Meet the Makers, Craig and Rebecca Struthers
We sit down with expert watchmakers, QEST Scholars and John Smedley’s 235 Ambassadors Craig & Rebecca Struthers, to discuss the fine art of horology
Words by Will HALBERT
How would you describe your craft?
Craig Struthers: We are watchmakers and restorers, so we work on pre-1960s wrist and pocket watches as well as making our own pieces.
What is your favourite part about what you do?
Rebecca Struthers: It’s an incredibly varied skill that draws on everything from art and design to engineering and physics. We get to be historians, illustrators and artisans depending on the watch or project we’re working on.
How did you both begin your careers?
RS: I started training as a jeweller and silversmith in 2003 and discovered horology, the study of watch or clockmaking, during my training. I loved the creativity of jewellery but missed the structure and discipline of science. So by discovering watchmaking I found the perfect way to combine my favourite subjects.
CS: Watchmaking for me was a second career. I started out in IT after I struggled to find work as an illustrator which was what I wanted to do when I left college. I wasn’t enjoying work and found out about watchmaking through an aptitude test at the Job Centre of all places. There was a course near me at the time so I signed up and I’ve never looked back. All our bespoke designs start with hand rendered illustrations so in a roundabout way I finally get to be an illustrator of sorts now too.
How long have you been doing it?
RS: 16 years
CS: 15 years
What other Craftsmen stand out to you most and why?
RS: We work with some amazing craftspeople from a wide range of disciplines to do what we do, from engravers, goldsmiths, chainmakers and enamellers to cabinet makers and leather workers. Method Studio, who are another husband-and-wife team in Linlithgow, Scotland, make our presentation cases and do some incredible work.
CS: They’ve managed to build a small team of cabinet makers working to a very high standard and remaining true to the tradition of the craft,which is what we’d like to achieve in the near future. They also have an amazing workshop in the middle of the woods. We have serious workshop envy!
Did anything in particular inspire you to start your craft?
RS: My love of science and art found a home in watchmaking. They’re taught as very different subjects in school which isn’t representative of the real world at all. There’s a great deal of overlap.
CS: I’ve always enjoyed restoring old things, whether that be classic scooters and bikes or old VW camper vans. It was always part of me but I didn’t realise I could make a career out of it.
Do you work with any other craftsmen/women to create your products?
RS: Every watch we make calls on the skills of 10-30 other craftspeople depending on the complexity of the project.
CS: We’re watchmakers and we dedicate all our time to perfecting our discipline. We’ll never be as good an engraver, or silversmith, or stone setter, as someone who has equally dedicated themselves to their individual discipline. Some of the people we work with have been in the trade for 40-50 years, so each watch we make benefits from hundreds of years of cumulative experience. There’s no way we could achieve that level of detail just the two of us.
What is your criteria for working with fellow craftsmen/women?
RS: They have to be equally as passionate as us and the same attention to detail. Spending months making a part only to send it to someone who ruins it can be pretty soul destroying. It’s not just the cost of the material, it’s the time you’ve taken to make something.
CS: It’s taken us years to build our network but we now have a collective of people we trust implicitly to take care of our work and execute their craft to the highest possible standard.
What is the hardest part about what you do?
CS: We pour our heart and soul into our work so, particularly being a husband-and-wife team, there are no evenings, weekends or holidays where there’s a break from our work. We often end up using holidays to design new watch cases and romantic meals out turn into business meetings. We both love what we do, but we’re both makers rather than business people, so it makes it very hard when we need to be objective.
What makes your craftsmanship most rewarding?
RS: There are no words to express the feeling of waking up one morning with an idea, then, having the skills to make that idea a reality. I think making things with your hands and transforming a seedling of a concept to real object is one of the most rewarding things for any human being.
Where did you learn the skills required for your role?
CS: We both took the same 3-year course with the British Horological Institute, but ultimately, there’s no training like on-the-job experience. We spent years refining our skills with other masters before founding our first workshop. Particularly with restoration, there have been thousands of different watches made over the centuries, some of which you might only see once in your career. The only way of learning is by working on hundreds of different watches and combining that experience to apply to your own work. Traditionally, it takes a minimum 7-10 years to become a master watchmaker.
What has been the most important learning curve for you?
CS: You learn the most from your mistakes, one of our biggest challenges has been learning to cost projects properly. Craftspeople are some of the worst when it comes to attaching financial value to their work, it’s a very uncomfortable subject, so we regularly undercharge and end up working for free. It’s one thing me and Rebecca doing that, but as we grow and hire staff, we wouldn’t expect the same from the people who work for us so it’s something we need to get much better at.
Has your craft evolved into other/new skills over time?
RS: Some of the craft skills we work with are becoming so endangered we have had to bring them in house, the most notable of which is watch case making.
CS: Rebecca already had foundation skills in jewellery and silversmithing so, with the help of a QEST Scholarship, I was able to spend time training with one of the last traditional watch case makers in Britain. I’ve taken this experience back to our workshop where Rebecca and I have combined our skills to find our own methods which we’re now teaching to our first apprentice, Heather.
How would you describe a day in your role?
RS: The average day I think varies hugely for anyone who is self-employed. We try to spend as much time in our workshop making things as possible, but equally, we’re responsible for all our social media, administration, PR and restoring and maintaining all of the tools and equipment in our workshop.
How have you stayed passionate and inspired by your craft?
RS: I feel very fortunate to find a subject I have fallen madly in love with and a person I love equally at such an early stage in my life. I started this journey when I was 17, married Craig at 26 and founded our first workshop together the same month as our wedding. Being surrounded by that helps to keep me passionate about my craft even when things get difficult.
CS: I just love making things, I always have. Being able to earn a living from doing something you’re passionate about is a privilege. Even when we have stressful, difficult, times it’s always with the business and never with our craft.
Do you have any plans to expand on what it is that you do?
RS: We would like to grow our workshop into a small team of craftspeople working on the restoration to free Craig and I up to make more.
CS: Restoration is one of the best ways to learn watchmaking, with no spare parts supply, you have to learn to make pretty much any replacement component for other watches from scratch. Once you can do that for someone else’s watch, there’s no reason you can’t do it for your own. If we can create a training chain within our workshop, starting with apprentices at the beginning working toward restorers, those restorers will then be able to go on to be the next generation of watchmakers. Whether they stay with us, or set up their own workshops, there are so few people with the skills we need in the UK training more will always be a benefit to us. Even if they set up on their own somewhere they will continue to be someone we can collaborate with.
What are the main projects you are working on now?
RS: We’re just over halfway through making our first completely in-house movement, Project 248, which started out as a nickname to reflect the fact it’s being built by 2 watchmakers, their 4 hands and an 8mm watchmaker’s lathe.
What are the accomplishments within your work in craftsmanship that you are most proud of?
CS: I’m proud of the workshop we’ve managed to build starting out with just a £15,000 bank loan. The average cost of a new lathe with accessories now is the best part of £25,000. We’ve had to restore a lot of the tools and machines we use but it’s left us with a very eclectic assortment of heritage machinery which influences the way we work and our style. What started out as a financial necessity has turned into something I’m very proud of and wouldn’t change now.
RS: Our next achievement will be the completion of Project 248. That will be something I’m very proud of!
How would you describe your business in 3 words?
RS: Passionate about making
How does working with QEST support you/your craft?
CS: QEST has supported us in two ways, the first through Craig’s Scholarship in traditional watch case making through Johnnie Walker, and the second through funding our first apprentice, Heather Fisher, through Howdens.
How would you describe John Smedley?
RS: We’re always inspired by heritage craft companies who manage to grow a successful business, employ people and pass on skills without losing the heart and soul of what they stand for. John Smedley has done just that, keeping these skills and jobs in the UK and succeeding as a business in an incredibly competitive market.
Do you have a favourite John Smedley piece, if so what?
RS: We always endeavour to wear garments that use natural, sustainably-sourced fibres, John Smedley’s Sea Island Cotton pieces are ideal. Anything with a bronze colour to it is a winner, as it pops beautifully against the dark green hues of the studio and is always reminiscent of the metallic materials we work with.
What are you most excited about for the future?
RS: Our next watch completion maybe? Finishing pieces that can take years to make and handing them over to their new owner is an incredibly exciting and emotional time, particularly Project 248 as so much of ourselves is going into it. I imagine it’s a bit like sending your child to university. You hand over the responsibility of care, hope they’ll be looked after and of course hope they behave well and make you proud!
Find out more at johnsmedley.com/discover/legacy