British watchmaking has slowed to a near standstill over the past century, but there are promising movements afoot, says Timothy Barber
Conversations with people in the watch industry — the Swiss watch industry, that is — very often consist of a French-accented mixture of grandiose platitudes, pretentious assertions about beauty, artistry and 'timeless ’l’gance', and very little in the way of substance or fact. Such is the narcissistic passion of the luxury world. But it makes talking to Dave Brailsford, a 48-year-old entrepreneur, motormouth and wristwatch nut with a Derbyshire intonation as rich as a Bakewell tart, rather refreshing.
'This is costing me a long way over ’100,000 all in all, and we wasted at least ’30,000 straight away on processes that didn't work,' he says during a break from fixing a gutter on his roof, when I ask him what the price of entry is in setting up a company making watches in the UK. 'As a business decision it probably isn't wise, which is why everyone told us not to do it. There are certainly easier ways to make money, but that's not the point just yet. We won't make a profit for three years.'
The point, as far as Brailsford is concerned, is proving that a mechanical watch that is rather more British than Swiss can still be made to a high level. And he's getting there. Having made a fortune in mobile phone technology in the 1990s, he became a collector of high-end watches, interest that translated at first into various low-key ventures.
Now he's broken cover. Last year Brailsford teamed up with Simon Michlmayr, a Norwich-based watchmaker widely regarded as one of the UK's finest, to establish a new brand, Garrick Watches. (Brailsford says he chose the name for its suggestion of English tradition, rather than for any more specific connotation.) Garrick already has two rather urbane dress watches, the Hoxton and the Shaftesbury, in production, both using a simple and sturdy Swiss movement that Michlmayr and his team strip down, rework, add to and refine.
Every other part of the watch, from the case to the sapphire crystal to the tiny screws that keep the dial in place, is made within the UK, much of it in Michlmayr's large workshop, also one of the country's leading watch and clock restoration practices. Over the past eighteen months, Michlmayr and his team have been developing methods for doing everything from machining the winding crown (very difficult) and creating finely finished hands (even harder) to machining buckles and electroplating coloured dials.
The design template for both watches is highly adaptable. The more expensive — and, according to Brailsford, the more popular — Shaftesbury model includes a free-sprung balance of Michlmayr's own construction. This is an arcane, especially finicky style of regulating organ in a mechanical watch, one normally associated with the highest-end luxury watches and almost never found at the Shaftesbury's ’4,000 price point. The order book, Brailsford says, is already full, and watches have been coming off Michlmayr's production line in small numbers since early this year.
'We were very unsure whether anyone cared about whether a watch was built in the UK, and for a long time I didn't want to get involved because I knew what a struggle this is,' Brailsford says. 'But we're finding out that it really is the case: people want something British, and they want something bespoke.'
Brailsford is the first to admit that, so long as Garrick uses Swiss-made movements — however reworked they may be by Michlmayr and his team — the label of a truly British-made timepiece is inapplicable. But building a watch in the UK is a far more onerous task than it may appear. The skills in tooling and machining, let alone in pure watchmaking, do not exist, and have not for many decades.
'There are some damn good British watchmakers in Britain, but if they want to do anything they have to go to Switzerland, otherwise they're just fixing watches,' Brailsford laments. 'The chance of them starting up something and building watches in quantity is very unlikely, because there's no watch industry here. None.'
It's a modern tragedy whose seeds were sown long ago. Having failed to industrialise as the Swiss and American companies did in the late 19th century, British watchmaking was a spent force by the early 20th century. It petered out, save for a 25-year resurgence under Smiths, which harnessed over ’1 million of postwar government investment. It built factories creating robust mechanical wristwatches at volume, but as the age of quartz dawned, Smiths turned its attentions to other areas. Smiths Engineering is now a huge conglomerate, but watchmaking has not been part of its business since the early 1970s.
In fact, if you want a purely British watch, there's only one place to go, and that's the Isle of Man. It's here that Dr George Daniels, now regarded by some as the greatest watchmaker of the past two centuries, established a practice making complex pocket watches, and eventually a handful of wristwatches, from the ground up. In Switzerland an entire cottage industry of suppliers specialising in various kinds of precision machining, micro-engineering, decoration and finishing contributes to just about any watch that's made, including those that claim to be made entirely 'in-house'. Daniels decided to master every skill himself, inventing revolutionary horological concepts along the way (one of these, the co-axial escapement, he sold to Omega for a fortune — it now forms the backbone of the brand's watches).
Daniels died in 2011, but his former apprentice, Roger Smith, has built on his legacy. His watches, built according to the 'Daniels Method' with Daniels' own machinery, are among the rarest and most highly sought-after in the world. The waiting time for one is almost four years (much longer if you want a fully bespoke piece), and prices go into six figures.
However, a handful of British-based brands and start-ups have been refocusing attention on the idea of watches that are British in spirit and design, if not in construction — though the effort to address the latter is afoot. The most prominent player is Bremont, founded by brothers Nick and Giles English, who raised millions in investment and have built an aviation-themed luxury brand with an international profile — they recently opened a boutique on Fifth Avenue and sponsor the America's Cup. With an assembly factory in Henley and a hi-tech R&D facility at Silverstone, Bremont is spending a fortune to be able to produce high-grade watch movements at volume. Given established companies such as IWC, Chopard and Panerai spent millions and took years to do this in the heartland of Swiss watchmaking, the scale of the challenge ahead is extreme.
Other smaller players include design-led brands such as Schofield and Pinion, which use Swiss suppliers but with a commitment to repatriating skills in assembly, case and dial construction where possible, and Robert Loomes, a Stamford-based watchmaker who creates in his own studio traditional-looking pieces using reconstituted Smiths movements from the 1950s and 1960s, but is also developing movement designs with funding from Brussels.
At Garrick, meanwhile, plans have been developing apace. While the Shaftesbury and Hoxton watches are granting Garrick an entry point to the market at a price comparable with its peers, more refined and complex watches, all customisable, are being planned or have been completed. Brailsford cites the Groenefeld brothers, Dutch creators of cutting-edge tourbillon watches of serious complexity, as a marker for where he and Michlmayr are aiming eventually. Hubris?
'I've been dead careful about putting bullshit out there — I don't do it,' he says. 'We could have mass-produced and made a bigger profit, but that's not why we're doing it. Everything we say we're doing, we do it.' It may just be that the first British-made watch movement since the 1970s (outside the Isle of Man) emerges from a studio in a nondescript business park in Norwich.