I grew up in an amazing family. My father was a PhD aeronautical engineer and an ex-RAF pilot, so he had this incredible talent for building things. My dad would restore old aircraft, we built a plane that we still fly, a sailing boat that we lived on as kids, and he had a passion for watches and clocks, too. My brother Nick and I sort of grew up in his workshop and it was an idyllic upbringing, being in there with him and doing lots of flying.
Then, in 1995, Dad and Nick were practising for an air display and it all went horribly wrong, and they crashed. Dad died instantly and Nick was in intensive care for many months but came through it. That was a massive tipping point in our lives that made us both decide to approach life by doing something we love.
BUILDING A BRAND
Nick and I were aware of this amazing history of British watchmaking, but two World Wars wiped it out and no one really knew about it anymore. One hundred years ago, over half of the world’s watches and clocks were being made in England – there’s a reason the world sets its time by Greenwich Mean Time – and Rolex was founded in Clerkenwell, less than a mile from The Royal Exchange. We moved to Switzerland for about seven years, to learn the craft and build up the collection, before bringing watchmaking back to the UK. Our main aim was always to play a part in the rebuilding of the British watch industry.
The key characteristic of a Bremont watch is that it’s very much an aviation style of watch, an all-purpose mechanical watch that you could wear in the boardroom, while climbing Mount Everest or flying your plane. As pilots ourselves, we knew what we wanted out of an aviation style of watch, which is something that is very clear and easy to read. We would often use chronograph functionality to do timings so to that end we’ve introduced some great chronograph models in the range over the years. We also knew the watches had to be quite strong – because when you’re in a plane you knock it the whole time – but not too bulky because it needs to sit under your glove or flight suit.
In 2007, we were approached to work with a company called Martin-Baker, who are based in Denham, England, and make ejection seats for 70 per cent of the world’s Air Forces. They asked us to design a watch as a special gift for people who have been ejected from an aircraft. They stipulated that the watch had to go through the same rigorous testing procedures as the seats themselves go through. This included everything from vibration, crash, magnetic and live ejection testing. A mechanical watch is inherently quite delicate, so we had to figure out how to make it far more robust. We developed a vibration mount technology inside the watch to withstand shocks, and a faraday cage that protects against magnets. The whole process took us around two years and we created this pretty iconic watch called the Bremont MBI, which has a red barrel – if you see anyone with a watch that has a red case side, well, you only get that if you’ve been ejected. We also developed a consumer version of this watch, our MB range, which has been through all of the same testing and features the same technologies.
We only make chronometer-rated watches, which means the watch has to be independently tested in Switzerland for 15 days. It’s tested at different temperatures and different positions, because your wrist is moving the whole time, so whether the watch is flat, on its side or upside down, it has to give an average reading of between +6 and -4 seconds a day. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, and that’s around 99.89 per cent accuracy. Considering this is, essentially, cogs and gears on your wrist, that’s pretty accurate. To make something that is worn on your wrist every day, gets bashed around, scratched, dropped etc, and still works, is the result of really beautiful craftsmanship.
The Martin-Baker project triggered a lot of requests from military around the world for further bespoke commissions. We’ve now made watches for more than 600 Military squadrons internationally, including the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy Pilots and their crew, US Navy F-8 team squadrons, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, US Air Force Academy graduates and the Royal Australian Air Force – it’s an amazing part of our business.
If you’ve flown an F-18 for seven years, it’s likely you’ll then spend the rest of your life talking about it, to your children and your grandchildren. Your watch is proof that you flew that aircraft, it’s something to pass down the generations, so we’re creating something quite unique and special. Bremont only makes mechanical watches, and that’s the lovely thing about them. An iPhone lasts around two years before it gets thrown away, whereas a lovely mechanical watch will still work 200 years from now.
The bespoke requests we get might be for a different dial, or hands, or different coloured cases. We don’t do special requests on unique movements, because developing a new movement can take five or six years, so that’s a different type of thing. But we will adapt an existing mechanism and the whole design of the watch is completely unique. We have a specialist team who run our military department and it’s quite hard work because they’re all in depth, bespoke projects. Each one can take over a year, but it works as good inspiration for the rest of the business as we may use those designs in our core products that the general public can buy as well.
One example is a watch we made for Globemaster’s US squadron – Globemaster are massive aircrafts that fly tanks and large equipment around the world – and they wanted a world timer watch, so they can tell the time in all the different zones they fly to. We created that watch for them and really liked it, so we developed a consumer version called the ALT1-WT world timer, which came from that bespoke design.
You may wonder whether a mechanical watch, that’s round and tells the time, has really changed much in the last 60 years? But actually, all the time we’re using new techniques to make our watches more accurate and new materials that are either harder, lighter or easier to machine. From our partnership with Boeing, for example, we developed a watch using aviation-grade titanium and customised steel that you wouldn’t normally get access to. We’re able to machine to about five microns – to give you an idea, a human hair is about 50 microns – so we’re machining to ridiculously finite levels. We’re probably one of the most accurate machinists of metal in the UK, because tolerances on watches are extremely small.
We’re very proud to be bringing watchmaking back to the UK. We’re building a brand new facility in Henley-on-Thames. We have about 130 people working there at the moment, and we want to grow that over the next five to ten years. As a brand new building, it adheres to all the latest environmentally sound practices, so it’s very sustainable and energy efficient, and it’s quite unique. We’ve set up a whole apprenticeship scheme that trains young watchmakers, and we also have a full manufacturing set up, which means we can machine the components for the watches at the same time.
There are three levels to watchmaking: design, the machining of the metal, and the assembly of those watches; and they’re all highly skilled. If you are machining the component yourself then you have to design it, so that you own the patents on that whole design, and it becomes a very in-depth chain. Doing this in a country that hasn’t manufactured watches for many years has been a big challenge, and a lot of investment, but housing everyone under the same roof at our new headquarters will enable us to take this to the next level.
We’ve reached out to various ventilator manufacturers, to let them know about the expertise we have in machining small, metal components. It’s a complicated scenario going on, because there are lots of different companies working on lots of different parts, but we’d love to help out with machining any metal components they need, or in any other way we can be of service.
Giles and Nick English founded Bremont in 2002 with the ambition to bring mechanical watchmaking back to Britain. The award-winning company produces beautifully engineered chronometers at its headquarters in Henley-on-Thames, England. Learn more about Bremont’s pioneering approach, and discover its full range of watches, at bremont.com
Our Future/Craft series explores the skill and creativity that lies at the heart of modern luxury, highlighting the stories behind some of The Royal Exchange’s exceptional retailers and their approach to craftsmanship and innovation