The co-founder of the Bremont Watch Company talks about bringing watchmaking back to the UK
Interview by Ryan Thompson
When you first meet 40-year-old Giles English, who co-founded Bremont Watch Company with his older brother Nick, what immediately strikes you is just how wonderfully accurate his surname is. Dressed in slacks, tan brogues and an open-necked plaid shirt beneath a tweed blazer, he looks and sounds how an American would describe an archetypal English gentleman. Heavy dark brows hover above his smiling eyes like horizontal parentheses drawn in a thick felt-tip pen, in contrast to the greying head of hair, wind-wisped by a brutally chilly morning in Mayfair. His steady, round-shouldered torso makes for an immediately friendly gait, an observation made good by the generous thrust of a hand to shake. He speaks softly in a warm, plummy accent with a subtle, throaty timbre that sometimes trails off slowly like a plume of smoke. It’s the voice of a man with three young daughters who has, perhaps wisely, understood the futility of competing to be heard.
We meet at the Bremont flagship store on South Audley Street. It’s a cosy set-up, with aviation paraphernalia busying up the walls, corners and shelves. Family photographs discreetly buffer reference books aplenty, most with an historical militaristic bent: Napoleon’s travails here, Nelson’s great glories there. Planes, trains and automobiles everywhere. A World War II motorbike, a fighter-aircraft ejector seat, tan leather chairs and a nicely stocked bar make it feel like an exclusive maison rather than a store. That it requires no grand invitation to come and spend time here makes the experience feel that little bit privileged. Only the dark-stained timber, polished-chrome fittings and glass sales cabinets remind you not to kick your shoes off, pour a large tumbler of Chivas and settle in for the afternoon. Another time perhaps.
What the English brothers have achieved with Bremont in a very short space of time, given the pace at which the watch industry moves, is nothing short of remarkable. The brand now turns over £18m and continues to grow rapidly, as evidenced by its first serious foray into the US, with a dedicated New York store on Madison Avenue opening very soon. However, that Giles is even speaking to me this morning is a combination of a little luck and a lot of skill. In August 2013, he was piloting a Thirties de Havilland Gypsy Moth in the chalky-white skies above Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, with an 11-year-old boy in the passenger seat, when the engine suddenly cut out. Giles’s aviation experience almost certainly saved both their lives, but his own back was still broken in three places. His father, Dr Euan English, was not dealt the same cards in 1995. While performing aerobatic formations in a World War II Harvard he was flying, with Nick aboard, the aircraft got stuck in an inverted spin. English Sr died instantly and Nick broke 30 bones in the subsequent crash. It is testament to the brothers’ characters that two events of such magnitude have not set them back but have rather amplified the spirit and endeavour so clearly inherited from their father, about whom we started this conversation.
CS: Let’s start from the beginning, which is really with your father, who, in many ways, was the catalyst for Bremont and, by all accounts, was an amazing and inspiring man. What was it like growing up with him?
GE: Yes, he really was. He had a PhD in aeronautical engineering from Cambridge, but also became a very successful businessman in his own right - yet it was never about the money with him. He simply wanted to be able to spend time building things in his workshop. And by things, I mean everything. For example, he made his own bluegrass banjos and they were truly beautiful instruments. He loved sailing, so he constructed a boat. It sat on our lawn for three years and then, when it was completed, we went and lived on it. He was a free, unbridled spirit. He would accomplish something and then move on to the next challenge. He was just so passionate about any sort of mechanism that he could get under the skin of, be it planes or boats or, of course, clocks and watches. Our house was permanently chiming with grandfather clocks, which is a sound I’ve always loved.
CS: I think that truly creative minds are unstoppably curious, which makes the process of creation so much more enthralling for them than the completion of it.
GE: Yes, I agree. My father always had to be creating something or engineering something. It didn’t really matter what it was, as long as it was challenging. He had this business restoring old aircraft - Spitfires and that sort of stuff - plus he was ex-RAF, so naturally spent a lot of time with his nose in a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine or some other intricate piece of incredible engineering. He actually retired when he was 39. He’d made enough money through his engineering company, which was bought out by Sheffield Insulation Group. Then he had a cancer scare, which slightly changed his perspective on things. He was always busy with projects, but I guess it lit a new fuse under him. He decided to construct an aeroplane - which we still fly - and build a house, spending all his time tinkering and building: doing the things he truly loved. It was never about buying something, with him. His mentality was, ‘Why buy it when you can build it?’ I’ll never have his talent, or the time to focus on something the way he did. He was pretty antisocial in that sense, but a lovely guy!
CS: Where was your mother in all this? Was she always despairing of the males taking stuff apart and spilling oil on her lawn?
GE: Well, there was definitely a lot of that! My mother was actually his rock, in the sense that she provided this amazing foundation for him to go and be quite selfish, really. But she loved flying and sailing, and actually encouraged him to build the boat we eventually lived on. As kids, we were given an amazing amount of rope to go and do as we wanted with. My dad used to pay our pocket money a year in advance and say, ‘Make something out of it or lose it all!’ That was my parents’ collective mentality: complete freedom. I don’t know how I’ll do that with my kids because you give them a free pass and you worry they’ll go off and do drugs or make the wrong decisions - it’s a gamble. Actually, my father’s thing was this: ‘If you want to go and fly a Spitfire, it’s the best drug you can get, but if you go and do drugs, you’ll never be able to fly a Spitfire because you need to be mentally prepared.’
CS: Do you still fly after all that has happened?
GE: Yes, but I had a crash in 2013 that I’m still slightly recovering from. I haven’t had my licence back yet - it’s a medical thing. I’m rebuilding the plane at the moment, which is going to be a bit of a long job. I miss it, but my wife is pretty happy I’m not in the air. We met two months before my dad died, so she has lived through two crashes. My brother Nick is still very passionate about flying. It’s a lovely thing to be able to do.
CS: Given that your father was in the RAF, aviation and aircraft have obviously been a very important and integral part of your family’s life. At what point did you first get involved with aviation?
GE: As children, Nick and I grew up around aircraft. We were both sponsored through university by the RAF. I studied engineering and naval architecture, because I wanted to be a yacht designer. After graduating, we both spent a very short time in the City. I went to work for a small corporate-finance outfit, analysing businesses for two years. Then my father and Nick were in this terrible plane crash and my life then stopped and completely changed. It just gave me this attitude of, ‘Fuck it, let’s go and do something completely different’. We subsequently discovered that his aviation business needed some help, so Nick and I both left our jobs to go and do that as a sort of stopgap, but before what, we didn’t really know. My father’s death pushed us in the direction of working together and we quickly realised we enjoyed it. Looking back, there was never really any doubt we would follow in his footsteps.
CS: Was it an easy transition from aircraft restoration to luxury-watch manufacturing?
GE: After you’ve worked with aircraft, any other engineering industry after that seems pretty easy because there’s so much regulation and meticulous detail. People will clamber into your plane and fly it, so their lives depend on your exactitude. That said, the watch industry works to an incredibly high spec, too. A plane engine is also quite similar to the movement in a timepiece, in some ways. What we didn’t realise with regard to fine watchmaking was how difficult it is to machine-build something to that quality. I don’t think anyone quite understands, unless they’re in the watch industry, the level of accuracy that is achieved not only in microns and making movement components work, but also in the finish of a watch. In no other industry, apart from perhaps medical instruments, do you find such beautiful levels of finishing. Even if you look at Formula 1, the engine components are all pretty rough-and-ready, comparatively speaking, so the finish is something that is incredibly difficult to achieve, but largely taken for granted.
CS: How well do you remember the day you had the impromptu rendezvous with your brand’s namesake, Mr Bremont?
GE: Oh, really well. It was in the late Nineties. Nick and I were flying down through France and we got stuck in some really shite weather. It was bloody scary. We were also running out of fuel and a thick mist was coming down really quickly. We knew we were about three miles from an airfield, but we just couldn’t find it, so we had no option but to put the plane down. So we did - in a very muddy pea field. Unlike in the UK, where you give the farmer a bottle of whisky, apologise for damaging his crop and then fly off when the weather improves, in France, they can actually impound your aircraft. They can make you take the wings off and pack it off to the nearest airfield at great expense. It wasn’t like we were incognito either because, as we looked back, there was a line of traffic backed up watching this old plane struggle to land in a field. Anyway, we got it down without any great drama and this old French farmer in his late seventies or even eighties came stomping through the mud towards us. Rather surprisingly, he very kindly said we could put the aircraft in his hay barn and stay until the weather was better, effectively hiding us from the authorities. What struck Nick and I almost immediately was how much he reminded us of our father, if our father had lived to that age. It turned out he had been a pilot in World War II. His name was Mr Bremont. Years later, our first prototype watches had no branding on, so when it came to choosing a name, we liked the sound of Bremont and the memories it had, so we thought, why not? He died not long after we met him. We told him what we were doing with the watches, but we never got to know him very well. He thought we were crazy Englishmen.
CS: As most French are wont to think! I imagine there’s a certain contingent of the Swiss watchmaking fraternity that also thinks you are crazy trying to re-establish a watch manufacturing industry in the UK?
GE: No doubt! From the beginning, we knew we had to be in Switzerland, so we went out there about five years before we sold our first watch. But our long-term aim, even back then, was to bring the manufacturing process back to the UK. So we’ve brought all the assembly back, and over time, we’ll bring back all the machinery. The Swiss have generally been really good to us, really helpful. They all realise the value of us bringing the manufacturing process back to the UK. When the world thinks of watches, it thinks Swiss-made, so we’re trying to not exactly break that association but rather show that British inventiveness can rival the very best. Look at the Germans - they have done a very good job of reviving their watch industry with the backing of some of the big brands like Richemont.
‘We don’t have the shackles of history… As two English guys with no watchmaking heritage, we are able to go and do crazy things, or work with people we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to’
CS: So, what are the advantages of bringing watchmaking back to the UK?
GE: Well, in the short term, there are very few! Switzerland has everything a luxury watch brand needs. The conglomeration model out there works brilliantly because there are a lot of shared resources. Brands, while under a Richemont umbrella, for example, tend to act very independently, but it’s the distribution angle that’s hugely beneficial. Suddenly, you’ve got this huge network to sell through. But an independent brand like ours doesn’t have any of the hoops to jump through that come with being part of a big group - that’s the fun thing. What’s not so fun is sourcing materials. We’re not in the heart of it, where we can just go down the road and find amazing-quality components. There, the big guys can get the best components for the best prices because they are ordering millions of them - we’re ordering them in the thousands, so we’re at the back of every queue. Sourcing hands, dials and parts of the highest calibre can be difficult, so we need to be manufacturing our own as much as possible. That also allows for much greater quality control and testing. Of course, you can never have everything - that’s just not how the watch industry works.
CS: I think that if you asked most people outside of watchmaking how long it took to make a Bremont watch, the vast majority of them would wildly underestimate.
GE: At the moment, it’s probably taking us about two years to make a watch in our current collection. Even if you’re not making masses of mechanical changes, it goes backwards and forwards between us and our graphic designers - it’s subject to constant refinement. Then you build your prototypes and the adjustment process starts all over again. Design alone will take six months, assuming there’s nothing technically massive going on. It’s the movement that takes many years. For the big brands it’s a lot quicker. What’s more, it means the stock holdings we have to sit on are huge because it takes so long to get stuff sourced. However, to bring the manufacturing process over to the UK is a big investment mainly because of the machinery required. You can handmake one or 10 watches - a small batch - but as soon as you’re making thousands of those, you’ll never be able to do it: you’ll never get the accuracy and quality every single time, and your workforce would have to be huge. So, there’s a big difference between wanting to make small numbers and wanting to produce on a larger scale. We’re not producing watches at £200,000 for billionaires - we make watches that start at £2,500, so the challenge is trying to get that cost base down. We believe we can do it in the UK, but it takes a lot of investment in machinery because you’re custom-building.
CS: There’s also the not-so-small issue of building a brand…
GE: For a small manufacturer, that’s probably the biggest challenge. You have to be bloody good at marketing and PR these days. People don’t spend £4,000 on a watch unless they believe in your story. You have to be really good at retail, too, and you’re doing all this in a market in the UK where you’re always going to be the underdog because of the economies of scale in Switzerland. It’s an incredibly difficult business to run. On what do you focus? Is it skills, machinery, advertising…? There’s this daily questioning - am I overspending on machinery? Should I be allocating more funds to marketing? It’s exhausting! We’d do far better if we just let someone else do the manufacturing and focused solely on being a ‘brand’ rather than a watchmaker, but that is of no interest to us. It’s nicer to think we could turn 16-year-olds with little or no academic interest or qualifications into highly skilled watchmakers who could go on to make a lot of money for themselves.
CS: Presumably all the horological schools are based in Switzerland?
GE: Yes, the vast majority of them are, but there is a British watchmaking school in Manchester that takes about 10 people a year. We get involved with it through sponsorship. Most, however, are training to become a watch repairer for Rolex or a servicer for one of the other big brands. We need people to become actual watch-builders, so we’re opening up a workshop at a factory in Silverstone. We’re doing that purely to bring in different skill sets. The UK is an amazingly innovative manufacturing base for the Formula 1 industry. Those guys have incredible engineering expertise, which we think is transferable into watchmaking. We’re also currently working with the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which is partnered with Boeing. It’s an amazing set-up. So if you’re Boeing or Rolls-Royce and you’re designing a new jet engine, you go to the AMRC and say, ‘How do I build something in the most efficient way?’ They can tell you, ‘Well, if you use this set-up or this revolution rate on this machine, it will make it 20 per cent cheaper.’ Then Rolls-Royce will take that set-up and build it in Singapore or wherever. We have an AMRC post-grad joining us for the next four years.
CS: You’ve worked on watches with Jaguar and Boeing. Are partnerships and collaborations a particular focus for Bremont?
GE: With Boeing, it was an honour to work with the biggest aviation company in the world. It is a partner at AMRC and introduced us there, so it’s first and foremost a tech relationship. It’s the same with Jaguar - we were making clocks for the cars before we created the six E-type watches for the six Special GT lightweight E-types Jaguar made. The response from E-type owners and enthusiasts was so positive and widespread, we decided to find a way of incorporating the look into a pair of everyday watches, the MKI and MKII, which will debut at Baselworld. They are certainly very meaningful to us, not least because they mark the formalisation of Bremont’s partnership with Jaguar, which means we’ll be working closely with Ian and the design team on future projects in the long-term. There’s also a personal element in successful partnerships. We got on straightaway with Ian Callum, Jaguar’s director of design. It’s fun working with car designers like Ian because they have a very different view.
CS: The ability to leverage the technology, heritage, sales and ad channels of a brand like Jaguar is surely vital when you’re growing a small business?
GE: Absolutely. When you’re building a brand, one of the main considerations or questions you should ask is whether you can get your product out there without advertising, and often collaborations can help you do this. But more importantly, whomever you’re working with must enhance your brand in some way. It’s making sure you’re getting some technology. We don’t have the shackles of history, which sounds silly, but we could have gone and bought for example, John Harrison, a great British watch company, and said we’ve been trading for 300 years - but, in doing so, we would have been limited by heritage. As two English guys with no watchmaking heritage, we are able to go and do crazy things, or work with people we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. Harrison would have been turning in his grave if we had done that in his name! Because we’re British, there are all these British partners we can do this cool stuff with, and hopefully it gets our brand out in the world. It has worked in the sense that we’re now in the top 12 largest chronometer manufacturers internationally, and we’re growing quite quickly.
CS: Marketing-wise, you hit the jackpot with your Kingsman collaboration. How did that come about?
GE: It’s funny - we got a call from one of our guys saying Matthew Vaughn and Claudia Schiffer were in the store looking around. It turns out Matthew Vaughn was looking for a watch company that typified the very British aesthetic of the film. Shortly after, we got a call from him asking us if we would be interested in collaborating. Initially, we were flattered, but immediately said, ‘Look, we don’t have the millions it takes to be involved in these things.’ Amazingly, he said, ‘Don’t worry about that, just create something I like that we can work with’, so we rushed around like maniacs and created something very quickly that worked for him.
CS: The likes of TAG and Omega must have been spitting!
GE: Sure, because it’s big money to get your product in films. Nick worked quite closely with Matthew with the design. He had very clear views of what he wanted. These directors are geniuses - they have such a good eye. At any rate, Nick must have made an impression because he was offered a cameo role, which, of course, he took gleefully. Where the hell was my call-up?! But who knows the effect it will have. The film is very British in its looks and humour. As far as watches go, I think we do have a very different sense of style, compared to, say, the Swiss, and that is something we can play with.
CS: What strikes me about Bremont watches is their ability to straddle or find a balance between a classic dress watch and a high-performance, high-spec watch.
GE: Bremont’s ethos is exactly that. We’re not a sports watch, we’re not a dress watch, we occupy that space in-between. Also, we’re not making a million watches a year, we’ll make about 8,000 so we’re pretty exclusive and if we continue in that direction, these pieces will also be very good investments in the long term. We realised at the very beginning - when we were showing journalists our first collection, when no one had ever heard of us - that we had to make a watch for the right price point. We honestly expected them to laugh in our faces. But the fact is, the most hardened watch snob could pick up our watches and say, actually, this is extremely good value for the price. Some people may think it’s very expensive, but technically it isn’t when you consider the finish and everything else, and it’s being made in small numbers.
CS: Thinking about Bremont’s trajectory - and it wouldn’t be overly superlative to call it meteoric, given how slow things move in the watch industry - why do you think you have been able to make it work so well?
GE: There has to be a massive passion to get something done. I think that in many ways, my father’s death catalysed that passion, that drive, because when something tragic like that happens out of nowhere, you suddenly become acutely aware of your own mortality and your own limited time on this earth. So you work bloody hard because you don’t know what’s around the corner. Because Bremont is a relatively new brand, some people think we’re an overnight success. They don’t realise the amount of fucking hard work Nick and I have put in - and the stress! Running any business is the same. There’s always the element of chance involved, but you make your own luck by being out there and open to opportunities. Things happen, like Matthew Vaughn walking into our shop, but I’d like to think that if he hadn’t, someone else would have, and another door would have opened. That’s one reason why you build your own store. You can have an area in Selfridges where people who know your brand can make purchases, but they don’t get the DNA of what your brand is about. We’re lucky in that we haven’t had a bunch of VCs saying you need to grow this, you need to grow that. We’ve been able to evolve organically and with the knowledge that this is very much a long-term venture. We’re making decisions now that aren’t the most profitable, but are crucial to our longevity - the problem is, the payback is going to be in, say, 10 years’ time. It’s not going to be instant.
CS: You mentioned the store. Do you have any plans to expand the number of global stores?
GE: Yes, we’re going to be launching a new store in New York on 501 Madison really soon, our fourth store in total. All our others - two in London, one in Hong Kong - are all in quite offbeat locations, so the Madison one is the first that will be extremely visible. It’s a completely refurbished two-storey location, 900sq ft of retail space on the ground floor, with an additional 860sq ft on the first floor for a dedicated service centre with two full-time watchmakers. We’re putting a lot on the line, but we need to break America. It’s the biggest market and for them to understand what we are as a brand, we need to make these big calls. The UK is currently our biggest market, but we think the States will eventually become our biggest. If you look at the watch market, 60-70 per cent of our business is in London, and out of that, maybe 70 per cent comes from global travellers passing through. So, to make the business grow, you need to be known as a global brand that’s the same in New York and the same in Paris, Hong Kong, wherever. To really make it work, you can’t just be this little niche brand in Mayfair. It may work or it may not work in the long term, who knows? Building a global brand is a very hard and expensive thing to do. All we’re trying to do is make smart decisions with heart and soul.