In less than two decades British watchmaker Bremont has become iconic in its own time. While Switzerland reigns supreme as the home of exquisite horology, two brothers with a taste for adventure and the aptly-titled surname English are singlehandedly reviving luxury English timepieces. After all, Rolex watches used to be assembled in England. MAXIM sat down with Giles English, one half of the brotherly duo behind Bremont, to talk watches, expansion and creating a legacy in real time…
In 2002, two English brothers with a lifelong passion for flying vintage aircraft established a company to craft beautiful pilot watches. It would be millions of pounds of investment and five long years before they’d sell their first timepiece. “When we set out on this original journey it was about bringing British watchmaking back to the UK,” explains Giles English, chatting via Zoom from a well-appointed home office in the U.K.. “We’re building an engineering brand and a luxury brand at the same time.”
From their headquarters in Henley-on-Thames, the quintessentially English town world-famous for its annual regatta, Bremont is making the case for British watchmaking. Although the Bremont name is derived from a fortuitous encounter between the brothers and a French farmer called Antoine Bremont (they crashed landed in his field), Giles is quick to clarify that the link between Antoine Bremont and Bremont watches is in name only. “He reminded us of our dad in a big way, but it was never supposed to be a dedication.” It’s the pair’s late father, Dr Euan English, an ex-Air Force pilot who tragically passed away in a plane crash in 1995, who serves as an ever-present inspiration for Giles and Nick. “We wouldn’t have gone into watchmaking it if it hadn’t been for our father and his love of watches and engineering. He always had one expression he used to love, ‘It’s better to live life and lose it than never live life at all’ and we’ve lived our lives by that to an extent.”
Suffice to say, founding Bremont was a mammoth undertaking, particularly in a country which no longer possesses the creative nor mechanical infrastructure for luxury horology. As Giles points out, the brothers could have more easily purchased an existing Swiss watch company and traded off past glory. “There are so many Swiss watch brands that have traded since 1722 and such… but actually they’re resurrected companies from 20 years ago. We’re very much about creating our own history.”
Bremont has made its name crafting bespoke watches for elite military units and personnel across the globe. “It’s a middle ground of creating a luxury timepiece that you could wear in the board room or Mount Everest,” says Giles of the company ethos. The MBI watch, created in partnership with British aviation company Martin Baker, was one of their first timepieces to capture the imagination of the watch world. Unveiled in 2007, the MBI is put through the same rigorous testing and extreme G forces as Martin Baker’s fighter ejection seats. In a marketing master stroke, an MBI may only be purchased by pilots who’ve themselves ejected from an aircraft via a Martin Baker seat, making ownership of the watch among the most exclusive in the world.
When it comes to marketing Bremont, the company’s advertising is similarly innovative. “We’re proud to say we are making aviation watches and it’s not about models standing in front of aircraft, it’s real people wearing our watches” says Giles. Instead of casting big screen action stars as ambassadors, Bremont has tapped real-life heroes to populate their campaigns. Men like Ross Edgley, the first person to swim all the way around Great Britain. “For us it’s someone who appreciates the quality of engineering. It’s generally someone who is active, but he’s also his own man.”
Nick and Giles are perhaps the most effective Bremont ambassadors of all. By allowing themselves to be front and centre in the brand’s promotion, the pair represent a through line between Bremont and its recurring motifs — aviation, the military and engineering. Certainly, in an era where watchmakers relentlessly mine (and embellish) their histories to woo customers, having two aircraft-flying and camera-ready founders gives Bremont vitality. Who needs James Bond or the ghost of Steve McQueen with founders like these?
“If you’ve got the marketing money you don’t have to be creative,” declares Giles. “We’ve never had that luxury so we’ve had to be creative. We’ve had to bring in new technology and work with interesting partners and come up with crazy R&D developments. We’re not working with a team of designers who are just looking at market trends.” Having two founders who are still very much alive has other advantages, particularly when it comes to partnering with other brands on special edition timepieces. As Giles puts it, “How could I go work with Jaguar or Martin Baker if I was an old chronometer manufacturer from 1760?”
The brand’s limited-edition watches don’t subscribe to a strict theme or period. According to Giles, “It’s about design inspiration. There’s no end to different bits of inspiration Nick and I can work with.” Their design vision isn’t just Martin Baker and the military either. Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose aircraft, the Concorde and the America’s Cup have all inspired namesake watches. Then there’s the Jaguar D-type watch, named after the iconic vehicle of the same name, with original D-type tread etched into the timepiece and hand-signed by Jaguar’s Director of Design.
One of Bremont’s more whimsical partnerships has been with Rolling Stones guitarist (and painter) Ronnie Wood, the subject of the 1947 collection. Each of the 47 custom-made pieces from the collection features a dial face hand-painted by Wood himself. Retailing for a cool $69,995, the 1947 collection is strictly for the high rollers. Giles confirms the existence of a devoted group of clients who regularly fork out for Bremont’s most luxurious creations.
“We have people who own 30 or 40 of our watches and collect every one we make and that’s a real honour.” Equally, he’s also immensely proud to attest that Bremont owners are a broad church. “We have two divisions: we have a lot of collectors who buy our watches. They want a British watch in their collection, love our limited editions and want something a bit different. And then we have the other end of the spectrum: military pilots, kids getting their 21st birthday present. We’re their first watch and we’ve helped them get into the love of watches, and that’s lovely as well.”
Until recently, the humble quartz watch was a sticky subject for most luxury watchmakers. The art of mechanical watchmaking was devastated by the advent of these new low-cost movements in the 1970s, giving rise to the notion that mechanical watches were merely ornamental status symbols for the rich. With its cast of action men and strong military associations, Bremont busts the myth that modern chronographs are made only for their craftsmanship and aren’t supposed to be put to the test. Ambassadors like polar explorer Ben Saunders and mountaineer Nirmal Purja really do brave earth’s most hostile conditions wearing the brand’s watches. “These guys can’t wear quartz watches because the temperatures kill the watches,” explains Giles. “If you’re in the South Pole at minus 40 degrees, a quartz watch will last four or five days. They need old fashioned cogs and gears and that’s part of what we love — technology really hasn’t moved on. They’re not using cogs and gears because its old craftsmanship, they’re using it because it actually is the best thing to use.”
In a surprising twist, the rise of smartwatches has eroded the quartz watch market while seemingly invigorating luxury mechanical watches. Turns out the smart watch, made to be worn then quickly superseded, makes a luxurious mechanical watch, that’ll last centuries, seem even more appealing. “It’s such a non-disposable item that has longevity” muses Giles. “There’s not many things you can buy today that have that.”
As brand fatigue scares watch enthusiasts away from conspicuous logos, Bremont slides neatly into the inconspicuous luxury category. A conversation starter, the timepieces are aesthetically unpretentious yet distinguishable for those in the know. They’re also highly versatile; the dive watch I’m lent from the S500 range looks just as stylish decked with jeans and a biker jacket as it is dressed up with cufflinks. Commemorating British aircraft manufacturer Supermarine, it’s also one of the brand’s more entry level pieces, starting at $6,100. Coincidentally, Mr English himself is wearing a similar model during our Zoom call.
Perhaps the magic is in the fascinating trip tick case, in which three pieces are used to create the case bezel, middle and back. The result feels wonderfully handmade and bespoke, and yet, to a discerning watch enthusiast, instantly Bremont. “We wanted a classic style of watch, but we felt the standard watch cases are pretty dull. By doing the trip tick, the case became a work of art. You can always tell a Bremont on someone’s wrist by looking at the side profile.”
With boutiques in London, New York City, Hong Kong and Melbourne, the brand is in a unique position. As many watchmakers surpass saturation in Europe and North America and eye far-flung emerging economies, Bremont still has room to expand at home. A shiny new facility in Henley is scheduled to open this year (pandemic permitting). Tentative plans for further boutiques are in varying stages of development. One wonders if the brothers have carefully noted the failures of luxury brands who’ve enthusiastically embraced licensing and joint ventures, only to see their brand names diluted and customers rightly confused. By playing their cards close to the vest, Bremont keeps a tight rein on when and where timepieces are sold. “In numbers terms, we’re making tiny numbers compared with big brands, and often Bremont owners appreciate that.”
It also fosters a palpable sense that customers and staff are one big family. “Without a doubt, we make less margins on making watches than anyone else. That’s because for the price-point it’s a very good watch made in very exclusive numbers. We want to offer value and exclusivity. If you buy a Bremont you enter the Bremont club and you become a friend of the brand.” These client interactions are precious. “Watches and the stories around them can be amazingly emotional,” says Giles. “A guy walked in to our boutique recently with his two sons and said, ‘We all want to buy a Bremont today together.’ We went through the whole process and he was really excited to be buying for his sons. At the end of it we asked what they were celebrating and he says, ‘I’ve got terminal cancer and been given six months to live.’” I suggest that a customer entrusting such a sentimental moment with the brand is also a responsibility. Giles agrees. “It’s a huge amount of trust they’re putting in us and we have to live up to that. It’s in the quality and looking after the client forever more and not doing anything stupid with the brand that will put that in jeopardy.”
In less than 18 months, the brand will celebrate 20 years since its founding, and the brothers are focussing on their goals for the coming decades. In particular, increasing Bremont’s vertical integration (some components are currently manufactured outside the UK) and local expertise. “Training up watchmakers is critical to our future success,” says Giles. “We’ve got a brilliant team working at the company and everyone feels there’s a mission we’re on. We’re always the underdog in that mission and that’s part of what drives us.” Perhaps Bremont’s greatest achievement to date has been building up a loyal client base, no mean feat for a British company competing against over 700 Swiss makers. “Our customers are everything. It takes years to gain that trust and I think we’ve proved our worth and that we’re here to stay. You don’t buy a Bremont to say, ‘Look, I’ve made it in life’. You buy a Bremont because it’s understated elegance” concludes Giles. “We’ve been on this amazing journey and it’s got a lot longer to go.” ■
Bremont watches are available at www.bremont.com, Bremont boutiques and authorised retailers
By REILLY SULLIVAN