Not many people today would class Britain as one of the world’s top watchmakers. Sure, it has a number of promising brands – Bremont, Farer, and Christopher Ward among them – but on the whole, while the watches are pieced together on British soil, some of the parts, particularly the movements, will be sourced from companies in Switzerland. So British in terms of spirit and design, even craftsmanship, but still requiring assistance from outside sources.

Bremont is the most mainstream of the British brands today

But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when Britain produced the most sought-after timepieces in the world in their entirety. Many of the great innovators were British, responsible for techniques and features still used in mechanical watchmaking today. They helped to shape the foundations of the modern industry, and even Rolex – the world’s most successful luxury watch brand – started life in London before moving its operations to Switzerland.

Some may argue that the watch as we know it was a British invention. It was King Charles II that allegedly introduced waistcoats to the fashion set in the 17th century, encouraging the rise of small, thin pocket watches, rather than the large, rounded pendants worn around the neck that had come before. Both were fairly useless at telling the time, but it was the watchmakers of Britain that evolved the inner workings to make them more than a fashion accessory.

Best of British

The list of names associated with British watchmaking and their achievements is an impressive one: Daniel Quare added the minute hand in 1690; Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement in 1755 – still the most widely-used version in today’s watches; and Thomas Prest discovered keyless winding in 1820. History points to many great British watch pioneers, as well as its legendary manufacturers, such as John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw.

John Harrison is associated with the marine chronometer

Another important name is John Harrison, who earned a Guinness World Record only last year. Harrison is best known for his marine chronometers from the mid-18th century, which solved the problem of accurately telling the time when out at sea. In doing so, he helped sailors to determine their longitude, said to be a major contributing factor to the growth of the British Empire.

Harrison also drew up plans for a pendulum timepiece that he claimed would be accurate to within a second over a 100-day period. Ridiculed at the time, the device was finally built in the 1970s, and after many years of fine-tuning was declared the world’s “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air” in April 2015. Not bad for a design around 250 years old.

Rise and fall

With this kind of pedigree, it seems strange to think that anything could go wrong. By 1800, Britain was making half of the world’s watches – around 200,000 pieces a year. In her lecture at Salon QP several years ago, watch journalist Laura McCreddie described the demise of British watchmaking as “a lack of foresight” and “a cautionary tale for today’s British watch renaissance”. 

Harrison even made it to the UK postal stamp

She says that by the 1800s, the watchmaking industry had become concentrated in London’s northern suburbs, particularly Clerkenwell and St Luke’s – high-end objects of beauty made in poor, overcrowded areas. The industry employed 8,000 people, with around 120 different watchmakers. However, competition was starting to build, initially from Switzerland and then from the US. But while Britain’s offerings remained high-end, those of other countries were cheaper, with economists hailing this as a major growth area for the industry.

McCreddie believes a milestone in the fall of British watchmaking came in 1846 when Swiss watchmaker and entrepreneur Pierre-Frédéric Ingold tried to set up a workshop in Clerkenwell. Ingold had built machines designed to help mass production, but rather than embracing his ideas, the British watchmakers were not happy. Attempts were made to publicly shame Ingold, with the whole matter debated in the Houses of Parliament. “His scheme had made the watchmakers incredibly suspicious and distrustful of mechanised watchmaking,” McCreddie adds.

Roger W. Smith is the preeminent British watchmaker today

Ingold took his ideas to Britain’s competitors instead, who thrived further as a result. By 1900, there were just three major watchmaking companies in the UK – the Lancashire Watch Syndicate, Rotherhams of Coventry and the Coventry Watch Movement Company. Factory production had been introduced by this point, but already the Swiss and US markets were too far ahead. The quartz watch crisis of the 1980s, which affected watchmaking in other countries, was the final turn of events that finished the British companies for good.

Today’s revival
With such an impressive watchmaking history, there are clear incentives for companies in Britain to build on this intriguing heritage. A cluster of new watch brands has emerged in recent years, such as Bremont, Meridian, and Schofield. While each displays high levels of craftsmanship, the industry is hardly at the level it once was, with the movements still sourced from Switzerland.

Robert Loomes is perhaps the brand taking a slightly different approach. It reconditions movements from the 1950s and 1960s, made by a British company called Smiths – still in existence, but no longer involved in watchmaking. Robert W Smith’s on the Isle of Man also produces watches in their entirety, including movements, but in low numbers of 10-12. And then there’s the Birmingham-based Struthers & Co. and Charles Frodsham from London, both doing fantastic work, but again both Struthers and Frodsham remain boutique brands.

Bremont has pushed to create inhouse movements

The idea of a British company making complete watches in sustainable numbers again perhaps remains a dream, although several of the current manufacturers hope to get there eventually. Their aspirations, however, need to be supplemented by education, creating a new generation of watchmakers that can echo the standards and craftsmanship of old. Trailblazer, an apprenticeship scheme set up by the UK government that helps employers to tailor their training to their own specific industry is one of the schemes that may help.
And what effect could Britain voting to leave the EU have? A positive one, potentially. The EU has chosen to invest heavily in German watch brands in the past, including companies such as Glashütte, rather than the British market. Free of this legislation, the UK government would be able to fund and stimulate its own watch industry, helping it become a global leader once again.