How a new generation of watchmakers is making Britain's industry great again.
A new movement in watchmaking
It was one of the most memorable encounters of Roger Smith’s life. Standing on a doorstep in a remote part of the Isle of Man – the island that sits between England and Ireland – the pale and awkward 26-year-old rang George Daniels’s doorbell and waited, clutching a small wooden box.
Seconds later, the world’s greatest living watchmaker opened the door and gruffly ushered Smith inside.
“For the first five minutes, he just carried on with his paperwork,” says Smith, “shuffling things around the kitchen table, while I stood in the corner terrified, thinking, ‘This isn’t good’.”
“He muttered, ‘Well, have you got a watch?’ So I handed him the box. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.”
Reluctantly, Daniels took out the pocket watch to which Smith had dedicated the last five-and-a-half years of his life, and started turning it over and over in his hands.
“Who made your tourbillon carriage?” asked Daniels.
“I did,” replied Smith.
“So who made your detent?”
“So who’s your casemaker?”
“I made the case myself,” Smith replied.
Suddenly, Daniels snapped the case shut, and his face transformed; it lit up. With a huge grin he looked at Smith and said: “Congratulations, you’re a watchmaker!”
And thus, the future of traditional British watchmaking was secure. Smith was immediately recruited as Daniels’s only-ever apprentice and 15 years on, he is still on the Isle of Man running his own workshop of six, making a mere 10 examples of his own wristwatch per year. Every single component save for the glass and hairspring is painstakingly crafted from the bare metal. Smith has also assumed responsibility for the now-late Dr Daniels’s final legacy: a series of 35 watches marking the 35th anniversary of his greatest invention, the Co-Axial Escapement, which many consider to be the biggest leap forward for horology in two centuries. (So much so, it’s now the standard mechanism for Switzerland’s venerable brand, Omega.)
There’s a very good reason Smith can only turn out a handful of his exquisitely crafted £87,000 (Dh497,000) watches per year: “We work totally differently from anyone else,” he says. “We’re not churning them out like the Swiss. We’re trying to preserve traditional handcrafted techniques; we’re making wristwatches that are up to the standard of old 18th and 19th century English pocket watches.
“Ultimately, I suppose, I want to put some of the ‘making’ back into ‘watchmaking’.”
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Long before “Swiss Made” became the solely recognised badge of horological quality, London rather than Geneva was your first stop for a decent watch. Hans Wilsdorf even established his little-known company there in 1905 – renaming it Rolex in 1908, after listening to the noise his watch made when he wound it one day while sitting on a London bus. In fact, by some accounts, British watchmaking was what originally put “Great” in front of “Britain”; what once made every schoolboy’s atlas predominantly pink and what is now inspiring a fresh upsurge of new and revived watch brands – bad teeth and all.
Beyond some significant early advances in clockmaking, marine chronometers were what the Brits excelled at. Following John Harrison’s remarkable strides in answering the pleas of the Board of Longitude – proving that an accurate time reference is more effective than astronomy to navigate by – a stream of London characters with names such as Tompion, Graham, Mudge, Earnshaw, Arnold and Dent all turned out increasingly precise and robust timekeepers over the 18th and 19th centuries, which ensured Britannia ruled the waves, for awhile at least. The sun never set on the once-great Empire, and you could guarantee that pre-prandial G&Ts were always poured around the globe at the behest of a British timepiece.
While Smith ploughs his particular furrow on the Isle of Man (few others in the world, let alone Britain, can make watches his way), we are witnessing a surge of activity back on the mainland, with more and more homegrown brands capitalising on the booming interest in watches, and the British reputation for such things.
Bremont is the most successful of Britain’s new guard. Since its exuberant founders, the aptly-named brothers Giles and Nick English, burst onto the scene in 2006, their rock-solid, no-nonsense pilot’s watches have won widespread acclaim – and not just from patriotic Brits. Military airmen the world over have ordered special editions for their squadrons, including B2 stealth bomber and high-altitude U2 spyplane pilots, who wear the shockproof MBII model that Bremont developed with ejector-seat boffins Martin-Baker.
Business is good and 100 per cent of their output is now assembled in their beautiful new oak-framed workshop in Henley-on-Thames – a regular slice of the Swiss Jura deep in the heart of bucolic England.
“The important thing to mention is that this is very much stage 1,” says Giles, standing by one of their eight, bespoke-made workbenches. “The basic operations are in place: assembly, quality control, stock control… but stage 2 is next, and this will be a huge investment; hardcore machinery, the works.”
Presumably, anticipating the day when Bremont starts making separate components and assembling their own movements – rather than just modifying chronometer-rated Swiss movements – Nick and Giles have recruited cleverly, deliberately staffing their atelier with bona fide watchmakers.
“If you go to any typical Swiss atelier, you’ll see row upon row of ‘watchmakers’ who are actually just assemblers. People who conduct a very few tasks repetitively and relatively unskilfully. We’ve chosen not to work with assemblers – only proper watchmakers.
“It’s impossible to keep good watchmakers if they’re only putting on a crown, so everyone in this workshop, bar the apprentices, constructs a complete watch. Our view is that, this way, you make a better watch.”
Thanks to Bremont’s success, and arguably its disassociation from any of the dusty old British names, the way has been paved for several other young and thrusting brands who aren’t ashamed of using Swiss movements and outsourcing areas such as case and dial making. As long as the quality’s there and the price is reasonable, people are eager to invest in British enterprise and, most importantly, a British vision.
Christopher Ward is one such brand, whose crisply designed watches represent remarkable value for money as well as absolute transparency in terms of provenance. A far smaller outfit – two men in a Sussex studio, in fact – is newcomer Schofield. Its devastatingly cool Signalman watches (think science-fiction lighthouse) have been a labour of love for their founder Giles Ellis, but one he has embraced with relish. “Number one cost me £175,000,” he reveals. “It was 4,000 hours manpower alone. As a result it became prohibitive to make a single watch and the business expanded accordingly. I’m now sold out for the foreseeable future.”
Ellis’s background as a graphic designer, plus stints in musical instrument repair and bespoke amplifiers, mean he’s obsessed with detail; not only concerning the watch itself and its components’ 30 different suppliers, but every touch point of the business; logos, packaging, straps, websites, photography, even the accompanying toolkit of which the screwdrivers Ellis makes himself. It’s totally coherent, very different, but still tangibly “English”.
“I wanted the theme of my watches to be tied up in the coastal English thing, as that’s where I grew up. But Englishness is a nightmare to define… It’s a set of ideas more than anything, I think. My business partner and I are English, all the decisions are made by Englishmen and it’s an English brand. If we could have made the watches in the UK, we would have done!”
One man who does think that’s possible, however, is another lone wolf who has devoted years to developing his own first watch. He is Robert Loomes and for under £3,000 he will sell you a new, 100 per cent “Made in England” wristwatch.
A watchmaker and dial restorer based in Stamford, Lincolnshire, Loomes has doggedly tracked down English companies that could not only produce the things he needed but were also happy to make them in industrially irrelevant numbers – his “Robin” watch is limited to just 100 examples. Even the movements are English.
“Yes, we use 1950s Smiths of Cheltenham ‘12-15’ movements,” says Loomes, “which we re-finish, engrave, gild, re-jewel, fit new springs, etc. I can’t say where I found them... but they’re from a jeweller who had many hundreds in his store.”
So has Loomes proved that Britain could have a legitimate watchmaking industry once again? Only up to a point – specifically the point where we run out of new-old-stock movements.
“I could start my own ‘in house’ engineering division to make my own,” he says, “but the cost would be staggering, maybe four million pounds. We would have to sell 20,000 units a year for many years to make it all happen…”
But what all these new enterprises prove is that Britain undeniably possesses the talent, the ambition and diversity of product for things to start snowballing. Four million pounds isn’t such a daunting cost for certain savvy capitalists; it’s only a matter of time before the right investment is made and the Swiss are reminded of who once ruled the waves.