There is a small but growing group of British watchmakers who are, in my opinion, having more fun with watches than any of their Swiss counterparts. They are an entirely affable group of gentlemen, and I can’t think of a faction of industry-folk I’d rather share a beer with. The only thing is, these British watchmakers are, in most cases, not building their watches in the UK. But I don’t mind, and neither, it seems, do their customers.
One young British watch brand (actually, a very young brand – it launched no more than 60 days ago at London’s Salon QP watch exhibition) is Schofield. Designed by East Sussex’s Giles Ellis, Schofield was conceived with a sincere appreciation of Britain’s horological past, and the young mark’s first watch, the Signalman GMT PR (second picture), even acts as a nod to the great lighthouses that dot Britain’s coast. Available via Schofield’s website, the Signalman GMT PR currently retails for the special pre-order price of £2,465 – roughly what one would expect to pay for a fine Swiss-made watch. But Schofield’s Signalman isn’t made in Switzerland or the UK; it’s actually assembled in Germany, though using fine Swiss movements. Does this detract from Schofield’s “British-ness”? Maybe a little, but UK-made or not, Schofield received an impressive amount of chatter following the November launch, and Ellis stresses that the brand will represents a return to British traditionalism.
Then there are the Brothers Bremont (known officially as Nick and Giles English), whose aeronautic and adventure-themed mechanical watches have won the hearts of not only thousands of horological diehards, but also some very public adventurers (among them Bear Grylls and Ben Saunders) and actors (Orlando Bloom, Tom Cruise). They’ve even collaborated with rock legend Ronnie Wood on a hand-painted marine chronometer. Bremont won the award for Best Emerging British Luxury Brand in the Walpole awards in 2008 and they take their watches very seriously indeed – they hired a legendary watchmaker who spent time among the greatest in the world to act as technical director.
But in the beginning, this quintessentially British brand (come on, even the founders’ last name is English!) was using a Swiss factory to assemble its watches. Now, according to Nick English, the brand makes approximately 50 per cent of its watches on British soil. By spring of this year, they hope to have moved all of its assembly to the UK – although the most expensive Bremont to date, the B1 Marine Clock hand-painted by Ronnie Wood, was entirely conceived and built in the UK, right down to the smallest gear.
In the higher echelons of British watchmaking you’ll find Peter Speake-Marin, who moved to Switzerland in 1996 to work for the famed high-end complication wing of Audemars Piguet called Renaud & Papi, and later started an eponymous line of timepieces that are a favourite among collectors. So, Speake-Marin watches are made by hand in Switzerland, but the design and execution are concretely British in nature. Like Schofield, Speake-Marin launched a new product at Salon QP in London: the Spirit Pioneer (first picture), a special project close to Peter’s heart that he says was conceived out of his own personal hardship and the struggle that all people go through each day. It is inscribed with “Fight, Love & Persevere” on the case back and sells for around SFr10,000.
Finally, perhaps the only British watchmaker currently producing all of his products on British land is Roger Smith. Smith is the protégé of recently deceased George Daniels, and his creations are completely constructed by hand on the Isle of Man and regularly sell for £90,000-plus, if you can get one, that is (there is a waiting list).
So, Schofield, Bremont, Speake-Marin, and Roger Smith may not be the most famous watchmakers in this traditionally Swiss industry, but they are four of my favourites. And they offer a genuinely pleasing and very authentic alternative to the offerings of the Swiss conglomerates – yes, all four brands are independently owned by the people who created them, a true rarity in watches.