Exquisite watches fashioned with the finest gunmakers’ skills

The return of intricately engraved, limited edition game hunter’s watches heralds a new age of exquisite timepieces crafted with gunmakers’ skills, says Nick Foulkes

Panerai for Purdey stainless steel Luminor 1950 Sealand watch on calfskin strap, £20,500
Panerai for Purdey stainless steel Luminor 1950 Sealand watch on calfskin strap, £20,500

In the days before bangles, bracelets and pendants became acceptable accoutrements for men, it used to be said that apart from cufflinks, the only “jewellery” a gentleman could wear was a pair of cufflinks, a signet ring and a watch. However, James Horne argues that there is a further category of men’s “jewellery” to be added. “I am intrigued by the idea of men having jewellery and, if a watch is men’s jewellery, then so is a gun.”

Panerai for Purdey gold inlaid and engraved covers
Panerai for Purdey gold inlaid and engraved covers

As well as founding the GunsOnPegs website, which he describes as the eBay of shooting and fishing, Horne is CEO of legendary London gunmaker James Purdey & Sons, where, after a hiatus of a few years, the brand’s coveted special edition watches by Panerai have returned.

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The Purdey Panerai (£20,500) is, appropriately, a hunter-cased watch, with a hinged cover protecting dial and watch glass from the knocks and scratches that might occur while tracking game through the wilderness. The interior surface of this lid is mirror-polished so, in case of mishap, it can be used as a reflective surface to signal with – a sort of low-tech version of the distress beacon on Breitling’s Emergency. However, the lid’s exterior is more interesting as it is a perfect showcase for one of the great skills of gunmaking: engraving.

Bremont x EJ Churchill Damascus steel watch, £5,995
Bremont x EJ Churchill Damascus steel watch, £5,995

“You can spend £500 on a gun or you can spend £100,000 on a gun that does the same thing, but is an object of art,” says Horne drawing further parallels with watches. And it is hard to disagree with his assertion that the engraved watches are miniature masterpieces, created by the same engravers who work on Purdey’s guns.

FP Journe steel Chronomètre Holland & Holland with Damascus steel dial, SFr44,000 (about £33,755)
FP Journe steel Chronomètre Holland & Holland with Damascus steel dial, SFr44,000 (about £33,755)

The watches depict the Big Five of African game: elephant, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, leopard and lion, but Horne wants to broaden the subjects to include more northern European game. As a large number of the shotguns made by Purdey are engraved with game birds in flight, it is likely that pheasant, partridge, grouse, woodcock and so on will be appearing on these timepieces. Moreover, there are plans for the introduction of a hunter-cased pocket watch, offering a larger surface on which to engrave more involved scenes. And if one is in the fortunate position of bespeaking a pair of Purdeys, it would make sense to commission a special-order Purdey Panerai to be worked on by the same hands.

Bamford x Zenith stainless steel Chronomaster El Primero, from £13,000, and Beretta model SO10 12-gauge
Bamford x Zenith stainless steel Chronomaster El Primero, from £13,000, and Beretta model SO10 12-gauge | Image: Mauro Pini

But engraving is not the only way to associate a watch and a shotgun: Nick English, co-founder of British watch brand Bremont, has created a watch case that is machined from the same type of steel that the barrels of his vintage shotgun are made. “I have a Damascus-barrelled Lancaster side-by-side that I use a lot and have had for 30 years.” Made from steel bars that are twisted and hammered, Damascus steel is characterised by a grain that imparts an appearance akin to watered silk; it was a favourite with gunmakers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “There aren’t many Damascus-barrelled guns nowadays and when you do find one, it is the most outstanding, beautiful thing to see. But a Damascus watch case isn’t easy to do because you have to machine it carefully, bathe it in acid for exactly the right amount of time to bring out the different layers of steel, and polish it with extreme care so that you don’t rub the pattern out. But it is worth the effort: people who’ve worn this watch really relate to it because you can’t get more ‘shooting’ than a Damascus barrel.”

Gunsmith-style engraving takes inspiration from the beauty of the engraving on the guns
Gunsmith-style engraving takes inspiration from the beauty of the engraving on the guns | Image: Mauro Pini

Bremont made 125 Damascus steel‑cased watches (£5,995) for the 125th anniversary of gunmaker EJ Churchill last year and it is likely that a Damascus will enter the regular range in the next couple of years. “Having developed this technique, this is not the last you’re going to see of it,” says English. “There are a lot of cues to the whole shooting world. The chronograph pushers are based on shotgun cartridges and the subdials feature traditional rose and scroll engraving used by gunmakers.” And you don’t need to have a Damascus-barrelled gun as the blued steel of the watch’s hands coordinates perfectly with the blued-steel used to make modern gun barrels.

Gunsmith-style engraving can be found on Zenith watches available to order from Bamford Watch Department
Gunsmith-style engraving can be found on Zenith watches available to order from Bamford Watch Department | Image: Mauro Pini

Meanwhile, Geneva watchmaker FP Journe took as his inspiration the browned metal of a pair of 19th-century Damascus barrels from Holland & Holland’s archives. He felt that the patterned metal had excellent potential for watch dials, but creating them was no straightforward matter: the gun barrels were split along their length by Holland & Holland; then these strips were rolled flat and sliced into smaller strips that could be polished and reduced to the near paper-thin dimensions required by Journe’s dialmakers in Switzerland. Barrel no 1382, dating to 1868, yielded 38 dials, while barrel no 7183, dating to 1882, produced 28. 

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The watches (SFr44,000, about £33,755) were returned to Holland & Holland for the dials to be browned again, described by Journe as a “traditional gunmaking technique that helps protect the steel and highlights the wonderful patterns created during the original manufacture of Damascus barrels. The process is the same today as it would have been when the guns were made in the late 1800s.”

 But these venerable barrels are mere children when compared to some of the guns in the Beretta museum.  “People think that guns are in my DNA,” says Franco, the 15th generation of his family to run the eponymous firm, which began making gun barrels five centuries ago. “But watches are too, thanks to my great uncle Carlo. When I was a kid, he used to take me around the factory to look at the machines at work producing our shotguns. He was also really passionate about watches: he gave me some and used to show me his collection: “These two passions remain in my heart and some years ago, when we made a Beretta watch, I had the chance to meet Gérald Genta and visit him in Monte Carlo. I love his watch designs for the IWC Ingenieur, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. And now I have met Jean-Claude Biver, another genius of the watch industry.”

Beretta first met Biver, who runs LVMH’s watch brands, at an awards ceremony in Romania and was in touch with him again when he wanted to buy one of Zenith’s Rolling Stones watches. The more the two men spoke the more links they identified between their two crafts. “The most important thing the gun industry and the watch industry have in common is metallurgy, which has always played a very important role in the development of watchmaking,” explains Biver, and indeed Beretta has expressed a keen interest in exploring the potential applications of the “magic” gold alloy developed at Hublot. “The second one is that hunting is not just a sport, it is a way of life, and guns, like watches, are part of a certain culture. I believe that people buying valuable guns would enjoy collecting our watches. And the beauty of the engraving on the guns is very inspiring for us. Watchmaking has its own style of engraving, and now we want to take inspiration from the guns.”

For the moment, gunsmith-style engraved Zenith watches (from £13,000) are only available to order from Bamford Watch Department, which was made the brand’s official customiser at the end of June (a similar arrangement between Bamford and TAG Heuer was announced last month). “I visited the Beretta factory and my mind was blown by the engraving for the Marc Newson-designed shotgun, featuring dragons,” says George Bamford. “It reminds me of a Yakuza tattoo. I shoot with it. It’s reliable, beautiful and shows that traditional gun-engraving skills can produce things that are anything but traditional.”

Custom orders aside, Biver hopes to have the first production examples of gunsmith-inspired watches ready for the Basel watch fair next March. “If everything goes quickly, we may even have something ready by the Geneva fair.” Which would be very handy as the fair begins on January 15, still leaving a fortnight before the end of the shooting season.

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