Ask someone to name the country most associated with watches and the chances are that they will plump for Switzerland. But a better, more historically accurate answer would be the UK.
Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all the technical innovations that make up a mechanical wristwatch were dreamt up by Britons. In the 17th century the physicist Robert Hooke invented the balance spring; in the 18th, George Graham came up with the sweep second hand, Thomas Mudge created the lever escapement and John Harrison performed horological wizardry to determine a ship's longitude at sea; and at the beginning of the 20th, John Harwood patented the first self-winding wristwatch. At one point, the UK produced roughly one half of the world's watches.
What happened? In short, two world wars. All of the precision engineering expertise that went into making watches was diverted into the war efforts and never returned. The same was true of German watchmaking. In the meantime, neutral Switzerland's horological know-how kept ticking along.
In recent years, a number of small companies have sprung up in an attempt to revive British watchmaking. At the forefront of that effort is Bremont, which was set up in 2002 by an aptly-named pair of brothers: Nick and Giles English.
The brothers grew up hanging out in the workshop of their father Euan (an RAF pilot turned aeronautical engineer who also collected watches), tinkering with stuff and learning to fly. But as adults they embarked on surprisingly mundane careers in the City while indulging their passion for aviation by flying at airshows in their spare time. That all changed in 1995 when Nick and his father crash-landed their Harvard aircraft. Euan died and Nick suffered more than 30 broken bones. "We realised that life is short," says Giles, adding that the tragedy made them re-evaluate their life choices.
"I remember my boss at PwC coming over to me," says Nick. "He was fat; on his third wife. And he said something to the effect of: 'If you work really hard, you can be like me.' I phoned up Giles and we both agreed to quit the following day."
They decided to take over the running of a small business that their father had set up restoring historical aircraft such as Spitfires and other Second World War fighter planes out of the North Weald airbase in Essex. "Looking back it is clear now that it was a kind of therapy for us," says Nick.
Everything old is new
There has been a resurgence in interest in this seemingly defunct watch technology, perhaps as a reaction to the very ubiquity of the modern handheld device. The sector has taken off on the back of rising consumerism in China and much savvier business practices by the likes of Swatch, which, under Nicolas Hayek, had swallowed up dozens of brands and turned luxury watchmaking from a niche sector into a global industry. "We started with a blank sheet of paper," says Giles. "We thought it would take a year and a half to get up and running. It actually took five. We knew we were entering a battlefield populated by really good players and we would only stand a chance if our watches were beautifully made."
Initially that meant setting up a workshop in the land of the cuckoo clock. The brothers are full of admiration for Swiss watchmakers and grateful for the knowledge they gleaned there. But they soon realised that it made good business sense and would bolster their brand to skew production back to the UK.
"When we were reliant on Swiss companies for our parts we were at the back of every queue," says Giles. "We realised that we had to be in control of our supply chain."
That said, it hasn't been an easy process. "Life as a British watchmaker is ten times harder than it is for the Swiss," says Giles. "They put a job advert in the paper and they'll have 40 applications the next day. In the UK, there just aren't the people with the skills that we need."
Bremont has to train a lot of its new recruits from scratch and, depending on the role, that can take between two and seven years. In some cases they are reversing the flow of talent out of watch-making and into munitions; Bremont's head of production used to make sniper rifles for the British Army.
At the moment, Bremont still imports more parts for its watches than it makes in the UK (although the ratio skews the other way when measured by value). The brothers acknowledge that the exact details of who makes what for which watches is "a bit smoke and mirrors". The movements for most watches, even quite famous marques, are made by a relatively small number of companies.
Bringing it home
Bremont is in the process of perfecting the prototype of its first in-house movement. It is being built by Stephen McDonnell, a Northern Irish watchmaker who used to be an instructor at the Wostep watchmaking school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and has made movements for some of the most famous brands in the world.
One of the shortcuts Bremont has found to developing home-grown watch-making know-how comes from fostering partnerships in order to tap into expertise and help. For example, a PhD student from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield is currently working with Bremont on gear profiling, new materials and ways of machining them. Boeing AMRC also helped Bremont source aviation-grade titanium for one of the company's lines of watches.
"People like watches so they enjoy working with us," says Nick. "But it is also really useful for them. If you are looking at efficiency in gears, for example, there is really nothing like watches."
Most of the measurements for the parts in a mechanical watch need to be accurate to within five microns, which is about 10 times thinner than the width of a human hair.
The Telegraph, London