is it you love about watches.
I started out in watchmaking by accident in 1985, a long long time ago. It was unintentional, unplanned. I was 17 years old and looking for direction. I had an average education, and a very kindly careers teacher dug up a prospectus from Hackney Technical College, and it clicked. It was the very first time that I had excelled at anything; I was average at everything prior to that. I had a certain tendency to like things which are technical and mechanical and creative, but never a real clear direction, and (at 17), I landed in something which is kind of intrinsically part of who I am.
What I love about watchmaking or horology comprises three elements that I liked when I was at school, which were history (I always had a fascination with history), art (things which are created), and mechanics. And within horology you have all three elements.
Did you always want to have your own brand or did you see yourself working in your own creative shop like Renaud & Papi, where you worked for a time?
No, not at all; it was never an aspiration to have my name on a watch. In fact, the very first watch I made… well, it did have my name on it, but only for balance. The company name was called The Watch Workshop, and I put Speake-Marin on it because it needed to have equilibrium on either side of the dial. But when I first started making my watches, collectors said they didn’t want The Watch Workshop, because they said that sounded like jack shit, which doesn’t sound very attractive. “But you’ve got a really cool name, so we want you to sign it, because you’re the artist behind the watch.” That’s how Speake-Marin became a brand name.
I became a watchmaker as a brand, making my own watches, because I had learnt virtually everything that there was to learn in my field, and I’ve always had a hunger to grow as a person in my sphere. And the only area where you can continue to grow forever, is when you find yourself in a creative domain, where you can continuously follow and pursue different designs, different mechanics, different ideas. So it was very much a part of who I am, which has led me to develop a brand but the idea of simply having my name on a watch was not something that was a driving force behind it happening.
What’s changed since the Harry Winston project and starting your own brand?
For the first eight years of being self-employed, I worked as a consultant for different companies, one of which was Harry Winston. This was part of my learning process, which is something that I needed to have as a human being. What has changed since then is kind of everything. Because the industry within which I work today is not the same one as when I began; I did the project with Harry Winston now 12 years ago.
When I first began, with collectors, the first question would be ‘What makes this different?’. That would be the first question. And the last question would be ‘What does it cost?’ Today, what has changed is that the first question is, ‘What does it cost?’ and almost the last question is ‘What makes it different?’ So the world that we live in today is a different world, not better or worse. There’s always pluses and minuses on both sides but it is a very different world from the one where I first began. I think it is actually a better world, a more intelligent world.
Can you tell us about the Black Magister novelty? It reminds us strongly of the Harry Winston double tourbillon.
It has got nothing whatsoever to do with Harry Winston. It has everything to do with the first watch that I made, which was a pocket watch tourbillon. Because my very first watch was a tourbillon, I’ve always had a love of tourbillons, and I’ve had them in my collection now for about the last four or five years, something like that. There’s no association with Harry Winston within that product, except for the fact that technically as a tourbillon, and I design tourbillons for them and they make tourbillons as do a hundred other brands. What is unique about this particular product, is that you have a configuration that doesn’t exist with any other brand, and you have a beautiful gothic sense for everything which is technical on the left hand side of the watch, and everything which is indication of time, power reserve and day and night indication, is very conservative, very symmetrical, on the right hand side of the watch.
How important is the in-house movement to the Speake-Marin brand?
We have in-house calibres, simple and technical, and we also use calibres by companies such as Voucher and ETA. For everybody who likes the in-house calibre, there is somebody who likes something else. There are arguments that go both ways. For myself, and I am sort of my brand, it is not the most important thing in the world to have an in-house movement. What is the most important thing is to have the freedom and the choice to realize the ideas that I have. If I made every component of every watch that I produced, I would only produce a few watches per year, and I wouldn’t be able to execute the different ideas that I have. So in the same way that you use a different tool for a different job, I use different calibres in relation to different products and different watches along the way. If I lived for 300 years, then I would want to make every piece myself but I am limited by time and therefore I have to be realistic.
Part of what I love is diversity. I have three collections with more than 50 different references. I’ve made hundreds of very different watches – not one watch a hundred times, but lots of different pieces – I’ve done more as an independent watchmaker in diversity than I think any other independent watchmaker, and also many different brands, bigger brands as well. And so what I love more than anything is to have that freedom to be able to explore different ideas. So everybody loves manufacture movements but they are only part of the story, they’re not all of the story.
Who is the Speake-Marin collector and what is important to this person?
Conventionally, the Speake-Marin collector is the same kind of collector that buys a lot of independent product. They tend to be people who have an above-average level of knowledge when it comes to watch collecting. They have probably already bought most of the conventional brands and are looking for something different. They are not necessarily as concerned about what other people think. If you have maybe your standard Hublot or Rolex owner, it is more of a status symbol to present to other people what they want to reflect about themselves. People who buy independent watchmaking products, I think quite often buy it because they love watchmaking. They love it for the product rather than for the image that it creates and projects to other people. Also the people who buy my watches tend to be into cars, photography, high end hi-fi, and are more mature. They’re probably starting in mid-30s, and go above from there on.
Do you miss working with your own hands to build watches from start to finish?
Yes. Big time. The only time I feel, in my work, fully at peace, is actually when I’m at a bench, which doesn’t happen very often anymore, because it’s like a zen moment. Because when I’m at a bench, I know where all my tools are, what they do. I know that world, I control that world. That world is about a meter square, and I’m in my zone. Outside of that zone you control nothing in this life, in that sense. But I do miss it, and I’m trying to orchestrate my life so that I get back to it as well.
Has the era of the independent watchmaker peaked?
Watchmaking is a constantly changing animal. It doesn’t just apply to independent watchmaking but watchmaking as a whole. The wrist-watch industry, even though a billion dollar business, is a very new one. It began at the beginning of the 20th century. It then came to a conclusion pretty much in the 1960s, came back again in the 1980s, and then it suffered again around 2007, 2010, and it is today in the process of morphing, changing, adapting. So are the people who are buying the product – how they buy it, where they buy it, what they buy, how much they spend. So is the technology – how timepieces are manufactured is also changing. So it’s not so much that the independent world is changing; it’s all changing.
It is actually part of what I find fascinating about our industry – that people have this perception that, you know, the company’s been around for 200 years. Well, actually, they probably haven’t. And the ones that have, they’re not the same companies that they were at the beginning. What they do carry with them is DNA and the inspiration of people who died many, many years ago.
The wonderful thing about independent watchmaking is that people who buy my products are living in the period when the watchmaker is still alive. And I think that human element is actually quite a unique thing. It’s like buying art from artists who are alive today. I think we’re in the beginning of a new period which will probably have a big influence on the watch industry as a whole in the future. So the industry is consistently changing, morphing, on every level: client base, manufacturing base, branding, the whole thing.
Has it peaked? No, it never will peak. Because it’s like with music, like writing; you’ve got so many notes and you’ve got so many words and letters, but there’ll always be new novels. There’ll always be new music. There’ll be a bit of the same rubbish that you’ve seen before, because people think, ‘Oh! People are successful doing that, so we’ll do the same thing!’ which doesn’t last forever. So you’ll always find fantastic new singers, new authors, new watchmakers… honestly it’s the beginning, it’s just part of the process, and it will continue.
Collectors used to look to the work of independents such as yourself, Kari Voutilainen and Vianney Halter to take the pulse of what was hot in watchmaking. Do you think that time has passed?
I think that maybe to a degree, when you have something that is fresh and brand new, everybody leans towards it. They may not necessarily buy it, but they’ll lean towards it because it’s something which is fresh. But fresh and new is only fresh and new for a short period of time, and then everything tends to calm down. It’s the nature of it. It’s like when you have a brand new brand that is hugely successful; you know it ain’t gonna last forever. They may continue as a brand forever, but the initial buzz will only be a buzz.
People like the people you mentioned, Vianney, Kari and myself, we’re all about the same generation. I think, ironically, I’m probably a little bit younger by one or two years, but we’ve been doing this now on and off, well for myself, 30 years; Kari, probably 10 years; Vianney, I’m guessing 15 or 16 years. And we’re kind of established. People know us, they see us, they’ve seen our journeys in different ways, and there are many new people who come along as well. So I don’t know if we are seen as leading the pulse of what goes on. We’re just individuals, you know? We’re just these little anomalies in an industry, who, with every year that we exist, become a little bit stronger, a little bit better known, thanks to people like you, and through the Internet, through photography, through interviews, through the enormous number of forums that exist out there. So I think we’re just part of the story. We don’t lead the story. There are too many stories out there.
How does the Speake-Marin brand elevate itself from the maddening crowd of names in watchmaking?
The same way that all independent companies do. Every authentic brand born of a living watchmaker makes product that is a representation of that individual, in the same way that an artist who makes something original. His art or his music will be defined by who he is. This does not apply to companies that try to do rehashes of Patek Philippe Calatravas or Rolex Oysters or Cartier Tanks because it is something that’s proven to be successful but under a different brand name. So the thing that makes Speake-Marin unique is Peter. The thing that makes Voutilainen unique is Kari. The thing that makes Halter unique is Vianney. So it’s very much the individuals. We are personal brands, if you like; we are human brands.
What new technologies in watchmaking inspire you most? For example, growing parts instead of machining them, practical applications…?
I’m not inspired by all the technologies but I see them as being fantastic tools. It means that you can make things quite easily, things that have never been able to be manufactured before. Sometimes they’re a little bit freaky or frightening, because you know that if you make something in a very unique way, it cannot be made in any other way. And from a longevity point of view, that’s maybe not always the best thing. But technologies are becoming more and more available to a wider group of people so you can always probably remanufacture those components in the future.
Technology is purely a tool. A tool is useless without creativity, without the human aspect. So the machinery, robotics… all of this kind of new technologies are fantastic tools but they mean nothing if they don’t have people with creativity and imagination to actually use them and exploit them.
When you’re not in front of a bench, which you say is your zen zone, what do you do in your free time that keeps you calm?
I have two kids, and I’m married, for many many moons now, and I like spending time with them. In my house, I have what my wife calls my ‘man-room’. That’s where I have my little gym, which is actually very stoic and is not all pretty… it’s like a cell, almost. And in my room, I work out. I’ve now adopted Taichi Qigong, and I find that is extraordinary, and that is actually a way that I unblock my energy. Well, I need that, and when I do that I’m aware of how powerful it is. So I do a combination of things on a selfish level, I do that, I work out a little bit, I run every weekend, and most mornings I take my Welsh corgi for a walk through a forest for nearly 45 minutes to an hour. It’s all kind of very solitary activities but they’re the things that I do that helps me, to a degree, to remain sane.
Find out more about the timepieces from Peter Speake-Marin by visiting the Speake-Marin website.