Curating luxury for the discerning traveller

British Watchmaking: Past, Present & Future

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Britannia once ruled the waves with its watch industry and, thanks to the likes of Bremont, Roger W. Smith and Garrick, some of that long-lost glory is returning to English shores, says Alex Doak

Long before ‘Swiss Made’ became the universally 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, sitting on a London bus.

In fact, English watchmaking was what originally put the ‘Great’ in front of ‘Britain’ – what once coloured every schoolboy’s atlas predominantly pink, and what is now inspiring a fresh upsurge of new and revived watch brands. From revived Bristol brand Fears in the West Country, to boutique innovator Garrick in East Anglia, to nostalgically outdoorsy Scho eld on the South Coast, the smell of sea salt percolates all of their creations – even those of landlocked Bremont and its super- precise ‘chronometers’.

Watches & Jewellery

THE HISTORY AND HERITAGE

For it was the ocean-going marine chronometer that formed Britain’s particular speciality, back in the day. Following Yorkshireman John Harrison’s life’s work in answering the pleas of the Board of Longitude, proving with his ‘H4’ watch that an accurate time reference is more reliable than stargazing by which to navigate at sea, a stream of London-based characters with names such as Tompion, Graham, Mudge, Earnshaw, Arnold and Dent all turned out to be increasingly precise and robust timekeepers over the 18th and 19th centuries, enabling Britannia to rule the waves.

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Pictures: (L) Roger F Smith 32 movement back, photo by Ian Pilbeam. (R) Watchmaker George Daniels From Daniels Of London Watch Shop, photo by ANL/REX/Shutterstock.

 DANIELS METHOD

Once World War II drew to a close, the only surviving British watchmaker of note was the biggest, Smiths, which soon failed to properly industrialise, then failed. After a moribund post-war period, followed by the devastating effect wrought by cheap Far Eastern quartz technology in the Seventies, the first green shoots of renewed relevance only appeared back on British soil in the Eighties – in the highly skilled hands of George Daniels, who died in 2011. As well as inventing the lubricant-free Co-Axial escapement that ticks inside every modern Omega wristwatch, Daniels – by contrast – single-handedly developed the ‘Daniels Method’ of handcrafting every single component. Requiring the mastering of more than 30 crafts, the method naturally limited his output to just 35 actual watches, yet earned him rightful status as ‘the world’s greatest living watchmaker’.

It was his most famous, the Space Traveller’s pocket watch, that had inspired a teenage Roger Smith to knuckle down and teach himself the method back in the Nineties, using a second- hand lathe and Daniels’ Watchmaking book as his sole reference.After an initial rejection from Daniels, Smith spent another six years toiling away on a second pocket watch in the evenings and weekends when he wasn’t working at a service centre in Manchester before eventually being recruited as Daniels’ first and only apprentice.

 

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Picture: Fears Redcliff Date in 'Pebble' grey, photo courtesy of Fears Watches.

THE RENAISSANCE

Two decades later, Smith is living and working on the Isle of Man, in a brand-new purpose- built workshop, making a mere 10 examples of his own ‘Series 2’ wristwatch each year. Every single component save for the glass and hairspring is painstakingly handcrafted from the bare metal using antique lathes and rose engines (he inherited several priceless examples from Daniels himself), plus thousands of man-hours of polish and decoration. His Series 3 and 4 have just been unveiled and they’re more ravishing than ever.

“We work totally differently from anyone else,” Smith 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.” He adds: “Ultimately, I suppose, I want to put some of the ‘making’ back into ‘watchmaking’.” While Smith toils away on the Isle of Man, we are currently witnessing a surge of activity back on the mainland, with more and more homegrown brands capitalising on the booming interest in finely crafted analogue watches and the British reputation for such things.The closest you’ll get to Smith’s approach is on Bury Street in London’s St. James’s district. Here, since the mid-1800s, Charles Frodsham has made and maintained clocks and chronometers to the highest order, and recently unveiled its new series-produced wristwatch – 15 years in the pipeline, entirely handcrafted and regulated by a dual-impulse chronometer perfected by none other than Smith’s mentor, George Daniels. At around £90,000 for a Roger Smith Series 2 or £70,000 for a Frodsham (you can do your own maths when it comes to the auction value of a Daniels), it could appear prohibitively expensive to buy into Britain’s newfound horological swagger. But brands like Fears are proving otherwise.

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Pictures: (L) The Fears Redcliff Date and (R) the Fears Redcliff Continental

MODERN MAKERS

Priced around the £1,000 mark for mechanical models kitted with Swiss parts, it’s more the British mentality and spirit of enterprise that you’re investing in. In the case of Fears, you get as much heritage into the bargain as Frodsham, too. A sizeable Bristolian watchmaker founded in 1846 by Edwin Fear, only to be wound down in the Sixties two generations later, it’s fallen to the fourth generation – Edwin’s great-great-great grandson Nicholas Bowman- Scargill – to bring the family firm out of dormancy.

Researching and reviving the history of his own brand was a particular labour of love, as not even a single Fears watch remained in the clutches of the family (eBay coming in handy, there). Indeed, the majority of Bowman- Scargill’s research involved rummaging through Bristol’s City Archive. Old advertisements were dredged up, proclaiming how Fears was proud to export watches to 95 foreign and Commonwealth countries. He even found the original planning applications for the company’s first purpose-built factory, on the corner of Redcliff Street (giving the rst collection its name) and Bristol Bridge – an area that became known as ‘Fears Corner’.

“The Redcliff and Brunswick both have nostalgic elements to the design, all of which draw from historical Fears watches,” explains Bowman-Scargill.“But so many brands have their heritage shoved down their own throat, and I don’t want to be tied down in that way. I just want Fears to be a watch that is respectful to my family’s past, but also a watch you can wear daily and rely upon.”

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NO-NONSENSE DEPENDABILITY

In terms of dependability, it doesn’t get much more reliable than the most successful of Britain’s new watchmaking guard, Bremont, whose slogan is ‘tested beyond endurance’. Since 2006, its appropriately named founding brothers Giles and Nick English have won widespread acclaim for their no-nonsense, reasonably priced, combat-ready chronometers.

Breathlessly ambitious, 100 per cent of their output is now hand-assembled in a beautiful oak-framed workshop in Henley-on-Thames. The movements are even encased in a precision sandwich of aerospace-grade steel parts manufactured from the raw metal at Bremont’s newest facility – a cutting-edge atelier located in Silverstone, which draws from the local Formula 1 industry’s expertise in computer- controlled machining.

Ever the savvy marketeers, the English brothers have engineered Jaguar car partnerships, America’s Cup regatta-timing duties, and even Polar exploration on the wrist of plucky soloist Ben Saunders. But any visitor to the brand’s London ‘Townhouse’ showcase every February is left in absolutely no doubt that it is aviation where Bremont remains strongest. A situation compounded by the wild success of the Bremont Military division – run separately and notching up special editions for all manner of serving and retired operatives.The canvas they have to work with is limited to the existing model range, but the sky really is the limit in terms of dial design and caseback engravings.

 

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Pictures: The Bremont U-2 Jet timepiece

MILITARY APPROVED

Military and special projects leader and former USAF F-15 pilot Colonel Rich ‘Nemo’ Sweeten runs the show from the company’s Henley-on-Thames HQ. They couldn’t be prouder of the way clients have embraced Bremont over the likes of Switzerland’s Breitling or Omega, who have always bene ted from their histories as standard-issue military suppliers.

“The first true collaboration with a military squadron,” Villeneuve recalls, “was with the high-altitude U-2 spy plane pilots at Beale, California. One of their members had seen Bear Grylls wearing a Bremont on the show Man vs Wild and contacted us about making something special as a tribute to their profession and aircraft.”

Sure enough, a unique and strictly exclusive version of Bremont’s shockproof MBII watch (engineered in collaboration with ejector-seat manufacturer Martin-Baker) incorporated the U-2 nomenclature, camera-sighting motif, aircraft and tail markings. Military sorts being tribal, competitive sorts, the oodgates were opened once word got out about the U-2 guys’ cool new watch. Sea King helicopter crew, F/A-18 ghter mavericks, A-10 tankbuster pilots – if they fly a camouflaged aircraft, chances are there’s a Bremont on their wrist.

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Picture: A Bremont timepiece in the making at the Henley facility.

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 start-ups unwedded to the past.The Nineties’ ‘Cool Britannia’craze may have long calmed down, but there’s a new, arguably cooler zeitgeist echoing through the streets of east London, Manchester and Bristol, such that the British watch scene now features a booming ‘hipster’ scene of accessible designer brands. Names such as Shoreditch’s Uniform Wares, Clerkenwell’s Sekford, millennial fashionistas Shore Projects, Larsson & Jennings, Farer... none of them ashamed to be powered by reliable Swiss movements, but drafted by trendy urbanites who very much don’t live in the Jura Mountains.

Admittedly, all of these new, homegrown outfits are still itinerant spikes more than a coherent move back to a full-blown ‘industry’, as it once was in horological hotspots such as Clerkenwell and Coventry. But if there’s one factor binding Bremont, Roger W. Smith, Frodsham et al. it’s certainly what Smith touches on: a set of very English ideals. Switzerland needn’t be looking over its shoulder just yet, but it might help – Britain’s imagination and ingenuity is truly inspiring. Even if we’ll never rule the waves again.

bremont.com · farer.com · fearswatches.com · frodsham.com · larssonandjennings.com · rwsmithwatches.com · sekford.com · shoreprojects.com · uniformwares.com

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