Robert Loomes & Co. is a family watch and clock business with roots dating back to 1650. Thomas Loomes, a well known period watchmaker, was the first man to apply the pendulum to clocks in the UK. Fast forward a few hundred years, and by 1960, the company had moved into watch and clock restoration.
Robert, the current incumbent at the head of the Loomes dynasty and the gentleman kind enough to share his thoughts with Timezone today – himself a British Horological Institute trained watchmaker, was told almost 25 years ago by his father that there was, “no money in watches!”. Heeding this advice, he dedicated the first ten years of his career toward the restoration of clocks as part of the family business.
And yet, one might say inevitably, friends and clients came to the Loomes workshop in Stamford, Lincolnshire asking, “can you restore or repair this watch for me?”. This inexorably lead to more and more work involving wristwatches. After a very short time, watches became the dominant force in the company’s day to day operation and, around six years ago, Robert Loomes & Co. began selling their own pieces.
Initially these watches were produced with imported parts, mainly from Switzerland. However this proved insufficient for both Loomes and his clients. “We had customers coming back to us and saying, ‘very nice, but I want something English. Can you do it? Is it possible?’, and so I set out to find all the little firms we needed.” He wasn’t prepared, however, for the complexity involved with finding said companies and the length of time it would actually take to produce a fully finished English made wristwatch. That watch is now here and it’s called The Robin.
The Robin Wristwatch in all it’s understated glory
The two models currently produced by the brand use Smiths movements. Smiths are British technology conglomerate that included a now defunct watch brand, and were the last mass producer of wristwatches in the UK. It took Loomes months and months of hunting and eventual negotiation to acquire the movements. The calibers themselves are new old stock which, “had been gathering dust in a suppliers warehouse for almost 60 years and required a lot of TLC to turn them into something that would function as an effective 21st Century watch”. The movement is the very same calibre that was used in the famous Hillary Everest expedition watch of the 1950’s, and of course the beautiful Smiths military timepieces utilised by the RAF throughout the 1960’s.
Loomes elaborates on the movement…”(Smiths) Made in Britain was their top grade, and that’s what these movements are. Every single part was made in this country; every jewel, every component. They were paranoid after WW2 that they wouldn’t be able to get supplies in from another country, so they set up their own jewel cutting company, their own hairspring company and so on and so forth”. Interestingly, the hairspring company survives and has evolved over the years, now operating in the aerospace world where they still manufacture timers; Loomes works with them and utilises their expertise in his current timepieces for balance and mainsprings.
The exquisitely finished Smiths calibre
Loomes watches do not merely use the old Smiths movement, cleaned up and bolted directly into the case. The movement is completely stripped down to its component parts. It is then thoroughly cleaned, all plates are subsequently hand chamfered, “black” polished and engraved; heat blued screws are used, the centre wheel is jewelled – something Smiths didn’t originally do – Loomes even re-jewel the escapement to get the height of the jewel set to tolerances far tighter than those of 60 years ago (remember, this movement was originally manufactured five decades before the introduction of CAD prototyping and computer controlled CNC machinery!), and the balance staff is modified far beyond the original implementation. At the time Smiths, who according to Loomes, “lacked the means to develop shock-proofing themselves” could only buy such parts in from Switzerland and so the pivots, “are like tree stumps, really strong”.
One of Loomes’ party tricks is to drop the cased movement from height onto a carpeted floor, watching it take the abuse with aplomb!
Some would say the lack of shock-proofing is a minus for the consumer, but to use anything from outside the UK would have been the antithesis of what Loomes has been striving to achieve all these years; “we thought what we’ve got to find is the stock of the non-shock movements so that we know that we’re starting with an entirely English made object, and then improve it.”. Loomes is confident that both the rightness of the original design and his modification are more than adequate in providing robustness and longevity.
Moving onto the watches, one can only report good things. They can be had in either 30mm or 39mm diameter with a height of approximately 12mm for both models. While the 39mm model isn’t small by historical standards, it also isn’t so large as to appear clownish on the wrist as is the case with many a modern watch.
The two piece case is manufactured from a block of solid Sheffield stainless steel which is milled in Derbyshire. The design is understated as one would expect with an instrument wanting to epitomise traditional English design. One notices a tapered bezel that flows organically into the sides of the flawlessly polished case, while at the rear the case-back is chamfered toward a sapphire window that grants access to the beautifully finished Smiths calibre.
Of course the movement is stunning, elegantly simple as all calibre’s utilised in military applications should be. But in this installation, it’s finished to a very, very high standard with engraving reminiscent of traditional English pocket watches from the 19th Century, hand chamfering of the plates and traditional frosting of the base plate.
Detail shot of the Robin’s rear
Onto that which the enthusiast spends most of his or her time viewing: the dial. The hands are acid etched from blanks, itself a fairly cost effective thing to do. However they are then heat blued and polished by a watchmaker, a process that takes many hours to arrive at the end product. The beautifully installed sapphire crystal is produced in North London by a company that makes lenses for satellite cameras, and is hand polished using original 1940’s watch glass polishing machines on the premises.
Detail shot of the 30mm Robin’s beautifully made dial
The dial is made in house, using a glass bead blasting machine created by Loomes specifically to produce a frosted finish. Typically, one would use nitric acid to frost metal, but after months of trial and error, Loomes was entirely dissatisfied with the results and so went about building his own bead blaster, one delicate enough to create the effect of acid frosting. The Roman numerals, indices track and brand name are then applied – again by hand – and finally the dial is rhodium plated creating a timeless, classic looking wristwatch.
Wristshot of the 39mm Robin on your intrepid reporters wrist
On the wrist the watch is beautifully proportioned, with the elegant yet strong lugs and what with the super smooth stainless case, it feels as if one is wearing liquid metal. It is easy to read, not too heavy and a joy to behold. The frosted dial finish draws the wearer into the watch, and the blued hands compliment the silver dial, perfectly. I would go so far as saying that this is a near perfect dress watch and hugely impressive.
As to the future of Robert Loomes & CO? During the 1960’s, Smiths started to experiment with producing their own chronometer grade movement in an attempt to keep up with modern standards in order to continue to supply the UK military. But, like many other European watch companies, were stopped in their tracks by the quartz revolution and thus the development ceased and not soon after so did watch production.
Loomes, upon finding the stock of movements mentioned above began to think along the lines of, “how can I turn this into an even better movement?”. Unbeknown to him he was beginning to tread in the very same footsteps of those original Smiths engineers. He currently has one very special example, “chugging away in my safe back home” as a test bed for the next generation of Loomes wristwatches.
Exciting times indeed for the UK watch industry.
Both models retail at around $8900 US.