Fine watches, or haute horlogerie if you’re really on your A-game, have long been the territory of the Swiss, famed for intricate levels of craftsmanship and an unerring dedication to tradition. And, for the most part, they’ve deserved it, having persevered through the Quartz Crisis.
However, times are changing – and no more so than on our home soil here in the UK. British watchmaking may have suffered peaks and troughs over the past 150 years or so, but recently we’re seeing a resurgence that shows no signs of abating. From the 1600s to the 1800s it was Britain, not Switzerland, that was considered a world-renowned watch mecca, and several brands are keen to bring the heritage home.
“It’s an exciting time for the British watch trade,” says Adrian Maronneau, buying director at DM London. “There are a lot more brands coming through that want to push the British strapline and shoppers also want to buy into this heritage.”
British-made watches are becoming increasingly popular, but the term ‘British-made’ can be problematic in itself. Just two British watch brands can rightfully boast complete manufacture within the UK, while components from Switzerland are still commonly used.
This is mostly borne out of necessity rather than simply watching overheads, as there’s a real shortage of required skills, labour and factories that can deal with the demand. This too is changing though, and there’s plenty to suggest that many volume-friendly brands will take all production completely in-house in the near future.
There’ll always be a place for Swiss watches – that much is certain. But if our rundown of the UK’s finest is anything to go by, Britain is proving itself a worthy adversary in the global arena.
The Luxury Leader: Bremont
Based in the idyllic town of Henley-on-Thames, Bremont has a distinctly British flavour. Brothers Nick and Giles English (how apt) founded the company after their father died tragically while training for an air show, and the sibling’s passion for watchmaking has only grown since.
Aeronautics and timekeeping have always been closely interlinked and no British brand’s more keenly aware than Bremont: the U-2, ALT1-C Classic and Boeing collections all showcase the finest in aviation watchmaking, made to fit with the modern wardrobe.
Another of the brand’s most notable achievements is The Wright Flyer: a limited edition line that cleverly incorporated the actual muslin used on the wing of the first ever flight in 1903. Needless to say, owning this little piece of history doesn’t come cheap.
More recently, Bremont produced three limited edition pieces to feature in Kingsman: The Secret Service, which marked the company’s first starring role. Each model – available in DLC (diamond-like carbon), rose gold and steel variations – combines practicality with quintessential British sartorialism.
Rarely does a brand establish itself as a leader in the manufacture of sports, aviation and dress watches, but that’s exactly what Bremont has done. Currently in the process of moving all production to the UK, Bremont is set to be one of the leading names in British watchmaking for generations to come.
- Bremont Martin Baker Mbii – Mbii/or
- Bremont Alt1-wt World Timer – Alt1-wt/wh
- Bremont Solo – Solo-37/si/rg
- Bremont U2/bl Automatic Watch
- Bremont Alt1-classic/cr Automatic Chronograph Watch
- Bremont S500 Supermarine Automatic Watch
- Bremont Alt1-b Automatic Chronograph Watch
- Bremont Alt1-classic/cr Automatic Chronograph Watch
- Kingsman Bremont Alt1-wt/wh World Timer Automatic Chronograph Watch
The Artisan: Roger Smith
Arguably the most lauded name in British horology, Roger Smith is the only apprentice of George Daniels – a man widely regarded as the 20th century’s greatest watchmaker.
Daniels saw the advent of the quartz movement in the 1960s as a real threat and in true pioneering fashion pledged to combat foreign imports with a completely British-made watch. As the watchmaking trade had long since declined within the UK, Daniels went on to master the thirty-two individual skills required to manufacture a quality timepiece.
It’s this same holistic approach, dubbed the ‘Daniels Method’, which Smith has adopted, making all of his watches in the Isle of Man, from start to finish.
The Roger Smith studio produces around ten pieces every year and sourcing one is even more painstaking than the laborious production process. As with other fine watches, limited production runs mean heightened exclusivity, which leads to hefty price tags.
Though Smith’s stylish timepieces will price out many watch enthusiasts, they really are at the pinnacle of British watchmaking.
The Designer Brand: Burberry
Although partly produced in Switzerland, Burberry puts an unmistakably British stamp on its watch collections.
Many UK brands lean towards classic design, but Burberry – true to form – offers a more contemporary approach with steel bracelets, simple leather straps and statement dials in navy, white, black and beige. What’s more, with relatively low price points for Swiss-produced watches, they won’t break the bank.
The recent Britain Classic collection has quickly become a flagship line for the label, with sizeable yet subtle cases that make a real statement on the wrist. Alternatively, the City range offers a more minimal circular dial complete with understated steel and leather bracelets that are perfect for the office.
Within the horological world, fashion-led brands such as Burberry may not receive the kudos of heavyweights like Jaeger-LeCoultre or IWC, but what they may lack in watchmaking heritage they more than make up for in brand prestige.
- The City Bu9363 42mm Chronograph
- The Utilitarian Bu7866 42mm Gmt
- The Britain Bby1350 43mm Gmt Automatic
- Burberry The Britain – Bby1105
- Burberry The Britain – Bby1101
- Burberry The City – Bu9751
- Burberry The City Bu9030 Mens Watch
- Burberry The Utilitarian Bu7855 Mens Watch
- Burberry The City Sport Watch
The Luxury Up-And-Comer: Schofield
At just four years of age, Schofield is the perfect poster child for the British watch industry, mixing a wealth of experience with exceptionally modern designs.
Up until 2013, Schofield watches were designed in England and made in Germany. However, since then its timepieces have been assembled in the UK, and newer models are almost entirely made in England – hence many now having it proudly stated on the dial.
The brand’s three major families: Blacklamp, Signalman and Beater, all manage to strike the balance between optimal wearability and uncompromising style. The Beater, for example, was launched at Britain’s biggest watch trade show, Salon QP, this year, delivering “rugged practicality” with a touch of dress watch sophistication. Stripped of complications, it features an enamel dial and casing that’s hand-finished – meaning no two watches are the same.
Although this Sussex-based brand’s timepieces won’t be to everyone’s taste, the relative absence of complications and a lack of variety aren’t reasons to write this label off – on the contrary, Schofield knows its strengths and plays to them well.
- Blacklamp Carbon
- Signalman Polished
- Signalman Dlc
- Steel Beater
- Bronze Beater
- Titanium Beater
- Clayton Leather Strap
- Light Grey Tweed Strap
- White Gymnast Leather Strap
The Affordable Brand: Larsson & Jennings
As the new kid on the block, Larsson & Jennings is part of the cooler contingent in an industry that can often be seen as stuffy and uncompromising. Minimalist Scandinavian-inspired design is infused with the trend-setting cool of London street style – and the impressive results speak for themselves.
Full disclosure: although conceived and designed in London, Larsson & Jennings watches are produced in Switzerland. That said, the label does go to the lengths of sourcing British-made leather and incorporating British design markers like royal crests where fitting.
Five families make up the main range: the Saxon, Kulör, Chain Metal, Lader and Liten. Each offers a different take on the everyday watch and some – the Chain Metal and Saxon, particularly – boast a distinguished formality that makes them well suited to combining with tailoring.
If you’re looking for an affordably priced timepiece that’ll work for both on- and off-duty days, this brand should be your first port of call.
- Larsson And Jennings Black Saxon Watch
- Larsson And Jennings Black Chain Metal Watch
- Larsson And Jennings Blue Kulor Watch
- Larsson & Jennings Kulor Stenkil Gold-plated Watch 1007558
- Larsson & Jennings Cm Gold-plated Watch 1007560
- Larsson & Jennings Saxon Stainless-steel And Leather Watch 1007556
- Cm Silver
- Gold Saxon
- Lader Brown
Aftercare & Servicing
Buying a fine watch is similar to buying a car – there’s no point in investing without committing to further maintenance. With mechanical movements, upkeep is essential, and you should always reserve a small pot of cash for servicing.
Failing to look after your timepiece means it’ll deteriorate, and that would be a terrible way to spoil a piece that probably cost you a fair amount of money in the first place. Department store Selfridges in both London and Manchester offers a service centre that provides reasonable tariffs on watch maintenance.
Otherwise, independent service providers are available throughout the country but will probably cost considerably more, depending on what’s available in your local area. Ensuring you book in for a retiming, general service, case refinishing and crystal replacement every year or so will ensure your investment piece stays as good as new.
There are many different interpretations of what makes a British watch: does it need to be manufactured entirely on home soil? Or is a watch that’s been designed in the UK but produced elsewhere still British?
The question is very much up for debate but one thing is certain: more and more brands are cropping up in the UK that are looking to play on the heritage theme – something us Brits have heaps of in the style stakes.
Any other homegrown brands you’d like to recommend? What do you think is in store for the UK watchmaking industry?
Let us know in the comments section.