May 2023
By Sky Sit
From horological supremacy to a lost industry, Britain boasts its own legend in the history books. After decades of decline, the watchmaking trade is experiencing a cult-like resurgence across the Isles. We unravel the fascinating clues and ingredients fuelling this astonishing new age for British horology.
Widely regarded as the greatest watchmaker of modern times, Dr George Daniels sadly passed away in 2011. The inventor of the co-axial escapement was not only a horological genius but, in the Swiss-dominated world of watches, he was also something of a rarity. He was British.

What is even more remarkable is that Daniels hailed from a country that had been without a watchmaking industry of note for half a century.

Apart from a few brands turning to overseas production, watch and clock making had become a largely artisan affair featuring just a handful of revered horologists dotted around the British Isles.

George Daniels >
Once the horological superpower

That situation was a far cry from the golden era of British watchmaking. Prior to the 20th century, Britain had boasted global pre-eminence in watch supply for over 200 years and was responsible for many of the critical innovations that came to define modern watchmaking. However, after the “quartz crisis” of the 1970s, its manufacturing ecosystem all but vanished. And despite playing such an indisputably important role in the history of horology, the British fell well down the global list of watch producing nations. Watchmaking was even classified as “critically endangered” by the UK Heritage Crafts Association, a UNESCO-accredited non-profit working to safeguard the country’s traditional craft skills.

A new wave of British watches

The death of such a leading luminary as Daniels could have been a further blow to a shrinking trade. However, in the years that follow, a number of green shoots have emerged to revive the fortunes of British watchmaking. In a 2021 bellwether report, advisory firm KMPG identified as many as 100 watch brands operating across the British Isles, most of which had formed in the last decade. They come in all shapes and sizes; from traditionalists like Garrick and the Struthers, which maintain the rich English heritage of fine artisan watchmaking, and legacy watchmakers like Fears and Vertex that have been resurrected by descendants of the original founders, to microbrand Studio Underd0g with its sought-after whimsical designs, there is now a wide array of British watches to choose from with price points to match.
The resurgence is not going unnoticed. “The British are making amazing watches that are approachable,” says Daniel Novela, an avid collector and founder of the Novela Watch Collectors Club for South Florida, based in Miami. “What I like is that a lot of them are different, really cool, and reasonably priced. They have a unique take on the whole thing. With British watchmaking, it’s not the same as what you’d see out of Switzerland,” remarks Novela, who is currently on the wait lists of two British brands. “If you are looking to be individual, it ’s a good place to look. And it’s a great conversation starter.”

< Daniel Novela
The sector making a comeback

The notion that the British are having a moment won’t have escaped anyone who follows watch reviews and coverage. But the universal media interest is no calculated spin. The sector does not have a marketing machine working behind its fledgling renaissance. At least not yet. On the contrary, the recent hype is being driven by organic market interest and consumer appetite. There are also signs that this turnaround is no flash in the pan. The export value of British watches, clocks, and related parts has more than tripled over the course of the last 13 years, according to UK government’s trade data. While this trend began to appear in the previous decade when export value hovered above £200 million, over the past six years it has surged further to an annual average of £800 million. That is despite Brexit and the Covid pandemic. Export figures, of course, do not represent the whole picture. But with KPMG’s bellwether report ranking the UK top in sales income for the surveyed companies, it is important to acknowledge domestic demand as well. Whichever way you look at it, there is no denying the sector is in rude health.
What is the British appeal?

Notably, it is not just the new wave of British brands driving up value. At the very top end, Daniels’ heir apparent Roger W. Smith OBE has taken his late master’s legacy to the next level, commanding six-figure sums for his every creation. And when it comes to handcrafted, gallery-grade fine English clocks, few can match Yorkshire’s Sinclair Harding, led by Robert Bray, a member of the prestigious AHCI (Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants). In terms of volume and visibility, Christopher Ward and Bremont have been leading the way for almost two decades. N o matter the scale or style, there is one common denominator between these different names: British watch and clock making is all about independent watchmaking.

< Bob Bray
The independents belong to a special breed. They push the boundaries of horology and strive for the freedom to forge their own destiny. The creators impart their stories and personalities to their timepieces, seducing buyers with the soul of their work and the people behind it. And in that light, although rooted in venerable heritage and historical authority, Britain is well positioned to do things its own way in the new landscape. There are no group brands headquartered there. No powerful suppliers exist to dictate tr ends. To start a brand, you just need a vision then plot your path forward.

What is fuelling the resurgence?

At a time when Swiss watch market value (a proxy for the industry as a whole) is hitting successive record highs, many independent makers have come to the fore to meet the exceptional surge in demand. British and Irish brands, regardless of price segment, have tapped into several macro trends that have only accelerated because of the pandemic. The rise of social channels and direct-to-consumer selling, the weakening of market gatekeepers in the wholesale and retail trade, a growing desire for small and sustainable production, and a rejuvenated interest in craft are just some of the market forces that solidified during lockdown. All these play to the strengths of the independently run British labels.

Crispin Jones >

Mr Jones Watches is a case in point. The London-based watchmaker, specialising in fine-art craft dials, offers limited series ranging from £200 to £600 that are not specifically targeted at collectors.

“We always have customers seeking us out,” says founder Crispin Jones, when discussing his store in Covent Garden, adding, “We were confident enough to stop wholesaling because we had quite a good following on social media. Now we only sell direct to consumers.”

< David Brailsford
Barriers to entry are now also much lower thanks to more easily accessible private-label manufacturers in Switzerland and Asia, and the advent of digital and AI-assisted communications slashing marketing costs. As Garrick’s David Brailsford, a watch consultant turned brand co-owner, says: “I've worked with a lot of brands, I knew how difficult it was [ to start a brand]. It's easy now compared to what it was back in the day. Ten, fifteen years ago, it was extremely difficult to make your mark.”

The time is ripe to join the fold

Ask any brand owners and they’ll tell you “there is no better time to be a British watch or clock maker”. Celebrations to mark the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee and the upcoming coronation of King Charles III have added further opportunity to mark et the quality of British goods and services to the world. And yet, as the success story unfolds, there is little in the way of cut-throat rivalry amongst local players. “I feel like we're at the start of the rising tides,” says Studio Underd0g founder Richard Benc, “When I was developing the brand in the business and talking to other brands, I would talk to Nicholas (Bowman-Scargill) from Fears, and I would talk to Mike France from Christopher Wards. And instead of getting the cold shoulder, they would be really happy to help, and they wanted me to succeed. I think there's no other real industry where that would happen; where, in theory, I'm a competitor.”

< Richard Benc
In this spirit of collaboration, Roger W. Smith, Mike France, and Alistair Audsley founded the Alliance of British Watch and Clock Makers in 2020, an official trade body representing watch and clock brands across the UK and Ireland. It currently has 78 members, a number which continues to grow.

Roger W. Smith

Mike France

Alistair Audsley

The aim is to promote the revival of the country’s watch industry through market growth and nurturing homegrown talents. “This kind of mindset shows the whole British industry can and is ready to grow. And if everyone is working together, everyone can succeed. So, that's quite exciting to see, and something that's been really refreshing. Even enthusiasts and customers are excited about this new concept, the Alliance,” notes Benc.

The British are a renewed force

After generations of industrialised watchmaking, the Swiss may continue to move up in the value game with its high-end manufacturing know-how.
Germany may maintain a strong engineering pedigree and the ability to create timeless products. The British, though, are blessed with its unique sense of style backed by an endearing heritage. Combined with camaraderie and a flair for innovative thinking, the nation has a genuine opportunity to pave its own way once again and define British watchmaking in a new era.