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The New Beach Boys: Elliot Brown interview

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Ian Elliot and Alex Brown are a breath of fresh air. While their young Poole-based watch brand may not have a long heritage to rival those of the Swiss giants, what it does have is a compelling story where the protagonists are two thoroughly likeable chaps with extensive and varied experience, a willingness to take a few risks, a shared vision, commitment to producing watches tested to within an inch of their lives, and a desire to escape the endless meetings of a corporate environment.

Last September, after years of coming together to bemoan the shortcomings of other companies, Elliot and Brown put their money and their hearts where their mouths are and set out to right the wrongs they had come across so often during their years of experience, with the ultimate aim of making a watch for every occasion.

Central to the coming together of horologist Brown and entrepreneur Elliot is the action sports lifestyle brand Animal, which Elliot founded back in 1988. However, the story begins further back than that with their two younger selves, whose interests at the time would go on to shape their futures.

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“I was a typical ‘take it to pieces’ type of a child,” says Brown. “If I could reach it and take it to pieces then I would. My dad’s electric razor, engines, you name it. Just your typical garage tinkerer.”

Watchmaking was a natural path to take. “I literally did the whole Dick Whittington thing,” reflects Brown. “I woke up one day and just thought, I’m going to be a watchmaker and went down from Cumbria to London.”

Clerkenwell called in Brown’s early 20s and he was soon learning his trade on the job and on day release at Hackney College. “I started at one end of Clerkenwell Road and knocked on everybody’s door until someone gave me a job,” he recalls. From Clerkenwell, Brown turned down a job with Cartier, instead moving to coastal Dorset to look after Animal watches in house, signalling the beginning of his relationship with Elliot.

FORGING OF A FRIENDSHIP
For Elliot, childhood pleasures were also a sign of things to come. “I got hooked on adrenalin from about four,” he says. “I remember at that age being off school with the measles. I nicked my sister’s bike and pointed it downhill at the back of the house on a steep hill. I hit a log and landed in the heather and wild garlic beyond. I did this repeatedly until the bike broke.”

Creating a skateboard from his sister’s roller skates; setting up a skateboarding club and making snowboards at school followed. Without much of a flair for academia and after dropping out of mechanical engineering studies, Elliot went on to set up his own business, selling t-shirts and sweatshirts with sprayed-on images. It was during this time that he lost a number of timepieces while surfing and the idea for Animal was born.

The loss of the watches resulted in Elliot sitting down at a sewing machine and inventing a velcro watch strap. Animal grew from that early product. However, the company didn’t venture into complete watches until 1994. “Watches gave the brand a lot more credibility because they are engineered tools that tell the time through tough conditions,” he says. The stainless steel watches were made to withstand the rigours of sand, salt water, mud and snow.

Elliot reluctantly sold Animal in 1999 after an ill-fated attempt to launch the brand in America – against Elliot’s instincts – led to the bank demanding huge sums of money back, forcing Elliot to sell. “It was like losing a child,” he says. “Every ounce of passion in my body went into that brand. That brand was me. It probably took me two years to get over it.”

However, Elliot did move on and among his projects was a GT racing car business, the building of his house and, 11 years ago, the launch of marketing and design business Salad, which is still operating successfully today and has played an integral part in the launch of Elliot Brown. “Marketing and design were always the things I was most fond of,” says Elliot.

Meanwhile, Brown remained at Animal after Elliot sold but became increasingly disillusioned with life at the company, finding that the corporate environment did not suit him. “It was meeting upon meeting and never seeming to get anywhere,” he says.

After Elliot had parted ways with Animal, he and Brown stayed in touch meeting regularly and finding themselves “getting on our soap boxes”. The pair would talk for hours about watches and the downfalls of the ways in which other people approach business.
A couple of years ago that talk started to take on a very real watch-brand shape.

Brown explains: “Elliot Brown generally started from a blank sheet of paper and making some decisions about what we would do differently. We asked, if we were going to do it all again using all the experience we had picked up along the way, in an environment where we could trust our instincts and do what we believe in, what that would be like.”

Years of contemplation and dreaming has resulted in a brand that has already had the industry sitting up and taking note since it officially launched in March and, as this issue goes to press, the first orders are now arriving with its retail stockists, which include both outdoor activity retailers and jewellers. The proposition is one with appeal. Brown summarises: “If you had to put our concept into one sentence, it would be to create the last watch you’ll ever need to buy.”

THE RIGHT WAY
The inspiration behind the stainless steel, Swiss component, quartz timepieces, is a watch for every occasion. The pieces are designed to be smart and tough enough to comfortably make the transition from the office to weekend pursuits, and more extreme activities that are in line with the duo’s own appetite for outdoor pleasures, such as surfing, mountain biking or snowboarding. Having both worked with Animal watches, which were made to endure the most extreme environments, the pair are well versed in creating robust timepieces, with the style stemming from from their own preferences. “We make watches that we are proud of, that we would like to wear,” says Elliot.

In terms of design, Elliot and Brown both contribute and work with a designer called Andy Russell, who has worked with Elliot at Salad but who had no previous experience of watch design and, with that, no preconceptions. Brown and Elliot are full of praise for Russell’s watch design and his work on the identity of the brand.

His work is complemented by Brown’s watchmaking skills, helping bring the designs to life.The assembly and manufacture of the watches takes place in a factory in China. “Our relationship with the factory has enabled this to happen,” says Elliot. “They have bent over backwards to make this work,” he explains, stating that the factory willingly accommodated their relatively low start up quantities.

The testing regime has also been rigorous and something that the Chinese factory has played its role in. “We give the watches an absolute beating before anyone gets hold of them,” says Elliot.

The thorough testing process is extensive and includes every component being individually checked for cosmetic defects at the factory and then examined for specification and functionality. Not only are the crystals, pushers and straps painstakingly tested but every bare watch case is pressure-tested in air to 75% of the stated 150m water-resistance. They are tested using air-pressure, not water, because it’s non-destructive and faster than water testing.
After being fully assembled, the watches are pressure tested again to 150m in air to make sure they can withstand full wet pressure-testing. Every watch is then wet pressure-tested in a 30cm-deep pressure vessel of water at 200m for 10 minutes, and then placed on a hot plate at 40-45°C for 15 minutes. A drop of water between 18 and 25°C is placed on the glass, and after a minute, the watches are wiped dry and checked for condensation under the crystal.

Additionally, a percentage of every batch is tested for shock-resistance by striking them twice with a 3kg pendulum hammer – once on the left-hand side of the case and once on the crystal. A random selection from every batch is also dropped four times in succession from a metre on to a hardwood surface.

On top of that, the assembled watches are put through a “burn-test” for 24 hours to test for timekeeping issues. The watches are then fitted with their straps, undergo one final cosmetic inspection, and are then boxed and packed.

The tests guarantee that the watches are as tough as the brand promises and, in the unlikely event that a watch comes back, Elliot says it will be turned around in less than a week. “We’re not a Swiss brand that takes six months to repair something,” he says.

For the duo, the products are about longevity. “In our hearts we are anti fashion,” says Elliot. “We want to produce stuff that lasts – to make the best watches we can possibly make.”

He adds: “They’re affordable too. We’ve had retailers tell us we are too cheap and should be at £1,000 plus but we’re comfortable with that. We’ve not designed them to a price, we’ve designed them to our standard and that still allows us to sell an amazing watch for £300.”

Elements that the pair were insistent should feature include an “idiot-proof” triple sealed push-in crown; case backs bolted down and not threaded to best ensure the precise orientation of the shock-absorbing movement housing inside the case; and a modular and interchangeable set up, so that the wearer can, for instance, opt for a different strap and make any changes themselves. Strap length adjustments can also be made by the wearer. “It’s about making things as simple and as uncomplicated for the customer as possible,” says Brown.

Elliot and Brown have brought their brand to market in a relatively short space of time, with late nights and missed family time offset by infectious enthusiasm. It’s paying off though and when the brand debuted its watches at the inaugural London Watch Show in July, Brown and Elliot were delighted with the response from both the visiting retailers and their peers. “Actually it was quite humbling to see how well our stuff stood up against everything else there,” reflects Elliot. “We made a lot of friends in the industry and many other exhibitors ordered watches with us.”

In an increasingly busy marketplace, where the story and personalities behind the brand are prime selling tools, it’s little wonder that Elliot Brown is an early hit. Driven by the same goals and values, branding and marketing specialist Elliot and horologist Brown took a leap of faith and have invested tireless enthusiasm and passion into creating Elliot Brown. The stylish watches with rugged flair easily make the transition from the office to outdoor pursuits, just as Elliot Brown will no doubt progress seamlessly from an up-and-coming brand to an industry star.

This article first appeared in the October issue of WatchPro. You can read the digital version here
 

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