Meet the man making 10,000 luxury watches a year in Britain
It takes two years to make a Bremont watch. It takes seven years to train the person who makes it. “We tend to mop up the area when we hire,” says Giles English, one half of the fraternal founders of Bremont, the luxury watch company.
“We can’t just rock up and ask for a watchmaker somewhere. No-one’s been assembling watches at any scale in the UK since the ‘60s. Every guy we get in we have to train up. We’ll interview 50 to 60 people and take on three people out of that. We don’t care if they’re 16, about qualifications, just ultimate dexterity. You can tell in half an hour whether they’re going to be any good – it’s a complete mental mindset, being a watchmaker.”
Investing in people is Bremont’s number one challenge, says English – bearing in mind that this is an industry where machinery can cost half a million pounds a pop. But he and his brother Nick remain unfazed – they’re used to challenges. The pair, who both started their careers in the City, set the company up in 2002, seven years after losing their dad.
In March 1995, Nick and Dr Euan English, an ex-RAF pilot with a PhD in aeronautical engineering, crashed in a 1942 Harvard aircraft. Nick broke more than 30 bones, and Euan was killed. Then, three years ago, Giles was in a flying accident himself, which left him with a broken back. “When you have a bad accident, you don’t realise how much it takes it out of you. You have this desperate desire to get back to work, but it takes years to get it out of your system.”
Bremont – named after a French farmer who “helped us out when Nick and I force landed in his pea field. He was in in early eighties and reminded us of our father had he lived that long” – marries an English love of tinkering and adventure with an appreciation for beauty. With a dad who loved mechanical timepieces as well as flying, as boys, Giles and Nick were roped into fixing old clocks.
Now, they’re proud to own a British watchmaking company which makes very high-quality pilot watches, producing between 8,000 to 10,000 a year. English takes off his own limited edition watch to show me. Embedded in the transparent back of it is wing cloth from the Wright Flyer, the first plane that ever flew. If you go on a Bremont retailer’s website (Bremont doesn’t sell online itself and uses a distribution model), you’ll find the same watch for sale for £30,950.
Over 10 times more expensive than Bremont’s most affordable models, the watch has played a key role in history – an example of the original and personal way the English brothers do business. Teaming up with the Wright Foundation, they used proceeds from selling the watch to fund the restoration of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s home in Dayton, Ohio into a museum. “You’ll be able to use that in 200 years’ time and still love it. What we do isn’t about fashion – every watch will still look classic in 20 years’ time. Watches are one of the few things you can buy nowadays that last forever and holds its value over time.”
A watch for all men
While I’m ogling at a U2 Spy Plane pilot wearing a Bremont watch 80,000ft up, English is approached by a customer. He is, it quickly transpires, in the 20 per cent of Bremont customers who are in the military, and his watch was specially made for his squadron. He is, he tells me, delighted with it – though “a kidney lighter” because of it. “We’re really proud of all the squadrons round the world, many of whom we can’t speak about, who wear our watches. Yes, they might put on a digital Cassio when they’re on missions, but if you’re flying an F-15 for seven years of your life, the rest of your life you spend talking about flying that F-15. Having a memory of that on your wrist is a great thing,” says English.
Bremont makes some of its watches in partnership with Martin Baker, the ejection seat giant, and in its Mayfair store there’s a stripped-back seat forming part of the decoration. Bremont stores aren’t really shops, they’re experiences. Not only are there signed pictures, plane paraphernalia and the watches to look at – there’s a bar, too.
“The whole idea of the stores is as much about the brand/marketing piece as it is about the watches. We have a monthly Explorers’ Club where we get speakers in.” He flips round a trunk signed by the likes of Kenton Cool, Levison Wood and Graham Bell. “We want people to feel like they’re part of the Bremont family.” Bremont’s customers aren’t aspirational buyers – they’ll already have had at least one very nice watch, but are looking for something a bit different. “We do have customers who buy every limited edition.”
Every year, the pair take their wares to the Basel Watch Fair – the seminal watch and jewellery show. But this year, they’re trying something a bit different. “It’s the pressure event – you sell to all your retailers there. But we’ve felt lumped in with the Swiss – squashed in a corner somewhere – and we’re actually very different.” As an alternative, Bremont is hiring a five-story townhouse in Fitzroy Square for the week beginning 27 February. Customers, would-be customers and press are invited to “immerse themselves in Bremont”.
Building the brand hasn’t been easy – the competition is 750 Swiss watch companies. For the first five years, Giles and Nick were just making prototypes. “Everyone thought we were crazy. No-one had heard of us, we were trying to sit beside massive brands. If we hadn’t had emotion and passion behind us, I don’t think we’d have stuck at it. We just knew that first watch had to be exceptional.”
With manufacturing facilities in Henley and Silverstone, Giles and Nick come up with the designs of all their watches themselves. “The temptation is to cater for everyone. But if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no-one. We just have to say ‘this is what we like and we hope other people do too’.”
This year, the brothers are focusing on growing in the UK and US. “We’re in 10 countries, but our competitors are in 110. That’s actually incredibly exciting because we’ve got the potential to just grow and grow. There is no reason why we can’t be as big as the biggest Swiss watch companies.” Pushing for scale means changes for the Englishes. They’ve already brought on a chief executive, and are looking at “new structures” for the firm. “Brands can get too big for one or two people.”
But slowing down isn’t an option. “I was in the Caribbean last week visiting retailers, I’m here this week, then it’s Dubai next week. There is never any rest in what we’re doing. To work this hard, you have to be passionate, you have to love your product – you spend years on it. But then, you can look down every day and think ‘I designed that’. And that’s so important, because in life, every day has to count.”