Making time for an obsession

Making time for an obsession

Award-winning feature writer Maureen Messent – BQ’s latest recruit – reports in awe at the timepieces manufactured by a couple of horologists in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

How’s this for magic at the top of three draughtily neglected staircases in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter? “Put out your hand,” says Craig Struthers, aged 44, an Essex boy with a touch of the young Michael Caine, as he then pours a stream of platinum and sapphires into
my palm.

It’s a pendant watch. The first automatic pendant watch, in fact, that works with a spinning ball rotating on a gimbal – the ‘arms’ used to steady ships’ chronometers at sea.

The watch face is minimalistic, clean as vodka over ice. Then turn the little ball over and you’re looking into the gold mechanism, as minutely and busily intricate as its face is serenely simple. Tiny sapphire cabochons are the only frivolity here, the pendant hanging from a platinum chain.

“D’you like it?” he asks. No, I don’t. I lust after it. Drool, even, over a gloriously complex and beautifully unexpected adult toy that would have left 16th century watch-makers disbelieving but enchanted.

“We were rather pleased with it,” says his willowy wife, Rebecca – understatement, you soon realise, is a mark of the Struthers.

The judges of the prestigious Lonmin Design Innovation Award were impressed, too. Craig and Rebecca won it, then followed up with their Struthers Regency collection, unveiled at the UK premier watch exhibition, SalonQP, held annually at the Saatchi Gallery, London.

Another design includes a solid silver hand-engraved design, with lugs and buckles hand-forged from 19 separate pieces.

The couple’s latest collection, to capture the spirit of the Malvern-based Morgan Car Company’s Aero 8 relaunch this year, was sculpted in 18-carat white gold round a remastered vintage Omega and is hand-engraved. Just eight pieces were made, selling at £22,500 each, and more orders have come for designs based on Morgans from as far afield as Australia.

Will they relax when their order books are bulging? “No,” they chorus. “We’d be embarrassed. This isn’t work to be hurried or us harried. We need to talk constantly about each piece.”

Don’t be taken in by the Struthers’ skyward trajectory. They make it sound easy, omitting the sweat and midnight oil burned in earlier days. And, as Craig admits, his earlier careers have been car-crash scenarios.

“I’m a failed office-partitioner, failed mortgage-arranger, and art school drop-out,” he beams. “A start in foil-printing, now back in favour, was throttled by computers, so my father, a policeman, insisted I work as a police civilian.

“Bad mistake, that. So boring I’d throw sickies to convert old vacuum-cleaners and guitars into radios. So when I heard of watch-repairing, I started for myself. Rebecca is the classy one of us.”

She graduated from Birmingham School of Jewellery after school in Sutton Coldfield, is Perry Barr-born and bred with ancestral links to silver-smithing. She then discovered that watches were moving jewellery and got the first of a series of jobs in London, a first chance to meet people, rich people, prepared to pay huge sums for beauteous objects.

She found herself at Fellows & Sons in our Jewellery Quarter before heading to London auctioneers Bonhams, then working with a Mayfair watch restorer where she was sent for training with Bulgari in Switzerland, then back to London’s Bond Street as a dealer in the Royal Arcade.

Struthers 01

They met at a couple of London parties, Craig and Rebecca. She designed a new case for his father’s Jaeger watch, which Craig was repairing. They then lost touch as he was immersed in old watch repairs and Rebecca was designing news ones. When they met again, both realised watches were to become their careers and Rebecca admitted she was out on her feet at London’s pace of life.

“Okay,” he told her, “let’s get a bank loan and start making our own in Birmingham.”

That’s exactly what happened. Within a month they’d arrived here, married, clutched their £15,000 start-up loan and money from all the assets they’d sold on eBay. They networked
like mad from a couple of offices in the Big Peg (often seen as a crèche for talent-nurture), and realised that no, their flight from London hadn’t been ill-considered at all, simply the start of careers that mixed business with pleasure.

“Years ago,” recalls Craig, “in my art school days, I was a bit of a biker and we’d meet up in Epping Forest to boast and josh. Then, one day, Grayson Perry joined us, all big hair and prosperity on a Harley-Davidson, and I envied him. Less for the bike than for his cracking the idea of throwing pots that sold for about £3,000 each back then – now they’re over £30,000 each – and having fun doing it. When we came to Birmingham, we knew we’d cracked it too.”

They’d work round-the-clock, would the Struthers. Learned that going out to dinner “to forget work for a while” wasn’t on because they’d talk shop throughout the meal and get home with heads buzzing with new ideas. And, as they began to be noticed, Rebecca found a couple of forlorn rooms in Spencer Street (one-time haunt of a cape-maker) and face-lifted them, single-handed, in just over a week.

What’s evolved is a rambling suite with exposed brickwork, tables sprouting pixie-proportioned hammers and scissors under lamps and magnifying-glasses, chin-high work-benches – and don’t forget the shelves sagging under aged horological tomes and a bunk-bed salvaged from a World War Two shelter.

The instruments are Craig’s, the books and sketch-pads belong to Rebecca. And you get the feeling both retire to different planets on strictly working days. One point may jar with the more parochial of Birmingham. Their company is unashamedly ‘Struthers London’ because the capital, they say, is the heart of the jewellery and watch industry.

“You can be a big fish in a small pond here once you’ve made it”, says Rebecca. “But you need the fierce competition of London to keep you lively in your early days, the mainstream of ideas, the buzz.”

And the cash question? All’s well. Their work’s selling to the wealthy and discerning. And although they won’t spill the beans on the investment they’ve received recently from PHP Healthcare, their accountants and business advisers, Harrison, Beale & Owen (HB&O),
are purring.

Struthers products are posh, expensive and painstaking. They’re not for the Premiership bling boys who’ll throw their new, all-singing, all-dancing Apple Watch from their prams by Christmas for something even more modern.

We’re speaking heirlooms here, worthy of their price-tags because they’re home-made, each taking about eight to 10 weeks, every detail researched, then rechecked. Take a Struthers watch-strap, for instance. If it’s to be leather – as for the Morgan Aero 8 collection – it matters enormously to Rebecca that her design is complemented by the right-sized and shaped strap-holes.

That’s where the correspondence starts with strap-master Christopher Clarke, of Shrewsbury, whom they met on restoration work in Ludlow. So steeped in the old ways is Mr Clarke that he dislikes using computers, preferring to hand-write his advice in brown ink on greyish paper – which gives the look of historic documents.

Among the usual leathers he’ll supply are stingray, frog or eel, but first he’ll want to know how many little holes will be needed for the comfort that Rebecca takes for granted for her customers.

Struthers 03

Both love bling, though. It’s just that they don’t want to make it in a world market hungry for bespoke watches because these are overlooked by the business sector who know money is made faster from the expendable.

Today’s time-piece magnates aren’t craftsmen, and certainly wouldn’t understand Mr Clarke’s strap concerns. Only the bespoke side of the market care these days, the people so engrossed in their craft that they feel they can never know enough – hence Rebecca’s now studying for a PhD in antiquarian horology on watch forgery in the 18th century, at Birmingham City University (BCU).

If you think this almost obsessive attention to detail a time-waster in the modern world, then you’re mistaken. So great is the present demand for watch-makers in the Struthers mould, that universities are acknowledging they must offer more courses. BCU says 85% of horological graduates are in work or even higher education, while the remaining 15% will include people who are retired rather than unemployed.

Rebecca’s next job is transforming diamond earrings into an 18-carat white gold watch for a client who wants a change-of-use in the £15,000 to £20,000 range. Simple as that. Already the earring-owner has consulted Craig on exactly the watch she wants and they’ve struck a chord. Then Rebecca will take over with the diamond side.  

There’s not a shop window in sight. Struthers’ patrons are given audiences (my word, not theirs) during which they confess their ideas of watch-heaven. Work won’t begin until total agreement is reached.

They have the help of wacky Kelly Hart, a young Northern Irish but Birmingham-trained designer, who lives just round the corner (everything is “just round the corner” in the Jewellery Quarter).

She’s ready to begin a £30,000 to £60,000 collaboration with Craig and Rebecca involving a speciality stone-cutting, computer-generated ring design that has to be built up in resin... shame on you if you know the finer points of that process!