Given the all-but-defunct status of Britain’s watch industry for the past 50 years, it’s extraordinary to think Blighty was once the dominant power in timekeeping. In the 17th and 18th centuries, English watchmakers like Thomas Mudge and George Graham established many of the horological principles that still govern watchmaking today. But from the 19th century, a long decline set in and the industry eventually fizzled out altogether while the Swiss became all-conquering.
Recent times, however, have seen a sprinkling of entrepreneurial new players emerging. Heroic little companies determined to do things their own way: and these start-ups are producing handfuls of watches that resonate with a recognisably British sensibility.
Now, everything’s relative: even though these are British companies with British ideas and a growing local skill-base, they’re generally reliant on Switzerland for their technology. Bremont, Britain’s one luxury watch company with an international profile, recently opened a sizeable manufacturing facility in Henley-on-Thames, but it still uses Swiss parts; the assembling, refining and casing is done back home. Meridian, a new Norwich-based company, powers its watches with high-grade Swiss movements that were made in the 1970s and never used. Every other element of the watch – case, dial, hands, strap, glass crystal – is made in the UK, mostly in the Meridian workshop. Robert Loomes, a Stamford-based watch restorer, uncovered 1950s movements made by Smiths, the former watch and clock company that’s now a major engineering corporation. He recycled and up-graded the movements to meet modern standards, and with them makes rather beautiful, classical watches to order (see robertloomes.com).
For the ultimate in British watchmaking, there’s always Roger Smith, who creates every piece of a watch and its movement in his Isle of Man atelier. Smith operates at the pinnacle of the horological craft – the tiny number of watches he creates are among the finest on the planet, and cost anywhere from £72,000 up to several times that. If you can afford it, get your name on Smith’s waiting list. For the rest of us, it’s pleasing to know the options for English-made watches are increasing all the time.