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TimeZone Interview with Nick English, Co-founder of Bremont Watch Company
On May 17, 2010
A TimeZone Interview with NickEnglish, Co-founder of Bremont Watch Company
Interview conducted May 2010
MS: MichaelSandler – TimeZone.com
MS: How did you become interested inwatches, and what drove your decision to form your own watch company?
NE: It started from an early agewith Giles and I spending most spare minutes with our father in hisworkshop. He was a remarkable man, an aeronautical engineer fromCambridge, who spent his spare time building aircraft we still fly,boats we sailed the world in, musical instruments he played in bandsand restored clocks which still hang on our walls. He was a watchcollector too. To keep us quiet as kids he often used to bring out anold grand-father clock he had purchased from a local auction yearsbefore and let us tinker with it until we thought we had it working!
The other big influence in our lives has been flying. Our father wasdisplaying vintage aircraft in air-shows most weekends whilst we werechildren, and Giles and I would take it in turns to go to the airshows.We would hardly be able to see out of the back of the WWII aircraft ashe did the display with us in the back seat. We picked up flying (howcould we not?!) and were displaying aircraft in our teens and still do.Our lives however changed in 1995 whilst I was practicing for anair-show. I hadn’t flown with my father for a few months, and thatMarch day we decided to go for a aerobatic formation practice withanother aircraft - flown by a friend of mine. My father taggedalonginthe back seat for fun. During the aerobatic flight something falteredwith the other aircraft’s engine (also a T-6 Harvard) and we tookevasive action whilst upside down to avoid it. The aircraft flickedinto an inverted spin at low altitude. We recovered but in an effort toavoid trees the aircraft flicked into the ground and broke up. Myfather died on impact and I was thrown out and broke 30 bones.
Our lives changed dramatically at that point. Having done a brief spellwith the RAF Reserves, we were both working in corporate finance atthis point. This was really our tipping point . At this point we bothdecided to leave our city jobs to run a business restoring vintageaircraft. Whilst doing this, we found an opportunity to do what we hadreally wanted to do with our lives – set up a British brand makingourown watches. It meant more than ever now. With the incredible historyof watch making in Britain (Harrison, Mudge, Graham, Daniels etc.) wefelt that it was the time to start, using some very special people. Wehad a very clear idea of what we wanted to achieve and now was as goodas any other time to start.
MS: Can you tell us a little about thehistory of Bremont, especially prior to your formal introduction in2007?
NE: When we started in 2002, wewere pretty confident that 2 years later we would have a watch we werehappy with. It was 5 years before we released our first watch into theretailers. It took us three years to decide on a name for the brand!From the very start we had both decided that we did not want to’inherit’ another brand. You walk around Basel and you realize thatsoso many of the brands out there with a long ‘history’ in fact havebought a history for a company making watches 80 years ago, stopped,and restarted 10 years ago. Where is the continuity in that? How do youknow what the original founders ambitions were with the brand? Where isthe tooling and the plans for the original movement, if there was amovement? All of these questions went through our heads and it becameclear we wanted it to be a new brand focused on technical excellence.
Our family’s last name (surname) is English. Having a British watchbrand called English could appear to many as slightly clichéd,and probably fairly tricky to trademark(!), and so it came down to aflyingtrip we were making 2 years after my plane crash. Giles and I wereflying a German 1930′s Bucker Jungman down through France in weatherweprobably should not have been flying in. The weather worsened and withfuel running low we put the aircraft down in a small pea-field in thechampagne region of NE France. If land like this in the US or UK likethis you apologise to the farmer and buy him a bottle of scotch, inFrance can get a lot more complicated a lot quicker with theauthorities. The farmer came out and offered to help. He was in hislate 70′s and he helped us push the aircraft into his barn. We stayedthere for 2 nights as the weather cleared. He, quite incredibly, was aformer wartime pilot himself and had a workshop much like our fathers.We had a lovely couple of days with him and talked for hours fromeverything from aircraft to watches. He reminded us hugely of ourfather. His name was Antoine Bremont. We kept in touch, and this wasreally the birth of the Bremont brand.
MS: Bremont is a British company. Whereare your watches actually manufactured/assembled?
NE: Following the decision tostart a watch brand, we found some workshop space in Bienne inSwitzerland. Although we were very much British in outlook, when westarted we quickly realized that the skill-base we needed , especiallywhen it came to multiple watch manufacture, was still better placedbeing in Switzerland.
All of the design was being done in the UK, and indeed a lot of thefinishing – like the hardening of the steel cases – was beingcompletedhere, but the final assembly, the movement itself and the case and dialconstruction etc was all being done in Switzerland.
Over the last few years we have wanted to do more and more in the UK tothe extent that we now have a new range of watches – the Bremont MB’s -being assembled at our workshop in England. All of our serious testinghappens over here in the UK, as does the new movement design. It hasgot to the stage now that we have fully designed and built a newmovement for a rather special ship’s clock here in the UK.
MS: Can you tell us a little about thesize of the company (numbers of watches produced, number of employees,distribution model, etc.)?
NE: We are still small in watchcompany terms. We will probably only make around 2500 watches thisyear. With the two workshops we employ just under 20 people.
MS: Can you describe the philosophy behindthe design and production values of your watches?
NE: When we started we had avery clear view of what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to produce awatch which by any watch makers standard was without questionbeautifully made. All watches made by us would be mechanicalchronometers. We wanted to make ‘understated’ watches that were not’bling’ in appearance, and so could never be classified as beingfashion pieces. We have felt that so many brands have gone down themass-market shiny/bling watch route that almost betrays their past.They therefore had to be fairly timeless in appearance. Perhaps themost important design philosophy was one of durability. We wanted thewatches to look great in the boardroom but robust enough to be used inany situation. Our personal background is so focused around aviationthat is hard for some of this design inspiration to not filter through,you only have to look at the Bremont MB or the EP120 and you can seethis very clearly.
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MS: Are there particular watches inhistory from which you are taking design cues?
NE: Sure, I think every watchbrand takes inspiration from other time-pieces that have been outthere. Our technical director who is very must a purist believes thatthere are only 3 shapes a watch should be – ’round, round andround’!!How can we possibly deviate away from this factor alone! Watchbrands/models I personally have been inspired in the past includeiconic watches like the IWC Mk 10 and 11, the 1950′s Rolex Explorer,the vintage Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms and indeed some of the earlySmiths’ military clocks and dials found in so many of the vintageaircraft we fly.
MS: Can you speak a little about yourprinciples of “Individuality, Precision and Endurance”?
NE: Giles and I have alwaystended to do things differently. We tend to drive cars and motor-bikesand fly planes that are not the norm for most day-to-day commutingrequirements. I think this comes genuinely comes from our interest inall things mechanical from a very early age and appreciating things ontheir own technical merit. We are only producing roughly 2500-3000watches by hand this year and they have to be individual on this basisalone. Many of the US Air-force squadrons we are making watches fornow, have come to us due to the interest and aviation pedigree of theBremont MB, but also because they do see themselves (quite rightly) asbeing elite in aviation terms. They were becoming tired of wearingwatches that could be found on so many other people. I think this sumsup the ‘Individuality’ fairly well. To own a watch that has so manyhours of someone’s time put into it counts for a lot in this industrywhere so many watches fly off a production line with hardly any humaninput during the manufacturing phase.
Precision goes without saying with a watch of this nature, but everywatch of ours is Chronometer tested in Switzerland.
I mentioned briefly early on that one of our key principles was that ofrobustness. This ‘Endurance’ tag has become a huge part of thebrand.You only have to look at some of the testing the Bremont MB wentthrough and you can see what I mean. The Bremont MB is arguably themost tested watch out there in the market place. I don’t think awatch,since the Speedmaster was sent to the moon, has a watch been tested tothe extremes that the Bremont MB and the Supermarine 500 have been.Even after all of the testing the Speedmaster was never developedfurther based on the test results, it was simply the best watchavailable at the time for their requirements. The Bremont MB wasdeveloped over a 2.5 year period with Martin Baker, the British companythat make 70% of the world’s air-force ejection seats. They havesavedover 7200 lives to date and have never had an ejection seat fail sincethey started making them in the 1940′s. They wanted to produce awatchthat would withstand the same testing as the seats themselves. Thesetests, other than multiple live ejections, included 40 years worth ofvibration tests, shock tests, electro-static and severe climatic tests(at altitude), salt-fog and corrosion tests etc. To withstand thesetests the watch had to be modified significantly. One example is theway the movement is mounted. The movement had to be mounted in aproprietary rubberized movement mount so at no point is the movementattached to the case, unlike traditional watch design where themovement is held in the case by a series of movement clamps. What isincredible about the project is that the whole process was videodocumented over a period of two years – it makes someincredible viewing seeing a mannequin being ejected at 690 mph with ahighdefinition camera on the watch! The same technology developed in theBremont MB was then integrated into our diving watch – the Supermarine500, which makes this a totally unique and extremely robust divingwatch.
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NE: There are basically 6 or 7lines. There are the Supermarine and B line mentioned above. We thenhave 3 main chronograph ranges. The more classic looking of these isthe ALT1-C range. We then have the ALT1-P range which has very goodreadability and an internal rotating bezel. Finally on the chronographsthere is the ALT1-Z range (for Zulu) due to the second UTZ time zone onthe watch. We then have the BC-series of watches that are the moreentry watches to the Bremont clan, which are the ’3-hander’ automaticsas we call them.
Moving forward, many of the developments planning are actually basedaround movement changes/modifications. We are doing more and morein-house and this will become obvious at Basel next year. We take theBritish bit quite seriously and hopefully this will become even moreevident with time.
MS: Are there any particular watches thatyou would like to highlight?
NE: I think the EP120 was aninteresting one. EP120 is a very famous Spitfire MkVb WWII aircraft. Itis very original with an incredible history behind it. We were luckyenough to be given part of the aluminum skin covering from thisaircraft as it was being restored. We made a limited edition of thiswatch with this metal built into the dial and movement. We made 120 ofthese watches – all were pre-ordered and were sold last year. It isincredible to think that part of your watch, that you can see, wasflying over Normandy in 1942. We liked that.
MS: What are some of the factors that youbelieve differentiate Bremont?
NE: From the outside, obviousthings that make us different include the fact that we are really oneof the true British watch makers out there. There are very few of us,and we do look at watch-making differently from the Swiss, andhopefully this shows.
Technically, in addition some of the areas high-lighted above, Bremonthas a very unique Trip-Tick three piece case construction. Virtuallyall watches out there use a two piece case – the case itself and thecase back. Ours are very differently constructed using a top bezel, amiddle barrel and the case-back. This allows us to use differentmaterials (like steel and aluminum in the MB) but it also gives thecase a very unique case look with beautifully sculptured lugs thanalmost pour over the middle barrel. They are very technically designedcases and I think the time and effort that has gone into them reallyshows.
One of the key differentiators for Bremont has also been the hardnesstreatments that are applied to our watch cases. From a very early stagewe wanted to produce a watch that had an understated but refined satinfinish to the case, but we also wanted the cases to be very tough too.To achieve this we had to take our cases (which are made inSwitzerland) and transport them to the UK where they are finished by aspecialized company that finishes and treats the jet turbine blades forleading engine manufacturers. We use a similar technology where thecases are diffused with Carbon at very high temperatures (to make theunderlying substrate harder) and then finished with a number of otherproprietory treatments, The result of this time and effort is astainless steel case which is 2000 Vickers in hardness, as opposed toabout 350 Vickers for a normal stainless steel case. This is quiteexciting and the difference is very obvious indeed after the watch hasworn for a while.
Other key differentiators for Bremont, which have been touched on inpart, are things like the nine layers of anti-reflective treatment weapply to BOTH sides of our sapphire crystal which is very obvious whenones looks at our crystals in day-light, the unique way we mount ourmovements in some of our watch models (rubberized anti-shock mount) andthe soft-iron Faraday cage found surrounding the movement in the MB andS500 models.
One other final difference between Bremont and other watchmanufacturers is that we only produce mechanical COSC certifiedchronometers. We just find it hard to get really passionate aboutquartz watches, and because of this, it is probably a road we willnever decide to go down. This is why so much effort has gone intoproducing a mechanical watch with the durability of the MB or the S500- we just wanted to prove that robustness for a military watch doesnothave to be limited to quartz movements.
MS: Please tell us a little about thebackground of your technical director, Peter Robert?
NE: Peter qualified as a Fellowof the British Horological Institute in the early 70s and then becamethe first student from the UK to attend the original WOSTEP course inNeuchatel, under the founder Monsieur Farine. Here Peter designed andconstructed a unique mechanism for the Valjoux 72 chronograph.
Peter then advanced his experiences by spending a period of time withIWC in Schaffhausen. He then became an “Official Rolex Watchmaker”training and working at the main factory in Geneva – and thentransferred to Rolex UK for some years. Peter then spent time withGarrard – the Crown Jewellers after which he qualified as a lecturer sothat he could teach technical horology. Peter spent 13 years teachingtechnical horology and was head of watchmaking where he taught manyfine students including Stephen Forsey and Peter Speake- Marin. Peteralso designed for the students a rather interesting version of a detentescapement.
Peter then returned to Rolex in Geneva where he worked in a ratherspecial watch department. On returning to the UK Peter became aconsultant in technical design for various watch companies and aconsultant training lecturer for Rolex in London. Currently Petercontinues as a lecturer with Rolex – keeps his hand in to purewatch-making looking after watch collections for a select clientele,but most of his time is now taken up with his position of TechnicalDirector with Bremont watches where is doing what he really loves!
MS: As you know, many TimeZoners aremovement fanatics. Is there any intention for Bremont to move towardsbecoming a true manufacture (with in-house movements), or are youcontent with the current model?
NE: It is interesting actually,from my brother and my perspective we entered the watch-making world 8years ago from a back-ground more in aviation rather than horology. Wehad tinkered with watches and clocks all of our lives through ourfather, but restoration of vintage of aircraft was our realback-ground. Our approach has always been slightly different fromothers in the luxury watch industry. We are actually caught in themiddle of this debate. All of our watches use chronometer testedmechanical Swiss movements at the current time, but as a company wehave always wanted to develop a movement to make the watches moreBritish. We have an incredible Technical Director in Peter Roberts, andhe has been instrumental in us developing a new ship’s clock in-housefor release this time next year for example. We are also designing andbuilding our own in-house modules to bolt onto our existing Soprod7750′s for a new module we will be showing next year too. A new’in-house’ movement from Bremont will follow not too long afterthat.
Most of our range however currently uses a mixture of Sellita, Soprodand ETA movements which are then finished in-house with a few othertweaks. The reason for using a Valjoux base in our watches was a verysimple one. Let’s go back to flying. We have flown a number ofdifferent aircraft over the years from wartime to modern day aircraft -and there are probably 3 or 4 key western manufacturers of reliableaero engines. The same Lycoming and Continental engines used inaircraft in the 1940′s, for example, are still being used intoday’s aircraft – with very few, if any, modifications. Would you flyoverthe North Sea during winter with a recently released “in-house” engineproduced by a new aircraft manufacturer? I wouldn’t, and there manyexamples of fatalities where people have tried. It takes many years torefine and test an engine. Look at Pagani Zonda, Lotus, McClaren, ACCobra, Red-Bull Racing and many other leading car manufacturers/racingteams and you will find that the same reasoning is being used motorindustry.
This is the approach Bremont and many other luxury watch brands havetaken over the years. There are countless examples of this. Take someof the major “credible” brands out there – the most desirableRolexes ever made were the pre-1999 Daytonas which used Zenithmovements, andbefore that Valjoux. Every Patek Philippe chronograph before the 21stCentury had an outside movement, including Lemania. Breitling, IWC andPanerai all use versions of the Valjoux or Unitas movement. Whilst thisis true, it must be remembered that there can be an enormous differencein quality between an entry-level and top execution chronometer rated7750, for example. Materials in the movement can differ substantiallyand the finish can be very different too. It is for this reason, whichmany chat-rooms fail to consider, that the ‘same’ 7750 can be foundin a £600 watch or a £15,000 watch. In many examples are just notcomparing like with like.
The other point to consider is that the vast majority of the apparent”manufacture” brands buy-in parts like rubies, screws, hands,dials, and balance/main-springs in any case. Where do you draw the linefor amovement to be classified as being totally ‘in-house’? Considerthis point – virtually all of the world’s luxury mechanical watchbrandsusebalance springs produced by one manufacture – Nivarox. Nivarox is thename given to a metallic alloy that is very wear-resistant,non-magnetic and virtually immune to temperature variations. It just sohappens that the only company making these springs is owned by theSwatch Group. The balance spring is really the heart-beat of anymechanical watch and so this is quite a integral part for a”manufacture” not to be producing.
Recently there has certainly been a large drift towards in-housemovements by luxury watch brands – especially over the last 3 or 4years. The catalyst for this, however, is really the threat ofnon-supply of movements from the Swatch/ETA stable from which manybrands are dependent. This has been on the horizon for a while.
So are Bremont heading down the ‘in-house’ movement route? Theanswer is yes and no. No because we will undoubtedly continue to usemovementslike the Valjoux 7750 base for our chronographs in some form. They areso robust, precise and well proven.
Yes, because as we mentioned before, it is a real desire of ours tomake our watches even more British. They are designed, finished andassembled (depending on the model) in England, but still have a Swissheart-beat. There would be something very satisfying and special aboutproducing a movement in England, in a country that once led the worldin the field of horology. The form and finishing of a classic Englishmovement is very different from the Swiss equivalent and it would be atremendous accomplishment to be able to produce a movement that onceagain competed with the Swiss. The Germans have done it with Lange& Sohne and Glashutte, and so there is no reason why theBritish cannot do the same. Great British watch-makers like GeorgeDaniels and Roger Smith are making beautiful truly hand-made Britishmovements but only in very limited numbers. We would like to do thesame but on a larger scale. It is a huge challenge but one worth trying.
We have some very British adaptations to our movements coming out inBasel next year, and well as a Ship’s clock which has been totallydesigned in-house and built in the UK. It is 28 cm across and a veryspecial piece indeed.
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MS: What are your goals for the companyover the next few years?
NE: To build the brand into aninternationally recognized (outside of the UK), yet niche, manufactureof very interesting and well constructed chronometers.
MS: What do you see as the greatestchallenges for your company over the next few years?
NE: I think the challenge withBremont is the same with any smaller “niche” watch brand, and thatisone of exposure. The marketing budgets of the large luxury and watchgroups dwarfs the budgets smaller independents have available. It ishowever a fun and interesting challenge that we find totally engaging.
One area that has proved to be very successful and enjoyable in the UK(and further a field) in terms of the public understanding what weproducing and the effort that goes into each watch, are events. We arethe Timing Partner to a number of high profile UK events like theFestival of Speed at Goodwood, the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race and theThe Epsom Derby, but what we find works well to compliment these largerevents are a more intimate events with real enthusiasts. We areplanning to have a series of these events with collectors andenthusiasts over the coming months in the US.
MS: In a very short period of time youhave managed to attract an incredible amount of interest from a numberof high profile people. Who are these people and what do they wear?
NE: We are lucky in thisrespect. I think we simply appeal to those individuals interested in’all things mechanical’ like us. They want something well made,different and something that fits with their personality. Orlando Bloomis a big fan and owns four or five pieces, Tom Cruise loves his ALT1-C,as does Ewan McGregor and Ryan Seacrest (who also owns three Bremontsand can be seen wearing them on American Idol a lot). There are thenpeople like Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear), Bear Grylls and Liam Neeson,which is very flattering.
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MS: And now our traditional final TZInterview question: What watch are you wearing today?
NE: The new DLC coated U2prototype I have been testing for a few weeks now. A great watch – ablack DLC version of the Bremont MB with a sapphire back. It is out ina couple of months!
MS: Thank you very much for taking thetime to do this interview. I’m looking forward to seeing Bremontcontinue to grow.