ONE of the most striking timepieces produced by a watch company in the past year hasn’t been a watch at all, but a mechanical ship’s clock. Nor was it just the advanced technology behind the clock or the £40,000 price-tag that grabbed the attention. It was the fact that every inch of it, down to the last screw, was designed and made in Britain.
For Bremont, the young British company producing it, the B-1 Marine Clock is a statement of home-grown capabilities.
Clocks are one thing, though, and watches quite another – and for that, Switzerland is still boss.
But Swiss excellence is now playing a role in celebrating the historic influence of British horology, a legacy dating back centuries. Bremont is just one brand, along with revived names like Ellicott, Graham and Dent, combining Swiss excellence with British horological DNA.
Founded in 2007 by appropriately-named brothers Giles and Nick English, Bremont deploys its Britishness as a distinguishing factor, but without over-egging the pudding. It’s teamed up with UK brands like Norton motorcycles, Goodwood and Jaguar; been sported by the likes of Bear Grylls and Orlando Bloom (oh, and Tom Cruise); used bits of a famous Spitfire to make parts for one of its watches; and released a slew of ruggedly handsome timepieces that seem to be full of Reach For the Skies spirit, but thankfully with nary a Union Jack or RAF roundel in sight.
They’re also almost entirely Swiss-made, at Bremont’s workshop in the Jura Mountains. “At the moment we do case finishing in the UK, and in the next year we aim to be making the full cases and assembling the watches in England,” says co-founder Giles English.
“In some ways we play down the Britishness, but that in itself is British – we didn’t want to do anything corny. It’s about adventure, that British spirit of going out and achieving, but still having a watch that works in the boardroom or on Mount Everest.”
English’s hero is John Harrison, the clockmaker who in 1764 created the marine chronometer that first enabled pinpoint navigational accuracy. The brothers even looked into reviving the Harrison name themselves, but decided on a path of greater creative leeway.
Nevertheless, acquiring and reviving revered old watch names has practically been a sport in the luxury watch world in the past 40 years – Breguet and Blancpain are among those that got bought up, dusted down, and re-pointed – and so it is proving now with ancient British names.
FROM BIG BEN TO BIG WATCHES
Edward Dent (1790–1853) was a Victorian clockmaker whose list of achievements included the Palace of Westminster’s Great Clock (what we know as Big Ben). The Dent brand dwindled in the 20th century, and in 2006 a consortium of British investors bought it.
Now, as well as making remarkable clocks including one for the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station, there is a range of Swiss-made Dent watches.
Taking a different tack to Bremont, these are tremendously antique in style, the Parliament line actually recreating the look of Big Ben in watch form. They cost 10 times as much as a Bremont watch too, and come in very limited numbers.
Of course in the global luxe trade British heritage still carries considerable clout, as any Savile Row tailor will testify as he hops on a plane to measure up clients in New York or Shanghai. It’s a fact not lost on the Swiss themselves. The British Masters is a Swiss company founded in the late 1990s to create modern watch brands around names from English horological history and tap some of that Old Empire appeal.
It does this through contrasting means: the Arnold & Son line, named after Edward Dent’s former partner John Arnold, creates classic, ultra high-end pieces. By contrast the Graham brand, named after early clock pioneer George Graham (1789–1867), creates beefy, masculine watches that are fiendishly inventive. Graham’s Oversize Chronofighter line, including a huge pusher on the left-hand side that resembles the lever of a hand-grenade, is like D-Day on your wrist (there’s actually a version called the Overlord).
Do these watches really have anything to do with their historical namesakes? Chairman of the British Masters board is William Asprey, scion of a family itself linked to the upper echelon of British craftsmanship, and owner of the William & Son luxury goods shop in Mayfair. “They cling to the heritage through the fact that the name is known, and is historically so important,” he says. “Plus, in their time these guys were the innovators and creators of exciting new things, so you can take it either way.”
Another 18th century innovator was John Ellicott (1706-1772), whose clocks were prized by royalty. Switzerland’s Pierre-Andre Finazzi, a former partner in the British Masters group, is now producing remarkably striking watches under the Ellicott name.
Ironically, these were available to buy around the globe some time before they finally arrived at Fulham’s Watch Gallery last year. The small range of highly sophisticated, ultra-modern watches – incorporating a jet plane-inspired line, Mache One, and the more dressy Majesty creations – show a brand on the up.
AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD
If English-sounding watches made by the Swiss doesn’t do it for you – the pieces made by Jaeger Le-Coultre for the old British luxury brand Dunhill are another option – how about Swiss watches made by an Englishman? Peter Speake-Marin is a Brit who upped sticks and moved to Switzerland in 1996, where he’s built a reputation as a leading purveyor of finely-crafted, graceful watches, including harking-back-to-Blighty Piccadilly line.
There’s one more option for the patriotic UK watch buyer, particularly one on a budget. Christopher Ward, a former marketing professional, founded his eponymous brand in 2005 with the specific aim of making Swiss watches affordable. Assembled in a factory in Jura and containing movements from the leading Swiss supplier ETA, the watches are simple, understated and – thanks to the fact that Ward sells them exclusively through his website and indulges in barely any costly marketing – cheap as chips.
They may not have the sophistication of some brands, but they’re handsome pieces nevertheless. As affordable mechanical watches of respectable quality they’re up there with the best – and in watches, that’s a pretty British place to be.
The Bremont MBII
Endurance is one of the key tenets of Bremont’s watches, all of which are tested to withstand extreme conditions. None more so than the MBII, designed in conjunction with British company Martin-Baker, which makes jet aircraft ejector seats. The watch is designed to withstand being rocketed out of a plane – the MBI version is reserved for those who have actually ejected using an MB seat.
MBII £2,995. www.jurawatches.com