Giles English is a man who lives up to his name. Bremont watches are unabashedly English. From the Union Jack cushions to the Jaguar, Boeing and Aston Martin collaborations, the aspirations of Bremont at Basel 2016 are evident: It’s a nascent brand well on its way of reclaiming English watchmaking heritage once thought lost but now is found.
Bremont Basel 2016 Collection and the Pride of British Watchmaking
Bremont Watch Company is a standard bearer waving the flag of Great British watchmaking with new versions of its top three watches; including a white dial MBII, a black dial variant of the Alt1-C chronograph in polished steel, as well as a rugged, “vintage lume” style for the Alt1-ZT.
Many independent watchmakers enter the market with fantastical new machines but Bremont started with tried and true chronographs and time only watches.. And succeeded! So what’s your secret?
What we are doing is making a very good watch for that price point. In the market, there are these crazy complications which are crazy expensive, so you sell very few watches for very high value. What we felt at Bremont watches is that in our space, there are many brands which claim military aviation history and we decided on a route of authenticity. 20% of our business is just production for various militaries so we have that credibility in aviation. We have taken a classic Martin Baker watch and built vibration mounts for the movement, added a Faraday cage and hardened the steel 7 to 8 times harder than your average steel watch and topped it off with treated crystals. We are providing many technical details for the price you pay. We only make chronometer tested watches so even the movements you get are the highest specced for that price point. There are 750 Swiss watch brands out there and we are really the only commercially available English brand out there, this history of British watchmaking is amazing and with it, we bring a certain Britishness with our style of watches.
But it is a competitive world out there with many watches and even if you don’t buy a limited edition Bremont watch, we only make 300 to 400 watches for a particular model so it’s still very exclusive. People like that exclusivity but still want to see a brand they recognise. We fall into that bracket.
So in that sense, for the 750 watch brands out there, many of them doing entry level watches, are finding it particularly challenging during these softer market conditions, how is Bremont fairing?
We are quite lucky with a strong home market in the UK. We are going to focus more on the US as a market rather than Asia. Soft market conditions are primarily Asian-based and though we’re not immune to that, we aren’t reliant on that region either. Even if the market reduces 20-30%, we are growing through market share and this has always been our strategy and thus I think we’re in a good position to grow our core business. We don’t have distributors around the world, we do it ourselves like Bremont Hong Kong, etcetera and in doing that, there are no pressures on distributors to get rid of stock and to deal with the grey market. It’s to our advantage that we’re quite a clean brand.
For a relatively young brand like yours, would you say it’s been a challenge selling to a more sophisticated market like Singapore?
I think you’re right. Looking at Asia and Singapore in particular, it’s very different from other Asian market. Singapore really loves their complicated watches and it is really a very sophisticated market whereas Thailand or Hong Kong is less sophisticated so it is definitely more challenging. But like any other market around the world, there are stronger brands who still need the right retail partners and the right sales guy with the right training and relationships. So it’s not always about product but also how well you are presenting said product. Nothing is easy about this industry.
Let’s face it, Bremont is really an engineering business and we could be making widgets or something but you have to be bloody good at marketing and PR as well to be a great watch company.
You just mentioned that you’re an engineering company and you’ve put your watches through real life scenarios like aircraft ejection and watches only for members who have survived an ejection. What advantage does this bring to a company like yours beyond the PR gimmick?
Looking at our partnerships, a company like Martin Baker has been wrecking our watches and giving us their technical feedback; in working with them, we got millions of pounds worth of research and development that we could never afford but in working with a partner and using their facilities, it has allowed us to do that.
In working with Boeing, we have a PHD student from there working directly with us on new material technologies and how to apply them in watchmaking. In our Boeing collection, we custom made 465L steel that has never been used before and we’re looking for new materials for baseplates and movements. This is support that most companies have never been traditionally been able to get. We work with an amazing research facility called AMRC based in Sheffield and we’re machining cases quicker and more efficiently with less tool wear. For most brands, it becomes a branding thing but we need their support.
Let’s talk about the anti-shock system, what precisely is so different than from your regular incabloc shock protection system?
Incabloc is built into the movement, Bremont builds a shock protection system around the movement. In simple terms, it’s a rubber cage which the movement sits in and so it isn’t fixed to anything solid to the outside of the case. So when a drop occurs, the rubber absorbs some of the shockwaves so it causes less damage in the movement. Then you fit all that into an anti-magnetic Faraday Cage.
We also have that rotor click internal bezel which is very hard to do and the trick to do it is to implement these components and yet not have a really thick watch but rather a nice, elegant case.
Is it a proprietary technology?
We have a three-piece trip-tick case construction so we’re able to do a lot more with our cases versus the usual stamped case which comes from a single roll of steel. This is proprietary to us, we haven’t copied anyone on anything. It does make our cases a lot more expensive and a lot more complicated to build, so we’ve worked with many partners like Martin Baker to do an aluminium ring around it so colours can be changed on the case-middle. We do a hardening on all our bezels where we heat them from 400 to 800 degrees centigrade and we then diffuse a harder layer of carbon to 3 to 4 microns thickness and it basically reinforces the case.
Rubbber hardens over time, was there a special technology developed to ensure this doesn’t happen so you can ensure longevity in Bremont watches?
That usually only happens to rubber which has been exposed to the elements and you can also choose rubbers which can last a lot longer. Naturally when a Bremont watch is serviced, that rubber ring is checked and if necessary, replaced. That said, in that sealed container with the movement, there’s really very little chance it gets exposed.
Is there a chance to recoup your investment costs by licensing this anti-shock protection to other watch brands?
No, we’re not considering that, mostly because our cases are so damned difficult to make that most brands wouldn’t want it. Standard watch companies are really about making something as cheap as you can, so you can have higher margins. Most of them don’t want to turn around and say, let’s make less margins but make our cases more complicated, it’s not a natural decision for most people. There are many patents which we are going for in the long term and for us this is a good, unique identifier for what Bremont is. This is why militaries ask us to do stuff and there are pitches which look for a bio-mechanical watch than the usual quartz watches.
Which militaries can you say specifically that you are working with?
There are 100s of different squadrons ranging from the U2 spy plane squadron to most of the F18 naval squadrons. A lot of it is UK and US. Encompassing army, navy and air force. We are also working with the Australian Air Force and doing some work with the Middle East as well. It’s a pretty wide range.
What are some of the challenges of going against the grain of “Swiss made”?
Although we work with La Joux Perret, we do make our baseplates in the UK but what we can’t do is get many components in the UK. Stephen McDonald is our movement designer, he designed the perpetual calendar for MB&F. He’s a brilliant Northern Irish guy who works with us but inevitably, we will have to rely on Switzerland for quite a few components for the time being and it’s common ground most brands share unless you’re making millions of something you don’t really get to economise the costs of it. All of our watchmaking and casemaking all happens in the UK. I think we’re very British now. At least 75% of our costs are spent in the UK.
Are there plans to work with the British government to train a new breed of English watchmakers?
We have an apprenticeship training scheme in place and it’s not just watchmakers. It’s the polishing guys and machinists so we’re going to other industries and re-training them. Even computer skills for design and material technologies.
Are there plans to approach fellow English watchmakers like Peter Speake to help revive English component manufacture once again?
We know Peter and Stephen Forsey very well, all great British guys but Peter doesn’t doesn’t do anything in the UK. The reason for making watches in Switzerland is because it’s a damned-slight easier, you can go around the corner and get a pinion-made or brass plating, these are such specialist jobs that most companies just go around the corner and get a component plated rather than do it themselves.
I have to face the issue of whether should I do that plating in-house because I don’t have anyone in the UK to do it to a consistent quality or do I send them to Switzerland, get it done and wait for them to come back? For us, the joy is in building up the British watch industry and doing our little bit.
So there are no plans to band together and get watchmaking and component manufacture going again in the UK?
We have their support and advice but we are different businesses. I want to build thousands of watches a year but these guys are doing 10s, 50s and 100s. It’s a very different production model and a very different mindset on what we’re trying to do. If they want to do that, it would be great but it takes time.
Since you’re getting your movements from La Joux Perret, who also make movements for Arnold & Son, John Arnold being British, are you trying to convince them to have a go at investing in British made?
I love Arnold as a brand and he was the Breguet of the time together with other luminaries like John Harrison. These were amazing watchmakers but they have no interest in building in the UK. At the turn of the century, Britain was making half the world’s watches and the chronometer allowed our fleet to rule the seas. The world sets its time but Greenwich and the history of British watchmaking goes on and on. But the fact is, “Swiss made” is such a strong brand for watchmaking that it’s going to take a while to change.
That said, for us, being British means that we can work with Jaguar and Aston Martin and other great British brands and therefore differentiate ourselves. We have to really put our hand up to invest and make it work. Everyone thinks we’re mad but we’re working hard at it [Laughs].
Are your chronographs calibres from La Joux Perret integrated chronographs?
Our basic Regatta chronograph is based on a Valjoux but it’s a redesigned Valjoux with different components. I have a philosophy born from restoring vintage aircraft, I want something that would work at an affordable price point. By doing that, we consider the Valjoux a very good place to start and then we re-design it with our own components and add our own special features, so you can tell it’s similar but there are different bridge shapes and different layouts than a Valjoux and the finishing is all our own. You can compare it directly against a Valjoux and find some similarities but totally different architecture. We do this there’s a three dial count down arrangement with a date in the Regatta and yet it’s very competitively priced. We work with many different suppliers including Valjoux.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you have overcome and what is the biggest one you are facing now?
There are always two in the watch business. Most brand our size do very little manufacturing themselves unless they’re doing bespoking and doing very limited quantities. We are committed to investing in our manufacturing. Each new component you build is a challenge, how do I make hundreds and keep the quality there, how do I train the new guy who can hand polish a gear train or pinion to the quality you need, those are all massive challenges. So the first challenge is at the manufacturing level of doing it yourselves. The next challenge is doing all of that while building a global brand which is strong enough so people can recognise you and go into a shop and buy your brand. We are not a company which is just selling online, we want to build a proper stable business. So you have to do proper marketing, distribution and retail; if you have invested too much in engineering and not the marketing, you wouldn’t get enough sales and go bust. If you do it the other way, you become a marketing company. It’s that fine line you have to walk and honestly, it’s far more profitable to outsource the build side rather than do it yourself but for Nick and myself, that’s of no interest to us.
Now, you have a watch for members who have survived an ejection, but you have survived an actual plane crash, any plans to relax the rules so you can have one of those watches?
Both Nick and I have survived plane crashes and we’ve spoken to Martin Baker but the rules are very clear, you have to have an ejection number. And the only way to get an ejection number is to have a time, a place and there’s a formal certificate documenting the instance to get it.
But I’m pretty sure walking away from a plane crash is magnitudes higher than an ejection is it not?
[Laughs] Nope! No ejection seat in a propeller plane so definitely can’t get one. In fact, the other day, I saw one being privately sold with an asking price of $50,000. Martin Baker is a sincere business dedicated to keep pilots safe through safer ejections, making them quicker, safer at lower speeds and even upside down. All customised for different aircraft, it’s a lovely partnership and it was an unheard of brand in the consumer space and so we never used them for branding reasons.