Turn on your TV (if you have one) and you’ll be confronted with advertising. Some is rubbish, the majority of it tedious, some fairly good. Most of the time, if you’re like me, you’ll look with general disinterest and a great deal of annoyance that the show you’re watching has been interrupted for a three minute snooze-fest about cat food or beauty products. That is unless an advert happens to feature a wristwatch; then I’m all ears and I imagine you are too. Like me, you mention to your very uninterested spouse that the watch featured is from so-and-so brand, retails for x-amount and is gorgeous/ugly/stunning/hideous, deleting whichever is appropriate to your own experience, while the eyes opposite fixed on your mouth begin to glaze over with boredom.
For example, currently running on British TV is a Jaguar advert for their new XF Sportbrake – which happens to be a rather handsome machine. Looking resplendent in metallic silver and basked in beautiful fading Andalusian light, surrounded by sporty, technical bits and bobs that a young professional might consider an essential part of their everyday life, this advert projects a feeling of cool sophistication and athletic verve. Now, most people would be focusing on the car: it’s an advert for a car after all. But what I focus on with that advert is a watch that features prominently in the opening frames, twirling as if suspended from the heavens from a piece of wire. The watch is a Bremont Martin-Baker II. And it is a sign of how far the English brothers and their brand have come in a relatively short period of time that a British engineering institution like Jaguar collaborates with them.
Screen shot of the Martin-Baker 2 taken from Jaguar’s Sportbrake UK TV advert
I stand next to Nick English at the Bremont installation at The Saachi Gallery and begin our conversation with asking for a bit of background on the brand – I declare from the outset an admission of guilt surrounding my sheer ignorance of Bremont and the products he and his brother create. The story behind Bremont is utterly unique, heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measures. Formed in 2002 by the English brothers, Nick and Giles, Bremont is born from a determination to honour the adventurous spirit of their late father Dr. Euan English – an aeronautical engineer, historic aircraft restorer and keen pilot – who died in a plane crash over my native Essex in 1995. The English family did a great deal of display flying (Nick and Giles are both former RAF pilots, originally taught to fly by their father), and the accident in which Nick broke thirty bones in his body and his father tragically died, became the tipping point that gave birth to the Bremont brand.
Nick tells me how little he knew that the quest to create a watch company would take the best part of a decade to reach fruition, “we told our wives that it would take a year and a half to make our first watch, which was way off. The reality of the situation was that in 2002 we just weren’t ready”. Moving forward four years, 2006 saw the actors Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman embark on their epic journey known as The Long Way Down. Both wore Bremont timepieces, with the trip serving as a test bed for the brand’s prototype watches; then Ben Saunders, the polar explorer, took a Bremont to Everest during this period. It took a further three years of testing before the first production timepiece was released in 2007. It is unusual – Schofield and Meridian not included, considering the size, scale and ambition of Bremont – for an entirely new English brand to arise in this day and age, especially when so many former English watchmaking titan’s are being resurrected Lazarus-esque from the grave with mixed results. “We didn’t want to set up a brand that claimed to have a long history when in fact it’s taken from a dormant brand or one that went bust in the quartz crisis”, he says. “We could probably have brought the Harrison name amongst others, but thought that this was fairly sacrilegious. We certainly had no real idea what someone as iconic as Harrison, the man, wanted after his death, so we wanted to create an authentic brand”.
At present the current UK watch industry is at a point where, as a separate mass production entity, it cannot even begin to be considered a serious player on the world stage. However, Nick states with great pride that, “we’re probably the only business since Smiths to produce mechanical watches on this scale in the UK. We’ve made it a key point to have as much of a British influence as possible, it’s really in the DNA of the brand. Our designer is British, same as our technical director. Some of our cases are made in the UK, all are finished here. We’re not about bling, for Giles and I it is more about the engineering – and we’re in the top twenty chronometer producers in the world right now. We wanted to produce a product that any good watchmaker could take apart and say ‘at that price point I cannot find a better watch’ “.
The Bremont Solo with Cream or White numerals and hands
Timezone last spoke to Nick in 2009, so I ask how business is fairing in the current climate and how the brand has evolved since originally coming to market. “Over the last ten years the brand has gone from strength to strength. We’ve grown a lot in the States,” says Nick, “with a product line that keeps developing each year which has been fantastic”. The range extends from £2,550 – £20,000 with an average price of £4,000. “We’ve got a new stand-alone Boutique in Mayfair and a new facility opening in three weeks time”. At the time of the interview, Bremont were about to move into a new production facility in the UK, “a mile from Henley-on-Thames. With 75% of assembly currently completed in the UK, that will be closer too 100% by early next year. We’ll have twelve to fifteen watchmakers putting everything together [at this facility]. So it’s been an exciting couple of years, let’s hope it carries on!”, says Nick enthusiastically.
Product design and testing is and always has been completed in the UK – as Bremont fans will no doubt be aware of with the Martin-Baker watches being a fine example. Key to the development of the brand is the proposed introduction in 2014 of a new in-house movement. “Some of the movement parts will be made in Henley, but we’ve still got a lot of Swiss involvement. We’ve done a lot of the design ourselves, but some parts and expertise will still come from Switzerland. Making ten watches a year is one thing, but we’re making 5-6000 per year so still need to involve the Swiss but the design is very different from what’s currently out there from us”.
We begin to discuss the design of their watches, and I ask about the styling of his timepieces and the idea behind the look of the brand – Bremont have a very unique lug design that Nick explains in more detail. “If you look at the majority of watches here today – what are you wearing? – yeah, see, the majority, including yours have a two piece design. What we wanted to do was to produce something where we can use different case materials – this model here has an aluminium insert – or aluminum as our American friends call it…”, a rye smile breaks out across his face, “…with ours you have the top bezel, case-back and case barrel [that serves as the lug retainer], so the three piece case became sort of a trademark [referred to by Bremont as Trip-Tick] and you have this lovely melting effect with the lugs. It also enables us to experiment with the overall styling, but the case design will always remain as a company staple”.
The ALT1-WT, ALT1-Zulu and ALT1-P Pilot
As an example of this, he hands me an MB II, produced in collaboration with the ejector seat company Martin-Baker. Nick tells me that Martin-Baker approached them to make a watch, “They’ve saved over 7000 lives to date with their ejector seats, and never had an ejector seat fail. It’s a complete British engineering success story. They’re based twenty minutes away from us in Henley. They approached us and said, ‘look, for every person who’s ejected we want to offer them a a chance to wear a very unique and special watch. If you see anyone with a red barrelled MB II they’ve successfully ejected from a M-B seat, there is no other way they could have got one”. Quite possibly the coolest piece of product placement you’re ever likely to see. In order to bear the Martin-Baker name, the watch had to undergo the same extreme testing regime as the seats themselves. Nick elaborates on why, “We said ‘great, we’ll do it'; put a logo on the watch, a few other modifications and sell it. They said ‘no, if it has our name on it it’s got to be tested to the same standard as the seats’ ” – not an easy feat when you look at the testing standards involved.
The Martin-Baker II with Ejector Seat Red barrel
Nick informs me that in order to pass the Martin-Baker testing, Bremont had to design a rubberised movement mount that suspends the calibre within the case, protecting it from shocks. Nick then shows me a series of photos of the watch on the wrist of a dummy, which in turn is strapped into a jig that carries one of the seats. Said seat is undergoing a test that simulates forty years of vibration testing – the shoes on the dummy are entirely worn through. A lesser mechanical watch would have been destroyed long before the jig reached one week of such abuse. He also shows me a short video of the watch on another dummy’s arm being accelerated to 600 mph then decelerated to zero in less than seven seconds on a rocket powered sled. This specialised rubber mount is found in both the Martin-Baker and Supermarine ranges.
We move onto Bremont’s military involvement which is something I was entirely unaware of before our meeting, and is of particular interest considering how quickly the brand has found itself producing bona fide military use products – and an indication of the how serious one should take the company.
The brand provides watches for a number of armed forces across the globe, but of special interest to Timezone regulars will be the US armed forces units Bremont supply. “We provide timepieces for some wonderful military outfits and it is a real honour. Examples would include the US Special Forces, the US Airforce (for example B-2 Stealth Bomber pilots, the C-17 Globemaster) and the US Navy – we also supply many VFA F-18 Hornet Squadrons! It’s probably around 50 squadrons in total, including a few different ones like Prince Harry’s Apache squadron [3 Army Air Corps] at Wattisham”, says Nick. As if to confirm the commitment to authenticity and integrity, he mentions, “I’d say 85% of our military supply is to the USA”. This is arguably the hardest market for a non-US based contractor to break into. I ask how this has come about, “…the development of the Martin-Baker chronometer, because it went through such extensive testing, it really appealed to the military guys. The military side of the business seems to grow organically from there’ “.
B-52, Navy Test Pilot School ALT1Z-GMT and B2 models
He explains that because Bremont focuses on engineering, “durability is everything, it’s very, very important. Robustness is key. All of our cases are treated to make them harder than untreated steel, they’re seven times more scratch resistant than watch grade steel, it’s really geeky but very important to us”. As if to confirm this commitment to authenticity, Nick tells me, “we also do a limited edition version of our Supermarine divers watch only for North Sea saturation divers”. To continue, Nick points to the U-2 models Bremont offers, “our U-2 pilots watch has to able to go up to 100,000 feet [the edge of space for those uninitiated with such things], and they had to be cleared so that they could be worn on the outside of the flight suits, so we utilised Martin-Baker environmental test chambers in order to do that”. He shows me a wrist-shot taken by a pilot at 80,000 feet over Iraq wearing a U-2, and then one of a US fighter pilot with the Union Jack and his Bremont flying an F-18 over Afghanistan. The word cool doesn’t even begin to describe these pictures.
Bremont U-2 at 80,000 feet over Iraq and C-17 Globemaster over Dubai
I’ve touched on the inherent qualities of British design in my other articles covering Salon QP, with a clean and uncluttered, practical look being key components of products emanating from these Isles, and it’s something Nick mentions with regard to the styling of his watches. “We wanted to produce a watch that you could pick up in twenty years time and not say “that looks so 2012′ “. Of all the watches on display, the Solo is easily the most handsome. Simple and clean with nothing superfluous to distract the wearers attention, it is a fantastic example of using classic styling – the W10 specification seems a definite inspiration – within a modern sized case. Going back to the Trip-Tick case design, I ask if the case shape has been deliberately done to imitate the front on view of an aircraft, “definitely; the form of the lugs has certainly taken inspiration in part by the leading edge of a wing.”
from top left: EuroFighter pilot wearing Martin-Baker II, 3 Army Air Corp Apache and F-18 Hornet with crew holding the Union Jack and wearing Bremont timepieces over Afghanistan
I turn toward the question of the competition or more specifically, where do Bremont see themselves in the watch universe? Nick responds with, “It is hard, and there are some lovely brands out there, and we fit in between a few. I look at us as similar in a way to IWC. If you go into, say Selfridges, we are positioned close to these guys and have a lot of respect for them”. Of course Bremont do not produce the complicated high echelon models, nor have the history of their illustrious Swiss counterpart. But to doubt the sincerity or motivation behind the reason for such a statement is to misunderstand that which the English brothers have set out to achieve – authentic, engineer led wrist instruments, similar to those produced by IWC. So for my mind the comparison is perfectly valid, and on the evidence presented by Nick, entirely justifiable. As to if to reinforce the claim, the Royal Jaguars carry Bremont clocks on board. Three were made initially, however a forth was made by request and presented to Prince Phillip by Jaguar as a pocket watch.
We move on to discuss the Special Edition models, including a model (the EP120) that incorporated components from arguably the most famous Spitfire still in existence and a Mustang P-51 commemorative edition that celebrates the “Fragile but Agile” P-51 Pacific theatre veteran that uses parts of the original damaged rudder in the dial. And we take a close look at a very special watch that forms a prominent part of the Bremont Salon QP installation; alongside this watch is Lord Nelson’s actual pocket watch, a truly priceless piece of British, marine and horological history. Nick says, “We try to do a special edition every year – you should see what we have for next year(!) – and we create these limited watches because they mean something to us. Materials are usually extremely scarce, and it allows us to try something different from the core range, and in turn create something really quite special”. Available in steel or gold, the limited edition Victory piece is made to commemorate HMS Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship that participated in the defeat of the French at Trafalgar.
Detail shots of The Victory
He continues to explain the inspiration and process of creating such a special watch, “For Giles and I the connection with HMS Victory is partly that we’re ambassadors for the Royal Navy Heritage Flight which operates Sea Fury’s and Swordfish fighters, amongst others. Through this we heard that Victory, still the flagship of the Royal Navy, was undergoing a £40 million restoration. What we have been able to secure for the Victory watch is some of the oldest material from the ship, material that was on board when it was fighting at Trafalgar; this has been released and signed off by the current first Sea Lord of The Admiralty and with the full blessing of the National Museum of The Royal Navy”.
Using the copper harvested from the deck nails replaced during Victory’s restoration – the word “nail” hardly does justice to the sheer scale of the part used to secure the vast sections of oak and teak on the Victory’s deck. The nail itself is the size of a large MagLite flashlight! – for the side barrel, the name Victory is proudly engraved in gold into the DLC coated copper side barrel which will develop a patina over time. It really is a fantastic piece, equipped with a La Joux Perret developed chronograph movement featuring retrograde seconds and date. On the case-back is an inlaid ring of oak, again taken from the naval restoration team, followed by an engraved sapphire window which give the eyes access to the engraved gold rotor – this really is a wonderful special edition.
Live shots of the Victory watch and your intrepid narrator holding Nelson’s pocket watch in my right hand and The Victory in my left from Salon QP
Finally we talk about the Olympic Games, and then where the brand see itself in the coming years. If you remember the scene from Danny Boyle’s eccentric opening ceremony where Daniel Craig escorts Her Majesty the Queen from her bureau in Buckingham Palace, the stunt of Her Majesty arriving via parachute was performed by a gentleman who goes by the name of Gary. He happened to be wearing a Bremont – again, another of the coolest wrist-shots I’ve seen on Nick’s MacBook details Gary in grey wig, make up and dress, sporting a Bremont on his wrist. Surreal but huge fun. On to where he see’s Bremont in the coming years; “We’ve seen fantastic growth over the last two or three years, and we will be introducing a few more lines. We currently have 40 watches at present under seven lines, but yes, we’ll have eight to nine lines in the coming years.”
I’m invited down to the Henley facility where hopefully I’ll glimpse their new movement in development, and a trip to experience Bremont’s North Weald aerodrome and aeroplane collection – of which there will be reports to follow in the new year. I’ve come away from this meeting with a new found respect for the brand, owing to the quality of the product on offer and the authenticity of the gentleman running the company. I wish Bremont every success for the future – British watchmaking is in good hands.