British watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin began his watchmaking career in Hackney in the 180s and is today poised with the world at his feet. He tells Kathryn Bishop about his globetrotting journey, experiences as an independent watchmaker and his plans to take on the market in Europe.
When it came to falling in love with watchmaking, Peter Speake-Marin admits that it was not an instant attraction.
After kicking about with A-levels that did not quite fit with his hands-on nature – “I was doing maths and economics and couldn’t add up” – he left school at 17, met a careers advisor in his native Essex and next thing found himself on a horology course at Hackney Technical College.
“I was good at technical drawing at the time, I liked history, I liked art, but who knows what they want to do at 17 years old,” he explains, as we sit down for a chat among the bustle of Salon QP. “The careers teacher dug out a dossier called Horology and I didn’t know what that meant. However I went to the school and it was the combination of art, history, mechanics – the kind of things that I liked. It was purely accidental, as I had no idea what horology was and while I don’t think I fell in love with it straight away, it fitted.”
This good fit sparked something in the young Speake-Marin, who soon found himself working with a line-up of prestigious watch brands and retailers. He namechecks Watches of Switzerland, Piaget and Omega – spending a short period working at each in the UK – before, he says, he found his groove in antique watches, falling head over heels.
“They were all very short stints because the moment I felt I had mastered or learnt everything there was to learn, which on average took about six months, I got bored and then moved on,” he admits. “But then I got into the restoration of antique watches and that’s when I really fell for it.”
Speake-Marin joined London antique house Somlo Antiques, a specialist antique watch retailer where he worked for seven years as a restorer. He recalls his time there fondly and notes the impact that it had on the fundamentals of the Speake-Marin brand today.
“That was the most influential period of my professional career,” he says brightly. “It was extraordinary; it was all different timepieces dating back to the 18th century from early pocket watches up until the 1950s. It was phenomenal.”
His time at Somlo Antiques has today inspired Speake-Marin’s collections. His Piccadilly watch is named in honour of the area where Somlo is situated, and has what he calls “a very English style”.
Speake-Marin made his first timepiece in 2000, which is now known as The Piccadilly, but also dubbed the Foundation watch, because it was the catalyst and DNA for everything Speake-Marin produces today.
Since then he has worked tirelessly to build the brand, working on everything from its marketing and sales through it its commercial outreach. Speake-Marin has also travelled the world – a long-time dream of his – through his watchmaking, building up the brand’s name and reaching out to collectors and retailers, visiting everywhere from Kuala Lumpur to New York and Poland. But, he says, he is ready to take a step back.
“In our world, in the industry, people know my name, but the reality is that normal members of the public don’t even know of Roger Dubuis or Richard Mille, and to a degree Audemars Piguet, so we have to be very creative in how we actually promote ourselves,” he says. “I started to travel to promote my own work and I’ve travelled extensively around the world, meeting collectors, retailers, distributors, journalists, and it’s been extraordinary, but now I’ve done it. I’ve had enough of it.”
Speake-Marin’s desire to take a step back from the razzle dazzle of watch shows and networking is not a reflection of his attitude to the business – far from it. In fact, he has grown his team, hiring several designers and two members of staff, Salomé Châtelain and Tancredi Pascale, to cover the communications and commercial aspects of the brand.
“My goal with people such as Tancredi and Salomé is to delegate all of the other aspects of the business so I can get back to being at the bench, doing all the prototyping and initial designs, following through to production,” he explains, adding with a laugh “when I’m very successful you’ll know because you won’t see me anymore and I won’t need to do events”.
At present the Speake-Marin collection of watches tows the line of being an independent brand with a comfortable number of fans and collectors around the world. But what does Speake-Marin plan to do next to achieve his dreams?
“When I began I did everything that popped in to my head, which was great, but is not a sustainable way to be in a business,” he shares. “I have very clear views now of what I want to do in the business. It’s very structured and calculated today because you have to be. If you don’t have a plan, things don’t work.”
As if to emphasise the point, 2012 was a year of constant growth for the Speake-Marin brand. It released five new mechanical timepieces, including a tourbillion, and scooped awards including the Classic Watch of the Year gong at the Chronos24.pl Awards for its Serpent Calendar watch, and the Watch of the Year prize for the Spririt Mark 2 from French watch forum Passion Horlogère.
Speake-Marin also focused the brand’s development in countries where he says he could place a small amount of energy and get a greater return, namely the US and Asia. But in 2013, and with an appearance at the Geneva Time Exhibition last month already under its belt, Speake-Marin is looking to build its position in Europe.
“We have started to really develop ideas and concepts to take Speake-Marin to another level, going from a person to being a really good brand,” says Speake-Marin. “I’d like to work in England. Germany is very important. Switzerland is also very important.”
So as an English watchmaker, living, working and developing his company in Switzerland, where does Speake-Marin consider his brand’s place in the watch market? He takes a moment to consider this. “What we’re doing is original, “ he says. “We have to be different and keep our watches unique where other larger companies are always reinventing what’s always been here. That works for a lot of people but we have to be different.”
He then recalls an anecdote from a trip seven years ago with watchmakers Vianney Halter and Philippe Dufour when, during a conversation with a group of collectors, Dufour put a question to the group as to what it was that made independent watchmaking different to larger brands such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. The group remained silent. Dufour plainly said: “They’re dead, we are alive.”
As a brand that is very much alive, Speake-Marin plans to launch a new collection at BaselWorld this year and says a new timepiece will follow in October, along with a lot of internal development at the business.
“That which does not grow dies,” surveys Speake-Marin. “So my goal is to make grow my business, this is what I do, this is my life.”
This interview was taken from the February issue of WatchPro. To read the issue online, click here.