Josh Shapiro is one of the few people I’ve ever met who has “answered the call of George Daniels.” Working out of his small workshop in a traditionally residential part of Los Angeles proper, Josh Shapiro does not have the profile one might associate with a proud craftsman. Perhaps that’s because skills related to machining and precision construction are increasingly alien in large metropolitan parts of the world, like Southern California. Los Angeles does, however, benefit from a craftsmanship culture due to three primary local industries: cars, aerospace, and entertainment. It is thus oddly fitting for this hand machine-engraved guilloche watch dial to be born in Los Angeles in an “underdog meets established industry” tale. The result: his first timepiece called the J.N. Shapiro Infinity.
About 18 months before the J.N. Shapiro Infinity watch was completed, I visited Josh Shapiro to inspect his workshop. He had been collecting antique rose engine machines as well as some modern micro-construction tools in his compact but tidy space, and he gave me a demonstration on how guilloche dials are produced. This is a historic watchmaking technique most notable for being how most Breguet (late 18th century) dials were made. Today, Breguet, as well as a few other watchmaking houses, continue to create guilloche dials mostly by using machines which are no longer produced. Shapiro uses a series of techniques to produce each of his dials, which involves machine engraving, hand engraving, and coloring (ink or acid wash). According to Shapiro, adding up all the steps, each dial takes about a month to produce.
Rose engines (as the machines are sometimes known) in today’s age are mostly used for cutting wood. When they were no longer needed to decorate small metal parts on jewelry, these machines became less popular and stopped being produced. Existing ones are treasured by both collectors and companies, for the latter uses them to produce dials. The problem, however, is that the machine by itself often isn’t enough to get good results. Operating the machine is a lot like operating a musical instrument. You might know how to get sound out of a saxophone, but without training, you can’t play a song. For that reason, rose engine machines are said to be “hand-operated,” so their output is anything but automated. Josh Shapiro claims to have dedicated approximately seven years to studying watch and dial making techniques.
Josh tells me the dial on the prototype version of the Infinity watch took him 200 hours to make. He estimates the dial of each in the series will take up to 100 hours to make. It is clear that understanding how to produce the best results with a rose engine is tiring, arduous work that requires a lot of precision and patience. However, his biggest concern was, “What would Roger Smith think?” Over in England’s Isle of Man, Mr. Roger Smith continues the work of his mentor, George Daniels, and produces mechanical watches almost entirely by hand. Roger Smith was the only apprentice Daniels ever took on.
The esteemed watchmaker and inventor of the co-axial escapement, George Daniels, was also an author (and illustrator). Daniels wrote a few books, including his famous “Watchmaking.” Each of them are similar to an instruction manual on how to produce mechanical watches, though following Daniel’s teachings is much more complicated than assembling a LEGO set. Josh Shapiro discovered the work of George Daniels and answered the call. Though he doesn’t claim to be a watchmaker, Shapiro is certainly learning. For instance, he has worked closely with David Walters, a trained watchmaker in Santa Barabra who mostly produces bespoke clocks. Shapiro works with him and many other partners in California and Germany.
Given the concept behind the watch and its price point, the use of this movement feels appropriate. In the future, Josh Shapiro could perhaps guilloche decorate some of the movement plates, which I think is a logical next step for him to apply his skills to the watches that bear his name. On the Infinity watches, however, there is indeed a hand-engraved plate on each of the dials with the watch’s serial number on it. The hand-engraving, as well as some other detail work on the watches, were also done in Los Angeles by watchmaker Artur. Clearly, the Infinity line is an excellent initial attempt from a newcomer to the field. His style and technique is directly (and proudly) inspired by the work of Roger Smith and before him, George Daniels. His efforts also continue to respect the legacies of historic legends in the field, such as Breguet.
The most impressive observation I can make about Josh’s work is his ability to really nail many different guilloche engraving pattern styles, from the basket weave to the barley corn. Shapiro even invented one of his own patterns, which adds a new layer of complexity to the traditional basket weave pattern. I advised him to call his novel pattern the “Infinity Weave,” and he consented. This pattern can be seen on the subsidiary seconds dial of this watch. Each customer can likely have various parts of the dial customized to his or her taste, and Shapiro anticipates adding this service for his clients. The dials are each produced from both 18k rose gold and sterling silver parts, which are then layered in order to give the dial an attractive and legible three-dimensional look. Shapiro also uses a complex technique of attaching these pieces with small hidden screws underneath the plates. The whitening on the dial is created using the challenging “Breguet frosting technique,” which requires both the use of a heat torch and acid washing. The hands are produced from 18k rose gold or blue-steel and carefully hand polished and produced in Los Angeles.
Each of the Infinity dials is layered using a traditional technique, which also further helps legibility, as I mentioned above. Wearing the watch offers a look reminiscent of the work by individuals like Roger Smith and George Daniels, which is certainly a positive. Shapiro even laser-cuts his hands and has them heat-blued by a colleague in Los Angeles. The effort is very real, and the fact that someone was not only able to acquire vintage rose engines but also skillfully use them is worth the price of admission for collectors, especially those who seek to support American craftsmanship.
When Shapiro shared how long and challenging the Infinity project was to complete, his eyes almost gave me a glazed “1,000 yard stare,” which emphasizes just how tireless his work was. If anything, Shapiro’s work underscores the argument that making timepieces is very hard work and an art that many have given up on. I’m proud of him for seeing the project through, and the end result is really lovely. As an outspoken fan of guilloche-engraved dials, I’m really happy to see something like this being produced so close to home and where I was raised, which marks a stark contrast from watches being produced by people whose language I don’t speak and who live half a world away in “the old country.”
Not everything in the J.N. Shapiro Infinity watch would get top marks from George Daniels if he was alive today. I think Daniels would advise Shapiro on how to make the watch even more detailed, especially if it was examined under the scrutiny of a microscope. Daniels might ask about the metals Shapiro used for the dial plates and demonstrate to him how to get the printing on the dial even better. All that feedback would be merited, but I don’t think George Daniels (at least the one that I’ve heard about) would even have a conversation with Shapiro if he didn’t think Shapiro was a person with real potential.
Shapiro made the decision to produce the Infinity in a 42mm wide case, which wears with a low profile given the relatively thin case. The straps are also American, as they’re produced in Arizona by Stone Creek Straps. The combination of the excellently sourced movement and case coupled with the elegantly classic, legible, and attractive dial works for me here. The real question is: who is the most likely first customer for J.N. Shapiro? I don’t think that what Shapiro needs to sell each watch at (if only to cover his costs) is feasible for an ordinary watch enthusiast.