Could James Bond be about to jump ship and exchange his Omegas, Rolexes and Seikos for something more patriotic? Given the promotional stakes, it’s unlikely we’ll see a home-grown watch on Bond’s wrist any time soon. Whether or not a British watchmaker has the capacity to put a suitably prestigious timepiece on Agent 007’s arm is a different matter. Indeed, watchmaking in the United Kingdom is on a roll. While the Swiss watch sector continues to drag its heels with exports losing 10.2% over the first nine months of the year, Britain can boast an increase of 4% over the same period.
Since the British vote to leave the European Union, the freefall in sterling, which has dropped 18% against the Swiss franc since June, has sparked an opposite movement in sales. In September alone, shipments of Swiss watches to the UK increased by 32.4% to CHF 120.6 million, positioning it as the fourth market just behind Japan. What’s more, knowing that price adjustments generally take six months to kick in, this spending spree looks set to continue.
Glashütte in Germany isn't the only region outside Switzerland that can nurture quality timepiece production.
Reviving a rich past
Swiss brands are not the only ones to benefit from this new currency environment; British brands are putting their best foot forward too. And that is “brands” in the plural. Whereas British watchmakers were once a dying breed, the sector has seen something of a resurgence in recent years and this has prompted healthy emulation. While we’re still a long way from the age when the likes of Thomas Mudge (1715-1794), inventor of the lever escapement, and Edward Dent (1790-1853), maker of the great clock in the Palace of Westminster, ensured Britannia ruled not only the waves but time too by making half the world’s timepieces – around 200,000 a year – a new generation of British watchmakers is emerging nonetheless, making clear that Glashütte in Germany isn’t the only region outside Switzerland that can nurture quality timepiece production.
It wasn’t so long ago that the only name to spring to mind would be that of the great Roger Smith, spiritual heir of the late George Daniels, who makes no more than a dozen watches a year at his workshop on the Isle of Man. Some might be familiar with the work of the McGonigle brothers, John and Stephen, from Ireland, who learned their trade with Christophe Claret, Breguet and Audemars Piguet. Possibly we’d heard of Stephen McDonnell, another Irish watchmaker and the man behind MB&F’s Legacy Machine Perpetual. At which point the well ran dry.
From low to high
Not so today, with more and more initiatives taking form across the watchmaking spectrum. In the entry-level segment, Marloe made its debut early in the year. The company specialises in hand-wound mechanical watches at astonishingly low prices. The simple explanation being that it sources its movements in China, a choice the founders are happy to explain in considerable detail on the brand’s website, with a who’s who of mechanical movement production in Switzerland and Japan, and the advantages they have in using Chinese-made movements inside a 100% British-designed watch.
Another newcomer is Fears, which threw its hat into the arena at the recent SalonQP. Established in 1846 and active into the 1960s, the brand has been revived by Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, great-great-great grandson of the founder. He has chosen Swiss quartz movements by Ronda for what is, needless to say, a distinctly British style. However, the British offensive isn’t limited to the lower price echelons. Recently, we have seen the country’s watchmakers take on the fiercely guarded bastions of Switzerland’s “Maisons”… though not without recourse to their expertise.