Early Horological Innovations By British Figures
Watch movement signed by Tompion & Graham. Image: Watchpro.com
The history of England is intertwined with the history of watchmaking itself. You may even be surprised to learn that Swiss luxury brands of today, like Rolex and Bovet, were both founded in London.
It all began in the 1600s. During this period, Thomas Tompion from Bedfordshire, England, trained as a clock-maker and crafted a reputation for superior workmanship.
Tompion would enjoy a very successful career. At one point, King Charles II would commission him to create two clocks which would be used in the Royal Observatory from its opening in the late 1600s.
One of these same clocks can still be found in the Octagon Room of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Also passing close by the Observatory is the modern Prime Meridian, on which Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is based.
You can see Paul Anthony with one foot on either side of the line in the picture below.
Anyways, back to the story! Perhaps the greatest achievement of Tompion, the “father of English clockmaking”, was his mentoring of George Graham. By the same token, Graham would further clock technology in his own right with multiple design improvements.
The Dawn Of The Industrial Revolution
Graham’s colleague, John Harrison, would similarly make his mark. In 1735, he would introduce a highly-accurate marine chronometer and change navigation of the open ocean forever. Interestingly enough, Graham supported Harrison personally and financially, aiding him in reaching success.
One generation after Tompion, Graham’s apprentice Thomas Mudge would conceive the lever escapement, making his mark on timepiece history. As a matter of fact, if you’re wearing an automatic watch while reading this, there’s a 99% chance that there is a lever escapement inside the case on your wrist.
John Arnold is yet another notable British figure in the archives of watchmaking. He would patent the helical balance spring and detente escapement, two groundbreaking horological innovations. Along with his colleague Thomas Earnshaw, the pair would develop simplified and practical marine chronometers.
Later on, Arnold’s chronometers would serve critical roles in legendary voyages, as the instruments helped navigators calculate their longitude. For instance, one of Arnold’s creations would accompany Captain Phipps on voyage towards the North Pole in 1773. A subsequent creation of his would also be declared superior to all previous chronometers by the Board of Longitude.
The Fall of British Watch Manufacturers
In short, the impact of Arnold, Graham, Mudge, Tompion, and other British innovators is evident. These leaders changed timekeeping history forever. Yet their legacies would fade with technological advancements to come.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
By the time that American watchmaking was ramping up in the 19th century, the English watchmaking industry was already a world power. Industrialization took the world’s watchmakers by storm, and where the Swiss adapted, the British did not.
British watch companies of the time were slow to leave behind the their hand-crafting customs for mass production. This would result in the gradual demise of an entire sector.
If a rising tide lifts all boats, the quartz crisis was the receding tide that put the nail in the coffin of most global watchmakers, including those in England. As a result, modern watch manufacturers in the UK face the same issues encountered globally, predominantly the lack of local parts manufacturers. Even then, some of the players we bring forth are making their own components, opening the door for future pioneers to follow.
Top British Watch Brands
Bremont Founders Nick & Giles English. Image: Bremont.com
Based in Henley-on-Thames, Bremont Watches have managed to put together an authentic take on pilot watches. Originally founded in 2002, the brand’s founders had their eyes set on an inflexible goal. They would produce exceptional-quality timepieces. Additionally, their designs would draw direct influence from another passion: a love for aircraft.
Since then, Nick and Giles English have been living out their passions through Bremont. The quality, evident in the chronometer certification that accompanies every single Bremont timepiece. The aesthetic, proven by a single look at their catalog.
In addition to their brand ethos, Bremont watches possess palpable characteristics that set them apart. All of the Bremont cases boast a three-part “Trip-Tick” construction ensuring durability. Internally, their movement are shielded from magnetic fields by an anti-magnetic faraday cage. Movement mounts also protect against shocks. Finally, in the appropriate models, a “Roto-Click” bezel provides a satisfying yet precise rotating action.
Roger Smith Watches
Roger W Smith‘s life was changed in 1987 when he met Dr. George Daniels at a university event. After this single event, Smith devoted the next seven years of his life to mastering the 32-step Daniels Method, fixated on being able to work besides the master in some distant future.
During his time, George Daniels was regarded as one of the best horologists in the world. He would construct entire watches by hand; from the movement to the case itself, along with the dial and more. Most importantly, George Daniels would create the first ever co-axial escapement that would be commercialized by Omega in 1999.
Working from the secluded Isle of Man, Smith achieved his dream of collaborating with Daniels on various series of timepieces. When Daniels passed away in 2011, Smith inherited not only his workshop but his legacy, which he upholds to this day.
With a production volume of just ten watches per year, obtaining one of these highly sought-after horological masterpieces is next to impossible. And while they may not be the most eye catching at a first glance, a brief dive into the history is sure to captivate watch geeks. The passion, the attention to detail, the respect for the craft. It’s all palpable, even just by looking at an image of Smith’s & Daniels’ creations.
Borne of the legacy left by George Graham, Graham Watches are one of the most renowned British-inspired watch brands on our list.
The brand was revived by a Swiss company at the end of the 20th century. Consequently, all of their watches contain movements that carry the Swiss Made hallmark and with it, the high standard of quality.
Graham Orrery Tourbillon
Graham’s model line is composed mostly of chronographs, the most notable of which is the Chronofighter. With its lever-actuated, “left-handed” chronograph, the Chronofighter recalls British racing tradition and ensures flawless function. The brand has also used this model to experiment with varying case materials including carbon fiber, ceramic, precious metals, and bronze.
In the meantime, Graham has also ventured outside of their comfort zone with some higher echelon pieces. Their Orrery Tourbillon, a limited edition of 8 pieces, possesses a 100 year calendar complication, blue lacquered dial, and pink gold case. Undoubtedly, George would be proud to have his name on this masterpiece.
Arnold & Son
Together with sister-brand Graham Watches, Arnold & Son is also permeated by English heritage. Furthermore, the brand was similarly reestablished less than 25 years ago.
Where Graham leans on chronograph and racing-inspired timepieces, Arnold & Son looks to the sea for inspiration. In addition to this, Arnold & Son boasts a movement manufacture where they develop and produce their calibres, launching at least two new movements per year.
Arnold & Son Movement Being Assembled
The brand proudly touts the fact that the movements are developed under their roof, and rightly so. This characteristic is not shared by most watch manufacturers. To the watchmakers at Arnold & Son, their unwavering commitment to quality and craftsmanship is an ode to tradition. An ode to Arnold himself.
The brand’s founding inspiration never sacrificed the accuracy of his marine chronometers, as it could split the line between success and failure. While no longer depended on by the lives of their clients, Arnold & Son maintains the objective, producing striking watches year after year.
Loomes & Co. hails from Stamford and prides itself in employing a small team of watchmakers who produce all of their timepieces.
Loomes’ initial model, The Robin, reminds us somewhat of Vortic Watches. Incidentally, the British brand is remodelling vintage British Smiths movements and housing them in their own cases. Included in the remodel is a re-jewelling and replacement of the mainspring, among other methods.
More recently, the brand has taken steps to more authentically display the Made In England marquee on their dials. As a result, they have introduced the aptly-named Loomes Original watch.
The gold (yellow or white) case of this bespoke timepiece carries within it an entirely in-house movement. Not only the plates, hairspring, wheels, and pinions, but even the jewels and springs were designed and manufactured from nothing. More specifically, “if not made in the workshop, everything was made within an hour’s drive from Stamford”.
It’s safe to say that this attitude towards watchmaking can only be admired, if not for how bold, then certainly for how promising it is to the future of British watchmaking.
Christopher Ward watches come out of Berkshire with an interesting backstory. The brand was concocted by three friends with contrasting business backgrounds. However, this fact would not stand between them and their objective: creating premium timepieces. Not only this, but premium timepieces at a fraction of the prices offered by competitors.
More than 15 years after the initial spark that birthed their business model, the brand is flourishing. In 2014, at their 10-year mark, the brand celebrated by releasing their in-house SH21 movement. In addition to being big news for the brand itself, it was big news for all contemporary British watch companies. The 5-day power reserve movement was the first commercially viable movement by a British watch brand in 50 years.
Christopher Ward has not let their successes slow them down. The brand directors continue to innovate, relying heavily on their company forums to stay in touch with their community and consumer. One of their most successful models, the Trident, has seen various iterations over the years and continues to blossom.
Many of their models are offered in both quartz and automatic versions, naturally at different price points. A true embodiment of Christopher Ward’s commitment to satisfaction, this unique model ensures the high-quality timepieces are accessible to all.
Made in London, Farer watches bring forth more than curiously-named watch models. By the way, they’re all named after British explorers and their vessels. Not only in name, but also in design, Farer’s “ambition beyond the ordinary” motto shines through.
The construction of their timepieces also shares this philosophy. Swiss-made movement are housed inside high-grade metal cases. The dials include sunray and guilloche finishes, and are always protected by scratch-resistant sapphire crystals. Attached to the cases are buttery-smooth Barenia leather straps, often in the color of your choosing.
Sea green dial on the Lander GMT. Image: Farer.com
Looking through Farer’s catalog, many of their attractive designs jump out. The Pendine offers bright splashes of color on a classical white dial. The Lander, an ETA-powered GMT offering, sports an exclusive sea green sunray dial. Additionally, customization options such as the strap, individual case number, and free case engraving help put a final touch of exclusivity to each Farer timepiece.
Operating in the West Sussex countryside, founder Guy Ellis’ goal was not rooted in nationalist pride. Rather, the brand was born of a personal quest to create a watch that matched his taste.
This relatable story has evolved significantly and indeed moved into the niche of Made in the UK watches. Early on, international manufacturers disappointed Ellis, as the final products were not exactly matching the designs he commissioned.
Together with his small team, Ellis searched locally for manufacturers who could make the components to his measurements. As a result, the year 2013 would see the release of the Blacklamp, the first Schofield watch labeled “Made in England”.
Ellis’ unwavering commitment to quality has pushed British companies to improve their own methods to meet this standards. He’s employed the help of a rolls Royce dial supplier to print numerals on his dials. An enameling supplier, having never worked with watches, has also been coaxed to expand his horizons. While building his own supply chain, Guy Ellis and Schofield are leading the revival of British watchmaking itself.
Conversely, the production volume of Schofield is still low. The Rare Things (RT) models are limited to less than 5 each. Time will tell if the fledgling industry is able to grow with the consumer’s demands. Particularly, those of Guy Ellis.
Mr. Jones Watches
Mr. Jones Watches are the most affordable brand of watches that we mention in this guide. Surprisingly, they also happen to be the most uncommon.
Made in London, Mr. Jones watches were the result of founder “Crispin” truly letting go of the time-telling functionality of watches. The subsequent result: a wild assortment of whimsical designs split among collections for both men and women.
Let us be clear. Those looking for intricate case designs and exotic case materials should look elsewhere. Particularly, they should look higher up the price scale.
When approached with the right mindset, that of having fun, the brand exploits a niche quite effectively. To this effect, their collections draw inspiration from cartoons to playing cards, and everything in between.