“We’ve definitely seen more British watch companies opening over the last five to 10 years,” commented Dudley Giles, chief executive of the British Horological Institute, “the voice of British horology”, to BBC News. “People are attracted because if you can design and market a mechanical watch the margins are good. And the British brand attracts people because it has always been associated with quality and innovation.” The founders of Bremont, the aptly-named Giles and Nick English, would be first to concur. The brand, which launched in 2007, is already an established name with annual production of around 10,000 watches and its own stores in London, New York and Hong Kong. According to the 2015 World Watch Report from Digital Luxury Group, of the 62 renowned luxury brands that were searched for online worldwide, only one was British, and that was Bremont.
The question of supplies
“The goal is to produce watches that you could put on in 20 to 30 years’ time and that will still look great,” Nick English told BBC News. “We are also tapping into the incredible history of British watchmaking. The world sets its time by Greenwich, not by Geneva, and that is for a good reason.” The English brothers have done much to put Britain back on the international watch map. And if Brexit and the attendant fall in the value of sterling is giving them a serious boost, so much the better. For Bremont, it means the shortfall in sales in Hong Kong since 2015 has been amply offset by its excellent performance in the United Kingdom and the US, putting the company on track for a 15% gain in 2016.
The other side of the coin is that the cost of supplies, which include LaJoux-Perret movements, has gone through the roof, a consequence of the Swiss franc’s 18% increase against the pound since June. The company is currently bringing more competencies in-house in an attempt to reduce its reliance on Swiss suppliers, by hiring engineers from the automotive and defence industries and through a collaboration with the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. Even so, around 30% of the value of a Bremont watch comes from Swiss components. “We’re at least 30% to 40% less efficient than our counterparts in Switzerland for building watches,” Giles English confessed to Bloomberg. “We always knew this. This is an investment, and we’re getting better and better.” The brand is introducing its debut collection for women towards the end of the year. Looking further ahead, it is working on its first proprietary movement. The design is in the finalisation stages and parts should be locally made. Watch this space…
Designs on your wrist
Of course, it takes more than grit and determination to go it alone. Watchmaking machinery costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the number of British engineering firms that are capable of manufacturing parts can be counted on the fingers of one hand, not to mention the essential skills that come into play all along the value chain. In this respect, Bremont is without doubt one of the most advanced British watch firms, as it is already producing its own cases, dials and certain movement parts such as bridges and plates. Brands such as Meerson and Schofield, in comparison, still have a long way to go… which hasn’t prevented either from taking a front-row seat, no doubt because their watches are particularly design-focused.
Meerson, launched in 2008 by luxury guru Alexandre Meerson, stands out for its proudly classic styling and an attention to detail and quality that is evidenced in the choice of Vaucher Manufacture movements. Schofield Watch Company is the brainchild of Giles Ellis whose aim is quite simply to make the watches he would like to wear. Buoyed by the success of his minimalist timepieces, initially housing German movements but also Soprod calibres, now assembled in Britain, he has concocted a modern brand of characterful watches with, for example, cases made from Schofield’s own trademarked carbon composite or straps crafted from cricket ball leather. So very British!
Partners in time
Christopher Ward has chosen an upfront approach that turns the tables on the secretive nature that continues to weigh on the profession. The brand was launched in 2004 by Mike France, Chris Ward and Peter Ellis, three friends with long careers in retail under their belt. They immediately decided to cut out the middle man and only sell their watches on their website, a path few would have dared take ten years ago. Christopher Ward has always been clear about how it sets its prices: “Our pricing model has been the same since day one. We design in-house, use the best possible components, calculate the cost of the watch and multiply it by three to get the selling price. This allows just enough margin for us to make a fair profit. It also means our watches are up to a quarter of the price of equivalent ones from our more famous Swiss competitors. We didn’t know it at the time but apparently we ‘disrupted the industry’ with our approach to selling ‘proper’ watches.”
The C5 Malvern, unveiled in 2005, got the brand off to a strong start. Three years later it joined forces with veteran watchmaker Jörg Bader and his company, Synergies Horlogères, which is based in Biel, Switzerland. Their collaboration produced the Mk I Tridents collection, following which the young Dresden watchmaker Johannes Jahnke joined the troops in Biel, where he developed a series of additional modules. This combination of Swiss and British clicked to the point that Christopher Ward and Synergies Horlogères merged in 2014. This was also the year Calibre SH21 was unveiled, developed by Johannes Jahnke and nothing less than the first commercially viable movement from a British brand in more than 50 years. A milestone indeed.