The British Watch Issue
By Ed Estlow
on 2.18.14

W
hat’s the first country that comes to mind when you think of timepieces? Switzerland — that’s what we thought. Next? Maybe Japan or Germany. But there was a time when the center of the horological universe was that rock hanging off of Europe, the United Kingdom.

British watchmaking? Sure, there’s Big Ben, but few know the names John Harrison, John Arnold, Thomas Mudge, Thomas Tompion or Robert Hooke — all of them British, all of them major contributors to the science of horology (that is, watchmaking). Truth is, Britain’s watchmaking history is filled to the brim with excellence. Now, a new crop of British watchmakers are forging ahead to build on their country’s tradition — and to create an entirely new one.

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Before we look ahead, we need to look back. The Brits played a huge role in early watchmaking technological advances. Thomas Tompion kicked things off in the late 1600s and is often referred to as the father of British clockmaking, thanks in no small part to the many apprentices he took under his wing. Thomas Mudge gave us the lever escapement, still in common use today and a milestone of watchmaking. Robert Hooke is known in scientific circles for Hooke’s Law, which describes the properties of springs — which, last we checked, is kind of critical to the development of a timekeeper which depends on a mainspring and a hairspring. He was buddies with, and a sort of patron to, Tompion.

In 1759, Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison solved a little problem that had been pestering sea captains for a century and a half: determining longitude at sea. Along the way, he perfected or made major contributions to numerous aspects of precision timekeeping. John Arnold was the first to design a simple, accurate watch, picking up where Harrison left off and enabling higher production rates for marine chronometers beginning in the 1780s. In fact, it was Arnold who coined the term “chronometer”.

By 1800, Britain reportedly made half the world’s watches — around 200,000 a year. A hundred years later, production numbers had fallen to roughly 100,000, though worldwide consumption was by then in the millions.

Keyless winding, automatic winding, the chronograph, the minute hand and the center seconds hand were all arguably invented in England. Take away all that and we’d still be measuring time with hourglasses, which are damned inconvenient to wear on one’s wrist. Say it with us now: “Thank you, British timekeepers.”

The 1700s were the halcyon days of horological innovation, and as we’ve just proven, most of it was happening in the British Isles. By 1800, Britain reportedly made half the world’s watches — around 200,000 a year. A hundred years later, production numbers had fallen to roughly 100,000, though worldwide consumption was by then in the millions.

So what happened? Well, it turned out that Switzerland and the United States got better at mass production quicker than those manufacturers in Great Britain. Thus the British watchmaking industry faded. There was a small resurgence after World War II, but the so-called Quartz Crisis, which nearly felled the Swiss, did the Brits in (along with the U.S. watch industry).

Today there’s a British watchmaking renaissance afoot. An anecdote, and one with a dash of poetic justice, perhaps best exemplifies this rebirth. Robert Loomes, the descendant of a family that traces their British watchmaking roots to the 17th century, is on a personal mission to build an all-British watch. A few years ago, Loomes went looking for parts suppliers in order to make the limited-edition watches his company had designed. While on his search, he found shops that were using the very machines sold off by foundering British watch companies decades ago. Those machines are once again making parts for which they were originally designed and built.

So who are these British re-pioneers? The recently deceased George Daniels, developer of the co-axial escapement found in nearly every OMEGA, hailed from Great Britain. Daniels only made 37 watches in his lifetime, but is considered the greatest horologist of the 20th century. His protégé, Roger Smith, leads a small team to produce about a dozen bespoke timepieces a year on the Isle of Man.

And Now a Timekeeping Moment From the Far East…

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Rumor has it Bremont is getting close to an in-house, all-British movement in the next few years. Anglophile watch nerds await with bated breath. A much smaller start-up, the Great British Watch Company, was founded by British watchmaker Colin Andrews to further the idea of a British watchmaking renaissance. Christopher Ward makes their watches in Switzerland, but recently went on record to say they’re working their way back to England. The brand believes the nation can again become an intellectual leader in the industry. In fact, company founder and namesake, Chris Ward, will sit on a panel at the London Watch show this summer, discussing the revival of the British watchmaking industry.

Most British brands are designing and assembling (and will continue to design and assemble) watches in the U.K. from a mix of Continental and British parts. Schofield, Dent London, Meridian and Pinion are revivals or newcomers, each building watches with movements procured in Switzerland. For them, there simply isn’t the watchmaking infrastructure to support 100 percent UK-built watches. Yet.

Then there are brands that’ve taken on the persona of their namesakes, but have no real ties to either former brands or the persons whose names they’ve adopted — companies like Arnold & Son, Graham, and J&T Windmills. In fact, Arnold & Son and Graham are not British at all, being Swiss-based and now owned by Citizen.

So while there may be no return to the halcyon days of 250 years ago, the story of British watchmaking is no longer merely ancient history. There are an increasing number of brands, a quiver of British-based watch magazines and websites, and two annual timepiece expositions. The horological state of the Union Jack is solid. The sun may have set on the British watchmaking empire, but there’s a glimmer of daylight and it’s getting brighter.