The list of industries Britain “used to be great at” is a long one. But watchmaking should be near the top. Despite a heritage involving most of the major discoveries and inventions in watchmaking, the UK industry went into decline in the 20th century as Switzerland took control. Even that seemingly most Swiss of brands, Rolex, was originally founded in London. But after decades of steady decline, a new-look British watch industry is bouncing back.
A new generation of marketers have spotted the opportunity to sell British watchmaking history and play to the strengths and reputation of British luxury goods around the world.
But after years of merely servicing and repairing watches, the skills, machinery and infrastructure to build watches is no longer here. How British can these new watch companies be? And what does “made in Britain” really mean? It’s a topic that gets many within the watch community quite heated.
Piers Berry, co-founder of Pinion, reckons: “The British label is being used as an excuse to market sub-standard goods to gullible consumers.” So, who are the people behind this revival?
The low-cost local
Name: Lewis Heath
The Paulin pitch is aesthetically appealing, minimalist watches at affordable prices. For co-founder Lewis Heath, a brand’s location matters and he’d like his watches made in Glasgow with British-made components, but there’s no point if the product ends up too expensive.
For the time being this means Swiss-made quartz movements, although the company is exploring an affordable mechanical watch. Paulin, formed by four friends from art college, launched its first watch a year ago and quickly decided the retailer margins made direct sales the best route. The business is on the verge of establishing its first shop.
“We were driven to do this by the challenge of making a watch in the UK,” says Heath. “My background is high-volume consumer electronics. But we didn’t want our watches to be bought just for patriotic or sentimental reasons. We needed to be able to be competitive. My interest is at the end of the market where you drive volume and make it economical to make components here.”
Detroit-based company Shinola was an inspiration: “First it set out to assemble in Detroit, with imported components. Then it started to build up to having a US-made watch.
“We spent four years from concept to launch. But we’ve been making moves to differentiate ourselves. Our competitors make things in China using cheaper components. Our packaging costs more than our competitors’ watches.”
Heath is scathing of the hypocrisy across the industry. “Most Swiss watches are made in China and finished in Switzerland. I wouldn’t badge a watch ‘Made in Britain’ until it was. I’d like a watch made here at an affordable price with a mechanical movement. That would be a nice watch to market.”
The eccentric enthusiast
Name: Giles Ellis
Company: Schofield Watch Company
There is something ineffably British about Schofield founder Giles Ellis. He has the intensity and eccentricity of an amateur engineer. A designer by trade, he spent a decade building websites, all the while tinkering with musical instruments, mountain bike parts and hi-fis. “I got to be the owner of Schofield Watch Company through passionate enthusiasm,” he admits. “I wanted a nice watch and couldn’t afford it. If I can’t afford something, I try and make it. So I set about designing a watch.”
The design (which took four years) and the business model are equally well considered, but Ellis reckons the business has evolved. “I thought it was about the product. But it was about the brand and the story.”
And that story features British roots. From a rural location in Sussex, Ellis has used the British coast as inspiration and his watches are named after lighthouses. “You need to have an association consumers understand. We’re from the coast and we developed that theme.”
But Britishness isn’t seen as a badge of honour. “It’s neutral. Britain was a global power in watchmaking, but that fell away. We don’t have the infrastructure.”
Some Schofield watches use a material developed in association with a British Formula 1 team. “We worked for 18 months to develop a new carbon fibre. It’s a material we call Morta,” explains Ellis.
These are British watches, he says. “We say Made in England when we feel it really is, as much as a watch can be. Too many people think it’s a great thing to make a British watch, and they jump on it. Next year we hope to expand and start in-house watchmaking.”
The master craftsman
Name: Roger Smith
Company: RW Smith
Location: Isle of Man
Roger Smith is the sort of skilled artisan most of us picture when we think of watchmakers. He was apprenticed to George Daniels, widely regarded as one of the greatest watchmakers of the 20th century. Like Daniels, Smith’s company makes all but a handful of 160 components in his watches by hand. A seven-strong team produces 10 watches a year.
Smith says: “The way we build watches is key. I use the approach that started with George Daniels, when he made his very first pocket watch. That someone could design and make beautiful and technically brilliant watches captured my imagination. Watches are a potentially huge source of revenue and Britain is good at luxury products and brands. It will take decades, but I’ve no doubt in time it could return.”
This will require considerable investment in skills and machinery. But, adds Smith, honesty is even more important. “We need our own identity. But first we have to be honest. Where people are importing Swiss movements, they have to be honest. There’s no shame in it. We’ve done it for hundreds of years.”
The reluctant Brit
Name: Piers Berry
Company: Pinion Watches
Piers Berry launched Pinion because of a passion for watches. While some of Pinion’s branding is wrapped up in geography (“Made in Switzerland, raised in England” is one slogan), Berry is cynical about the trend for marketing this heritage. “It’s less about our watches being made in England, more about people buying Pinion because they like the design and want something only a few people have.”
Berry adds the British tag is in danger. “There is a cheesy Britishness with Union Jacks and that tailored, Savile Row appeal. We want Pinion to be geographically neutral. A Pinion watch could be from Japan or Switzerland. It shouldn’t be wrapped in a British flag. We’re a company that just happens to be based here. My remit is to make the best product I can for the money.”
Pinion does have ambitions to make a movement. “There will be a Pinion movement, but not in-house. We design, conceptualise and assemble.” One of Pinion’s best watches is the 1969 Revival. Described as “new vintage” the company got movements made in 1969 but never opened or assembled.
“If we were in Australia, no one would care. Because British watchmaking has a heritage there’s this expectation you either do it properly or you don’t bother. But there’s no right and wrong way to do it. Someone will buy your watch and they’ll enjoy and wear it and that’s all that matters.”
The digital disrupters
Name: Christopher Ward, Mike France and Peter Ellis
Company: Christopher Ward
Christopher Ward was set up to disrupt the watch industry. Since it first launched, its products have got more complicated and expensive. But its most complicated (and expensive) watch to date – the C9 Single Pusher Chronograph – is, according to co-founder Mike France, its best value watch.
The company launched with a digital-only, word-of-mouth sales model that turned the existing Swiss model upside down. The company still sells direct, rejecting the margin-heavy retail and marketing approach still favoured by traditional watch brands.
France is clear being British wasn’t part of the disruption. “The fact we’re British meant the company would be here, but it wasn’t top of mind at launch. Our approach is about debunking some of the myths and costs associated with watches.”
He says the company has benefitted from the openness of the internet age. “Huge swathes of people are interested in horology and they are better informed than ever. That spreads virally on forums and blogs. When people start posting on watch forums you can’t hide.”
But there is a Britishness to Christopher Ward, as France admits. “The designs come from here and we incline towards British narratives and a British aesthetic. Hence the C8 flyer, which refers to the Spitfire and the wind tunnel at Farnborough.”
The high flyers
Name: Nick and Giles English
Bremont is currently both hero and villain in the British watch industry. In a sector that loves a feud, with more expert bloggers and forums than celebrity gossip, some applaud the gusto with which it has embraced high-volume luxury watchmaking in Britain. Others baulk at some of its claims.
Bremont was founded by Nick and Giles English, who were inspired after their father was killed in a plane crash, which Nick survived. The brothers took it as a wake-up call to do something they loved.
“Our father was in the RAF and Nick and I were sponsored through university by the RAF,” says Giles. “We’ve flown since we were in nappies. And there is a close association between watches and aviation. Time means a lot when you are flying.”
Giles explains Bremont is doing more than most to bring high-volume, high-quality watchmaking to the UK. “Our watches used to say ‘Swiss Made’. But we brought assembly to the UK and invested in training for assembly and watchmaking. We’ve also invested in machinery. We machine cases and movement components here. We’ve invested millions to build watches here and we are proud of what we’re doing.”
This investment allows Bremont to compete with the Swiss. “All our machines are custom-built in Switzerland and our guys train there. But we’re bringing skills back to the UK. Our challenge was to stay at our price point, not to bring it back to the UK and have to whack prices up.”
Giles admits it will be tough to take this UK watch business and build a global brand, while also resurrecting skills that have been lost. “It keeps us awake, but it is exciting.”