To get a royal warrant you simply (simply!) have to supply Buckingham Palace with the stuff of everyday life such as chocolate, shirts or paracetamol. And royal warrant holders aren’t all household names. Take Zone Creations, a company set up by Kevin Self and Jamie Hale, two university pals who decided that there was a gap in the market for laser-cut Perspex architects’ models. So in 1999 they set up shop to fill it.
They weren’t wrong. Within a few years their company, Zone Creations, had become known for cutting Perspex to a very high standard and had branched out into making models for TV and films, and creating furniture. In fact whatever it was you wanted made out of Perspex, give or take, Zone would make it.
Which is where Buckingham Palace comes in.
As is commonly known, no palace these days is complete without a bit of Perspex furniture and so it came to pass one day in 2005 that the guys down in south west London got a phone call – would they like to make some furniture for a very special person? Of course they were delighted. In only six years they’d gone from a two-man outfit working all hours to a successful international company recognised at the highest level.
And with the invitation to supply, came the royal warrant. ‘Manufacturers of bespoke acrylic furniture,’ it says on the royal crest. And with that warrant comes not just the prestige but also an offer to join the warrant holders’ charitable arm, Qest (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust).
This organisation, funded entirely by voluntary contributions from warrant holders, exists to promote craft skills – be it silver-smithing or bookbinding or underwater portrait photography or even square piano restoration. ‘As long as it’s something you can touch and it’s a skill, we’re up for funding it,’ says Nick Farrow, chairman of Qest.
What’s all this got to do with the Perspex clock in the picture? Hang on, we’re getting there.
So it was that one day Hale and Self were invited for a tour of the palace, to see how their furniture fitted in with the Rubens paintings and the sculpture by Canova. Very nicely, as it turned out – Perspex and grand spaces are made for each other. Which is where they had their brainwave. Let’s make a Perspex clock and present it to HM The Queen for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
The Palace’s horologist thought it was a great idea too and put the pair in touch with Comitti, one of the most venerable names in clock-making in the UK. Which is how what looks at first glance like a very unlikely collaboration – tweedy clock makers and thrusting bucks covered in acrylic swarf – found themselves in the same room.
The charge often levelled against family-run businesses – Comitti is on generation number five – is that they’re backward-looking and unwilling to innovate. In fact the opposite can often be the case. Unfettered by shareholders or the sentiment of quixotic financial markets, family-run businesses can turn on a sixpence. That’s if they want to. Comitti evidently did.
What Zone and Comitti came up with is called the Greenwich Regulator and it is remarkable. It’s a long case clock (a grandfather clock to the uninitiated) in the Palladian style (as is Buckingham Palace) made from a slab of Corian, exquisitely manufactured Perspex and a sheet of crystal glass for the door, held on with rhodium or gold-plated hinges, depending on which of the two models you opt for.
Inside, flooded in light, is the Comitti movement. Regulated by a Graham dead-beat escapement fitted with tungsten carbide pallets in the Vulliamey style, it has epicyclic gears and atemperature compensated pendulum (clocks slow down in summer without one). You can see why Comitti wanted to be involved – a see-through case shows off a mechanism better than it’s been displayed in the 150 years since the company first set up shop.
That’s not to say that the project didn’t throw up new challenges, for both Zone and Comitti. The latter found itself in the unusual position of having a clock case that allowed viewers to see the back of the clock face, for example.
Because it’s usually unseen, this isn’t usually finished to the same decorative standard as the front. It is in the Greenwich Regulator. The same is true for the 345 precision-machined brass or steel pieces, all finished, polished and hand assembled by craftsmen, all of them extra aware that their handiwork is going to be on display in a way that clock movements never normally are.
For Zone the challenges came from getting the fiddly detail right, the crenellations at the top of the clock were a right royal job, apparently. Perspex is an unforgiving material and hand-finishing it with diamond powder so that it is, as Zone’s Self describes it, ‘water clear’, is the work of many exhausting hours.
There are only 120 of these Greenwich Regulators being made. ‘These gorgeous clocks are going to be snapped up,’ says Qest’s Farrow.
The Qest involvement goes further than just Farrow’s endorsement. Ruth Anthony, a Qest craft scholar, is hand-engraving the silver panel that will be attached to each clock. Adding an extra touch of class is the calligraphy on the certificate of authenticity, which has been created by Sally Magnum, a former Qest scholar who is now a trustee with her own royal warrant. Fittingly, a percentage from every sale of the clock will go back to Qest to fund future scholarships.
‘There’s already quite a lot of interest from China,’ adds Farrow. Which is remarkable considering the clock hasn’t been officially launched yet. It’s probably time to form an orderly queue.