Terroir of Time: Great Britain
The Terroir of Time

Terroir of Time: Great Britain

The island nation that once ruled the seas and watchmaking is ready for a comeback.

By Rhonda Riche

Previously in our Terroir of Time series, we have talked about watchmaking in German valleys and Swiss mountain regions, but we’ve never done a deep dive on a whole country – until now.

While Great Britain is composed of multiple nations, including England, Scotland and Wales, the history of watchmaking there transcends borders. What draws the regions together is that they all call an island in the North Atlantic home.

We have several theories on how island life makes British watchmaking so unique. Let’s get into it!

Britannia Rules the Waves

Until the advent of flight and the creation of the Channel Tunnel, the only way to reach the British Isles was by sea. Which made nautical navigation of utmost importance for both maritime trade and naval power.

It was Sir Isaac Newton who first proposed that “a watch to keep time exactly” was essential to align navigational charts to different time zones, but he also noted that a pendulum clock that could keep time at sea “hath not yet been made.”

In 1714, Britain passed the Longitude Act, which provided for “a Publick Reward for such Person or Persons as shall Discover the Longitude at Sea.” The prize money made available, £20,000, was enormous – the equivalent of the annual wages of 600 craftsmen.

Spurred on by the prize money, British clockmaker John Harrison created five groundbreaking marine timekeepers, now referred to as H1 through H5. But other legendary clockmakers such as Thomas Earnshaw, Thomas Mudge and John Arnold & Son played their part.

Arnold & Son’s legacy lives on in the now Swiss-based, Japanese-owned maison. One of Earnshaw’s innovations was to introduce assembly line production methods that became the standard for all marine chronometers.

Even Rolex has British roots. The brand began when Bavarian-born Hans Wilsdorf set up shop with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis at 83 Hatton Garden in London’s jewelry quarter. According to Wilsdorf, the name of the brand was made in Great Britain. He said: “One morning, while riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus along Cheapside in the City of London, a genie whispered ‘Rolex’ in my ear.”

And Rolex’s long-term relationship with Britain’s Ministry of Defence led to the development of such legendary timepieces as the MilSubs.

Setting Sun

All of this empire building came with a price. A combination of geopolitical conflicts and a laissez-faire approach to the economy left British industry in the dust. The Swiss and Japanese quickly caught up and surpassed British watchmakers. The last Timex factory in Dundee, Scotland, for example, shuttered in 1993.

Sure, Britain was a global power, but as an island its isolation meant that its inhabitants learned to be ingenious as well. My Scottish grandfather, for instance, was a mechanic who could machine hard-to-find replacement parts for European cars. So, it’s not surprising that one of the 20th century’s greatest watchmakers, George Daniels, hailed from Britain.

While the rest of the world was dealing with the quartz crisis with cost cutting, Daniels built complete watches by hand (including the case and dial). At the same time, he created the coaxial escapement, which theoretically removed the need to add lubricant.

Most famously, this movement has been used by Omega in most of their collections since 1999 except for the Speedmaster Moonwatch (until the release of the Speedmaster Moonwatch Caliber 3861 in 2021).

Today, Daniel’s creations are amongst the most desired luxury timepieces in the world.

Made in Great Britain

Daniels’ mantel has been taken up by his former apprentice Roger Smith. An independent watchmaker, Smith, like Daniels, now works out of the Isle of Man, an island of green glens, purple mountains, and rugged shores located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland.

Born in Bolton in the north of England in 1970, Smith enrolled in a course at the nearby Manchester School of Horology at the age of 16. If you want to get an idea of the mood of that city during Smith’s formative years, just listen to the music of The Fall, The Smiths, or New Order.

While his cohort would have been getting caught up in the Madchester scene, Smith immersed himself in watchmaking. Inspired by guest lecturer George Daniels, he started making his first pocket watch in his spare time. In 1990, Smith took the watch to Daniels at his Isle of Man workshop, and Daniels told him to go back and start again because it looked “handmade,” not “created.”

Smith went back to his bench until he mastered all 32 skills required to design and make a watch according to "The Daniels Method,” where every component of each timepiece is made from raw materials without the use of repetitive or automatic tools. Smith returned five years later with a second pocket watch, of which his mentor approved. This second watch was auctioned in June this year by Phillips in New York and sold for $4.9 million.

Smith established his own company, Roger W. Smith, in 2001, which produces watches that are just as timeless as any bespoke suit from Savile Row. Smith’s process is just as exacting – it can take weeks just to engine-turn the dial of a Series 2 wristwatch. As a result, the maison only makes about ten pieces a year. The watches also feature traditional English details, such as a raised barrel bridge and a balance cock engraved with a floral design.

Air Time

To our knowledge, currently only a handful of British manufacturers are able to make their movements entirely in-house, including Roger W. Smith, Robert Loomes, and the Great British Watch Company.

Bremont, too, has made huge strides in its quest to achieve that goal. Geographically, Bremont’s headquarters (a.k.a. The Wing) in Henley-on-Thames feels very different than Smith’s workshop. Henley is an almost pastoral town in the south-east of England. The kind of place you might picture as the setting of one of those murder-in-the-hedgerow TV series.

The brand was founded by two brothers, Giles and Nick Bremont in 2002. The Wing, which opened in 2022, looks like it’s been sculpted into the countryside. If you’re a horological tourist, you should book an appointment to tour this unique edifice.

Watchonista Visited the Wing

Last summer, Giles took us on a tour of the state-of-the-art manufacture. He walked us through a timeline of British horology that put the nation’s contribution to the world of watchmaking into context. Specifically, where timepieces intersect with pursuits like aviation, auto racing, and engineering.

While Bremont is most closely associated with flight (the cockpit of a British Airways jet sits in a field across from The Wing), the brand is also a sponsor of the legendary British Formula 1 team Williams Racing, so of course there’s a car in the lobby.

It is one of Bremont’s latest dive watches, the Supermarine S302, that best encapsulates the brand’s Britishness. This mechanical timepiece with GMT function is perfect for international bankers, merchants, and seafarers. The green and blue bezel represent green mountains and pleasant pastures. The rugged brown vintage-inspired leather strap suggests riding boots.

Cool Britannia

Because it’s an island, Great Britain can be insulated from the outside world and act as a global power despite its small size. This dichotomy has resulted in it having an outsized influence in the world of design.

Many great British watch brands may outsource their movements, but still produce visually appealing timepieces. Here’s a quick rundown of our favorites.

Glaswegian brand anOrdain, named after a small loch near Inverness, has built its success around its handmade enameled dials.

One of England’s oldest watchmakers, Fears, was first established in Bristol in 1846. Today, the company is owned and run by the founding family in the same city and assembles its classically beautiful offerings in Britain using outsourced parts.

England is also the home of many iconoclastic artists (Damien Hirst, Banksy) and humorists (Monty Python, the Mighty Boosh). London-based Mr Jones makes irreverent, artist-designed timepieces that share that eccentric vibe.

Launched in 2021, Studio Underd0g has made a big splash with its distinctive dials, most recently the luminous, layered face of the Pink Lem0nade.

And finally, on its website, Christopher Ward says: “England is the nation that gave the world the Aston Martin and the Sex Pistols. The design of our watches reflects both sides of our nature.” Two of its most recent introductions, the C1 Moonphase and aventurine dialed C63 Celest, as well as the C1 Bel Canto unveiled last year, have certainly proved that the brand can deliver a premium timepiece.

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