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The British watchmaking revival

The British watchmaking revival

Monday, 01 June 2020
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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7 min read

Since the early 2000s, watchmaking has returned to British soil, concentrated mainly in and around the town of Henley-on-Thames, where Bremont, Christopher Ward and Farer are based. And the list is set to grow.

Just a few years ago, any mention of British watchmaking came down to an evocation of the past, when the likes of George Graham, John Harrison and John Arnold brought groundbreaking inventions to watchmaking in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Alas, this activity would slowly dwindle, leaving, two hundred years later, nothing but memories of a once great industry. Some might point out that the country’s workshops and factories were requisitioned for far more vital production than watches during the two world wars, leaving the field open for Swiss manufacturers, under cover of neutrality. Whatever the case, British watchmaking became synonymous with a handful of individuals who, however illustrious, cannot be considered an industry. Connoisseurs are quick to acknowledge the merits of the late George Daniels, inventor of the co-axial movement, and of Roger W. Smith, who learned at Daniels’ bench and perpetuates the tradition on the Isle of Man. Others have made their name in the Swiss heartlands, such as Stephen Forsey and Peter Speake-Marin or, extending the circle to Ireland, the McGonigle brothers and Stephen McDonnell (who developed the movement for the MB&F Legacy Machine Perpetual). In a word, small-scale production for a coterie of enthusiasts.

Nick and Giles English, founders of Bremont in 2002
Nick and Giles English, founders of Bremont in 2002

Over the past decade or so, however, British watchmaking has been picking up pace. While there is as yet no national federation to give structure, there has been a significant boom in the number of companies taking the stage, all intent on satisfying more than a handful of collectors a year. Strangely enough, this upsurge is centred around Henley-on-Thames – although not for the same historical reasons that have made, for example, Glashütte the epicentre of watchmaking in Germany. Rather, coincidence and opportunity have conspired to make the Oxfordshire town and the surrounding area the heart of this British horological revival, home to the likes of Bremont, Christopher Ward, Farer, Pinion and Marloe Watch (prior to the latter’s recent relocation to Perth in Scotland).

Bremont's manufacturing ambitions

By order of appearance… Bremont, set up in 2002 by brothers Giles and Nick English with the firm intention of giving Swiss brands a run for their money, and as a manufacturer to boot. In the eighteen years since it was founded, Bremont has proved an increasingly successful operation. The brand has steadily upped its game and is preparing to move into its newly-built manufacturing facility on the edge of town. The move, which the coronavirus lockdown has delayed by several months, will be the final stage leading to the brand’s first in-house movement, which has been in development for several years. Bremont, which already makes its own robust Trip-Tick cases (so-named for their three-part construction) and certain movement components on an ETA, La Joux-Perret or Sellita base, doesn’t compromise on quality. The 10,000 or so watches produced each year, for an annual turnover in the region of £40 million, are chronometer-rated to ISO 3159 standard. A “courtesy” one would expect when collaborating with Her Majesty’s Armed Forces on a military-inspired range.

H4 Hercules Stainless Steel Limited Edition © Bremont
H4 Hercules Stainless Steel Limited Edition © Bremont

In a recent interview to Watchtime, Giles English declared that “Bremont aims to be a big-label brand. To do this we need to build up skills and facilities, and we’ve poured millions into that. We have about 150 people working for us now, many of them watchmakers and machinists who we have trained. Making things on British soil is never the right thing to do commercially. But to become the big-label brand we want to be, we have to go that route.” It’s a route the two brothers are determined to see through to the end… which means building the obligatory backstory, telling of the family passion for historic aircraft, but also an entourage of ambassadors and partners. Part of the journey has also been to steadily build up a distribution network, with stores in London, New York, Hong Kong and Melbourne, and plans to open three new doors in the next twelve months.

The art of the dial at Farer

The business models at Christopher Ward or Farer are fundamentally different, though no less successful. “May has been Farer’s best month ever,” declared Paul Sweetenham, who founded the brand in 2015, speaking from Warfield, deep in the English countryside. “I’ll admit to being a little surprised myself but it’s a huge satisfaction for Farer, which is entirely self-financed.” Farer doesn’t have the in-house ambitions of a Bremont; instead, Sweetenham has chosen to work with a Swiss white-label firm, Roventa Henex, and makes no secret of the fact. This leaves the brand free to focus on design and in particular dials, paying special attention to colour and texture. A Farer watch is all about adventure (they are named after explorers and pioneers) with a savvy vintage touch. They are, as its tagline reminds us, “British Design x Swiss Made”.

Cobb Chronograph Automatic © Farer
Cobb Chronograph Automatic © Farer

It’s a winning formula. Production, currently around 5,000 watches a year, is in constant progression, helped by social media and specialist websites won over to the brand’s distinctive designs, but also thanks to aggressive price positioning. “We only sell direct to consumer,” says Sweetenham, “There’s no middleman hence no additional mark-up. When I first started out, I tried working with retailers but wasn’t happy with the level of service they were giving. Since 2017 we’ve brought everything back in-house and it works just great. We can fulfil an order from the US within 24 to 48 hours without the need for expensive logistics. For a brand such as Farer, this quality-value positioning is essential.”

"New luxury" at Christopher Ward

Christopher Ward, set up by three friends in 2004, is on the same page. Its aim, written in black and white on its website, is to “put premium quality watches within the reach of everyone.” By quality, the brand means Swiss, made in Biel/Bienne by Synergies Horlogères (SH) and in Ticino. In 2014 Synergies Horlogères, already a longstanding partner, and Christopher Ward merged, having first developed the SH21, a workhorse movement designed to accommodate various complications, with an enviable five-day power reserve thanks to twin barrels. The second half of the equation – what the brand calls “honest pricing” – comes from strict discipline. Christopher Ward has only ever sold its watches online, direct to the consumer. Nor does it spend on celebrity endorsements or sponsorship deals. As for margins, the price the customer pays is cost price multiplied by three, compared with seven to 12 times for brands selling through the traditional wholesale model.

Caliber SH21 © Christopher Ward
Caliber SH21 © Christopher Ward

This strategy to offer “new luxury” to people smart enough to spend less for identical quality is proving its worth. The brand’s sales for its last financial year ended March 31 grew 19% to around £10 million, with annual production in the region of 20,000 watches. And this is nothing compared to the 70% increase recorded during the first two weeks of April versus the same period last year. The three co-founders are convinced that Christopher Ward could easily exceed £100 million in turnover.

S1 – Spitfire 1936 © Zero West
S1 – Spitfire 1936 © Zero West

Are Bremont, Farer and Christopher Ward the extent of the British watchmaking revival? Not so sure. Microbrands such as Pinion, Marloe Watch, Zero West and Geckota, all set up within the past few years, are swelling the ranks of names to look out for. It will take more than Covid-19 to stop this new wave of British watchmakers.

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