Superlative watchmaking is still the preserve of the Swiss with names like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Jaeger-LeCoultre continuing to cast an air of horological magic over the Vallée de Joux, the spiritual home of high-end timepieces. range and meticulous craftsmanship.
But great watchmaking has found a place to thrive here in Britain thanks to a number of bold new companies pushing the boundaries in terms of design and mechanics, bringing a new style to the affordable watch market.
Here we explore five local brands that fuse traditional heritage with a sense of modernity and a dash of British irreverence.
“Our desire to produce timepieces is directly inspired by iconic aviators, aircraft and events in British military aviation history,” said one of the founding members of AVI-8. The collective has chosen to remain anonymous, but AVI-8’s network of specialists includes seasoned watchmakers, aviation enthusiasts and historians.
Each pilot’s watch is a tribute to a particular story in aviation history, whether it’s a hero of the skies like Sir Douglas Bader, an iconic fighter like the Spitfire or a community of armed forces like the Royal British Legion, with whom AVI-8 has partnered to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021.
The Flyboy Royal British Legion Founder’s Chronograph and the Flyboy Royal British Legion President’s Meca-Quartz were limited to 1,000 pieces, with a percentage of each sale going to the charity in aid of veterans and their families.
All AVI-8 models are powered by robust movements with an even split between mechanical self-winding automatics and Japanese “Meca-Quartz”, a hybrid that uses quartz for the main watch functions and a mechanical movement for the chronograph module. All watches are distinguished by their bold displays with large numerals, prominent hands and prominent crowns, in keeping with the traditional pilot’s watch design. Retrograde chronographs are best-sellers thanks to their more than affordable price.
William Wood Watches
William Wood Watches founder Jonny Garrett established his brand in 2016 in memory of his late firefighter grandfather, after whom the company is named. His timepieces are unconventional but all the more ingenious for that: he uses recycled fire hose materials destined for landfill to make his watch straps. Each bracelet represents a different fire brigade – red for the London Fire Brigade, khaki green for the British Armed Forces Fire and Defense Unit for example – with a percentage of each watch sale going directly to charities in firefighters across the country. There’s more to the brand than shrewd recycling as Garrett has paid great attention to form and function in its products that adhere to the classicism of vintage tool watches.
The Prestige models belonging to the Triumph and Valiant ranges are particularly interesting. The first is a classic sports watch with a touch of originality: it is powered by a Sellita SW510 chronograph movement (made in the Swiss Jura) and equipped with a dial that subtly recalls the gauges of the dashboard of a cockpit of fire truck. Turn it and you’ll see the rotor swinging in a bespoke fire alarm-inspired caseback (£2,495). With its sporty and handsome Valliant model, Garrett offers the smart idea of movement choice: your watch can run on a high-quality SW200 automatic movement made in Switzerland by the Sellita Group (£1,150) or the workhorse NH35 Movement automatic by Japanese group Seiko (£695). A nice touch to note: the crown of each watch shows off the brand’s helmet emblem which is set in cast brass from an original 1920s British firefighter’s helmet.
Nicholas Bowman-Scargill is the re-founder of Fears Watches, Britain’s oldest watch company founded in 1846 in Bristol. He’s also a bit of a leadership hero: When Covid-19 hit and sales plummeted, he took a job at a local supermarket to keep his business afloat, working nights stacking shelves and managing his office during the day. Things started to look up in the spring of 2020, prompting him to devote all his efforts to Fears seven days a week. This has paid off, as his (albeit small) production of luxury watches is regularly sold in line.
The ‘Archival 1930’ deco-style model from Fears (£3,500 for the classic version and £3,950 for the small seconds version) has a rectangular face, a vintage-looking champagne dial bordered by a minute track scale of iron and is presented on a burgundy leather strap, handmade in Belgium. It also has the lovely cachet of being powered by an unused/meticulously refurbished vintage ETA movement. As one of the brand’s best-sellers, its elegantly curved profile and slender proportions hark back to an era of sophistication and exacting style.
No less beautiful but more classically curved, the Brunswick model is distinguished by its graceful cushion-shaped case and beautifully hand-rendered dial available in a number of surface finishes ranging from lacquered blue with graduated shades to silver shiny thanks to a rhodium coating.
Marloe Watch Company
Founded in 2015 by friends Gordon Fraser and Oliver Goffe, the Marloe Watch Company is based in Kinross, Scotland, and founded on the principle of “slow life”, which advocates clean, streamlined design that demonstrates a sense of timeless modernity. Currently there are seven watch collections and each is rooted in a British narrative that feels well explored and refreshingly authentic.
For example, the Haskell model, designed for the “modern traveler”, takes its name from Haskell Strait, the ocean passage that Captain Robert Falcon Scott passed through on his departure from Ross Island in Antarctica. The cool, retro-looking Pacific model is inspired by the buzz surrounding the dawn of the jet age and in particular the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first commercial jet to cross the Pacific and circumnavigate the globe .
It’s a company that equates design with storytelling, so every detail has been carefully thought out with a “less is more” approach. Designed in the UK, all watches are powered by Swiss-made mechanical movements.
The British brand Farer is famous for its solid Swiss calibers and colorful dials. The watches are designed in the company’s London studio and are named after British adventurers and ships – a nice touch that gives the models a sense of heritage and prestige. This historical inclination is also the sign of a targeted production since all the collections must adhere to a strong USP rooted in traditional values, namely that which defends “the good done”.
The quartz and automatic models are assembled by the reputable Swiss company Roventa Henex. It’s a revelation that Farer is refreshing about: white-label movement production is often a closely guarded secret in the watch world. Recently, the brand introduced the black-dial Erebus to its three-hand collection, a minimalist model best described as an exercise in restraint. Like all Farer watches, there is an idiosyncratic touch in the form of a bright red arrow at the tip of the seconds hand.