For those who have any experience in the watch industry, the irony of ‘time being the most valuable commodity’ will not be lost on them. Just ask Nick and Giles English, the 2021 recipients of our Industry Hero gong at the Square Mile Watch Awards.
Twenty years ago, the brothers founded the Bremont brand with the lofty goal of bringing watchmaking back to the UK for the first time in almost three decades. It would take them five years to design, build and sell their first watch – a stretch longer than the 18 months they’d assured their wives – and almost the entirety of the subsequent 15 years to produce a watch truly built from the ground up here in the UK. Nothing is easy in the highly competitive world of watchmaking, but when you’re attempting to compete with the horizontally integrated industrial process the Swiss have perfected over the past 200 years, you better have a healthy portion of that good-old fashioned British stiff upper lip.
Few would have the passion or the inclination to undertake such a task, but the English brothers have learnt through personal tragedy that life is all too short to worry about such trivial things as failure.
In March 1995, Nick English and his father, Euan, were practising for an aerial display in a vintage WWII-era aircraft, a 1942 T6 “Harvard”, when the flight went terribly wrong. The crash killed Euan and would leave Nick with more than 30 broken bones. That the English brothers would go on to establish an aviation and military-inspired watch company is a fitting tribute to their late father.
Euan, a prodigious ‘maker of things’ who used to sit in his workshop every evening and weekend, would be in awe of The Wing – Bremont’s brand-new £20m Manufacturing and Technology centre – that opened its doors last year. It’s the ticking heart of Britain’s blossoming watchmaking industry of which Nick and Giles have single-handedly resuscitated. This is their story:
Bremont Edits by Alan Schaller
Bremont Edits by Alan Schaller
Square Mile: Let’s start at the start. For those who don’t know the story of Bremont, where did it all begin?
Giles: Yeah, how did it all happen? We’ve been quoted numerous times before as saying it’s down to our father who was this amazing PhD aeronautical engineer from Cambridge who had this massive brain but was also this incredible practical guy as well. He was ex-RAF, flew throughout university as well, but he had this workshop at home.
He’d come home from work, he left university with his PhD, was going to work for British aerospace but set up his own engineering business. He’d build stuff every evening and weekend: you know, a sailing boat he built and we used to live on as kids, an airplane we still fly to this day, he played in a bluegrass band and he made all his own banjos. How he did all this stuff I have no idea.
One of his big passions was watches and clocks, so we grew up around it. You never went and kicked a football outside with your dad, you played in the workshop. Whether we liked it or not, there was always going to be a degree of osmosis there, but luckily we loved it. So I went off to study engineering, Nick went off to university, both sponsored by the RAF, and then the fateful day happened.
We’re at North Weald airfield in Essex, Dad and Nick are practising for an air display and they crashed. That changed everything for us. That was our tipping point where you think, “Sod it, we could be dead tomorrow, let’s go and do something.”
Nick: Through what had happened to us with the accident and everything else, life suddenly had become quite short and we found ourselves in a position where we became quite big risk takers, whether we liked it or not. We figured that if we didn’t try these things, do something crazy like setting up a British watch brand in a market dominated by the Swiss, we’d never try it.
I think if we hadn’t been through that experience – you know, so many people go through a life-changing event and we’re certainly not unique – things could have been very different. But it did have a profound effect on us so we threw caution to the wind and followed a bit of a dream.
That was the tipping point where you think, “Sod it, we could be dead tomorrow”
SM: What were the early days of Bremont like? Do you sometimes pinch yourself that you have come so far?
G: Well, in our mind we still have a long way to go, we haven’t made our global brand yet! But the obstacles in those early days – you’re a complete outsider, no one in the industry knows you and you’re knocking on Swiss doors for help and assistance.
These guys are being contacted every day by people from all over the world wanting to steal their IP and get their information, and it took a long time and a lot of hard work to build up trust there.
We had some experience in other industries, and Nick and I were running a business restoring old aircraft at the time so we weren’t idiots, we knew what we were doing, and we knew watches, but we obviously didn’t know it to the Swiss level. It’s hard building up your credibility.
If you think of the likes of Maximilian Büsser [MB&F founder] and Richard Mille, who else has done it in the last 20 years, really? Because it’s that hard to make it work at scale. Ultimately, those first few years are more than just manufacturing watches. You can’t be a watch company if you’re not a marketeer, a retailer, and all these other skill sets that turn a concept into a fully fledged brand. So there were definitely lots of hurdles. What we’ve learnt is just to have that perseverance – you feel like you’re going through treacle at times, but you’ve got to keep pushing.
Nims Purja, Bremont ambassador from the new 14 Peaks Netflix documentary, said once: “When you think you’re 100% fucked, you’re actually only 40% fucked.” I think that’s really the best way to summarise the effort required to build a business: if you back off when things get tough, you’ll never succeed, so you’ve got to push through it.
N: We went out to Switzerland fairly upbeat, naively so, because it was such an incredibly big undertaking and a very difficult one considering it’s a really complex business. But that was the only mindset we could have ever gone in with to make a go of it. I think with a business like this you can plan and model until you’re blue in the face and still not quite know where you are. Or you can go in with a fairly pragmatic attitude and go, ‘Let’s give this our best shot.’ Obviously we did our research and we already loved the industry and loved watches, but I don’t think you can ever prepare yourself for how much you need to know until you’re fully immersed.
It was a bit of a risk, but it was an educated risk I think, fuelled with a bit of passion. At the time, we told our wives that it would probably take a year and a half to make our first watch and sell it, but it actually took more like five because it’s so much harder than you think. You’re up there with some incredibly good competition. You might go into some industries and think there’s definitely room for another brand, but it’s just not like that in watches; everyone’s on top of their game.
We were naive to think we could get things off the ground so quickly, but then we stuck at it. By the time we got to the stage of selling watches, we knew we’d made the right decision to be patient. We felt that any good watchmaker could take the caseback off a Bremont, without knowing who we were from anyone else, and just see a beautifully made watch.
Bremont Edits by Alan Schaller
SM: What was the immediate reaction to Bremont from the Swiss? Were you met with optimism or cynicism?
N: It’s funny, it was a little bit of both. There were a number of passionate independents and a few multiples who were like, ‘We get this, we get what you’re trying to do.’ As a British watch brand trying to plant its stake in the ground. They could see the story of Giles and I, our passion for aviation and watches, and they saw that as something which a lot of the bigger brands only had 100 years ago who have subsequently been bought up by a big group, have a new CEO every few years, and are now more of a corporate beast. By contrast,
we were this authentic independent brand.
Then you have the other side, the conversations where people tell you, ‘You’ve got no chance.’ You’re up against these big brands with huge marketing budgets behind them, who have been around for decades, how are we possibly going to make an impact?
So what you do is you very carefully select the voices you want to hear, and you try to ignore all the rest!
SM: Do you think you had to work harder than a new independent Swiss watch brand in order to gain that respect?
G: Much harder. I reckon for any brand which is part of the big groups in particular we have had to work so much harder. By saying ‘Swiss made’ it doesn’t matter who makes it in Switzerland, it’s a banner; by us saying ‘Made in England’, it has to be under our roof and made by our hands. There’s still a natural cynicism of whether it can be done in the UK, and hopefully we’re proving them wrong. We’re the young upstart trying to prove ourselves the whole time.
There aren’t many new brands in the last two decades which have attempted the same scalability from nothing to almost vertically integrated watch manufacturer.
It was a bit of a risk, but it was an educated risk I think, fuelled with a bit of passion
N: To properly build an industry in the UK, or anywhere for that matter, it’s impossible without a foundation, because you’re always going to be the latest best thing for a short period of time. It might be a great design and you get crowdfunding to build 300 of them, but then what happens about servicing all these watches, how do you ensure you have the parts to look after that customer in five-, ten-, twenty-years time? You can’t do all of that without a proper foundation. Who’s going to service these watches and who are you going to train to do it? Every time you start asking the question, another investment is required. Otherwise, you’re always going to be reliant on others.
G: It’s interesting, because I think it’s the same for every company around the world right now: supply chains are screwed, and if you’re relying on supply chains and either a pandemic happens, or a country can’t get enough ships out, or there’s delays at Calais, it can screw your whole business. Whereas if you have control over supply yourself it does pay you back in the long term despite being very costly in the short term.
N: We’d love to see more companies come to the UK. We need to make stuff. It’s all very good and great fun building a brand, I’m all for it, but what would also be lovely to see is more businesses and artisans saying, ‘Actually, I can make dials. Why don’t we make our own dials.’
We started with our own cases; that was our first thing we manufactured in house. Plenty of people said it couldn’t be done – they don’t even do that in Switzerland for the most part – but we were determined, so we got some really good engineers and we made it happen. That really bolstered our confidence that we can achieve these industry goals.
I would just love to see more people making things, because you can build an industry around that. We all know the industry is fairly horizontally integrated in Switzerland, other than the big groups like the Rolexes and Swatches of this world, but everyone else is reliant on many other third-party suppliers. We need that in the UK, and for that you need investment, which we’re probably not seeing enough of in the UK.
SM: You must look at the growing number of UK watch brands and feel a fatherly sense of pride that the glowing embers are burning a little brighter?
G: It’s really satisfying. What we don’t want to be is the sole member of this industry, we want everyone else in the UK to be doing more because then there really is a proper fire going rather than just those glowing embers. We have brilliant engineers in this country, ex-Formula One to aerospace to defence who have come into Bremont and we have retrained them to be really, really good watch engineers, who understand watches but, more than that, really understand machines.
The thing is, they may continue to work with us or they may leave and start their own British watch parts manufactory one day, and that’s how these industries grow. If we build these people up, who have the potential to be better than the Swiss, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t have a flourishing industry over here.
In Switzerland, if you’re a watch company, you don’t have to do everything yourself, you can go around the corner and get someone else to do it for you, whereas in the UK right now we don’t have any choice, the infrastructure just isn’t in place yet. But there’s huge potential here.
N: I would love to see parts and suppliers for watch industries pop up. For example, we’re trying to get rubber straps made in the UK at the moment; we’ve made all the moulds and the tooling for that. There is no reason you can’t do it in the UK, but it’s just who’s going to step up first. I’d love to see something a little more like the Swiss model, something a little more horizontally integrated industry in ten years time.
SM: Do you feel a sense of healthy rivalry with the Swiss and the Germans? David taking on Goliath.
G: Weirdly, I don’t. It’s about challenging ourselves first and foremost. Whoever is making that part, whether it’s in Switzerland, Germany or China, we want to make it better over here. We want to be the best in the world. Sure, there’s a little healthy competition there, but it’s more putting the pressure on yourself to keep pushing, rather than going out there every morning and saying ‘I want to beat so-and-so, we have to sell more watches than them.’ For us, it’s about respect more than rivalry. We want the Swiss to respect us.
We had watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin visit us at The Wing the other day, and he came around and saw our case manufacturing and he said that he knows of only one other case manufacturer in Switzerland doing it to our tolerances. For us, that was a real pat on the back; it wasn’t about beating the competition, but about the fact we were doing it right.
SM: The Wing, Bremont’s Manufacturing & Technology Centre, is obviously your new ace in the pack in your continued development. How important is this facility to you guys?
G: Ever since we first started bringing aspects of assembly over to the UK in 2010, being ‘Made in England’ or ‘British Made’ has been part of the investment journey we’ve been on. It just takes considerable time.
For the last few years, we’ve been making cases and other parts, I think it’s only when you bring it all under one roof and then you release an in-house movement like the ENG300 that people realise what you’ve done, even though we’ve been doing parts of the assembly for quite a while.
When you look at watchmaking you have manufacturing, machining, and then for movements and watches you’ll have T0, T1, T2, T3, T4 assembly. T0 is assembling sub-movement parts and T1 is actually putting that whole movement together, then you’ve got watch assembly, and then some companies will just do T3 and T4 which is literally just putting a strap on the watch and selling it. We’re also doing the machining of those movement parts and all the assembly and setting under one roof.
N: Again, this whole thing of watches taking three times longer, three times harder and probably three times more expensive than you ever think, and a movement is no different, probably more so.
There’s no point producing a movement, when you consider the investment involved, unless it’s going to be better than anything else that’s out there. Our two reasons for doing the movement: one is to show that we could do this in the UK, but also that we could produce a better movement than those currently available on the market.
What’s fascinating is a lot of these three-hand movements are designed off architecture which was penned probably five decades ago and has been modified slightly, but they are intrinsically quite old designs. To be able to design a movement in the last five to ten years and bring out the best of innovation, materials, and everything else that goes into movement design, was quite important for us.
We’ve ended up with a movement that we believe is amazing. It’s beautiful to service, it’s accurate, it has a longer power reserve, anti-magnetic, it’s got lots of positive attributes that the majority of the watch market don’t have – and what’s exciting is this is going to be made in its thousands on British soil.
Plenty of people said it couldn’t be done – they don’t even do that in Switzerland
G: Out of the 750 or so Swiss watch companies we were first competing against 20 years ago, probably only 15-20 are doing what we’re doing in house, and that’s being generous. That’s really exciting for us, that we’re now in the top tier of manufacturers, because now we have that skill set we can go out and start growing our brand globally.
I’d say more than 90% of Swiss watch cases are made in China, because it’s just easier and cheaper at volume – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – but we’ve chosen to bring everything in house because we want to be able to shout about this great product we’re building in the UK.
The brilliant thing about The Wing is buying a Bremont watch now you can come along and meet the watchmaker, you can see where it was made, you can see the machines that created the case or cut the bridge. It gives the customer a new level of understanding of the value of their watch.
N: For Giles and I, that is the most exciting thing of the lot. The fact that you have this watch movement making intellectual property in this country for the first time in probably 50 years in terms of making movements on an industrial level. That was a big dream of ours at the beginning and while there’s always more we can learn and do, it’s a wonderful step and an exciting one as well. Hopefully it will be the inspiration for other manufacturing companies thinking about getting into watch parts or watchmaking here in the UK, as it would be lovely if the watch industry really did grow over here.
SM: The new ENG300 series movement is surely going to become the backbone of Bremont’s production for years to come…
G: We started on a full British-designed and built movement about six years ago with Stephen McDonnell – he’d just completed a perpetual calendar for MB&F and joined us right after – and that journey educated us on a different level.
It’s easier to build the movement to go into very small numbers of very high-value watches, but our challenge was how do we take this movement and eventually integrate it into our core watches and be able to manufacture them in a more simple way with an assembly line. So we had to change tack, because the movement we had designed clearly wasn’t going to be able to do that.
In the end, we bought the movement rights off a company called TAG who had created a really good high-spec movement that we’d been testing, but because of the way it had been designed it enabled us to actually build it in a way that we could eventually incorporate it into our core watches.
So we took that design, we made a lot of changes to it, we made it ours so that we could machine it as well, and that’s what’s ended up as the ENG300 movement.
We still have our Stephen McDonnell designed movement, what we do with that, it’s still there for us to launch. What we are focussing on at this stage is to take the ENG300 and bring it down in price and complexity so we can launch it into our core collections eventually.
You know, we never set out to be an MB&F-style brand, we set out to be the Smiths of British watchmaking so it’s a different approach. I often slightly regret that and wish we’d done a Richard Mille and sold hundred-grand watches in small numbers.
It’s taken six-seven years of really hard thinking and ripping up and starting again to get to that point. At times, we didn’t think we were going to get there but we did – slowly.
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SM: As two gentlemen who have both had near-death experiences in a plane, some might say the universe was telling you that creating watch brand inspired by aviation and the military wasn’t a good idea?
N: Well, we’re still passionate aviators! The thing about aviation, it’s a bit like motor racing, if you’re serious about it and you put enough hours into it, eventually you’re going to have an accident, especially if you’re doing dangerous flying in old airplanes close to the ground and air show stuff. It’s unfortunately just a matter of time. We’ve got pictures of my father up there with his mates and you can kind of cross off the ones who have sadly died. You don’t really appreciate at the time just how dangerous it is.
I think what was different for us is we still lived and breathed aviation, and we know a lot about it, and there’s definitely that authenticity there. We talk to pilots and find out what they want from their watch, what works and what doesn’t, is this too bling, is the legibility there. All of this came from the heart and from experience. It wasn’t about a big corporate deciding one year to promote their pilots watches. It came from a very different place. I think that’s part of the reason we do so much in the military world is that we can generally speak the same language with our clients, with or without watches being part of the conversation, which is really lovely.
For us, it’s about respect more than rivalry. We want the Swiss to respect us
SM: If you look at the likes of IWC and Breitling in comparison with Bremont, you can see a discernible difference in the design language. Is that just a case of vintage pilots watch designs versus how you cater for the needs of a modern pilot?
N: There’s two parts to the design language. One side is the infrastructure, the design, the build of the watch itself in terms of its architecture, its strength and robustness.
When Giles and I learnt to fly we were young teenagers flying around Europe in old airplanes, and you literally had a compass, a map and a watch, and that’s all you had. That hadn’t changed in decades. It was only with the advent of GPS in the last 20 years that things have changed substantially in navigation. The whole thing about a watch is it wasn’t about working out all of these calculations and conversions and other slide rule functions, it was about being able to clearly see how much fuel you have left and how long until your next destination while doing ten other things at once. As a result of that, legibility and reliability were both incredibly important. When it came time to create our own watches that’s why we made a chronometer, with a really really legible dial and an incredibly robust case – but also something that was beautiful as well. That’s why the Martin-Baker and other associations like Rolls-Royce came to fruition is because people recognised the form and the function.
A lot of these brands like IWC and Breitling they have real credibility and real aviation heritage, but I think what happens over time is the desire to grow the brand increases and the desire to change that product to suit different markets is there, and I think there’s also a small bit of change for change’s sake because you need to come out with a new novelty. As a result of that, I think some designs remain relevant, some less so.
Bremont Edits by Alan Schaller
SM: Speaking of that, Bremont has diversified away from some of its old monikers as a British pilots watch brand. Is that deliberate?
G: This is the nature of growing up as a brand, you can invest in more product. I think where are credentials are on the military and aviation, no one can question those – still, 20% of our business is just making watches for the military – but I think as a brand to appeal to more people you need to be more diverse. Us growing the ladies’ collection is something we’re working hard on as well as the more dressy classic men’s watches. The challenge you’ve got is how do you do that without losing that core DNA of what you are.
I think it’s helped that Nick and I have always been there in the designs. I can see some brands when they get a new designer and either they go back to copying all their old vintage stuff, because it’s safe and easy, or they change the design language so significantly they look like a different watch brand. We’ve been very mindful to keep that consistency.
Also, there’s only so many straight pilots watches you can design! You need to be inspired by other stuff. That’s what’s special about limited editions – it gives you carte blanche to go off in a completely different direction for design. If you’re working with a Williams F1 or a Jaguar or a Rolls-Royce, you’re going to be pulled in a different design direction by the partners you work with, which is always quite fun as well.
SM: Tough question, but do you both have a favourite watch model?
G: There are a few I sort of go back to quite regularly. I think some of our first collection, the ALT1-P and ALT1-C we designed, they were lovely; the Martin-Baker is just a classic in our collection and is a design cue that’s always giving you scope to do more; the Wright Flyer Limited Edition, I always get emotional wearing that watch, meeting Amanda Wright Lane [great-grandniece of the Wright brothers] and holding parts of the first ever plane that flew. But the latest watch you’ve worked on, in theory, you are improving upon what came before.
N: There’s two for me, really. One is the Longitude we’ve just done, because it means so much and it’s been such a journey to get there when you realise the case, the design, the technical drawings, the movement, the assembly, that’s all been done in the UK. That really is the number one. But then I also look back at the first watch we ever released, the cream ALT1-C and that’s still being sold today and still sells well today. It took just as much blood, sweat and tears to create that first watch as it did to create our new Longitude. They both mean a lot to me.
In 30 years, what’s to stop us being a force to reckon with? I don’t see why we can’t be
SM: Where would you like to see Bremont and also the wider British watchmaking industry in the next decade?
G: I think there’s a few things. One is we have to still be building in the UK; that always has to happen no matter what. I think there’s more we can be machining in the UK and more technical skills we’re developing the whole time, so that focus on engineering is important. Secondly, we want to build a global brand. We’re desperately ambitious as a business and we aren’t satisfied by being a niche player because if you are you’ll never be able to put that level of investment into doing this stuff yourself.
In the early days, we had people querying why we were charging so much for our watches, and the simple answer is because we’re investing in it. If you’re a Kickstarter company and you’re just selling watches at a bit of a margin over what it’s costing to get them made, you’re never going to be able to reinvest into the technology and skill set required to make these watches yourself. For us, that investment is starting to pay off.
Creatively as a business, there’s still a lot more we can do as well. Nick and I are still doing the design of all the watches and there’s no shortage of new cool stuff we can come up with as well, so that’s fun.
N: I would love to see Bremont continuing what we’re doing, but adding to its portfolio industrial processes and carrying on making things. As for British watchmaking, there’s a lot of people in the industry now who weren’t there a decade ago, talented people who we’ve taken on at the beginning of their career and they’ve known nothing other than watchmaking, which I think is exciting.
For me, I think we need to focus on the higher end mechanical watches, because we’re never going to compete with Asia where they build watches for £50 and sell them for £100. We should be looking at Switzerland and Germany as our competition and our role model in positioning ourselves as something slightly different, but up there with their quality, and be proud of it.
I think people buy into that, they certainly do in other industries. Our shoes, cars, guns, Formula One, there’s some amazing industries where we’re leading the world and I do think we can catch up in watches, I really do. It’s not going to be a thing in the next decade, but in 30 years, what’s to stop us being a force to reckon with? I don’t see why we can’t be at all.
For more information, see bremont.com