INTERVIEW: What we learnt from Nick English about Bremont’s grand plans for The WingTime+Tide
Editor’s note: A few weeks after Bremont opened the doors of its impressive new watchmaking facilities, The Wing, our European editor Mike Christensen was treated to a guided tour from the British brand’s co-founder Nick English, to see what all the fuss is about.
Gobsmacked, absolutely gobsmacked. It was like someone had transported me to Switzerland. Hopefully that first line gives you an idea of two things: first, how impressive an operation Bremont’s new digs are – which Thor Svaboe detailed here – but more importantly, how significant a development they could be in the grand scheme of British watchmaking.
Over the years, I’ve had the honour and privilege of frequenting some of the most prestigious watch manufacturers in the world, from Audemars Piguet’s HQ in the beautifully picturesque Le Brassus to Hublot’s base in Nyon – but they have always shared one thing in common: they’re in Switzerland. So to get in the car and drive 40 minutes, through the quaint old English town of Henley-on-Thames, past luscious-green polo fields, only to stumble across a manufacturing and technology centre unlike any of its kind in the UK felt slightly surreal.
But crucially, as you’ll find out from my conversation with Nick English, Bremont isn’t here to try and knock the Swiss off the top – not yet at least. No, Bremont’s grand plan is to learn and absorb information from the best. And when it comes to horology and timepieces, we all know that title goes to the Swiss. And if we go back to the beginning of the Bremont journey in 2002, Nick and his brother Giles set up a little workshop in Bienne, Switzerland, specifically because, as Nick puts it: “we had to learn the ropes.” Nearly 20 years later, the industry has changed a lot and Bremont is at its next stage of learning.
Time+Tide: Take us back to the beginning, Nick.
Nick English: We launched our first watch in 2007 and for the first two years, they were made in Switzerland. Then in 2009, we started bringing back all the assembly. And then we thought, we’re getting Swiss components putting them together over here, which is great, but this isn’t just what the brand’s about. The brand is very much about bringing the machining. There is incredible history in this country, and Giles and my mission statement from 2002 basically said Bremont can play a small part, any part, in the reinvigoration of watchmaking, but it can’t just be by assembly, it has to be a lot more than that.
So then we set up a factory in Silverstone, which we then moved to Ruscombe Park, which is Twyford way because we knew five years ago that [The Wing] would be built, which is now 35,000 square feet of watch space where we’re training up UK folk to become watch technicians, watchmakers and machinists. That’s why the British School of Watchmaking sees us as the only genuinely British brand.
Time+Tide: Are you hoping this facility will have a pivotal role in driving British watchmaking forward?
Nick English: I hope so. What we want to try and do is play a small part in what is a big industry. We’re keen on working with suppliers in the UK to make everything from movement parts and movements to case components and crowns. We have this thing called “Operation Bulldog” where we try and bring back more and more parts that we aren’t making, so if we can make it in UK rather than going to supplies overseas, we will. There are lots of micro-engineering companies in the UK that specialise in medical and military industries – things like crystal manufacturers – so why not use them?
Time+Tide: Certainly, but surely working with watches is a different kettle of fish?
Nick English: Yes, so we’ll have to teach them. The most exciting thing for us is we are bringing back a lot of the IP, and the reason we’re doing that is because we’re working with some incredible Swiss companies where the IP tends to be kept over there. But they’re now genuinely teaching us how to catch up. This IP from Switzerland is so valuable to this country [UK]. Suddenly them coming over and saying, “Okay, we’ll let you use this machine,” is huge, because normally they’ll tell you to “f**k off”. We want the IP of how to use it and we want to know how to program it and how to finish it. That’s the exciting thing.
So now we’ve got a whole lot of machines coming up and we’ve got people training in things like cutting and finishing. You see, we’ve cut moving parts before but not with a particularly efficient machine, so suddenly we’re going to have this machine that does that. It is all about trying to learn from the best in the world, and this movement we’ve got coming up to the end of the year, I don’t know what you want to call it, we’ll let the industry decide, but it’s something very, very special. It will be a Bremont manufactured movement, and we’ll be doing jewel settings, doing movement parts, it will be a movement assembly. the case… it will all be made here. I mean, that’s pretty darn British.
Time+Tide: What is the toughest challenge you’ll be faced with amid this transition?
Nick English: The assembly, the repetition, the process engineering of actually taking those 170 individual microscopic components and assembling them in a way that will be regulated and will literally pass the chronometer-rated test – that’s the challenge. It’s the repetition that took us a long time.
Time+Tide: Embracing such wholesale change often comes with a cost though, yes?
Nick English: I remember at one point we were told categorically there’s no way you’re going to be able to make cases but we’d just bought this bloody great machine so we figured we just had to learn. Instead of taking six months, it took 18 months until we got to the first stage, but now we’ve sussed them out – so it shows you just have to be committed. You’ve got to jump in with both feet, but what you realise, there is a good skill-set in here. What we are having to learn is cutting metal is one thing but it’s not just the efficiencies in cutting that metal, but also finishing. So a watch hasn’t just got to work, it’s got to look beautiful, and it’s that bit where it’s been a continual learning curve, and this is where the Swiss are very good. As I said though, we have specialists like these incredible CNC engineers who’ve worked in F1. They can do that, but they just have to be trained. But if the Swiss are selling you a half a million pound machine, they can show you how to do it!