“British made” is often associated with heritage and the very finest, bespoke, hand-crafted quality. But while you’d be safe ordering a Savile Row suit and a cup of tea in fine Staffordshire bone china, when it comes to the heritage of their motoring industry, the “handmade” selling point certainly came with its idiosyncrasies. While some marques notoriously borrowed the “best bits” from other brand cars for practical reasons and to curb costs, in a highly competitive, automated world their outdated approach to manufacturing no longer made good economic sense with many well-known brands such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, and more recently Aston Martin being bought and sold, or bailed out, many of them by Europeans. In the hands of new owners, the more practical, reliable, commercially viable current models might seem stripped of their initial charm and raw driving appeal but a new generation of motorists, who don’t want to break down on every outing, might disagree.
The British adventurous spirit that inspired the creation of these famous marques is in their blood and also surged through the veins of the first clockmakers in the 17th century, with early inventions improving timing accuracy and aiding maritime navigation contributing to the expansion of the Empire to unchartered lands. From Thomas Mudge’s lever escapement introduced in the mid-1700s – still a feature in many modern watches – to John Harrison’s marine chronometer, the balance spring, automatic winding and centre minutes and seconds hands, the Brits certainly led the way. Even Rolex was founded in London in 1905 as Wilsdorf & Davis and only moved to Geneva at the end of World War 1 where their most famous invention, the Oyster case, was introduced in 1926. But much like their car industry in recent decades, the British watch industry couldn’t keep up with the quality, accuracy and pricing of the Swiss and American modern production lines of the early 1900s and soon went out of business. (While reading up on the history I came across the Great British Watch Company website which I thoroughly recommend for further insights.)
Although trade talks are ongoing, Brexit is finally here and, in the meantime, I’m sure most Brits will be looking to buy home-grown goods or face high import duties down the line. And although we have already seen a revival of the British watch industry in the past two decades, with EU competition rules out of the picture, there might be even more incentives from Boris to boost the industry that was responsible for some of the greatest design innovations in the world of timekeeping. While their cars will in future be delivered with bigger price tags, and are no longer that “British", here are some of the brands who are putting the UK back on the horology map, even if some are borrowing the “best bits” from their friends across the channel:
The coaxial escapement was created by master horologist George Daniels in 1974 and has been used in Omega watches since 1980. The core businesses of both Daniels and his protege Roger Smith were founded on creating unique pieces that incorporated vintage craftsmanship and are 100% hand-built by themselves on home soil on the Isle of Man –although, strictly speaking, the self-governing British Crown dependency is not part of the UK.
Smith established his own workshop on the island in 2001 and since the death of Daniels in 2011 is recognised as “Britain’s” foremost watchmaker, with each piece produced by him and his small team being unique. Among these are the refined, very limited Series 2 dress watch and the Series 4 Triple Calendar Moonphase, with a price tag of around R5 million.
Bremont was founded by brothers Nick and Giles English in Oxfordshire in 2002 to make exceptional pilot’s watches inspired by their love of flying historical aircraft. Their watches are, however, not entirely British made – in fact only 5% of their components are local – but they are all conceived and assembled on home turf. They featured on the wrists of agents in Kingsman: The Secret Service and they recently became the official timekeepers for England Rugby with the launch of their “Rose” watch.
One of their coolest ambassadors is endurance swimmer Ross Edgley who, in November 2018, was the first person to successfully swim around the entire British coastline.
The new 45mm stainless steel S2000 Red is powered by the BE-36AE automatic movement (based on an ETA 2836-2) with a 38-hour power reserve and has a case construction with anti-shock and Faraday Cage to block electromagnetic fields and water resistance to 2 000m. Let’s hope that importing ETA movements won’t up their prices.
3. BAMFORD WATCH DEPARTMENT
In this age of mass production, we are seeing the rebirth of customisation to meet the increasing needs of individuals who like to set themselves apart from the crowd. Lead by the motorcycle and classic car fraternity, sports brands and watch manufacturers are now riding the trend, facilitating various levels of customisation that are no longer only the reserve of the super-rich.
In the world of watches, many brands offer choices of dials, hands and interchangeable straps but Bamford was the first to take some of the world’s most iconic luxury timepieces and offer full aftermarket personalisation. Started in the early 2000s, George Bamford’s company has customised models by Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Panerai but is probably best known for the black PVD finished Rolex and other bespoke updates to the brand.
More recently, Bamford debuted a range of limited-edition Zenith watches and a TAG Heuer Monaco with a solid carbon case, a black dial and aqua blue chronograph counters, signalling a new and exclusive relationship with the LVMH Watch Division. The Zenith El Primero celebrated its 50th anniversary last year with a number of special editions, including the Chronomaster El Primero Radar, fashioned by the leading watch customiser in a limited release of 50 pieces which draw inspiration from Zenith’s archives, while presenting a new, retro-futuristic aesthetic.
Although Graham manufacture their watches in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the watchmaking capital of Switzerland, the founder and “father of the chronograph” George Graham made his watches in his Fleet Street, London, workshop from 1695 until his death in 1751. Graham invented the dead-beat cylinder escapement, the mercury pendulum that compensates for differences in temperature and built the master clock at the Greenwich Royal Observatory.
New Swiss owners The British Masters revived the name and spirit of Graham’s creations in 1995 through their modernised watch brand. Using fine Swiss movements engineered or adapted exclusively for them, the big focus is, of course, on chronographs. Another of their distinctive patented systems is the start and stop lever which features on the left of the case of the Chronofighter, which enables the user to activate the chronograph functions and recalls early stopwatches used by World War 2 pilots. The design of their limited-edition Geo.Graham Tourbillon references classic 18th-century Graham pocket watches.
Garrick manufacture watches at their facility in Norfolk, in small quantities, with high-quality finishes and incredible attention to detail. The company says its designs, movements and bridges are intended to “look stereotypically British” and they use parts engineered and assembled in-house in England. However, the company also draws on the expertise of other British artisans, as well as having made use of vintage Swiss calibres as the basis for its movements on its earlier models.
The Garrick Portsmouth model showcases the new era for the brand with its exclusive hand-wound movement, the UT-G01, designed in consultation with movement specialist Andreas Strehler, which features Garrick’s own Trinity free-sprung balance made from a patented anti-magnetic metal.