Five British watch brands to know
A new wave of UK watchmakers are shaking up the industry
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 watches and meticulous handcrafts.
But great watchmaking has found a place to prosper here in Britain thanks to a number of new daring companies that are pushing the envelope in terms of design and mechanics, bringing new flair to the affordable watch market.
Here we explore five home-grown brands that are fusing traditional heritage with a sense of modernity and a pinch of British irreverence.
“Our desire to produce timepieces is directly inspired by iconic airmen, aircraft and events throughout 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 watch is a tribute to a particular story in aeronautical history, be it a hero of the skies such as Sir Douglas Bader, an iconic fighter plane such as the Spitfire or an Armed Forces community such as the Royal British Legion, with whom AVI-8 partnered to celebrate its 100th year in 2021.
Both the Flyboy Royal British Legion Founder’s Chronograph and Flyboy Royal British Legion Chairman’s Meca-Quartz were limited to 1,000 pieces with a percentage of each sale donated to the charity in support of veterans and their families.
All AVI-8 models are powered by robust movements with an even split between self-winding mechanical automatics and Japanese “Meca-Quartz”, a hybrid that uses quartz for the main functions of the watch and a mechanical movement for the chronograph module. All timepieces are noted for their bold displays with large numerals, conspicuous hands and prominent crowns in-keeping with the traditional pilot watch design. Retrograde chronographs are best-sellers thanks to their more-than-accessible price point.
William Wood Watches
William Wood Watches founder Jonny Garrett set up 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 it: he uses upcycled fire hose material destined for landfill to make his watch straps. Each strap represents a different fire brigade – red for the London Fire Brigade, khaki green for the British Armed Forces Fire & Defence Unit for example – with a percentage of each watch sale going directly to firefighter charities around the country. There’s more to the brand than clever recycling since Garrett has applied great attention to the form and function of his products which adhere to the classism of vintage tool watches.
Prestige models belonging to the Triumph and Valiant ranges are particularly interesting. The former is a classic sports watch with a twist: it is powered by a Sellita SW510 chronograph movement (made in Swiss Jura) and equipped with a dial that subtly riffs off the dashboard gauges of a fire engine cockpit. Turn it around and you’ll see the rotor swing in a custom-made caseback inspired by a fire-alarm (£2,495). With his sporty and handsome Valliant model, Garrett proposes the smart idea of movement choice: your watch can run on a high spec Swiss-Made SW200 Automatic Movement by the Sellita Group (£1,150) or the workhorse NH35 Automatic Movement by Japan’s Seiko Group (£695). A nice touch to note: the crown of every watch shows the helmet emblem of the brand which is set in brass melted down from an original 1920s British firefighter’s helmet.
Nicholas Bowman-Scargill is the re-founder of Fears watches, Britain’s oldest watch company established in 1846 in Bristol. He’s also a bit of a leadership hero: when Covid-19 struck and sales plummeted, he took a job in a local supermarket to keep his business afloat, working nights stacking shelves and managing his office by day. Things began to pick up in the spring of 2020 prompting him to plough all his efforts into Fears seven days a week. It paid off, because his (albeit small) production of luxury timepieces are regularly sold out online.
Fears’ “Archival 1930” Deco-style model (£3,500 for the classic and £3,950 for the small seconds version) has a rectangular face, vintage-look champagne dial edged with railway-track minute scale and is presented on a burgundy leather strap handcrafted in Belgium. It also has the charming cachet of being powered by a previously unused/meticulously reconditioned vintage ETA movement. As one of the brand’s best sellers, its elegantly curved profile and slim-line proportions recall an age of sophistication and discerning style.
No less handsome but more classically curvaceous is the Brunswick model noted for its graceful cushion-shaped case and beautifully hand-rendered dial available in a number of surface finishes from blue lacquered with graduated shading to brilliant silver toned thanks to a Rhodium coating.
Marloe Watch Company
Established in 2015 by friends Gordon Fraser and Oliver Goffe, the Marloe Watch Company is based in Kinross, Scotland, and founded on the “slow-living” principle, which champions unfussy, sleek design that evinces a sense of timeless modernity. Presently, there are seven watch collections and each one is rooted in a British-led narrative that feels well explored and refreshingly authentic.
For example, The Haskell model, designed for the “modern traveller” takes its name from the Haskell Strait, the ocean passage which Captain Robert Falcon Scott crossed as he set off 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 plane to cross the Pacific and circumnavigate the globe.
This is a company that equates design with storytelling, so every detail has been carefully thought through with a “less is more” approach. Designed in the UK, all watches are powered by Swiss-made mechanical movements.
British brand Farer is famous for its solid Swiss calibres and colourful dials. The watches are conceived at the company’s London studio and are named after British adventurers and vessels – a nice touch that lends the models a sense of heritage and prestige. This historic inclination is also a sign of focused production since all collections must adhere to a strong USP that is anchored in traditional values, namely one that champions “the well made”.
Quartz and automatic models are assembled by reputable Swiss-based firm Roventa Henex. This is a revelation that Farer is refreshingly open about: the production of white label movements is often a guarded secret in the world of watchmaking. Recently, the label introduced the black dialled Erebus to its three hand collection, a minimalist model best described as an exercise in restraint. Like all Farer watches, there’s an idiosyncratic touch in the form of a bright red arrow at the tip of the seconds hand.