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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Bremont co-founder Nick English on bringing industrial watchmaking back to Britain

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Almost two decades into its life as a company, Bremont has fulfilled its dream of bringing industrial-scale watchmaking back to Britain. The journey has not been without its setbacks, but the future for the company has been transformed by the opening of its Manufacturing & Technology Centre. Rob Corder sat down with Bremont co-founder Nick English to discover how he feels about what has been achieved and where the business is heading now.

No two factory tours are exactly the same, but there are certain things you expect to see in a full-fledged watchmaking facility as oppose to an assembly operation bolting together parts that have been manufactured around the world.

First is a bunch of precision CNC machines, which can be programmed to make movement base plates, bridges, case parts, gears, cogs, etc. Secondly, there is an assembly space full of skilled watchmakers doing their painstaking work by hand. Thirdly, there is testing, quality control, polishing, etc, before packing and dispatch.

Unless you are at a fully integrated vertical manufacture like Patek Philippe, AP, Rolex or Omega, you are unlikely to see production of springs, crystals, screws or jewels and very few companies create their own dials or hands. Straps and bracelets are another specialist field that is often outsourced.

There are specialists in Switzerland, and lower priced producers in Asia for these elements, and even the most venerable watch brands [secretly] use them. This is one of the great advantages Swiss watchmakers have because there is an entire ecosystem of suppliers making everything to extremely tight tolerances.

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Bremont co-founders Nick and Giles English celebrate opening The Wing in 2021.

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Bremont’s Manufacturing & Technology Centre, also known as The Wing, looks just like a company making its own movements and cases. Which is not surprising, because that is precisely what the facility was designed and built to do, and on a recent visit, the production line was humming along with mechanical and human precision.

The first of its in house movements, the ENG300, were made in the summer of last year and were used in Limited Edition Longitude watches that launched in October.

Bremont has been completely transparent about the fact that its ENG300 movement is based on the decade-old K1 calibre from Swiss firm THE+. That company has licensed the right to manufacture and modify its base calibre to the British firm.

Bremont says it has taken that modular calibre and re-engineered 80% of it in order to build a proprietary movement to the brand’s unique specification. One look at this movement and you can see Bremont has created something new and truly beautiful.

It is a significant achievement made possible by Bremont’s team and financial backers making bold investments in new machinery, staff and training.

As part of the deal with THE+, there has been a transfer to Bremont of expertise, logic and intellectual property along with all relevant design rights, especially in relation to parts-machining and finishing, tool design and fixtures, and the movement assembly line.

ENG300 is the headline name for what will be a series of movements with different complications. Its first commercial iteration is the 22 jewelled ENG376, measuring a compact 4.95mm by 25.6mm.

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Bremont’s first iteration of the ENG300 family of movements is used in the Longitude limited edition collection launched in 2021.

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The automatic movement has a 65-hour power reserve, a silicon escapement, a custom balance bridge — designed to pick up the curves of The Wing building — and a tungsten oscillating weight.

So confident is Bremont in the movement’s reliability and efficiency, that watches using it will be sold with a 5-year warranty, a first for the business, and they are accurate to COSC certification standards.

These are the nuts and bolts of what Bremont has achieved by opening The Wing and launching its own movement, but the dry facts and figures should not conceal a much more human story: the culmination of a dream held by Bremont co-founders Nick and Giles English, which have yearned and strived towards to bring industrial scale watch manufacturing back to the UK for most of their adult lives.

Six months after the official opening of The Wing, WATCHPRO took a tour of the facility and sat down with Nick English for an update on what it can achieve.

WATCHPRO: You and I have been speaking for the best part of a decade about your dream to bring industrial scale watchmaking back to the UK, and I have questioned you and Giles many times about whether you could ever get there given the huge investment required and the lack of other ancillary manufacturers in this country that could share the burden along the way. How does it feel to have proved me wrong and essentially made your dream a reality?

NICK ENGLISH: I don’t think Giles or I will ever feel we are there. There is always so much more to do. But we did write a mission statement 20 years ago that stated our aim to play a part in reinvigorating watchmaking in this country. That might have been a small part or a big part.

There is more we can and will do for watchmaking in this country as a whole, but one thing I know for certain is that there are people in this building that would never have made a career in the watchmaking industry and there are processes going on in this building that have not happened in this country for a long time.

Making movement parts in volume is not something that has happened in this country for decades. There are some brilliant watchmakers in this country doing wonderful things, but the ability to produce parts consistently and at scale has not existed here.

WATCHPRO: You always said you wanted to be a catalyst for other companies to invest in manufacturing but, outside of Bremont, very little else has happened in the UK for 20 years. In the end you appear to have been forced to do it all yourself.

NICK ENGLISH: The Swiss are very supportive of each other. Certain companies supply balance wheels, mainsprings or whatever to other manufacturers. That is how it works. We would love to see that in this country. Giles and I have always had the approach that we have to walk the walk not just talk the talk.

Whether we are talking about training watchmakers or manufacturing components, the investment needs to be in this country otherwise nothing changes and all you can be is a brand that is outsourcing everything from abroad. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, it is just not what we want.

WATCHPRO: Did you sense, as you got closer to opening your facility, that the catalyst effect could be happening? The Alliance of British Watch and Clockmakers, an organisation I note you are not part of, has reported there are hundreds of watch-related businesses in this country, but they are mostly design and marketing companies and it still feels Bremont is ploughing a pretty lonely furrow when it comes to manufacturing.

NICK ENGLISH: Probably. What it boils down to is that you have to practice what you preach. The Alliance has come wonderful people in that organisation making fantastic clocks or whatever, but there is still a massive gap where British watchmaking could be taking place.

Look at the British School of Watchmaking. We are the only British business contributing to that. Who else is investing in training up watchmakers? I still hope it will come in time

WATCHPRO: I have never had a problem with British businesses making watches in Switzerland. That is a legitimate business model. Successful companies like Christopher Ward chose its path, which is to own manufacturing in Switzerland, and you chose your path, which is to do as much in house in this country.

NICK ENGLISH: Yup. Two very different things. What makes a British watch? Does Arnold & Son make British watches? It makes beautiful watches, but they are not British, they are made in Switzerland. Owners might be British and the company may be based in Britain, but that does not make them British watchmakers.

Ultimately Giles and I wanted to go our way. We had this passion from our father about Britain’s incredible manufacturing and exporting history. Successful countries manufacture and export. That is what we are interested in and what the government is interested in.

WATCHPRO: How much is being manufactured and assembled in this facility in this first year, and how will that develop over the coming five years?

NICK ENGLISH: Most of our cases are made here. We don’t do gold. They are made in Italy. We have the machining to do it but we don’t make enough gold watches to warrant the set up time. That may change in the future.

We are exceedingly good at making cases; among the best in the world. We own all of the intellectual property, all of the CAD designs that are programmed into our CNC machines.

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Bremont has the most advanced manufacturing equipment of any watchmaker in the UK.

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The biggest change over this last year has been the launch of our own movement. We have wanted to do that for years and have been working with some incredible movement designers like Steven McDonnell. Between the work that Stephen has done and the movement company THE, we have developed the understanding and the ability to create the subline movement [ENG300] that we launched in in 2021.

WATCHPRO: Tell me about the journey over the past few years to get to the movement you launched in November. Is it the movement you were always working towards, because owning the intellectual property to make a movement designed by THE+ is not quite what I was expecting when talk over the years was about a completely new movement designed by Bremont?

NICK ENGLISH: We have three base movements that we completely own here at Bremont, and there are lots of iterations of each that add up to around 30 movements because they are designed in a very clever modular way.

Some are more complex than others. The first designer we worked with was Stephen McDonnell, because we love the work he has done with the likes of MB&F and Christophe Claret. His perpetual for MB&F is a masterpiece.

We designed a movement with him that is very special. It has some patentable technology in it, which is really hard to get in this day and age. We ended up with a very special movement, but it is also very complex. We decided not to use that design for our first in house movement watches because it would have made them prohibitively expensive.

We took a turn midway through the process and decided that we needed a movement that would be suitable for all of our core range rather than just in very expensive limited editions. That required a different approach. It needs to be designed so that it can be manufactured at scale and can be serviced like a normal watch.

We were chatting to various people in the industry about how we could tweak the Stephen McDonnell designed movement to make it more suitable to a core collection watch with industrial production runs at a sensible price.

Among the people we spoke to were the incredible engineers at THE. They have this incredible movement that has seen very little light of day in a commercial sense and we have modified 85% of it to make it unique to us.

WATCHPRO: What do you mean when you talk about modifying 85% of the THE+ movement?

NICK ENGLISH: Everything including functionality. For example, the way the movement regulates the escapement is very different to the existing THE design. The balance bridge has been reworked to be stronger because we want far more robust watches. There are a lot of changes that add up.

WATCHPRO: I am not the most educated in this type of thing, but if I was examining the original THE+ movement and the one you are making here at Bremont, are the differences obvious?

NICK ENGLISH: Yes, it is very different. You can see that immediately. But it was always a great movement. It has been developed in the past 10 years, not back in the 1970s. A lot has been learned about industrialising watchmaking and movements in those 50 years.

WATCHPRO: How flexible is the ENG300 in terms of adding different modules?

NICK ENGLISH: Not modular in that way, but because we designed it, we can move things around to have offset seconds, centre seconds, power reserve, big date, no date; that sort of stuff. There are around 18 variations. I would describe it as versatile rather than modular.

WATCHPRO: What does your roadmap look like in terms of ramping up production of the movement and its variations?

NICK ENGLISH: In 2022 we hope to make 4,000 to 5,000. It will be going into core watch lines, which will be sensibly priced. The prices will not be materially different [to similar existing Bremont watches].

WATCHPRO: I suppose we might hope watches made in those quantities could be less expensive if you are getting economies of scale and not paying a margin to an outside supplier.

NICK ENGLISH: We are not making hundreds of thousands of units, so you won’t get the sort of economies that a Sellita has. But, because we are not buying movements that have margins added, we can make watches with a hell of a lot more value for a similar price.

WATCHPRO: I believe I’m right in thinking you make around 10,000 watches per year. How many could you make?

NICK ENGLISH: It is roughly 10,000, and we could easily scale that up to 50 to 100,000 watches here.

WATCHPRO: That is a remarkable statement. Very few watchmakers are making that sort of quantity to the standard you have set yourself here at Bremont.

NICK ENGLISH: You need to have big ambitions, and what is nice is that really serious watch people, big collectors, say that they can feel the quality of a Bremont when they put it on. We are being compared to some really illustrious brands so I do not see any reason why we can’t get there. It might take another 50 years, but we have started that journey.

WATCHPRO: I always thought that catching up with a Zenith (estimated production of 14,000 watches in 2021) would be a significant milestone, but maybe I should be looking further up the league table at a Breitling (190,000 units).

NICK ENGLISH: Or an IWC. If you look at IWC, 15 years ago they were making 50,000 watches per year and have jumped up to a few hundred thousand in a short space of time [Morgan Stanley estimated 160,000 units in 2021]. That does need a big group behind you and the marketing budgets that they bring.

WATCHPRO: I interviewed Giles around the time we were coming out of the first lock down last year. Past the point at which there was genuine fear the world was going to end, but still very much in the first wave of the pandemic. He spoke then about the pandemic being an existential threat to the business. Thankfully, things have not been as bad as that worst case scenario, and the luxury watch industry has bounced back at incredible speed.

NICK ENGLISH: It turned out people did need luxury watches because life suddenly became precious and shorter for a lot of people. They wondered what they were waiting for before buying a lovely watch for their partner or child. People’s perspectives changed.

It certainly was a scary time. We do sell online, and we are good at it, but we are really committed to physical stores, either our own or working with partners. We want to be seen on the high street and that was being decimated.

But it has come back. We used the time wisely, and there have been opportunities. We have been able to open a number of stores recently because there have been deals that could be done.

Bremont turnover

WATCHPRO: Your most recently published accounts were up to June 2020 and showed turnover dropping from £19.1 million to £14.3 million. How would you describe trading in the following financial year to the summer of 2021 as conditions improved?

NICK ENGLISH: The budget for the current year is higher than £20 million. But there are also challenges. We have 25 doors in the Caribbean, which is still quiet. Hong Kong is a challenge. Look at Melbourne, we have our own boutique there and it has been under lock down for more days in the pandemic than any other city in the world.

We are not online-only. We have these physical stores, which means we face a lot of external variables, and that is likely to continue for a couple more years. We do our best, and we are growing, but it remains to be seen whether we grow at the speed we want to.

We have very big goals as a business. You do not invest in the sort of infrastructure we have here without ambition. But we are trying to grow in an organic way. If you push a brand at the wrong speed when you are a manufacturer, a retailer, a marketing company — all these things at once — you have to grow at the right speed and not push it.

WATCHPRO: How much has the opening of The Wing directly improved sales?

NICK ENGLISH: Massively. This is our biggest store already. People love seeing where their watches are made. We also encourage our retailers to bring customers here, and the money from any sales goes to that retailer. There is a huge appetite for that.

We hold masterclasses here for people that want to see how movements and watches are put together. People love that. You would think it would be older people excited about that sort of thing, but there is a whole new generation getting into mechanical watches and appreciating how it all works.

WATCHPRO: You have said that this facility has cost around £20 million, which of course will be amortised over a long period, but it must be important now to be profitable so that you can repay the faith that your investors have put in you.

NICK ENGLISH: This is possibly the last year [of losses]. We will not be profitable in this financial year because we are investing so much. The most important thing for us and our investors is to choose the right opportunities.

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WATCHPRO: Few would criticise reinvesting profits into capital or other growth opportunities as long as the underlying business is operationally profitable.

NICK ENGLISH: Of course, and all of our shareholders prefer to see profits invested into machinery than into dividends.

WATCHPRO: There are two officers listed on the Companies House website with significant control — more than 25% of shares but less than 50% — those are your managing director Steve Clark and Hellcat Acquisitions. Is Hellcat ostensibly a private equity firm?

NICK ENGLISH: No, Hellcat is a lovely group of investors; one incredibly successful American guy in particular, who rang us up a number of years ago and said that if we were ever looking for investment, he would be very interested.

We didn’t get back to him for a while, but eventually we did and he has been massively supportive. Evan Guillemin is the man behind that investment and we are almost a dinner party story for him. He is certainly not a venture capitalist or private equity fund. It is much more personal and a hugely long term partnership.

WATCHPRO: I’ve never met a multi-millionaire yet who isn’t interested in making money. Is there no exit strategy for those investors?

NICK ENGLISH: Of course they want to see Bremont grow. They want to be part of something special in the decades to come. Luckily, the sums involved make us pretty immaterial for most of these people, which is great.

A lot of them are really passionate watch guys who are happy to go along with the journey. They know there are much quicker and easier ways to make money than building a watch company.

WATCHPRO: I have always admired your dogged determination to stick to the long term mission of making watches in the UK. That has not always been the easiest route, and certainly hasn’t been the most profitable.

NICK ENGLISH: We think it is important, particularly for a younger generation, to buy into something authentic. There are some massive watch brands out there that outsource design, production, assembly; everything. What do they do? They are just a brand. We did not want to go that way.

It is impossible to differentiate yourself if you are using the same movement as everybody else and you are not building anything yourself. It is really hard to build a brand that way, especially if you want to be around in many years to come.

WATCHPRO: At the same time as completing this facility, you have also pushed heavily into rolling out Bremont boutiques, not only directly owned by the company, but also in partnership with retailers. It amuses me that your style of boutique — the aviation and automotive themed club vibe that Breitling appears to have copied from you — has been around for years.

NICK ENGLISH: [Laughs] make sure you leave that Breitling comment in. I will say that our association with aviation is completely authentic. Hopefully people see that. This is us. This is our livelihood.

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Bremont is expanding its monobrand store network by opening its own locations and working with partners like Signet Jewelers in the UK.

WATCHPRO: Run me through the expansion of retail recently.

NICK ENGLISH: We still believe that selling direct to consumer on the high street is important, but also selling through retail [partners] is equally important. They work hand in hand. What is lovely about a high street boutique is that it is a billboard. It is a place where you can meet clients. You can enthuse and immerse clients in the story.

We have set up some of our own boutiques. In the last couple of years we have done Melbourne and Los Angeles is coming up. Manchester is opening.

In addition, there is a great new managing director at Signet Jewelers in the UK, Neil Old, who is awesome. We get on with him very well. He is a bit of a visionary, coming from a different industry [he joined Signet in 2019, having formerly been CEO of specialist camera retailer Jessops]. We sat down and discussed opening standalone Bremont boutiques together, which is an idea we loved.

WATCHPRO: Signet approached you with the idea?

NICK ENGLISH: I can’t actually remember whose idea it was to open boutiques together. We’d already had a close long term relationship. Our head of sales Rob Gough and Neil Old were instrumental in making that relationship a success.

Signet is expert at retail. We are good at retail, but it is hard to be as focused as a specialist like Signet when we are also a manufacturer. For them to say they want to open three Bremont boutiques in Bluewater (Kent), Bullring (Birmingham) and Cribbs Causeway (Bristol) is fantastic, and it has all happened really quickly. It has been great for us to have the opportunity to learn from them, and we are delighted they are helping us to expand on the high street at the speed we want.

WATCHPRO: Will these boutiques be Ernest Jones stores with Bremont adjacent to them?

NICK ENGLISH: No, they are standalone boutiques. You would not know they are run by Signet. Watches of Switzerland has been another great partner. Brian [Duffy] and the team have been very supportive to us. They really believe in what we are doing, and to have been given the opportunity to create shop in shops with them, when they have so many behemoth brands, is a show of support to us.

WATCHPRO: Might we see Watches of Switzerland open Bremont boutiques?

NICK ENGLISH: Nothing I can give you on that at the moment. I can neither confirm nor deny. I am sure at some point we will do something with them.

WATCHPRO: And what about Signet in America where they have more stores than any other group? Could you open boutiques with them?

NICK ENGLISH: We are already in a number of their stores. If the boutiques go well here, there has to be a possibility we could open with them there as well. It is very early days, but we are very excited.

WATCHPRO: Signet is far more concentrated on jewellery than watches in the US, but it would be nice to see a plan beginning in the UK and being rolled out in the States. Watches of Switzerland has shown how effective a British retailer can be.

NICK ENGLISH: I personally think British retailers are the best in the world. Hopefully, when travel opens up again, we will spend a lot more time in the States looking at these opportunities. Giles has already been back over for the launch of Longitude and there is a lot of love for the brand.

WATCHPRO: How will the company look in five years’ time when you will hopefully be making 30,000 watches? Will you and Giles still be the faces of the brand and crucial in telling the story?

NICK ENGLISH: It is already becoming less about that. Obviously, with any founder-led brand, it is important to be part of the story but as we grow, we have Chis Reynolds, our MD, we have our sales director Rob Gough. The brand becomes a lot more than the founders over time.

Giles and I still do all the design, and I think that is something we will find very hard to relinquish. I don’t think we could design by committee.

WATCHPRO: Do you find it tougher in the States? I have spoken to retailers and distributors who say that they struggle with German brands, even incredibly strong players. I’ve been told they wish it did not say Made in Germany on the watch face. Do you ever get that with London or England on the dial when customers want it to say Swiss Made?

NICK ENGLISH: America has an affinity with the Brits, be that Burberry, Rolls Royce or Land Rover. The Swiss have done an incredible marketing job in the past 50 years, but things are starting to change. You only have to see the success of Japanese brands like Seiko and Grand Seiko to appreciate that.

German brands are also doing much better now. People are becoming more receptive to exploring brands, and authenticity like we deliver with Bremont is more and more appreciated.

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. “Does Arnold & Son make British watches? It makes beautiful watches, but they are not British, they are made in Switzerland. Owners might be British and the company may be based in Britain, but that does not make them British watchmakers.”

    I have to again question this company’s understanding of the industry in which they are a part of, and claim to have been striving to re-ignite various aspects within the UK.
    It was displayed some years ago, after the infamous meltdown when CW upstaged their reveal of the Wright Flyer tribute watches by announcing their own movement, a day earlier.
    Funny how that brand name was referenced… the Wright Flyer movement is an A&S one, with minimal differences.
    To that end, Nick knows fine rightly that A&S is designed, manufactured, and located in Switzerland, being that it is owned by Prothor Holding SA, which itself is owned by Citizen Holdings, Japan. So there’s no might be British anything.

    • They’re named after a British watchmaker, which is probably why they’re mentioned. I don’t think he’s saying that Arnold is based in Britain, he’s saying that any company might be based there, it’s not what makes them a British watch manufacturer.

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