It was really the two world wars that robbed Britain of its historically leading role in watchmaking as industrial production shifted wholesale to Switzerland. But a passionate bunch of entrepreneurs is determined to keep designing, assembling and manufacturing watches here as Tom Mulraney discovered in pursuit of homegrown horological talent.
It may be hard to believe today, but at one time in history the epicenter of mechanical watchmaking was not Switzerland. Or even Germany for that matter. Rather, it was Britain.
In 1800, the country was producing roughly half of the world’s watches; around 200,000 pieces a year. Innovative British watchmakers, such as Thomas Mudge – the inventor of the lever escapement, which is still the most widely used escapement in today’s watches – John Harrison, Thomas Earnshaw and many others all made significant contributions to the advancement of the field. Sadly though, a failure to adapt to changing times and manufacturing methods resulted in the ultimate demise of the industry.
The rich heritage of British watchmaking has not been forgotten, however. Rather, it has inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs to take up the mantle. Albeit in a somewhat different manner from their predecessors.
Although headquartered in the UK, a lack of homegrown talent and know-how means most are forced to largely rely on manufacturing partners abroad to bring their ideas to life. Still, there’s no question that British watch brands are slowly fighting their way back onto the global stage.
Here’s our list of the 10 British watch businesses you should know about.
Headquartered at Henley-on-Thames, South Oxfordshire, Bremont has become a staple on the British watch scene since its inception in 2002. As patriotic as they come, the company has never been shy about its lofty objective to reinvigorate the nation’s horological past.
As such, all the company’s watches are designed and assembled on British soil. Built around the themes of aviation and adventure, the models are rugged and reliable, yet also strikingly good-looking.
It’s little wonder this British brand has built a worldwide cult following.
If you’re looking for the toughest, throw anything you like at it including the kitchen sink and it just keeps running watch, then Elliot Brown is probably for you.
Designed in the UK, these award-winning watches are relied upon for ocean crossings, mountain rescues, and just about any kind of extreme or arduous adventure.
Even NATO has cleared an Elliot Brown watch – the ultra-tough Holton Professional – for combat. With its own NATO stock number, armed forces can be issued with one as part of their military kit alongside weapons and protective gear. Best of all, these military-grade watches are also available for general consumption.
Started by three friends who knew very little about the watch industry at the time, Christopher Ward has grown in leaps and bounds since its founding in 2004.
It’s now one of Britain’s best watch exports, with satisfied customers in over 100 countries.
CW cemented its position as a bona fide watch manufacturer in 2014, with the unveiling of its first ever in-house movement, Calibre SH21.
This coincided with the company merging with its Swiss movement supplier, Synergies Horlogères, to form Christopher Ward Holdings Limited.
Another notable member of the British-designed/Swiss-made contingent, Farer stands out for its bold use of colour and contrasting textures.
Created for the modern adventurer, the watches are robust and reliable, yet look good enough to wear to the office on a daily basis too.
Once a new design is perfected at Farer’s London studio, it’s sent off to the brand’s Swiss manufacturing partner, Roventa-Henex.
There it undergoes multiple rounds of prototyping before the finished product is finally ready to be launched to the market.
If you believe Garrick’s co-founder, Englishman David Brailsford, Garrick Watch Company is a labour of love.
As one of the few British watch companies trying to do everything on British soil – from design, to manufacturing, to assembly and finishing – Garrick is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is considered possible for a modern-day British watch brand.
The hard work and unwillingness to compromise is paying off, however. Garrick is increasingly gaining recognition (and patronage) from collectors around the world, who value the brand’s distinctly British character, high-level of hand-finishing and attention to detail.
Fears Watch Company
As one of Britain’s oldest family-run watch companies, Fears Watch Company has a better appreciation than most for the glory days of British watchmaking.
Established in 1846 by a young watchmaker named Edwin Fear, the company was run by successive generations of the same family until it closed in the 1970s.
Forty years later, Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, the original founder’s great-great-great-grandson, re-established the business in 2016. Offering a mixture of quartz and mechanical timepieces, the former are made in Switzerland, while the latter are hand built in Britain by expert watchmakers.
Larsson & Jennings
Looking at the name, you might not immediately guess that Larsson & Jennings is a British brand. That’s because there’s also a Swedish influence (Stockholm to be precise).
But it is most definitely a home-grown success story.
Started by Andrew Jennings in 2012, the company was a pioneer of social media marketing and influencer marketing strategies in the watch industry.
This, combined with an attractive, well-made product, helped Larrson & Jennings gain an early foothold in the market and, barring a recent wobble and restructuring, it’s all been on the up and up since then.
The watches are still designed in London, and the company works closely with its supply chain to deliver exceptional materials and features at an affordable price.
What do you get when you bring together a master watchmaker and antiquarian horologist? The husband and wife team that is Craig and Rebecca Struthers.
The duo rose to prominence thanks to their tailor-made and bespoke British timepieces powered by rescued antique watch movements created in England, America and Switzerland.
Each movement is painstakingly restored in-house before being elaborately finished, using a blend of fine craftsmanship and 21st-century technology.
When they’re not servicing and restoring vintage and important timepieces, the Struthers focus all their energy on their forthcoming (and much-anticipated) inaugural in-house movement – codenamed project 248.
As the only British member of the Dirty Dozen (an exclusive group of 12 watch suppliers to the MoD during World War II), Vertex’s British watch heritage is about as genuine as they come.
Established in London’s Hatton Gardens in 1916 by Claude Lyons, and working with Swiss suppliers, the company went on to produce watches for both military and civilian use for the next five decades.
Shuttered in the 1970s after falling on hard times, the brand has recently been revived by Lyons’ great-grandson, Don Cochrane.
Drawing on the company’s military past, Vertex has already successfully launched two collections, with more in the offing.
If you want to stand out from the crowd, Weird Ape might just be the brand for you. As its name suggests, these are not watches for mainstream conformists.
In fact, the company even goes so far as to proclaim on its website: “We’re for the dreamers. The odd-balls. The round pegs in the square holes.”
Lofty aspirations indeed but it’s a message that seems to resonate with Weird Ape’s legion of fans who can’t get enough of its distinctive, British designs paired with high quality materials and self-winding movements. All offered at very reasonable prices.