In the shadow of Britain’s tallest freestanding structure on an isolated West Yorkshire moor lies a company proving an exception to the common belief that horological manufacturing in the UK is a pipe-dream.
Sinclair Harding produces luxury clocks that are designed, manufactured and assembled entirely in the former offices of a software company on Emley Moor. Robert Bray moved the business into its new offices 18 months ago and set about creating a new home for the company he bought in 1995.
Clockmaker Sinclair Harding was originally established in Cheltenham in the 1960s but was being wound down by the mid-1990s, when Bray’s uncle discovered the business and suggested his production-engineer nephew might want to look into buying it. Robert did so in 1995 and moved down to Cheltenham to begin teaching himself the engineering principles behind timekeeping.
At this point Bray decided, through a combination of minimal orders, a lack of funds and his engineering expertise, that he would manufacture the parts needed to build his clocks, rather than order them from suppliers.
“I thought ‘if I’m going to be called a clockmaker, I’m damn well going to make them’ and I had no money anyway so I couldn’t afford to buy bits in. At the beginning, I hardly got any orders so, there was a guy making bits for Mike Harding, but to be honest I couldn’t afford to buy five sets of bits; they would have lasted me five years.”
Bray, now a vice president of the British Horological Institute, set to work, putting his expertise at the lathe to good use, saying of the period: “It enabled me to learn what makes the clocks tick, I served my apprenticeship.”
Today, Sinclair Harding is a pleasing mix of modern engineering and traditional technique with a team of 14, almost all recruited from Bray’s family. Plates, pinions and wheels may be hewn from brass and steel using CNC and wire erosion machines running 3D CAD software designs, but the six foot of chain required to drive the company’s Fusee designs are individually stamped and pinned on early 20th Century machines and then riveted and hammered by hand.
The modern machines are a huge investment costing in excess of £100,000 each but Bray has a policy of reinvesting in new equipment and not buying new machinery until the company can afford to buy it outright.
While Bray doesn’t believe he’ll ever feel the need to manufacture his own mainsprings, which are bought from a Swiss manufacturer, all other processes are subject to scrutiny. Necessity drives the company’s move towards a completely in-house process as specialist suppliers reach old age and seek to retire. Bray was recently forced to take on the manufacturing of the bells used in its striking pieces when the company that previously supplied them went into receivership.
“We machine them from solid and Stuart, who’s a bit musical, has learnt how to tune them. When we did this, people said ‘you can’t do it, there’s only six people in the UK who can tune bells’. We’ve seven now.”
Then there are the six feet of chains required to drive Bray’s Fusee clocks. He had been buying them from a husband and wife business in Devon, who used a painstaking process developed by the late Jim Habgood, formerly of Smiths, on pre-war machinery. But as the couple reached their mid-70s, they offered Bray the business.
“I didn’t really want to do it, I said if you get someone else to do it then we’ll buy the chains but eventually they told me they were retiring at Christmas and that was that, so I bought the business. But I’m glad I bought the business, they were certainly the last people doing it in the UK.”
Bray and his son Domonic have further refined the process, but it still involves hammering by hand and takes two days to make a chain for a single clock.
Bray is currently working on the final two pieces of bringing every process in-house, experimenting with blueing processes for clock hands as his supply of salts nears exhaustion, again as a result of a supplier reaching his 70s, and is also developing his own plating facility.
Each brass component crafted at Sinclair Harding is currently given a barrier coating of nickel before being gold-plated. Depending on the required finish of the particular clock, rhodium plating may then be applied on top of the gold. Bray’s experimentation with plating has led him to try palladium as a barrier layer. While nickel plating is fraught with difficulties, with 10 micron plating potentially exceeding the operating tolerances of escapement components, palladium offers a much thinner coating, 0.2 microns to be precise. Bray describes early results as “absolutely fantastic”.
Sinclair Harding also produces the wooden plinths that its clocks sit on, using time-consuming French polishing to bring out the grain of their veneers, one of the few clock manufacturers to do so.
The company does have a structured collection of clocks for sale to the public, starting at around £6,500, but the vast majority of those sold are tailored to individual requirements in some way. The company’s work is so well regarded that a number of other well-regarded brands contract Sinclair Harding to produce clocks on their behalf.
Bray, like most other horologists, has a fascination with the work of fellow Yorkshireman John Harrison and his groundbreaking work to solve the longitudinal problem. Bray was commissioned by magazine publisher EagleMoss to research and create a replica of Harrison’s H1 chronometer with the somewhat ambitious intention of creating a magazine series that offered a piece-by-piece working model of the clock. While the publication didn’t get past the first few issues, the project afforded Bray the opportunity to study Harrison’s documented work and although he couldn’t get permission to study the clocks themselves, he did build three replicas ‘in the spirit of the original’ if not direct copies. Sinclair Harding offers a three quarter scale replica of the H1 in its catalogue but Bray isn’t finished.
“My next project, from a H1 point of view, is a full-size replica, pitched at maritime museums. You can’t get access to the clock, I made a three quarter sized H1 which I started in 1999 and we’ve made nine over the years but it’s simplified, it’s my interpretation. In doing that we’ve learned so much, about what makes it tick. And the connection’s great, he [Harrison] was born in Foulby, 15 miles away.”
Bray is hoping that the position of the Admiralty, the owners of the Harrison clocks, has mellowed with regard to offering access to the pieces so that he may be able to study them more closely.
Sinclair Harding’s timepieces may be quintessentially British, being both designed and manufactured here, however its customers seem to be anything but.
“We do very little in the UK. Our biggest market at the moment is Japan, we can’t make enough of the skeleton clocks for them,” Bray explains. “We’re not doing as much in the States as we could, but we don’t advertise. We are making a conscious effort to push our brand a bit, in part through Wempe, who are our biggest customer worldwide, we have a rolling order with them. If we were only doing our clocks I guess we could produce them fairly quickly, but we don’t because we want to remain exclusive and we can’t rush any of the clocks. Russia’s died off a little bit, but Germany is the other big market, I think Wempe have 25 to 30 stores and we’re doing quite a bit in the Middle East, indirectly through other companies.”
The conversation turns to watches and I ask Bray if he might be tempted to turn his engineering expertise and equipment to watchmaking.
“We are tempted, it’s on the cards at some stage. We know nothing about watches at the moment. Stuart, my youngest son, is interested in learning more. I think the first stage would be to buy a movement and I found some people at Basel, that I thought we can work with, a smaller brand not ETA. We need to learn the skills really. It’s not something that scares us, we just need to bite the bullet. The problem with making a new movement, I would see, is further down the line with servicing and repairs. If you’re using a standard movement, chances are you’re going to be able to get spares. It seems to me a lot of people modify existing movements and call themselves watchmakers and that’s the dilemma for me. That is quite a big investment, we are looking at a German lathe that will do that kind of component, but that’s a hell of an investment.”
So how has Bray made a success of horological manufacturing in the UK?
“I run into problems if I have to deal with the Swiss suppliers or manufacturers. Philip Whyte of [Charles] Frodsham once said at a meeting of the vice presidents ‘It’s okay in Switzerland. You can walk down the road and there’s a pinion cutter there, a wheel supplier here, a spring maker there.’ Over here you have nothing and that’s why we do everything, because we’ve had to.”