Despite a long tradition of watch making, today very few mechanical timepieces are made in Britain. We talk Nick English, co-founder of Bremont, one of the few manufacturers still in the business.
'A luxury watch is not just about telling the time,' says Nick English. 'It can't be. We already know what time it is, because that's on our mobile phone.' According to one of the co-founders of the very British high-end mechanical watch manufacturer Bremont, today's wristwatch is in fact more about making a statement connected to the person wearing it. 'It's to do with the idea that this mechanical miracle happening on your wrist can tell you a story, too.'
We're sitting in Bremont's headquarters in Henley-on-Thames discussing British watch manufacture and watches in general. English has taken me on a tour of his assembly workshop, where skilled British craftsmen put together the Bremont designs by hand. 'You don't really get to understand just how difficult an art this can be until you have tried it,' explains English. So I have a go, the predictable result of which is that all manner of tiny mechanical components fly about all over the place. You need a steady hand to build watches, and the experienced craftsmen are intensely amused by my total inability to perform what for them are the most rudimentary of tasks. 'Don't worry,' says English. 'These are demonstration components and they won't go into one of our finished watches.'
For Bremont, which is often cited as the only British watch manufacturer in the UK today, this is probably no bad thing, as every watch is subjected to the most intense of quality assurance protocols. English takes a moment to refine his definition of Bremont, stating: 'We're the only manufacturer of any size making mechanical watches in the UK today. There are highly specialised people such as Roger Smith on the Isle of Man making ten or 15 pieces a year. But here we make several thousand pieces a year. And we're the only people who do that.'
There are 86,400 seconds in a day, a figure that fascinates English. This is because Bremont makes watches that are accurate to 'one or two seconds per day either way. That's a talking point. That's special. We're talking about the most accurate mechanical device of that size on the planet. That is what appeals to people. That is what has changed in the watch market over the past 15 to 20 years. There's been a huge resurgence of interest in the mechanical watch.' English enjoys the irony that this is the period during which digital technology has taken over the world, from the smartphone to the more recent smartwatch.
'Everything we do today has become digitised. And so if you're asking me to explain the attraction of a mechanical machine, then it has to start with nostalgia. It's for the same reason fountain pens are doing so well at the moment. I write a lot of emails in a day, and you don't need a Mont Blanc to do that. But when you want to write a personal letter, you want it to be a special experience. In the past a watch was purely for telling the time. Now, it's for a whole load of other things.'
For English, the process of engineering a mechanical work of art is a passion. He recalls how he and his brother Giles spent many of their formative years with their father 'in the workshop, making things. Everything he did revolved around making engines, musical instruments, anything. He'd say to us 'here's an old clock ' see if 'you can make it work'. There were all these mechanical things going on, and the more beautifully engineered they were, the more attraction they had. It's amazing how you can perceive the quality of decent componentry, even from an early age.'
The desire to make things has always been in his blood. He remembers his father showing him the wristwatch that his own father had worn while on service during the First World War. 'He got a bayonet through his arm while wearing it. Watches can often tell a story for longer than the person who wore them.'
Aspects of engineering
English cheerfully admits that Bremont watches are built and tested to standards way beyond what is generally expected of a watch. 'This over-engineering aspect of watchmaking is something that really interests me. For example, our cases don't have to be engineered in the way they are. They are in three pieces rather than two.'
He goes on to describe the materials, tolerances, testing, hardening and coating processes that apply to the cases alone: 'You don't have to do these things, but it differentiates us as a brand.' But more than that, it is a case of, 'if you know a way of doing something better, then that's what you do. That's our mantra. But it is over-engineering. The company is just over a decade old now and so we're very young compared with companies trading on large histories. We trade on an average price point of about £4,000 to £5,000 and there are a lot of people selling good watches at that price. So we've got to be good, too. I'd like to think that someone could take one of our watches to a watchmaker who could then take it apart and recognise it as a pretty nice watch. To get to that point, you have to go beyond the call of duty just to get the tick in that box.'
One of the ways in which the English brothers aim to make their watches different from competitors such as Omega, IWC and Breitling is in the telling of stories. 'Our watches often have a narrative attached to them,' says English. 'Every year we try to produce a piece that's quite fun. We have our standard range, but we also have some incredible partnerships, where we do something a bit different, producing collectors' items.
'Our background is connected with aviation, but we have other interests too. When we heard that HMS Victory was being restored we got permission from the First Sea Lord to use some of the huge original copper pins as well as some of the oak dating back to 1765 when the ship was laid down. We got these parts, melted down the copper and made some rings that became the middle barrel of our Victory watch. We inlaid some of the wood into the case and it became a very special watch. We got Nelson's seal out of a private collection, which we copied, and we used this to stamp all the paperwork going out with the watch. It's a special piece and a lovely story.' Not least because part of the profits of the Victory watch will go towards the restoration of the ship itself.
English describes the Britishness of his approach as central to everything that Bremont does. 'There are 700-odd Swiss watch brands, and they play on that. Britain has an amazing history of watchmaking equal to the Swiss.' English lists John Harrison (of the 'Longitude' chronometer pedigree), 18th century horologer Thomas Mudge, 17th century clockmaker Thomas Tompion, as well as more recently, George Daniels who was considered one of the best watchmakers of the 20th century. 'All British. But this is an amazing heritage we have lost. There were a couple of world wars, heavy involvement of the trade unions, skills-based transference to overseas and the global mechanisation of the profession. Smiths were probably the last company in the UK to be making mechanical watches in any number, and that was in the late 1960s.
'And so we've lost a huge amount,' concludes English ruefully. 'That's one of the reasons we're trying to manufacture as many of our parts as possible over here. We do the assembly here, too. It's about bringing watch manufacturing back to Britain. Of course, it would be much easier to do all this engineering somewhere else. But for us it is much more than simply making watches.'
The French connection
For a British company, whose founders could not have a more patriotic surname, its name appears to have more of the red, white and blue of the French Tricolour than the Union Flag about it. There is a story behind this, dating back to the late 1990s when the English brothers were flying their 1930s biplane through France and were forced to make an emergency landing due to a rough-running engine and foul weather.
Keen to avoid the French authorities, the brothers accepted aid from a local farmer who helped them to hide the plane in his barn overnight while they waited for the weather to clear. The farmer (who by pure coincidence just happened to be a gifted engineer and keen aviator) showed the men his workshop and they enjoyed an evening of aviation tales. The farmer still wore his father's watch. On discovering that his name was Bremont, the English brothers found the name for their company.
As our conversation reaches its end, I put it to English that people don't spend thousand of pounds on a wristwatch nowadays because they want to tell the time. 'That's right,' says English, without hesitation, 'they don't. The time is ubiquitous data today. It's on your car dashboard, your phone, everywhere.' Which means that the mechanical watch has taken on a slightly different role than that of simply marking off the seconds.
For men at least ' and English thinks that women are catching up in the trend for high-end mechanical watches ' there is a romantic notion about time. 'A lot of guys don't spend a huge amount of money on clothes, jewellery or fashion in general. And in the same way that 'shoes can tell you an awful lot about a man', so can a watch.'
For further information on Bremont, visit http://www.bremont.com