British-made watches are back (at last)!
By : Olivier Müller
Published in : WtheJournal.com
Published in : WtheJournal.com
All eyes are on Switzerland, as the models shown at Baselworld gradually arrive in stores, on the United States, where the Apple Watch is keeping pundits on their toes, and on France, where Lip is breathing new life into its fascinating and eventful history.
But where does Britain stand in all this? Although a nation with an illustrious watchmaking past, it is certainly not grabbing any industry headlines, despite leaving a deeper mark than many of its continental rivals. For the British watchmaking industry is currently thriving. The number of British-made brands has rocketed over the last 10 years, as has their numbers of fans, to such an extent that an annual watch exhibition (Salon QP) now takes place in London.
Fine British-made watches
George Daniels is the man who paved the way. One of the last representatives of traditional fine watchmaking, born just after the First World War and 100% self-taught, he was a brilliant inventor and produced some extremely rare masterpieces that now fetch astronomical prices.
His disciple Roger Smith, also a subject of Her Majesty, carried on the tradition. Although Smith still lives on the Isle of Man, some of his fellow countrymen left long ago for Switzerland, Stephen Forsey of Greubel Forsey being one of the best known examples. But he is not the only one.
For the past 12 years, Peter Speake-Marin (born Peter Neville Speake) has been a leading light in fine mechanical watchmaking with his quintessentially British-style models, such as the Piccadilly. Arnold & Son (also based in Switzerland) is a brand belonging to La Joux-Perret Manufacture that pays a powerful tribute to the achievements of watchmaker and inventor John Arnold, born in Cornwall in the south of England, in 1736.
They are akin to Robert Loomes in spirit. This English watchmaker, who set up business in 1991, only offers limited edition timepieces in very traditional designs. He has preferred to remain in Britain. This is also true of his counterpart Peter Roberts, a watchmaker with 45 years of experience in the industry, who has given us grand complication timepieces, no less, driven by Valjoux 88 movements. Incidentally, his hybrid Anglo-Swiss pieces do not carry any indication of origin (neither Swiss nor British Made).
Popular British brands
Despite their diversity, these talented watchmakers all cater to the fine watchmaking market, which is elitist by nature. Other brands have therefore concentrated on offering more affordable ranges. And there are many of them, all resolutely British and increasingly popular with connoisseurs.
The most prominent of these is Bremont. When Nick and Giles’s father died in an aviation accident, the two brothers dropped everything to found Bremont in tribute to their father, who loved fine watches. Their surname, unsurprisingly, is “English”.
For over 10 years, their brand has kept others, such as Breitling and Bell & Ross, on their toes in the pilot watches segment. The price range for these timepieces (from 3,000 to 4,000 Swiss francs, on average) makes them a closer competitor to Bell & Ross than Breitling. To further highlight its uniqueness, Bremont has recently replaced the “Swiss Made” on its models with a proudly proclaimed “British Made”. Even if, like all the best chronometers, they are still certified by the COSC!
In the footsteps of Bremont
Other brands without Bremont’s stature are coming forward to ensure a safe future for British watchmaking. Most of these businesses are “millennials”, born in the 21st century. And they all mark the rebirth of the British watchmaking industry.
Meridian, for example, uses Unitas movements. Its two British founders launched the business in 2011 with models selling at around 5,000 Swiss francs. They are distinctive for their modern look, featuring oversized hands and proportionately large cases. Their approach is very different to that of Pinion Watches, a relatively new brand launched in 2013 by Piers Barry. We might ask about Mr. Barry’s watchmaking credentials—in fact, he has none. He was (and still is) the owner of a web agency. His designs, such as the Axis, are understated three-hand watches targeting the local market or fans of British-made timepieces.
Schofield is a young business cut from the same cloth. Launched by Giles Ellis in 2011, it produces three-hand watches stamped with the words “Sussex & England” in tribute to a tradition rooted in the sport of cricket. The brand sits in the 2,000 to 3,000 franc segment and uses ETA movements. So where does the name Schofield come from? Its inventor openly admits that he hasn’t the faintest idea! In short, there is no brand history and the products must speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that Schofield’s success is contingent on its buyers literally falling in love with its timepieces, for the brand is struggling for recognition beyond the circle of British watch connoisseurs, and its profile is correspondingly low.
At the end of the day, these brands are carrying on the legacy of others such as Accurist and Rotary, British watchmakers who use Swiss movements but most of whom never managed to successfully negotiate the advent of quartz. The new generation has kept us waiting, but now it has arrived, the British watchmaking scene is more vibrant than ever before.