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Best of British

  1. It would be easy to argue that Great Britain had invented time or, at the very least, provided it with some much-needed order.

    In 1737, when Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison invented the marine chronometer, he single-handedly provided the British naval fleet with accurate navigation, in essence creating the world’s first satnav by measuring the ship’s longitudinal position - a task so fundamental to the nation’s success that he was rewarded with £20,000 by Parliament. That’s £2.6 million in today’s money. Then, of course, there’s Greenwich Mean Time, the point from which all nations measure time. Its international acceptance and adoption brought further order and ensured that you could always use jet lag as an excuse for a 9am pint of lager.

    Words: Charlie Turner

    Photos: Justin Leighton

  2. Then the Swiss came along, and staked their own hefty claim on timekeeping. And in the past hundred or so years, not only have they given the world a vast number of posh watches, but for a mechanical timepiece to be taken seriously, it must be certified by the COSC - a Swiss organisation that tests each movement individually for several days, to make sure it stays accurate, even if thrown around or subjected to big temperature changes. A movement could be built anywhere in the world, to the highest standards and beyond, however, without that little bit of Swiss paper it might as well have come from a Christmas cracker. But it might not always be this way. Because, in the British countryside, brothers Nick and Giles English are working on bringing watchmaking - and certification - back home. All from their stylish purpose-built workshop near Henley-on-Thames.

    They founded Bremont in 2002, but the story goes back much further. The brothers’ childhood was spent hanging around their father’s aircraft hangar, taking things apart and putting them back together again. Their father, Dr Euan English, an ex-RAF pilot with a PhD in aeronautical engineering enthused the two boys with a love of all things mechanical and a passion for flying. From a young age, the three would display at air shows all over the world, until one day, during training for an upcoming display, Nick and Euan got stuck in an inverted spin and crashed. Nick broke more than 30 bones in the accident that resulted in the death of his father, but the tragic event caused a spark of inspiration that would change the rest of their lives.

  3. “As I was recovering,” says Nick, “Giles and I began discussing what to do with our lives. I was working in the city in corporate finance and hated it. But we’d always had a passion for watches…” This probably has much to do with his father, who would buy old clocks and leave them in the workshop for the boys to strip and rebuild. “We knew our way around them from an early age,” says Nick. “But what we really wanted was to create a mechanical watch inspired by our love of aviation and passion for engineering. So we chose our price point of £4k-5k and set out to create the best engineered timepiece for that price anywhere in the world.”

    In the late Nineties, while kicking around ideas for their new company, Nick and Giles were flying their vintage Bücker Jungmann biplane down to the South of France when the weather closed in and they were forced to make an emergency landing in a farmer’s field. “Landing in a field in France causes all kinds of hassle,” says Nick. “In the UK, you just buy the farmer a nice bottle of something and when the weather clears you’re on your way. But in France, they tell you it’s not safe to take off and then you have to take the wings off the plane.” But fortunately this particular farmer was much kinder. He helped them wheel their plane into his barn, opened a bottle of red and showed them round the workshop, which just happened to be full of disassembled watches and clocks. In the morning, with the clouds lifted, the boys departed as the farmer (and wartime pilot) waved them off. His name? Antoine Bremont.

  4. “So we had the name, and we knew what we wanted to create,” says Nick. But with relatively little watchmaking industry in the UK, and with that all-important COSC certificate in mind, they’d have to start in Switzerland. So they set up their atelier in the town of Biel in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2007 that they were happy enough with their creations to begin production, using movements sourced from a number of prestigious local suppliers. Over the next few years, production would gradually be shared between Biel and the UK, where the watches would be built under the supervision of hearty British craftsmen. But these were still early days.

    One thing was very evident, though. These watches would be seriously tough. The brothers coined a new motto, “Tested beyond endurance”, which is at the heart of the Bremont philosophy, and set about recruiting brand ambassadors - blokes who would take the early Bremonts and put them through exhaustive testing in some of the world’s harshest environments. Enter Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman, Gary Connery, Ben Saunders and a host of others who’ve tested Bremonts around the world, from the top of Everest, to a wingsuit dive with no parachute, to a tent in the middle of the desert.

  5. This no-nonsense regime led to Bremont being approached by Martin-Baker - the ejection seat manufacturer - to develop a watch that would survive the 20g force of being ejected from a moving plane. After months of testing and development (including the addition of a Faraday cage to avoid magnetisation of the movement, and the installation of an anti-shock case to protect it against extreme g-force when a pilot pulled the ejection lever), the Bremont MB series was released. There are two versions: the MBI, distinguished by its red housing and only available to pilots who have actually ejected, and the MBII, available to the public.

    This brought the brand to the attention of the military, and led to a raft of unique, limited-edition pieces for squadrons and elite units around the world. “Some of them I can show you,” says Nick, “and, erm… some of them I’d probably best not.” He leads me upstairs to the watch-assembly area and shows us the collection. “There’s the Apache ones, the ones we’ve done for the stealth bombers, the Chinook guys, the U-2 and then there’s these guys,” he says, pointing at a box marked Special Forces. Military specials have clearly become big business for Bremont, and it’s easy to imagine commandos and pilots comparing watches on the deck of some mighty aircraft carrier.

  6. As we poke around the SF box, Nick distracts me by introducing Stuart Duff, Bremont’s head watchmaker. Between Stuart’s team and their counterparts in Biel, Bremont builds over 6,000 watches a year. But the goal is grander than that. Upwards of 20,000 per year, in fact. “At that number, the level of development budget becomes very exciting indeed,” says Nick. But before that, he plans to utilise the skills of the UK’s motorsport valley to develop new watch technologies that match Bremont’s exacting standards. Quite where they go from the mindblowing tech they already use is hard to fathom. Take the MBII. Stuart lays out the pieces of one before me: the movement, three hands, a case, the sapphire glass (coated in an anti-reflective covering 10 times on both sides), the Faraday cage and anti-shock ring, the seals and a number of screws so small that if you sneezed you’d have to find some more.

    With the patience of a diplomat, Stuart shows me how to attach the hands and face. So it’s on with an eyeglass to magnify the hour hand as I attempt to grasp it with a pair of tweezers. After fumbling around for a while (a long while), I finally manage to place the hand over the pinion and press it into place. Then I check that the date turns over as the hour hand hits midnight. It ticks over at 10:23. Time to start again. After many attempts and some swearing I finally manage to get the date change to within the allotted six minutes. One hand down, two to go. At this point, we should make it very clear that this is a practice watch and will never, ever be sold.

  7. Next up it’s time to insert the bi-directional rotating bezel into the back of the case, a process that starts by inserting four teeny ball bearings into their tiny slots. You need the steady hand of a heart surgeon to get this right. Unfortunately, I have trembling butcher’s hands, but after more pantomime involving a steamed-up eyeglass, a sneeze and resultant ball bearing loss, the bezel is finally in place. Having inserted the anti-shock ring, the next stage feels like progress as the movement, complete with face and dials, is screwed into place. With my eye adjusting to the microscopic world of the watchmaker, things seem to be getting easier, and the bigger screws that hold the key elements in place slot in relatively easily. Then the screws start to get smaller, a lot smaller. Some are as small as poppy seeds. After many attempts, more swearing and a few lost screws, the majority of the puzzle is in place. The final element before sealing the caseback is the addition of the rotary pendulum which turns the watch into an automatic self-winder, through the oscillation of its weight (see p29). With the gears meshing with the rest of the movement, I screw in the world’s smallest screw with the world’s smallest torque screwdriver, before finally sealing the backplate with the final six screws.

  8. As you dive into this microscopic world, the artistry of these creations becomes all-consuming. The accuracy of their construction and the rhythm of their tiny parts makes any sort of car engineering seem clumsy and industrial. And I’ve only been dealing with the larger elements. A single hair is nine microns thick. A chronometer’s movement contains elements just one micron thick. In the time it’s taken me to cobble this together, the watchmaker sitting opposite me has stripped and reassembled a movement - oiling its minuscule jewels with sufficient grease to see it beat perfectly for another four years. “Give yours a wind,” says Stuart. “See if it works.”

    I wind it. It ticks into life. And as I train my lens onto its movement for one last look at its flickering cogs, I’m struck by a strangely paternal feeling. Watchmaking: it’s officially like childbirth for men. “Nice job,” says Stuart, who later tells me my watch would’ve passed the COSC test for accuracy but spectacularly failed Bremont’s exacting quality control.

  9. But, with the Swiss still holding a vice-like grip on chronograph certification, that piece of paper will still have to come from overseas. Could that change? “There’s no reason why you couldn’t certify chronographs in the UK,” says Nick, “and I’d like us to lead the way.” With Bremont’s staggering success so far, it’s fair to say that - since their emergency landing in a French field - they’ve done more than their fair share to bring watchmaking back to Britain. With that insatiable appetite for detail and deep understanding of what makes a mechanical timepiece special, it looks like the UK watch industry is in safe hands. Next time, maybe they’ll even give me a certificate to prove it.

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