Watchmaking pioneer keeps secrets under lock and key


Richard Hoptroff’s time-keeping technology within the bowels of the Clink could make our timepieces into something more

Deep within the darkened recesses of the old Clink Prison in Southwark lies the enigma that is Hoptroff. The company is one of only seven in the world specialising in watch movement technology. To call it a niche market is a vast understatement.

On my way to meet the founder, I walk past the museum entrance to a more subtle portal at the side of the old prison. I follow the corridors inside. No lights are on and, as each heavy door slams behind me, I find myself in increasing darkness.

The old prison is now used as studio and office spaces, but it hasn’t shed its stark dungeon atmosphere. Large, crude numbers next to each heavy door are all that alludes to the businesses inside. Finally I find what I’m looking for – No.12.

Richard Hoptroff lets me into the office, its bright lights in stark contrast to the gloom of the hallways.

The space is small, considering Richard runs three businesses from the unit. What’s more, he’s managing director of each: Flexipanel, HexWax and the newest, Hoptroff Ltd. The latter specialises in timekeeping electronics.

Four desks are organised in one part of the room with the other part acting like a living space – bookshelves, a grandfather clock and a bed. Sitting at his desk shoesless, but with his watchmaker’s monogoggle, Hoptroff looks every inch the genius inventor.

“Watchmaking has always interested me,” he says. “I’ve been working with silicon chips and Bluetooth, and radio technology for years. It has recently developed to the point where it is useful for watches.”

The Hoptroff empire has been developing the components necessary to build a connection between watches and mobile phones.

Watches using Hoptroff mechanics will enable the user to acess the internet from their watches. Customers could use them in the same way they use their mobile phones now, by downloading updates such as forecasts, sports results or stock market reports, as well as set personal reminders for birthdays and anniversaries.

“Our idea is to transform the watch into a smart accessory. A watch must always be able to tell the time, but it can do a lot more besides – not just gimmicks.”

Hoptroff finds his shoes, we leave the Clink and make our way to Monmouth Coffee where, he assures me, he buys a lot of coffee. I can imagine him bent over his desk in the small hours, lit by an old lamp and sipping a “cup of Joe”.

“Watches are so overly commoditised at the moment,” he continues. “We want to make them customised. There’s no reason that a slightly smarter watch movement can’t hold personal information.”

From personal information to historical information, our conversation drifts towards the start of Hoptroff’s various endeavours. He started up a software company in the early Nineties.

“I tried to move to Paris in the early days,” he muses, “ ‘tried’ being the operative word.” LuckILy for London, our French counterparts were not so receptive to Richard’s innovative start-ups.

“London really does love business,” he exclaims. “In Paris it’s the complete opposite – it’s almost like they don’t want new businesses. London is a very dynamic place to base your company. Anything is possible, and all the networks are here to help you achieve so much.”

So he returned to London and set up Flexipanel and Hexwax, specialising in Bluetooth technology and USB ports respectively. Hoptroff is very positive for the future of London as the only place to kick start an enterprise.

“I’m particularly happy about the investment in technical colleges [announced in the government’s recent Budget]because as a tech-based business we need people with skills.

“I was getting worried that the UK – particularly London – was losing its engineers as they were all running off to the City. At least we are doing something to redress the balance.”

Not only is London business friendly, it has a rich history of watchmaking, a point not lost on Hoptroff: “The technology and design of watches has been taking place in this city for hundreds of years.

“People like George Graham and Thomas Tompian worked together on Fleet Street in the 17th century making watches. It’s terribly exciting to be part of that.”

But how did Hoptroff end up in the Clink?

“We wanted somewhere central, but we couldn’t have normal offices because of our machinery. Also we needed somewhere secure. We have high-value parts and data that we don’t want escaping.”

Hoptroff and his small team of three work in the Clink designing and inventing the necessary technology. Looking around the minute office I wonder how such a well-established operation works out of such a modest space. 

The scaled-back operation, he explains, is how he has survived the recent financial crash. “We subcontract the manufacturing of our products and we make to order.

“It means we have limited stock on site at any one time and our costs are low. All we had to do when demand took a dip in 2009 was tighten our belts a little.”

Hoptroff reports happily that revenues are now back into seven figures. All profits are pumped back into the company to reinvest in growth.

“We use all our own designs, and the process of product development is fairly long. Our biggest challenge is not technological though. Trying to predict the market and understanding what people will be interested in buying is the key. Market intelligence is half the battle,” he says.

Having worked on the watch movements for over a year, Hoptroff Ltd is almost ready to take off. The first product is due for launch. But who buys watch mechanics from this tiny operation in Southwark’s Clink prison?

Hoptroff remains tight lipped: “We have quite a number of deals lined up with companies that you have definitely heard of. I don’t want to scupper the deals by mentioning them now. Suffice to say you’d be suitably impressed.”

No doubt I would – but as I leave the prison and make my way back to daylight, the secrets of the Hoptroff empire remain safely behind prison walls.