Comeback time: The rebirth of British watchmaking

By Daniel Thomas
Business reporter

Image source, Bremont
Image caption,
Bremont is the best-known current UK watchmaker

You will have little trouble finding a luxury Swiss watch in London's West End, where shops selling brands such as Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe are commonplace.

But British-made timepieces are much harder to come by.

One of the few purveyors is Bremont, which has a boutique in the upmarket central London area of Mayfair.

Its mechanical watches sell for between £2,695 and £30,950, and are all designed and painstakingly assembled by hand in England.

It employs around 30 watchmakers at a workshop in the Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames, and makes many of its own parts at a factory in Silverstone, Northamptonshire.

"The goal is to produce watches that you could put on in 20 to 30 years' time and that will still look great," says Nick English, Bremont's co-founder.

Image source, Bremont
Image caption,
Bremont's co-founders, brothers Giles (left) and Nick English, set up the business eight years ago

"We are also tapping into the incredible history of British watchmaking. The world sets its time by Greenwich, not by Geneva, and that is for a good reason."

Bremont, which was launched in 2007, today makes 8,000 to 10,000 watches a year.

While this is a fraction of the more than 800,000 watches made per annum at Swiss giant Rolex, Bremont has outlets in New York, London and Hong Kong, and is an official sponsor of the America's Cup yachting competition.

Yet it is among but a handful of British watchmakers to be so successful.

According to the most recent World Watch Report by research body Digital Luxury Group, of the top 62 luxury brands that were searched for online worldwide in 2015, only one was British - Bremont.

Image source, Bremont
Image caption,
Bremont makes up to 10,000 watches each year

For many watch enthusiasts this is disappointing, given that the UK led the way in watchmaking in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

In 1800, Britain made around half of the world's timepieces - about 200,000 a year. However, the US and Switzerland gradually overtook the UK thanks to mass production.

Today the Swiss have a near monopoly on the luxury market, while low cost battery-powered quartz watches are made in Asia.

However, a small but growing crop of British brands - currently around a dozen - hope to stage a comeback.

'Grey area'

"We've definitely seen more British watch companies opening over the last five to 10 years," says Dudley Giles, chief executive of the British Horological Institute.

"People are attracted because if you can design and market a mechanical watch the margins are good. And the British brand attracts people because it has always been associated with quality and innovation."

In addition the luxury watch market is growing, thanks to rising demand from countries such as India and China.

Image source, AC Cooper
Image caption,
Making luxury watches can be a time-consuming business

However, new UK brands face considerable hurdles. For example, watchmaking machinery can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and Britain's engineering capacity in the sector is all but non-existent - meaning the equipment has to be imported.

This can make it hard for firms to claim that their watches are truly "made in Britain". Bremont, for instance, uses Swiss-manufactured movements.

James Buttery, editor of WatchPro magazine, says: "In the UK what you have are British brands, where the majority of the components are supplied from elsewhere and then in some cases assembled in the UK.

"So there is a grey area over what constitutes 'British made', a problem elite Swiss brands don't face."

Only a few firms claim to manufacture every component of their watches in the British Isles - one of the best known being Roger W Smith, which makes limited numbers of watches on the Isle of Man. They sell for more than £100,000.

Image source, Roger Smith
Image caption,
Roger Smith is one of the few British watchmakers who claim to manufacture all their parts

However, an increasing number aspire to make everything in the UK, such as Garrick which opened in Norfolk in 2015. The company's movements - the beating heart of a mechanical watch - are currently made in Switzerland and modified in house.

But in November it will launch its own movement, designed in collaboration with the Swiss watchmaker UhrTeil, and assembled in the UK.

"It means that we are one step closer to realising our dream of a totally in-house movement," says Garrick founder David Brailsford. "We do almost everything else ourselves, from making the plates and dials to the cases and crowns."

Image source, AC Cooper
Image caption,
Garrick is aiming to make its watches completely British-made

Garrick watches retail for between £2,500 and £50,000, and around 70 were sold last year to customers around the globe.

But getting to this point was not easy, Mr Brailsford says. The firm spent about 18 months just getting its processes right, "such as building watchcases which nobody had done in the UK for years".

"We wasted a lot of time and money because there was nobody to go to in the UK to get advice from. So we had to learn everything from scratch."

'Buying local'

Mr Buttery says that a growing number of British watchmakers are bringing some or all of their manufacturing back to the UK. Yet for most it is too expensive, leaving them little choice but to produce abroad - although this can make it easier to produce more affordable watches in higher volumes.

Take Marloe, a start-up launched in February of this year following a £180,000 crowd-funding campaign. Its British-designed watches are manufactured in China and retail for around £250.

Image source, Gordon Fraser
Image caption,
Marloe's watches are made in China

"They are all hand wound, there are no automatic features, they are not quartz," says founder Oliver Goffe. "To be honest we are trying to bring hand-wound watches back to the masses."

The company, which only retails online, has sold 1,500 watches to date and expects to sell 5,000 next year.

Mr Goffe attributes the resurgence of British watches to the rise of craft culture more generally.

"It's about people moving away from Sainsbury's and Tesco and actually buying meat from their local butchers and cheese from the local deli," he says.

"It spreads to other things that are made locally, in the country you are from, where people are making that product you are about to put on your wrist."

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Goffe would also like to manufacture all of his watch components in the UK one day, and believes it could be done for a reasonable price.

"Yes you've got the cost of labour and machinery, but if we used to do it in Britain then why can't again? It could be a real opportunity if we work out how."

British watchmaking remains a cottage industry, but is picking up pace. As for whether the UK could one day regain its market-leading position - watch this space.

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