Grace Under Fire: Luxury leadership in troubled times | Time for action – An interview with British watchmaker Giles English, co-founder of Bremont
Walpole star columnist Peter Howarth, editor, content expert and CEO of luxury creative agency, Show Media, talks to luxury’s leaders about their approach to the crisis, and shares his insights into these extraordinary times.
In the latest in this series, Peter Howarth speaks to Giles English, co-founder (with his brother Nick) of British watch firm Bremont, about bringing watchmaking skills back to the UK, and how lockdown has given him time to think of a new approach to the future of doing business.
A funny thing has happened to me over the past couple of months. I find myself reading things in a new way. The backstory of Covid-19 seems to seep into everything, even into memories. Recently, I’ve been thinking about Andrew Marvell’s great Carpe Diem poem To His Coy Mistress. Essentially a plea from a would-be lover to the resisting subject of his ardour, the premise is simple: we don’t have enough time to indulge your protestations, life’s too short to prevaricate. The first line sets it out: “Had we but world enough and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime.” The problem is, says the writer, that time moves fast and they will miss their opportunity as, essentially, they will all soon be ashes. “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”, he writes.
Time has been much on my mind: the paradoxical perception of it both slowing down during days that, groundhog-like, form a much more predictable pattern than usual, but which, at the same time, seem to also disappear one after another rapidly like a succession of so many identical jelly moulds.
A piece in The Sunday Times a few weeks ago particularly struck a chord with me. Jenny Coad wrote about how the world’s art galleries are currently closed to all but the people who work in them. She interviewed several museum directors and some talked of how they were attracted to particular works in their vast, echoing domains. Taco Dibbits at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum explained how Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, which dates from around 1663, ‘radiates tranquillity’. And then he said: ‘In the lockdown, time has a different dimension – the painting has that feeling, too.’
Another director, Daniel Weiss, president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, finds himself frequenting the galleries of ancient Greece and Rome. ‘I sit on a bench communing with these characters from the ancient world who have seen so much and been through so much,’ he explained.
And he stated: ‘Art is not an amenity; it’s a central part of the human experience.’
That’s the kicker isn’t it? Because one of the many things we learn from living with our liberty restricted – however good the reason – is that the human experience is so much more than just existing.
This is the problem of lockdown life. Beyond the inconvenience of queuing to get into the supermarket and not being able to see friends, and the growing elephant in the room of the global and local economy tanking, occasioned by our inability to go to work and do the things we do there – beyond all this, there is the issue that we are not able to experience life in the way that we as humans need to.”
Dylan Jones, my old friend and editor of GQ, tells me that he is encouraging his team to go back into the office because, as he so eloquently puts it, Zoom calls ‘Take the randomness out of creativity’. In other words, he’s missing the human experience of sitting in a magazine meeting and chewing the fat, coming up with ideas, and then popping out a few minutes later into the features department with another few. Zoom works by appointment. No spontaneity. No body language. No talking at the same time. Dylan’s misgivings go further. He says that it must do something to you – and not in a good way – to spend all day conversing with the same screen that you may well then use for entertainment and getting your news. Life mediated through a single technological device is worryingly not real life.
There are, however, other technologies that, I believe, speak more of the human spirit. These, to my mind are more of the analogue sort. The ones that symbolise the ingenuity of the human beings that conceived them. Bear with me here. But have you ever considered that the cheapest quartz watch will do a better job of timekeeping than the world’s most sophisticated, finely engineered, and consequently expensive, mechanical wristwatch? And yet people will buy the device made with cogs and springs. Why? It cannot be to tell the time.
It’s a question I put to Giles English, one of the two brothers who in 2002 founded Bremont watches, today one of only a handful of British watch companies, though he will tell you that this was an industry that we excelled in for centuries before it migrated to a bunch of valleys in Switzerland. ‘Up until the 20th century, most of the world’s watches were made in this country,’ explains English. ‘And of course, the first accurate marine chronometer was famously made by John Harrison in the 18th century in response to the great “Longitude” competition.’ You can see it at the Greenwich Royal Observatory.
So, why do people buy expensive mechanical wristwatches when their technology was superseded long ago in terms of accurate timekeeping by electronic quartz devices? ‘A watch is something you have an emotional relationship with, I believe,’ explains English. ‘For a start, you wear it on your wrist, close to your body. It is a constant companion.’”
It’s also a marvel of engineering. ‘When you come and see a watch being built, when we’ve been working on it for two years – when we’ve been inspired to design it, doing the parts process, all those individual screws and cogs and gears and hands – when you see a young watchmaker you’ve trained up put that watch together and wind up that mainspring… you see it kick into life…’ He talks with passion, and uses the image of man breathing life into a machine – like a white-gloved Victor Frankenstein. But these little monsters are made of pieces of metal and obey their masters.
‘There are 86,400 seconds a day, and a mechanical watch is accurate to within three to four seconds over that time, which is amazing in percentage terms,’ says English. ‘There’s no battery, nothing polluting the environment. That’s what’s wonderful about mechanical things, like a watch or a bicycle. And they’ll keep on working. It’s not unusual to see people riding bicycles today that are 30 years old, while the watch on my wrist will work in 200 years’ time if it’s serviced regularly. There’s something lovely about that… My iPhone cost me £1,000 and I will throw it away in two years. So a watch for a couple of thousand pounds that will last several lifetimes is not really expensive.’
So that’s it. The humble mechanical wristwatch is a portable reminder not only of the passage of time, but also of our creativity – our artistry – as a species, and our ability to make inspired use of our time on Earth. It is also a time capsule of memories in that it accompanies the wearer on his or her life’s adventures in a way that few other things do. One of Bremont’s regular sidelines is to make special-edition watches for regiments. ‘The military guys we make watches for, they say their watches remind them of when they flew their F-15, for example; it helps them tell that story to their children; their watch is something they can hand down.’
The day I speak to English, he’s actually not wearing a Bremont, but an old Omega that belonged to his grandfather and accompanied him on the D-Day landings. ‘My grandfather was a doctor on the ships on D-Day,’ he explains. ‘He was a famous anaesthetist, and, interestingly, invented the ventilator that has been so crucial a piece of machinery over the past few months. When I wear this watch, it reminds me of him.’
This is fascinating for a number of reasons. It explains, in part, Bremont’s close ties with the military. But it also reminds me that Giles and his brother Nick approached the government at the start of the pandemic to offer to make ventilator components, reasoning that watchmaking employs precisely the type of precision engineering required to produce these.
Did they get anywhere with this? ‘To be honest it was really frustrating. We did three different pitches to make components but we couldn’t make it work. As a machinist working in metal, there really is no one better at producing small components than we would have been. And as my grandfather invented the first commercial ICU ventilator at Brompton Hospital – the Manley ventilator – it would have been great to fulfil the circle.’
English doesn’t believe that any of the small companies who pitched to help manufacture ventilators won the contract and concedes that that this was probably to do with procurement processes for the health service. But he wishes Bremont could have played a part. ‘We’re very patriotic here at Bremont,’ he explains. Witness the Battle of Britain Collection the firm is launching today to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the famous air campaign – a limited edition of 80 box sets, each comprising two timepieces themed around famous WWII fighter aircraft – one based on the Supermarine Spitfire and the other on the Hawker Hurricane.
‘Actually, I was talking to friend of mine who works for the government the other day and suggested that there really should be a campaign to persuade people to holiday in England this year; don’t spend your money abroad. And buy British goods. That I would love to see as a campaign,’ says English.
Giles and his brother Nick have been on their own campaign to invest domestically, not just in terms of cash, but also in terms of expertise. ‘It’s been our goal for many years to bring watchmaking back to the UK, and we’ve been training watchmakers to acquire the skills they need to make watches here. This year we were due to open our new facility in Henley in August, but obviously Covid-19 has delayed that. It will now be the end of the year.’
The Bremont dream has been to get as close to making a made-in-England watch as it is possible to do, and the new factory in Henley is the latest step in this process, which has preoccupied the brothers behind the brand for a decade now. Specifically, they have been working on producing a British watch movement – the mechanical “engine” of a wristwatch – for four-and-a-half years.”
‘We’ll never build everything in UK; that’s just impossible,’ explains English. ‘But each year we do a little bit more over here, and to do so requires a huge investment – to develop that skill set and make domestic production more efficient. It’s a bit like the car industry: a made-in-England car still uses imported components. And in any case, if I was producing watches in Switzerland, I wouldn’t be making my hands for myself or balance springs or crystals – that all requires specialist machinery. So I’d buy it in from specialists, made to my design.’
However, Bremont builds what English terms ‘a large chunk’ of its watches over here, including base plates and bridges and gears and cases. ‘When they say a watch is “Made in Switzerland” maybe 50 per cent of the components are Swiss,’ he explains. ‘In fact, any brand our size over there would probably not be making any of their own components, but we do.’
Bremont is, indeed, a peculiarly British affair. The watches are understated and unostentatious. And tough. They are, according to the literature, “Tested beyond endurance”, and they certainly reflect the characters of the two founders who number flying vintage aircraft and riding motorbikes as hobbies.
But though they may not shout from your wrist, Bremonts are, nevertheless, distinctive despite (or maybe because of) their simplicity. And this speaks of another aspect of the appeal of the wristwatch. ‘A watch does tell everyone else who you are,’ says English. ‘I can read so much into you from what watch you wear – what you think, where you’re from, your interests. It’s the same with any strong brand. It’s a statement of character. And let’s face it, a watch is about the only piece of jewellery that most men will wear.’
It’s hard to think of many equally powerful signifiers of the male personality as the wristwatch. As we move ever closer – and closer still as a result of lockdown, I would suggest – to a world in which the lines of formal and casualwear increasingly blur, the clue on the wrist takes on a greater and greater role. A man in jeans and trainers today may be a CEO. His choice of watch will tell you more about him than his footwear.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giles English wears a watch every day. Even in lockdown, when he will spend much of his time working at a computer screen that displays a time code that is synchronised with an atomic clock. He says he understands the irony of wearing a watch in these circumstances, and furthermore, that of wearing a Bremont, which is an outdoors brand, indoors, as well. But it is all to do with habit and attitude: ‘I feel very naked if I go to work at my desk without my watch. It’s a way to demarcate your work time and your leisure time. It’s always been that way with me – I couldn’t go out without my watch on. These days, in lockdown, I put on some respectable clothes, shave, and brush my hair, and I put on a watch. Then I’m ready for work. And the thing is, with all these Zoom calls you really have to be more on time than ever!’
And at the weekend? ‘Yes, of course I wear a watch at the weekend too. Often a different one to during the week. Even in lockdown where the difference between a weekday and a weekend is less obvious.’ Interestingly, switching watches can itself, therefore, be a way to mark the passage of time.
Inevitably, we get talking about Covid-19 and how it’s affected the business. Bremont has three stores in London and all have been closed, though one – in Mayfair – opened last Monday. The factory, on the other hand, has been open throughout, working at about a third of capacity, fulfilling online demand. Spacious enough to accommodate social distancing from the off, it has kept up with the orders from the military, a business that has not been impacted as these are long-term commissions. Online has been good too. But the experience has prompted the Bremont brothers to ask some profound questions.
‘We’ve realised how much of our business is to do with servicing a particular customer who engages with our story. That’s why it’s so frustrating to have had to delay the opening of our new facility. We want more people to come and see us. If you are buying your watch from one of our stores or one of our retailers, we want the sales assistant to say, “Would you like to go to Henley and see it being made?” I really want people to appreciate the craftsmanship and skill and care that goes into what we do.’
Seeing your watch taking shape in person is one thing, but this can also be achieved virtually. As can the “game” of being able to customise your own watch. To this end, Bremont has launched the Martin-Baker Configurator online, where customers can “build” their own personal version of the firm’s Martin-Baker MBII model (named after the British manufacturer of aircraft ejector seats with whom Bremont has collaborated on timepieces for several years). When they are happy with the result, any would-be watch designers can purchase their creations.
‘It’s worked really well,’ says English. ‘People are ultimately bored at home, and here they can design a watch with over a thousand variations. They want to get involved.’ He says that many people just have a play and create a fantasy timepiece, even if they don’t buy it. But that’s OK. What Bremont wants is for people to get involved.
‘Over the years, we have seen how people always want something personal and not standard,’ explains English. ‘So we thought, wouldn’t it be great if you could order what you want exactly, and then get sent pictures of your watch being built. There’s a 10-week wait for one of these, and during that time we keep you up to date with images of how it’s coming along. It becomes a really personal experience. Then, because of the different combinations – strap styles, open or closed casebacks, coatings and barrel colours (you can even have a purple one like the ones we make for the Royal Household) – statistically you’ll almost certainly never meet anyone with the same watch. You can ensure that by having it engraved on the back.’ The idea was to offer this online at a reasonable cost for a luxury timepiece, and the feedback from Bremont customers is that with a starting price of around £3,995, this is exactly what’s been achieved.
“Bremont customers are also communicating about other things. What are the English brothers learning from them at this time? ‘Spending habits have inevitably changed,’ says Giles. ‘People don’t just want to shop. They want to talk. We’ve always been pretty good at communication with our customers, but we’re now putting the kind of effort and energy into this than we wouldn’t have done before.’
The general impression that English is forming is of a time of taking stock. ‘People have become introspective, looking at how they spent their time before. Everything has changed. It’s not often you get the opportunity to step back and ask questions in this way. So people are looking at the environment, and the positives of the lack of travel; they’re asking, “Do I need to travel so much?” And not just overseas. For example, I used to drive up to London three times a week and wasted hours and hours. The question is: do we slip back into our old ways? We could. Personally, I don’t think any of us will be going back to the same level of travel we were used to. In future, I’ll arrange things so I only go to the city once a week.’
As well as the really big questions like, “How can I live my life in a more fulfilling way?” or “How can I make the world a better place?”, the other thing English says he’s been preoccupied with is what Covid-19 means for the very notion of making luxury watches. ‘It’s so interesting, but there are people who think of watches as status symbols, as a way of saying, “I’ve made it”. Luckily for us, we’ve never been a brand about showing off. Our customers buy our watches because of their understatedness. They’re for people who are in the know. It may well be that you have made it – but you don’t need to tell everyone.’
But he believes that while Bremont might find itself chiming with a new, more subdued zeitgeist, it may well be that there will be tougher times ahead for brands that are more ostentatious. ‘The whole outrageous luxury showy thing is not on everyone’s agenda in any case. But if my next door neighbour doesn’t have a job anymore, how will that change my behaviour as a consumer? And as a brand, if you are in the wrong space with regard to how conspicuous you are, can you change your messaging?’
Where messaging, in particular, is concerned, another question he has had to ask is: ‘Do you roll up in a ball or do you try and reinvent what you do?’ Bremont chose the latter path. ‘We didn’t make anyone from our marketing team furloughed. Instead we asked: “How can you be as inventive as possible without spending money?” As a result our web traffic went up, and because of the current situation this was not about a “buy now” message, which in any case didn’t feel right for the times. Instead, we started talking to our ambassadors, doing two Instagram live broadcasts a week and Facebook Live chats. It’s been really positive.’
The brand has an impressive roster of explorer-adventurers that seem only too happy to talk to its customers and tell their stories. Maybe, at the moment, the idea that you share something with people who habitually pitch themselves against the unknown – even if that is a taste in timepieces – is a particularly powerful idea?
For many brands, the immediate future will be determined by how active they have been in lockdown, says English. ‘If you have gone into hibernation, that’s going to cost you,’ he says. ‘What’s interesting is that the impression I get is that many of the large global brands that are built on big, glossy advertising campaigns have gone very quiet. It’s almost as if they don’t have anything else to say. It seems to be the smaller brands that have kept on talking to their customers through this period, engaging them and showing the soul of the brand. That has been really important, and shows that you are not scared of showing your opinions or attitude, or where you stand on issues that go beyond just product. We’ve certainly discovered that by keeping messaging at this moment.’
Other realisations have been about how important it is to be reactive and nimble as a business. ‘You can’t overthink – and the days of planning a website two years ahead have gone. Now we all have to try new stuff.’ And then there is the issue of social responsibility: ‘How can you actually do a bit of good as a brand? We’ve always been very conscious. We’ve always given back through charitable limited editions and things like the bracelet we created to raise money for the Food4Heroes NHS initiative. Our customers appreciate this, of course, but also, internally, as a business, you feel you’re connecting with the wider community and helping at a time of crisis.’
And what of the prospect of a change in retail behaviour? ‘Like many people I have been living and shopping locally for a couple of months now, and as the shops open up I expect I will spend more time shopping locally,’ says English. ‘Is that a pattern that will continue? If we’re looking at our store in Canary Wharf, for example, a lot of people won’t be going back to work there for ages, so will we just see no customers? Or will our conversion rate be higher? Footfall is a real issue for retailers, and in the current climate will you be comfortable with a salesman breathing over you? Would you prefer to do an online appointment?’
“So is online the future for Bremont? ‘Well, it’s a focus for sure. If working online is a better way of doing things, then the future will be more and more online, and we’re getting a flavour of that right now. One great mate of mine who runs a big company says that 80 per cent of his staff feel more connected than before, though they are working from home. Another feels the efficiency of his home-working people has gone up by 50 per cent.’ The return to work may see work itself look very different.
But while this sort of thing makes it sound like luxury brands like Bremont ought to be thinking digital-first, English acknowledges that though his online business has trebled during lockdown, it still doesn’t make up for the loss of trading being suffered by his closed stores and wholesale accounts. And, he also recognises that digital does come with inevitable limitations. Like Dylan Jones at GQ, he understands that what you miss when you interact through tech is, of course, the nuance of the human touch.
‘That’s a real challenge,’ he admits. ‘Last year I did 150 events. We might do none over the next 12 months, so we’re going to have to change how we launch product. The good thing about events is I’m connecting directly with the client. And while you can be good at making a virtual connection, it’s really not the same.’
So where to next? ‘I believe that over the past 10 years most of us have lost the idea of retail as an experience. If you go to shopping malls the world over, they’re all the same; same stores, delivering the same message, doing the same thing. We’ve lost the theatre of retail,’ says English. Luxury has been doing better at that than high-street brands, he says, but the challenge is that outside your own store you have no control over the “theatre”. ‘When you’re selling through multi-brand stores, they are in control of the customer experience, not you.’ What is needed now, he says, is a holistic approach, where stores provide the human connection and digital allows for compelling communication; and over it all sits the story and vision and “soul” of the brand.
Lots to think about, then. And lots to do to prepare for the new post-Covid-19 world. In this respect, it’s not Andrew Marvell who springs to mind, but a creative who worked some four centuries later – Andy Warhol, who said: ‘They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.’
The Bremont Battle of Britain Collection launches today, 18th June.