When we think of the big independents today, names such as Voutilainen, Dufour, Journe, and Smith come to mind. In fact, there is such a huge appreciation for independents today that it has become somewhat mainstream within collecting circles to own at least one watch from an independent brand.
Before all of this hype though, there was Daniel Roth. To be honest, in my opinion, the story of the Daniel Roth brand is a tragic one that could’ve worked out very differently.
Daniel Roth the man came from a family of watchmakers and as such, was always destined to be one. Beginning his career at Audemars Piguet in Le Brassus, he worked there for 7 years before moving on to Breguet during the Chaumet era, where he really honed his skills.
Without a doubt, Daniel Roth is one of the most talented watchmakers of his generation and was responsible for many things you see today but do not realize. At Breguet, he was a leading figure that established the design language of the Breguet dress watches that you see today. In the ’60s and ’70s, Breguet had become a below-average watch brand with no future, mainly supplying utilitarian Type 20 watches to the military.
When they were acquired by the Chaumet brothers, they brought in Daniel Roth to lead the helm as technical director. The reference 3130 for example, with its guilloche dial and its straight lugged case, set the tone for Breguet and was created by Daniel Roth after studying the brand’s history and archives for over a year. Moreover, he played a significant role in producing complicated movements for Lemania who may I remind you up until recently still provided the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin with chronograph calibers.
It wasn’t until the Chaumet brothers fell into scandal and had to sell Breguet, that Roth decided to pave his own path forward. Towards the end of the ’80s, Daniel Roth did the unthinkable by starting his own eponymous ‘independent’ brand. Back then, it was a crazy thing to do, especially as the industry was still reeling from the quartz crisis that decimated most brands.
Without the constraints of big corporate hovering over him, he was free to create whatever he wanted and the results were some of the most original and beautiful watch designs of all time. You see, while no one can question the technical genius of Roth’s watchmaking, what many do not realize is that he is also a master in design, with an innate eye for proportion, texture, and depth.
The most unique trait of the Daniel Roth brand is without a doubt the double ellipse case that underpinned the entire collection. It featured a three-piece case that was an amalgamation of a rectangular shape cut off by semi-circles at the top and bottom, resulting in a look that was truly unique.
The Daniel Roth 2127 Retrograde you see here today is one of my favorites from the early era. Inspired by George Daniels’ One Minute Tourbillon Pocket Watch, the design of this Retrograde makes it one of the most unique from the collection. While ‘regular’ 2127 Retrogrades are difficult enough to find, this particular example would certainly be considered the holy grail of early Daniel Roth. Roth made skeletonized versions of his watches in very low quantities due to the amount of work required and the example you see here is a very early example of that. Featuring concentric silver rings that display the retrograde hour, minutes, and running seconds, there is a real three-dimensionality to it as they sit above the hand-engraved and expertly finished modified Lemania 27LN caliber. The contrast between the gold movement and the silver rings really accentuates the depth of the watch and beautifully displays the movement clicking with each hour passing. Flipping the watch over, the hand finishing continues with more hand engraving on the movement plates. The overall symmetry and simplicity achieved despite the complication and details are stunning- this not only is classical watchmaking at its finest, but also a trailblazing watch that certainly defined what was possible for independent watchmakers at the time.
There are three distinctive stages that define the story of Daniel Roth, beginning with the early period when he was in full control and at the helm. Of course, this period is the most collectible but not only because of its historical importance but also because the quality of watches that came out was the best. With pieces made only in precious metal, no corners were cut. Later on after much success, 1995 marked the second chapter of the brand. It is unknown why, but The Hour Glass, one of the biggest watch retailers in the world bought a majority stake in the brand and that is when things started turning sour. While there certainly remain some pieces from that era that are beautiful, the quality began dropping with some questionable designs. The whole story cumulates in the final chapter where The Hour Glass was forced to sell Daniel Roth to Bulgari due to the Asian Financial Crisis, marking the end of any involvement by its founder.
It is sad that such a beautiful brand ended up this way, but perhaps as the first real independent brand, mistakes were bound to be made. What he did do was pave the way and to show budding watchmakers like Journe and Dubuis what was possible and what to avoid.
For many years after that, Daniel Roth watches were placed in one basket and forgotten. Lousy Bulgari interpretations were classed the same as his early creations and priced as such. Early Daniel Roth watches are truly rare and difficult to find and it is great that after years of being underappreciated, collectors are finally taking notice and scrambling to find them. Most examples are held tightly in private collections and I am very happy to be able to offer one!