Behind the effortless glamour of a luxury watch brand, modern watch manufacturing requires ultra-precision engineering and a finely honed sense of what to manufacture in-house and what to outsource. Dan Hayes hears the Bremont story from British watchmaker Giles English.
Sitting in the Bremont Mayfair boutique, under a large Union flag and surrounded by mementos of daring British expeditions to the four corners of the earth, Giles English is well positioned to explain his own homegrown success story.
Giles and his brother, Nick, are the founders of the Bremont watch brand, whose pieces are largely manufactured in Henley-onThames in Oxfordshire.
To the uninitiated, the idea that there might be a top-end watchmaking company in Britain might come as a surprise, but this is an industry with a distinguished history in this country.
Giles explains: “At the turn of the 20th century, half of the world’s watches were being made in the UK. Rolex was founded in Clerkenwell and the world sets its time by Greenwich Mean Time.”
Not for the first time, however, those British businesses were slow to adapt and were outshone by US firms that could produce watches faster and cheaper. “The British wanted to make the best of the best and they were incredibly slow to industrialise,” says Giles.
The Swiss then stole a march on their British rivals when the latter were distracted by two world wars, he explains: “If you can make a component for a watch, you can probably make guns and planes. The same thing happened to the German watch industry. The Swiss, as neutrals, just made watches for both sides.
“The final nail in the coffin for British watch manufacturing came in the 1960s, with the quartz revolution and battery powered watches. The Swiss industry very nearly died too, but it recovered.”
From tragedy to inspiration
Giles did not initially focus on watches. His ambition was to become a naval architect but, following an engineering degree at Southampton University, he found a job in the City.
“I learned a lot, but I realised it was never going to be for me,” he recalls. “I love the idea of making an actual product and I wanted to be the master of my own destiny – not something that’s likely if you’re working in the City.”
His career plans were, however, to be overtaken by family tragedy. In 1995, while practising for an air-show, his father, Euan, and brother, Nick, were involved in a plane crash. Euan was killed and Nick sustained life-threatening injuries. That disaster would prove to be the catalyst from which the Bremont watch brand was born.
“My father was an amazing guy,” says Giles. “He had a PhD in aeronautical engineering from Cambridge, his own engineering company and a business restoring old aircraft. He loved building things and had a passion for watch and clock making, so we grew up around watches and clocks.
“When he died, Nick and I took over the business restoring vintage aircraft, but we also had this desire to build watches.”
What they didn’t have, however, was a name for their putative brand.
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“We could have bought an old British watch brand,” says Giles. “That was a big temptation, but then we thought, if we did that, we would never really be the founders of our company. It would be as if were pretending we’d been trading for centuries.”
It was then that fate took a hand, as Giles explains: “Nick and I were flying a 1930s biplane aircraft across France when we got stuck in some terrible weather and had to force land in a pea field.
“If that happened in England, you’d apologise to the farmer, wait until the weather improved and take off again. But in France, that’s illegal. The authorities impound your aircraft and it’s a bit of a disaster.
“When we landed, this old boy came out of his farm house and told us to put our plane in his hay barn. It was shocking weather and we ended up staying with him for days. He was in his eighties and a real character. He loved restoring old tractors and he also owned a number of big, pendulum grandfather clocks. We found ourselves thinking that, if our dad had lived to his eighties, he would have been like this chap.
“His name was Antoine Bremont. We thought that Bremont was a nice-sounding name and one that meant something to us, so why not call the brand that?”
The story is intriguing, but is it wise for a brand that is proud of its British heritage to have such a French-sounding name?
“It’s worked for us so I can’t complain,” responds Giles. “Traditional watch- and clock-making companies generally had the name of their founders. But our name is more like that of Rolex – something that was created by the Wilsdorf family.
It adds quirkiness to our story, but it is a little confusing.
Reskilling and training
The brothers launched the business in 2002 and started producing watches in 2007. Initially, much of the production took place in Switzerland, but the aim was always to do as much of the manufacturing as possible in the UK.
“That was our ultimate desire,” says Giles. “But it was difficult because watch making needs so many different skillsets.”
And few, if any, of those skills had existed in the UK for decades. “We had to look for the closest possible skillsets and then get people trained in Switzerland,” he explains. “For example, our head of production came from the arms industry – where he’d been making sniper rifles – and we’ve employed machinists with experience in Formula One.
“We take highly skilled engineers from relevant industries, but they have no experience in producing a piece of metal that is as perfect as we need. We are machining to about five microns. A human hair is 50-odd microns. Apart from medical instruments and watch making – what other industries operate at that level of precision?”
In 2010, Bremont launched its own apprenticeship scheme but, even with this in place, recruiting younger people has not been easy.
“If I’m looking to fill a role I probably have to look a year and a half ahead,” Giles explains. “Our main area of recruitment is in watch assembly and it takes a watch assembler about a year and a half before he or she is productive, so we have to employ way ahead of time.”
On the plus side, Giles reckons he can identify quickly if a potential recruit has got the right stuff.
“Generally, we’re employing people who don’t know much about watches so we give them a bench test – we get in around 50 people and we know within an hour if someone is going to be any good.”
As might be expected the test involves assembling watches, with candidates focusing on attaching and moving components. What is being looked for is more than just a keen eye and a steady hand, however.
“As a watch assembler you need the ability, but you also need the interest,” explains Giles. “Realistically, you’ll be sitting in silence building puzzles and that isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But if it is, then it can be an amazing job.”
And that’s just the assembly side of the process, he adds: “There’s also machining metal parts, new product development and quality control. And nobody will buy a watch unless they’ve read about it, noticed the advertisements and seen a famous person wearing it. So you have to be a very good marketing company at the same time.”
With typical British understatement, he adds: “It’s quite a complicated business.”
Steady expansion of British production
Bremont now employs more than 30 people in its Oxfordshire premises and is currently building a new, state-of-the-art facility that’s due to be finished in the next two years.
“It’s very exciting,” says Giles. “We always wanted to do our bit for rebuilding British watch making. It’s not going to be easy, but our plan is to be a global watch brand as opposed to a niche player.”
At the moment, he explains, Bremont is still reliant on Swiss suppliers: “There are certain components in a watch, mostly in the movement, that unless you’re making millions of them you’d never try making yourself. The only place to get them is Switzerland. But each year we’ll buy a new piece of machinery and build a bit more ourselves.”
The complexity and time-consuming nature of the business can hardly be overstated, Giles adds. “We’re working on a new movement [working mechanism]. We’ve been developing it for three years and it will probably take another two years [to finish]. It’s ridiculously complicated. We need to do huge numbers of engineering drawings taking account of lots of concentrically moving components and it’s a very, very time-consuming process.”
This is another occasion when manufacturing in the UK presents a challenge, he adds. “We can machine the baseplate – the main flat component into which all the pinions go – relatively easily. But we need incredibly low tolerances and we can’t use a normal CNC machine because as soon as it heats up or wears we’ll get inaccuracies. So rather than using a £60,000 machine we need a £600,000 machine.”
The movement cannot be placed into brass, however. The metal has to be plated – requiring another trip abroad.
Giles says: “There is nowhere in the UK we can plate at the level we need. At the moment we have to go to Switzerland to do it. We have to make a decision as a business about whether we want to do plating in house, but if we do that we have to make a whole new investment – whereas if we were based in Switzerland we’d just go to a neighbouring firm.
“We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘what we can do in house?’. Sending stuff over to Switzerland can be a nightmare.”
Giles also has to stay on top of stock control challenges. “Every watch is different,” he explains. “Different movements, different styles, different hands. Our lead-time is long – there’s no just-in-time production. I can’t order a component and expect it to be delivered straight away. That’s just not the way it works.
“To make sure we have stock, we have to over-order components because we have no guarantee when we’ll get them. As the business grows our stock holding needs to get bigger and bigger – it’s a big, hungry cash monster. If we’re building everything, however, the investment in machinery and skillset is incredibly high. So the challenge is to find a happy medium.”
At the moment Bremont is producing around 8,000 to 10,000 watches annually – priced from around £3,000 to in excess of £20,000 – but production levels probably need to be more like 50,000 to justify some of the investment in equipment required.
“It’s why the barriers to entry are so high,” says Giles. “Many other brands in our position would just outsource all production. But that’s not how we work.”
Know your market
It says a lot about Bremont’s dedication and attention to detail that its watches are proving so popular with members of the armed services, with military orders accounting for around 20% of current business. And that isn’t just UK forces, either; one of Bremont’s export coups is the manufacturing of watches for US Air Force and Navy pilots.
Vintage aviation also retains a place at the core of the brand. Taking pride of place in the Mayfair shop, for example, are images of the elegant, 1930s DH-88 Comet aircraft, inspiration itself for a Bremont watch.
“The Comet was an engineering masterpiece,” enthuses Giles. “It was built by de Havilland in six months to take on all the mighty, global aircraft companies of its day and it went on to win an air race from England to Australia in 1934.”
A story of British ingenuity putting one over on multinational giants – it’s easy to see why that might appeal to the founders of Bremont.