Simon de Burton
Horophiles might recall a flurry of interest in the revival of British watchmaking that seemed to peak a couple of years ago. This followed the emergence of several new, UK-based brands and the ‘coming of age’ of a few older players.
So what has happened since? Is Britain anywhere near a return to the watchmaking force to be reckoned with that it was back in the 1930s and 40s, when the Smith’s factory in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire employed 400 people and churned out 8,000 jewelled lever watch escapements every week
Is the UK back on the road to becoming the watchmaking superpower that it was in the days when Robert Hooke invented the balance spring (c1660), George Graham introduced the sweep seconds hand (1700s), Thomas Mudge created the lever escapement (c1755), and John Harwood patented the first self-winding wristwatch movement (1924)?
The answer is a straightforward ‘no,’ but that doesn’t mean the Britwatch revival is faltering. The number of UK-based brands has been increasing steadily – even if the large majority of what they sell is far from being truly ‘home-grown’.
Bremont, the best-known and most successful of the new British watch marques is, however, moving ever closer to making more parts at home than it buys in from abroad. This is as a result of significant investment in staff, machinery, research and development, and premises. But Giles English, who co-founded the firm with his brother Nick, says attempting to realise a dream of playing a major part in furthering Britain’s watchmaking tradition is far from plain sailing.
‘Producing a few hundred or even a couple of thousand watches isn’t especially difficult, but now that we have grown from making around 6,000 watches a year five years ago to nearer 10,000 today, we are realising that the scale of investment needed to get it right is astronomical,’ says English. ‘Just to buy one CNC machine capable of making parts to a sufficiently high level of accuracy, for example, costs at least £400,000 – and we need several of them.’
Undeterred, the brothers are forging ahead with their expansion plans and work will shortly commence on building a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Henley-on-Thames, the south Oxfordshire town where Bremont has been based since 2012.
Is the UK back on the road to becoming the watchmaking superpower it was?
Currently, the operation is run from a 5,000 sq-ft building, but the new one will extend to 35,000 sq ft, with 130 employees, bringing case making, movement construction and final assembly under the same roof.
As building work gets underway, Bremont is already prototyping its own in-house movement, which the highly regarded Northern Irish watchmaker Stephen McDonnell has spent five years designing. McDonnell, a former senior instructor at the prestigious Wostep watchmaking school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, has previously developed movements for high-end brands including MB&F, Christophe Claret and Harry Winston.
‘We are already close to the point where too high a percentage of the value of our watches comes from UK parts for the finished product to be eligible for COSC,’ says English, referring to the official Swiss chronometer testing certification. ‘So we are exploring the possibility of creating a British equivalent test that other UK makers can also apply for.
‘Although an increase in home-grown watch brands potentially means competition for Bremont, it will actually benefit us if they do cool and interesting things because that can only help put Britain back on the map as a centre of excellence.’ Among the firms joining Bremont in the push for horological glory is the impressive Farer, which was launched in late 2015 by a four-man team led by Paul Sweetenham, previously the president of TJX Europe, the giant US retailing group that owns TK Maxx.
The ‘Farer’ name alludes to their watches being inspired by different forms of travel and, although the watches are manufactured in Switzerland by the leading ‘private label’ maker Roventa-Henex, the designs are the work of Sweetenham and his UK team. Farer watches were initially available only with quartz movements, but strong sales prompted the addition of a three-hand automatic and then a £1,175 GMT automatic, powered by the ‘top grade’ ETA movements used in many more expensive watches made by high-profile brands.
‘ETA said we had to buy a minimum of 1,000 movements, which meant quite a bold financial investment for such a new brand,’ says Sweetenham. ‘But, of the initial 300 watches we made, 100 were sold in a single day.’
Farer has since produced a £1,095 automatic dive watch and in April will launch a slim, hand-wound dress watch with a top-grade movement followed by its first chronometer in July, and a three-time-zone pilot watch, which becomes available in September.
Another fledgling British maker heading for success is Oxfordshire-based Marloe. Launched on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in January 2016 by marketing consultant Oliver Goffe and draughtsman Gordon Fraser, its mission to make affordable, hand-wound watches designed in the UK raised an initial £180,000. This enabled it to deliver its first model – the £249, three-hand Cherwell – which was followed by the two-hand Derwent at £329, and the £450 Lomond chronograph.
All use hand-wound mechanisms produced by China’s Tianjin Seagull company, and their success enabled the launch, six months ago, of a model called the Haskell that uses a higher quality Swiss movement and costs £995.
‘I decided to establish Marloe after living in Sweden for a few years, where there are two or three brands that have become very successful selling quartz watches at very high margins – it sort of infuriated me to think that people would pay so much for a quartz watch that cost, perhaps, $5 to make. So I went down the route of seeing how much a proper, mechanical watch could actually be produced for,’ explains Goffe.
‘One of the reasons I wanted to set up the business is that I remember seeing my father wind his watch every morning before leaving the house – and I think people are coming back to that tactile connection, which doesn’t exist with quartz. It is all part of the growing counter-culture of “slow living”, he says.
Early British Timekeeping Pioneers
Founding of the Clockmaker’s Company
As the domestic clockmaking industry in London grew, its associated craftsmen sought to gain recognition. A royal charter granted by King Charles I on 22 August 1631 established the Clockmaker’s Company, now the oldest surviving horological institution in the world.
Robert Hooke and the Balance Spring
In 1660, British physicist Robert Hooke discovered Hooke’s law, the law of elasticity that now bears his name. He applied the principle in his development of the balance spring, greatly improving the accuracy of portable timepieces.
Daniel Quare and the Minute Hand
Clockmaker Daniel Quare was at the forefront of many of the industry’s most important inventions, including being among the first to manufacture a repeating watch movement. Another landmark moment came circa 1690, where he is widely credited for introducing the minute hand.
An Act of Parliament passed in July 1714 offered a reward for finding a method of determining a ship’s longitude at sea. British watchmaker John Harrison came closest to solving the conundrum with a number of horological innovations, earning him prize money of more than £20,000.
Thomas Mudge and the Lever Escapement
Thomas Mudge’s lever escapement was among the most significant advancements in watchmaking, and is still widely used in timepieces today. Invented in 1754, the first-known application of it was in a watch thought to have been acquired by George III for Queen Charlotte.
More From The Brits
Founded in 2004, Berkshire-based Christopher Ward sells online only. An initial range of Chinese-made quartz watches was followed by a mechanical range in 2008 after it partnered with Swiss movement-maker Synergies Horlogères. The two merged in 2014 and now offer designs from a range of dress, sport, aviation and motorsport watches priced from £350 to £3,370.
Garrick makes watches in Norfolk. Vintage Swiss base movements are modified and finished in-house using UK-made components, and the firm recently introduced an ‘in-house’ hand-wound mechanism designed by Andreas Strehler that uses a combination of Swiss and English-made parts. The watches range in price from £2,995 for the Norfolk to £6,995 for the top-of-the-line Regulator.
Loomes & Co
The Lincolnshire maker’s Robin watches use vintage movements, while the £28,500 Stamford 24-piece series is made entirely from components designed and engineered in Britain, something many believed could not be done. “We were told the skills no longer existed but, in reality, the country is packed with engineers capable of making all the parts we needed,” says Loomes.
Polymath hipster Giles Ellis established Schofield in 2011 having been, among other things, a coding specialist and a musical instruments restorer. Schofield watches were initially made in Germany but the firm now offers three lines priced from £3,060–£3,600, featuring Swiss movements and various British-made parts. They are assembled at the firm’s workshops in West Sussex.
The Vertex name was revived last year by Don Cochrane, great grandson of Claude Lyons, who founded the company in London in 1916. Vertex was one of the 12 official suppliers of watches to the allied forces during WWII but ceased trading in 1972. The first new-generation model, the M100, is limited to 660 examples with a £2,500 price tag, but future models will be made in larger numbers.
Roger W Smith
The only firm crafting watches in the true ‘English’ style with features such as frosted gold mainplates and gold chatons, Roger W Smith makes more than 90 per cent of its components on the Isle of Man. Production runs to no more than 10 watches per year, with watches in the RW Smith range starting at £100,000 and rising to £250,000 for the latest Series 4 model. There is a three-year waiting list.