History of British Watch Making
Explore the history of British Watch Making
A brief history of British Watch Making
It is not completely unexpected to find that the world sets its time by Greenwich and not by Geneva. Whilst Geneva and Switzerland may be producing the vast majority of luxury wrist-watches today, this certainly wasn’t always the case. In 1800 half of the world's watches, around 200,000 pieces a year, were produced on British shores by British watch makers, which is an incredible statistic. Another wonderful statistic is that probably over 60-70% of the innovation in a modern day mechanical watch has come from Britain, including every major escapement design.
The years from 1650 to 1750 saw incredible advances in horology in Britain, but these years were also a great time for scientific and geographical discovery across the rest of Europe and further afield. British clock making was at the centre of many technical advancements and in particular those relating to navigation across the world's oceans. When Captain James Cook was the first European to discover the east coast of Australia, Hawaii and circumnavigate New Zealand, he used a British chronometer to help him navigate. It was the Yorkshire born clock-maker (and carpenter!), John Harrison who in 1759, solved the conundrum that had eluded sea captains at sea for hundreds of years – how to determine longitude at sea. Whilst doing this he came up with a multitude of horological innovations - many of which are still used today. His greatest contribution to the world of horology was the marine chronometer that eventually earned him a prize of £20,000 (offered by Parliament). This clock was perfected after a decade of testing and proved to be incredibly accurate on two transatlantic voyages in the 1760’s. Interestingly enough, at this time, a well made marine chronometer would cost almost a third of the ship she sailed on. Such was their value, that these incredibly made pieces of British engineering were often shared amongst a group of ships.
Famous British watch making names include Thomas Tompion (1673-1751), George Graham (1674-1751) and Thomas Mudge (1715-1794). In 1755 Mudge gave us the lever escapement that is still widely used today. Tompion is often considered by many to be the father of British clock-making and he worked very closely with Graham during their lifetime as they continued to perfect escapements capable of fitting into slimmer cases. The principal makers of the time tended to congregate in the City of London with Clerkenwell becoming a centre for the industry. These horology focused engineers based in the City all worked in the various watch and clock-making disciplines such as escapement making, engine turning, fusee cutting, case-making and movement finishing.
The 200,000 watches made in 1800 had fallen to roughly 100,000 a century later. So what happened? Whilst the British watch makers were still very much engaged in making beautifully crafted watches in an artisan fashion, both Switzerland and the United States were looking into mass manufacture – taking the Henry Ford model of car manufacture and applying it to watch making. Great Britain also had a couple of world wars to occupy it during which much of the skill set used in watch manufacturer was poached by the armaments industry, which didn’t help. There was a brief resurgence after World War II with British watch manufacturers like Smiths, who finally succumbed to the ‘Quartz Revolution’ in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
So where does that leave the industry now in the UK? Until relatively recently and his passing in 2011, George Daniels was a British horologist who was considered to be the greatest watch maker of the 20th century. His watches, which took over 2,500 hours to make, sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds. He only made 37 watches during his lifetime. It was his creation of the co-axial movement for which he will be most remembered, and a design that was patented in 1980. This wonderful design removed the need to use lubricant because the mechanism operated with very low friction. The Swiss brand Omega have since bought the rights to this technology and use it in some of their watches. With his death Daniels passed his workshop equipment over to his apprentice, Roger Smith, who continues to run the workshop on the Isle of Man with a group of specialist watch-makers and produces approximately 10 beautifully finished handmade watches per year.
How does Bremont fit in?
As a brand Bremont is immensely passionate about bringing ‘industrial scale’ watch making back to British shores and is under no illusions of how difficult and long a journey this will be. When I say ‘industrial scale’ I refer to the goal of manufacturing several thousand watches a year in the UK. Bremont started in 2002 with the first watches being launched in 2007, and since this time, there has been a progressive moving over of the necessary horological skill-set to Bremont’s two facilities in the UK. The first drive was to train-up and also hire competent watch makers and assemblers capable of developing, servicing and assembling mechanical watches. This can now be found at Bremont’s workshop in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.
The second was the desire to start manufacturing its own watch parts. Bremont now manufactures its own cases and some movement parts at its facility in Silverstone, UK. It is an investment that the brand is immensely proud of in an industry so dependent on Switzerland. Bremont is currently the only watch brand in the UK manufacturing cases and selected watch parts in the UK on any scale (probably since Smith’s in the 1960’s). Whilst there is certainly much more to be achieved, it is certainly a development and direction that can only be seen as a positive one for the future of watch making in the UK.
A great read on BBC News 'Comeback time: The rebirth of British watchmaking' by Daniel Thomas