Posted on March 06 2019
The Best British Watch Companies
When you’re looking for a watch it’s a Swiss luxury timepiece you’re lusting after. Or maybe a slightly lower priced German Bauhaus influenced watch. It may even be a quirky Russian piece or a Japanese high street brand. Or increasingly, a very reasonably priced international brand that came by way of one of the many reputable Chinese factories (more here).
Had you considered a British watch brand?
Did you even know there was a choice of great British brands for you to consider? The reality for a lot of people is that they just assume that it’s not something that we do. The irony is that we were previously one of the major watchmaking nations. In 1800 it was estimated that half of the watches produced in the world that year came from Britain. However, by the end of the century, that figure had fallen dramatically. A decline that was terminal.
By the 1970s British watchmaking was over, and so it remained for the following decades. That's not to say that British watch brands were gone - just that their watches were produced abroad. Here we present the best of both. The British brands designing great timepieces and the handful of companies that are gradually reintroducing the art of watchmaking back to these islands.
Although we normally focus more on the affordable end of the market it would be amiss to not include Bremont on this list. They are one of the biggest names in the British watch industry despite having only been founded in 2002. The brand was created by two brothers equipped with the mechanical experience they’d gained through their shared love of aviation. Unsurprisingly, Bremont produces watches inspired by flight.
The company has a clear and exciting vision - to restart British watchmaking by producing watches here on an industrial scale. That’s a mammoth task, but one that the Bremont guys are working towards. To begin this the factory embarked on a path of recruiting and training watchmakers and assemblers. From there it began to manufacture its own cases and some movement parts in its second facility.
One of the more interesting watches produced by Bremont is the line created with Aircraft ejection seat company Martin-Baker. Indeed, the MBI is only available to pilots who have actually ejected from a plane with a Martin-Baker seat. The MBII and MBIII are both available to the public. The MBII featured here is uses Bremont’s BE-36AE, an automatic movement using a Swiss ETA base. The chunky watch comes in at 43mm without the double crowns. This model is priced a little under £4k.
Read my in-depth review of the Bremont Broadsword.
Three friends, each a successful businessman in his own right, came up with the concept behind this brand. With a wealth of knowledge, and having sold their previous businesses, the founders quickly headed to Switzerland to research the Swiss luxury watch industry. Simply put, they discovered that many Swiss watches were assembled by parts from the same manufacturers and that they too could get access to these components.
The companies aim was clear - buy excellent quality Swiss watch parts, cut out the middlemen and create “the cheapest most expensive watches in the world”. Working from a converted chicken shed the guys launched their first watches in 2005.
A marketing campaign followed and having subsequently been discovered by the online watch collecting community the brand began its rapid growth. Since then it has merged with its Swiss watchmaking company and has produced its own mechanical watch movement - the SH21. Bear in mind no British watch company has released its own calibre for at least 50 years so this was a great achievement.
Although the Christopher Ward range includes dress, aviation and motorsports lines, it’s probably the Trident Divers watches that have gained the most attention. This line includes a number of bold designs, some with a distinctly vintage aesthetic. The bronze model, the C60 Trident Bronze Pro 600, comes in either a 38mm or 43mm case with a choice of straps and patina. At £795 this is attractively priced compared to many of its Swiss competitors.
Cabot Watch Company are a brand known for supplying watches to the British armed forces. CWC was established by Ray Mellor who had been Managing Director of Hamilton’s UK arm. As an ex-serviceman involved in the British watch industry, he’d noted that British brand Smith’s had folded and that US brand Hamilton was no longer trying to win MOD contracts. He decided to create a watch company to fill that gap.
Named after the explorer John Cabot, it wasn’t long before this new company was winning MOD contracts itself. The watch designs were very much in keeping with those previously used by the British services and were often identical to those supplied by previous manufacturers. Particularly popular were its diver's watches and the British Army issued G10.
CWC claims to have produced over 200,000 G10’s for the military alone. As expected it’s a tough and basic watch, designed to be functional and easy to read. It’s a small watch with a 36.5mm case, a reliable quartz movement and its distinctive NATO strap. Priced at £199 it's not one of the cheaper G10's, but it's certainly the most famous. See our MWC range for more G10 options.
Smith’s was one of the bigger names in British watchmaking history. Founded in 1880 as a manufacturer of pocket watches the company would go on to produce wristwatches and clocks and other instruments for the motor and aviation industries. Given its history there’s a number of interesting stories about the company - from it importing Longines movements to recruiting Swiss technicians from Jaeger-LeCoultre. But ultimately the Smith’s story is a one of a successful British manufacturer producing large quantities of watches before retreating from that market during the quartz revolution of the 1970’s.
Smith's fine heritage came to an end in the 1980's, only for the name to be revived by Timefactors, a modern British based company. Amongst the new releases is the Smith's Everest. A homage to Rolex's Explorer 1 but linked to the Everest story by Smith's initial involvement with the original expedition.
The watch is 40mm and is powered by the popular and reliable Japanese Miyota 9015 automatic movement. The black dial and white 3, 6 and 9 numbers are as expected from an Explorer-style watch. Timefactor's have opted for a domed acrylic crystal ensuring an authentic vintage aesthetic and a screw-down crown to compliment the 100M water resistance. The watch is priced a little over £300.
Elliot Brown was founded by Ian Elliot, the creator of clothing brand Animal, and Alex Brown, Animal’s watch designer. The result is a brand that designs its watches with durability in mind. They’ve put their watches through a series of amusing tests to demonstrate the extremes that the watch can endure. This included hitting the watches with hammers, freezing them and leaving one at the bottom of Poole Harbour for six months.
The brand has grown rapidly and is now stocked in jewellers throughout Britain. Inspired by British coastal retreats the Tyneham range is the brands mechanical offering. There’s a nice textured dial with a discreet power reserve indicator and, on this model, bold blue hands and indices.
Marloe Watch Co
Created by two friends the company was named after the British town Marlow. The idea of the brand was to create watches inspired by the concept of slow living. Handwound timepieces specifically targeted at those consumers who are mindful of tradition and are consciously slowing the pace of their lives. So the company are aiming to appeal to the affluent millennials drawn to companies that they view as honest, transparent and having authentic values.
The four current collections are Cherwell, Derwent, Coniston and Haskell. The Coniston is inspired by Donald Campbell and Bluebird. This vintage-inspired piece has a hand-winding Miyota movement and exhibition case back to view it and like the Smiths it has a domed sapphire crystal. There's four variations of the Coniston.
Sunderland based Scurfa Watches are a bit of an exception on this list. Where the likes of Elliot Brown and Christopher Ward were set up by businessmen having exited their previous ventures, Scrufa are a husband and wife team. Paul Scurfield is a professional saturation diver working in the North Sea. He began producing small quantities of high-quality divers watches to be used by himself and colleagues. Rebuffing the attention of Authorised Dealers Paul has made the decision to limit watch production to a level that’s manageable for the small team.
The emphasis here is very much on functional, clear divers watches - with both quartz and automatic versions available. A couple of the Diver One models include great use of colour. This particular model (Diver One ND513) is a 40mm quartz with a rubber strap and is priced at £194.
Camden Watch Co
Camden Watches are designed in Camden, London. Each of the models is inspired by Camden itself. From the Victorian pocket watch inspired No. 29, taken from Camden’s strong railway heritage, to the turquoise-blue seconds hand of the No. 88, based on the iconic ‘Camden Lock’ bridge.
The company has a series of small, quirky shops around London’s markets and have received a lot of favourable press in the likes of GQ, Esquire and The Guardian. This model, the No. 253 in tan and steel, is a modestly priced quartz watch with a dial based on a steam train wheel. This is one of the cheapest watches featured.
Farer was launched in 2015 and now has a range of watches ranging from quartz to automatic chronographs. The brand builds watches for today's adventurers and the collections are each named after an explorer or one of their vessels. The designs are bold, but classic, with an interesting mix of colours.
There’s a mix of chronographs, GMT’s and divers, but perhaps our favourite is the simplicity of the Three-Hand Automatic. Of the three variations (Beagle, Endurance and Hopewell) the Beagle is the first to catch the eye. The apple green used on the hands and numerals, married to an off white dial is reminiscent of Sturmanskie’s Yuri Gagarin watch - seen here. The Farer is powered by a Swiss ETA movement and comes in at just under 40mm.
Based in Newcastle Northwind is a new brand that released its first model in 2018. Having noticed that many watch buyers were interested in the story behind the brand Northwind was created to tell the story of Northern Britain.
The first release is a heavy-duty automatic inspired by one of the North Easts industrial titans, William Armstrong. An inventor, arms maker and philanthropist. The watch uses a leather strap and carry case to soften the industrial style of the watch. At 44mm and with a Seiko NH35A movement and sapphire crystal it’s a chunky piece. It retails for £295 and can be bought online or at selected retailers.
Founded by Giles Ellis, and named after the revolver favoured by Jessie James, Schofield is based in Sussex. Ellis has a varied background, having restored musical instruments, worked as a coder and also as a product designer. His decade in watchmaking apparently began after he started a project to build himself a watch for personal use.
After four years Schofield was launched, with its first watch having been made in Germany. In 2013 the brand released its first watch with Made in England on the dial, having moved as much production as possible back to the UK.
These watches are works of art with the case back of this model, the Beater, having taken 120hrs of work and 3hrs of laser engraving on each piece. The bronze case is designed to age as it's worn. Using an ETA movement the watch is available for £3100.
Southampton based watch company Hamtun was created in 2015 by Ross Davis. They have three main models, each funded by Kickstarter campaigns and each having made quite a stir amongst microbrand watch fans.
The latest model is the Nanok, Hamtun's first field watch. It's a straightforward three-handed watch designed for everyday wear. At 39mm it's the same size as a Rolex Explorer 1 and has that same understated tool watch aesthetic.
Mr Jones Watches
It’s been noted that the generations that have grown up with mobile phones have begun to wear watches again, valuing the simplicity and knowing when they check the time that’s what they’ll see. Not a stream of notifications screaming for attention. Mr Jones Watches have turned that idea on its head. If you can tell the time on your phone then the watch on your wrist doesn’t need to be just a timepiece - it can be a quirky work of art.
The result is a collection produced in London where the company, founded by Crispin Jones, prints its own dials and hand assembles the watches. The model we've highlighted is one of quite a large and diverse collection. The Last Laugh Tattoo is available in two sizes, this being the XL version. It's 45mm and to tell the time you have to look at the skulls teeth. It's priced at £345 and comes with an automatic movement.
Founded in 2013 Pinion is another recent addition to the British watch industry. Created by Piers Berry, the company ethos is built on the back of Berry’s experience working with luxury watch brands.
In his own words “In Pinion, the vintage charm and character of high-quality Swiss movements meet 21st century, yet traditional, English watchmaking skills and craft”.
At £1150 the Atom is the cheapest of the Pinion range and is available in Black and White variants. Like the Hamtun it has a modest 39mm case and the current version has upgraded the movement from a Japanese Miyota to a Swiss ETA.
Slightly older than some of the other brands here, Nite was created in 2003 when Roger Green sunk his life's savings into this new venture. The first watches were released the following year and a year later he was supplying the SAS.
By 2006 the company was using GTLS for its illumination, a defining feature of the brand. Nite then embarked on its direct-to-customer sales strategy and now sells exclusively online from its own website.
The brand made a name producing rugged military-style watches in the vein of US brand Luminox and the Swiss MWC. This Alpha model is a very well executed diver with the companies trademark Tritium tubes on the hands and a quartz movement.
Glen Anthony Designs
Glen Anthony produces bold handcrafted watches in the North of England. Based in Northumberland Glen creates watches heavily inspired by his background in the motor industry (see more about watches and motorsports here). Having begun by sourcing watch parts and building his own wristwatch he then became more ambitious.
“I learned CAD design and purchased some CNC machinery and started designing and making my own cases and dials…..so in 2015 I sold my garage and put everything into watchmaking.”
The result is a unique range of watches, machined and assembled by Glen - some with bespoke options. The Synchro model uses a mix of stainless steel, titanium and real walnut to create this stunning design. It has 30M water resistance, a quartz movement and comes in at a large 46mm.
The British watch industry is currently on the up and there's a number of other great companies we could have highlighted - particularly those catering to female buyers. Shore Projects, O.W.L. and the recent addition of Ellington Timepieces are all worth a visit.