The Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, the UK’s second most populous city after London, is a warren of well-preserved Georgian-era red-brick buildings that by the early 1900s employed over 30,000 people. Still home to Europe’s largest concentration of businesses involved in the jewelry trade - from engravers to gemologists — its streets are slightly muted these days. No longer do the rasps and clangs of machinery bellow out from long bricked-up archways.
And where once the pavements must have thronged with flat-capped workers at the end of the day, you’re now more likely to catch a few suits from the nearby city center head for one of its gentrified pubs or bars, none of which look like the kind of place frequented by people who’d know what to do with a soldering iron.
Yet behind the walls of these buildings, magic is still being conjured by several hundred highly skilled workers.
Some are last-of-their-ilk veterans with no apprentice to whom they can pass on their knowledge, while others are fresh-faced trainees at centuries-old heritage firms who are faithfully keeping the fires of craftsmanship burning.
Struthers doesn’t really fit neatly into either bracket. Husband and wife watchmakers Craig and Rebecca (Struthers is their surname) are too young to be called veterans, and their company is only seven years old. But the way they make watches - using rescued and restored lathes and sundry other vintage equipment - owes almost everything to the skills and techniques of yesteryear.
Struthers’ story begins back in 2004 when the couple met while training as watchmakers at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. By this time Rebecca, the first watchmaker in Britain to gain a PhD in horology (on top of several other qualifications), had already studied silversmithing, fine art, gemology and jewelry, which led her eventually to watches.
“It was a random discovery while at university,” she says. “I had no idea at the time that watchmaking was even a subject. I wasn’t familiar with it but I really loved that balance between science and art.”
“I started doing some basic articulated pieces within the jewelry I was making and at the same university they happened to also teach watchmaking. Some of the students on the watchmaking course saw my work and asked me if I had ever considered watchmaking, so I checked out the course and that was it. I completely fell in love with it. And Craig was already in his second year at that point.”
With Rebecca’s route into horology owing so much to serendipity, you might at least expect her other half to compensate by being one of those precocious children whose gets the watch bug by taking apart the old pocket watch bequeathed him by an elderly relative. Yet Craig’s path to watchmaking was even more unorthodox.
He has, over the years, been a civil servant, a builder and for a long time worked in IT but was “terrible” at it. “This was back in the early 90s when you had those big screens with the green text,” he says. I was in IT for about 15 years but by the end, the people I was supposed to be helping were showing me what to do.”
“I can definitely confirm that Craig isn’t great with computers,” laughs Rebecca. “It’s a mystery to me how he survived it.”
Size wise the Struthers factory is as big as a very spacious apartment. The room where they conduct their business and meet people is painted racing green and filled with an array of vintage artefacts - bits of old machinery, an old twin lens reflex camera, beautiful wooden boxes.
It’s a bit like being on the set of Peaky Blinders, the hugely successful TV series set in 1920s Birmingham, scenes of which were shot in the area. Everything is placed reassuringly out of reach of their energetic pet dog and company mascot Archie, a Staff cross, who has been confined to another room today.
The Struthers, who look less like horology boffins than a two-piece indie band you might find on the cover of a music magazine, founded their business with a £15k bank loan in 2012 after they had both worked for years in vintage and antique watch restoration. Between them they have so many letters after their names that their joint CV probably resembles an elaborate computer code sequence. Craig was brought up in Essex, on the outskirts of London, while Rebecca is a Birmingham native.
Initially called the Heritage Watch Company, Struthers was at first based in London (their dials still bear the name ‘Struthers London’). It then moved to the biggest city in the Midlands, where Craig and Rebecca could invest more in the watchmaking process and less in rent money.
Since its launch, Struthers’ watches have been powered by re-purposed and remastered calibers that have mostly been salvaged from bullion dealers who have stripped the watches they were housed in of their precious metals.
We’ve never been the kind of watchmakers who want to do absolutely everything in-house.
One of their earliest successes was a Lonmin Design award in 2013 for their Stella watch, a single-handed rock crystal pendant timepiece which was powered by a modified 1960s Universal Geneve Caliber 69. Struthers have so far tended to use refurbished movements from the 1940s to the 1960s which are beautifully engraved and displayed through exhibition casebacks. Though neither Craig nor Rebecca do any of the engraving themselves, Craig did a course in it to better understand the process and the difference in metals.
“We’ve never been the kind of watchmakers who want to do absolutely everything in-house,” he says. “We like to collaborate with other craftspeople to create something that is beautiful throughout. That 18th century artisan approach.”
Struthers tend not to keep any of their timepieces in their factory as they don’t hold on to any of them for long. Much of their work is bespoke and pre-ordered by clients, so the moment one is finished, it heads straight to the customer.
So apart from a few half-finished cases and old movements that haven’t yet been worked on, Craig and Rebecca have little to show clients and watch journalists but a beautifully produced catalogue of their models and processes, as well as their relatively brief history.
Their Kingsley model is clearly something of a flagship model though. Part of their ‘Tailor-made’ range, it uses a manual-wind recommissioned Omega movement from the 1950s, stripped back to basics and refined with hand-engraved acanthus leaf scrolling for that intricate look that nods towards A. Lange & Söhne.
Measuring 38.5mm in case width, it is in that wearable middle-territory that looks neither too small nor too large for anyone. The feuille hands and teardrop lugs compliment the general curviness of the case, which is created in-house using traditional silver and goldsmithing techniques and hand-finished.
They both admit that they weren’t trying to “reinvent the wheel” with the Kingsley model and that there is nothing outlandish or original in its design. “At the end of the day a watch is a basic mathematical principle based on gear ratios and physics,” says Rebecca.
“Anything that you are working around will already exist, and unless you really are going out there like, say, Greubel Forsey, and you’re going to invest in research and development and have a scientific lab - investing in new materials and things - you’re just working around a basic mathematical formula and physics. And what you do around that is the art, and that’s where we find our inspiration I suppose,” she says.
Each case takes between 160 and 200 hours of forming, burnishing, soldering, hand-finishing and firing. The starting price for the Kingsley is £16,250.
The Kelso ladies watch, with its 20 mm hexagonal case in 18k white, yellow, or rose gold, is powered by a manual-wind Longines caliber from the 1960s. A sapphire-set winding crown and roman numerals give it a Cartier-esque elegance.Build time for both watches is between four to six months.
A one-off project that confirmed their versatility and their ability to recruit the services of other masters in their craft, was their Kullberg edition - at 50 mm the biggest watch they’ve made so far. For this a buyer approached them with a pair of antique Beretta rifles whose intricate design he wanted echoed in a watch. Struthers sourced an antique movement dating from around 1880 to power the watch and commissioned an independent gun engraver to work his considerable magic on the dial and movement. It is a rare English movement with free-sprung balance and a fusee and chain transmission by watchmaker Victor Kullberg, a Swede who settled in London in the mid-19th century.
What has been taking up most of their time in the last couple of years however is the mysteriously named Project 248, which is where Struthers will finally make five of their own in-house movements from scratch.
It’s called 248 after two minds, four hands (those belonging to Craig and Rebecca, obviously) and an 8 mm lathe, which is what they founded their workshop with.
“We asked, ‘What could we make comfortably with the equipment we have?’” says Craig. “Project 248 is something that came about due to the desire to make something original, something our own. It’s a time-only movement. We wanted to do something where we could re-produce and change some of the materials.
“So it combines an English lever escapement with Breguet shock settings and German silver and at the same time [we are] trying to make it all sit together, like it’s meant to be. It’s a large movement which is something I Iike as with our machines it’s easier to work with.”
“It will look like a strange hybrid between British and German in the end,” says Rebecca. “We’re cherry-picking what we love about watches from the past 150 years that we’ve worked on and putting them all together.”
Craig acknowledges that they’re putting aesthetics ahead of accurate time-keeping. “I got into watches through art and antiques not through an interest in scientific progress.”
Project 248 will look like a strange hybrid between British and German movements in the end.
The watches will be made in groups of five. Five after the first five and maybe another five after that. At the time of writing they have four out of the initial five buyers lined up. All are so far British apart from an Indonesian collector.
Struthers isn’t a company that tends to blow its own trumpet very loudly and it’s got less to do with Craig and Rebecca’s unassuming nature and more to do with the fact they are so busy.
“So far it’s been a lot of word of mouth, with people knowing someone who has already got one and they like it,” says Rebecca. “I suppose it’s organic really, the way we’ve grown so far.
She says they are aware of the growing number of collectors in the Gulf because they were part of the first International Horology Forum hosted by Dubai Watch Week at Christie’s in London last year, which they found interesting.
“If we do ever get bigger and get the opportunity to stop over there it’ll be easier to show people what we do,” says Rebecca. “But at the moment we find the best way of getting people to know about us is to invite them to our workshop. There’s so much marketing in the watch industry now that it’s very rare you actually see people getting their hands dirty making things.
“People come here and see us on lathes and at our bench then they really connect and realize that what we’re doing is completely handmade and bespoke and that they are getting something completely unique.
“But trying to get that message across, like on a website, without having something tangible to show people is tricky but it’s about patience and waiting for people to find us. They tend to find us rather than the other way around.”
When Project 248 is completed it will be the first in-house timepiece to be made in Birmingham for over 100 years. And given their desire to share knowledge and pass on their sublime skills — their first apprentice, Heather Fisher joined them in 2018 — who would bet against Struthers being around in some form in another century or two.
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