When you visit Bremont, you head to the outskirts of Henley-on-Thames, take a turning signposted “Toad Hall Garden & Machinery Centre”, and pull into a gravel drive in front of a handsome timber-and-glass building. It couldn’t be more different from the grandeur and scale of the manufactures in the Swiss heartlands.
In fact, if you went this summer as I did, you would have pulled up in front of two Portakabins that block out half of the HQ proper. Bremont is already outgrowing the premises it moved into in 2013, and preparing to move to a larger site on the other side of Henley. Eventually this will bring the manufacturing efforts which have been progressing in a facility at Silverstone under the same roof as the assembly and quality control lines currently taking up most of the space in Henley, as well as all head office functions.
Speaking to Giles English – who meets me in the reception with apologies for the eyesore Portakabins – it’s obvious the move is something pressing. “Silverstone was good – it was great – for us, in terms of being around the right people. But now it’s time to bring things together to make it more efficient.”
In fairness, with the English brothers there is a sense that everything is pressing – it’s not impatience, or being frantic, but ambition that lies beneath the unflappable exterior. “Being niche is amateurish, really”, says Giles. “We’ve got to be making 15,000-20,000 watches a year to justify future investment; currently we’re at around 8,000.”
The brand has already had a few growing pains on the journey from niche to mainstream; the brothers know what it’s like to be on the wrong end of watch fans’ ire, and one of their biggest strengths (perhaps the single biggest), their ability to engender interesting brand partnerships without seven-figure sums changing hands, is too often thrown back in their faces with the accusation that Bremont is nothing more than “a marketing brand”.
Giles isn’t fazed by the description – “marketing is enormously important; we do 180 events a year” – but you can tell it hurts when the brand’s credibility is called into question. It’s true that the “in-house” debacle, when Bremont applied the phrase to a proprietary movement it had developed with La Joux-Perret, has left a lingering resentment on some internet comment sections and forums, but the lesson has been learned; Bremont moved on. As we walk through the workshop, Giles is as candid about components’ origins – “a nightmare”, he says, “getting the right hands from France,” – as he is about the need to improve quality. Bremont re-runs the COSC certification measurements in Henley, and 50-80 per cent of all watches come back from quality control for one reason or another.
It’s the same story with the partnerships. Yes, there are global brands involved – Jaguar, Boeing – but the brothers are adamant it’s never about money. There’s a logic behind each one, and usually a good degree of serendipity to their origins.
The last couple of years have been about Jaguar and the America’s Cup, but aviation is where the soul of the brand lies. The receptionist’s desk is the wing tip from a DC-3; and when an engine’s noise is heard from overhead as we chat to Bremont’s head watchmaker, Giles cocks his head slightly and just says “ah, that’s Nick”. It’s a second before I realise he means his brother, who is piloting the 1950s Broussard that they own together, up above.
Bremont will privately admit that relationships like the one with Team Oracle USA are always vulnerable to being outbid by a bigger brand, but there’s nothing that could stop it producing watches like the DH-88, its latest aviation-themed limited edition. Produced to mark the race-winning flight from the UK to Australia made in 1934 by C.W.A Scott and Tom Campbell Black, it was unveiled at a champagne reception at the Shuttleworth collection in Bedfordshire, complete with a flypast of the only airworthy DH-88 in existence.
To non aero-heads it might seem like grasping around for another aviation tie-in (and rather a step down from the Wright Flyer), but the passion from the brothers is real. “The DH-88 did so much for people at the time,” says Giles. “The whole world knew these names – they were heroes.” The record set by Scott and Black – 11,000 miles in 70 hours 55 minutes – still stood in 2010.
The DH-88 watch itself is a rather glossy affair for Bremont, and unlikely to see many air miles. However, Bremont continues to put a lot of watches on the wrists of actual pilots – be they purchasers of the Martin-Baker models or Bremont Military customers. The business of making customised references for military units around the world accounts for a significant chunk of Bremont’s output, and does wonders for its reputation. Who needs an official sponsorship deal when fighter pilots are Instagramming wrist shots of your watches from the cockpit of a B52 Stratofortress? The popularity of the military editions may have something to do with the fact they are offered direct to personnel at well below retail prices – but there’s little evidence anyone’s buying them to sell on; they’re too personal.
It has brought greater benefits, in any case. “The relationship with Boeing came about because of the P51 Mustang limited edition from a few years ago,” explains Giles, “as well as the other military watches we were producing with Boeing aircraft on.”
Boeing’s relationship with Bremont brings an exchange of materials science and engineering muscle, and it was with manufacturing on our minds that Giles and I drove up from Henley to Silverstone, where Bremont has begun the long road to producing movements in the UK.
If the Henley HQ is unassuming, the Silverstone outpost is totally anonymous. We go through an unmarked door in a warehouse between tuning shops, and into a half-full workshop with shelves of raw 316L steel bars, two or three CNC machines, and a 45-foot America’s Cup wingsail on the wall – a gift from Oracle. Bremont is milling nearly all of its steel cases up here, as well as some baseplates, crowns, pushers, some machine polishing and laser etching.
The impression is very much of a work in progress, but it is a concrete effort. This, more than Henley, is the faultline between Nick and Giles’ ambition and present reality. New machinery is vastly expensive and takes time to arrive – 18 months to have a milling machine built to your specifications. It doesn’t help that Bremont has created one of the more complicated case shapes out there – but of course they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The good news is that scaling up this kind of machine-led production is possible; it’s just slow. In a couple of years Bremont could be making a lot more parts in this country. By then, however, we will – hopefully – see the start of something much bigger: the first movements designed and created for Bremont by Irish horological whizz Stephen McDonnell. He has been on the job for a couple of years now, and Giles estimates one more full year of his time is still needed. The target is a family of modular complications built around a workhorse base of comparable quality and robustness to the Rolex 3135, but with greater flexibility – oh, and a bespoke geartrain too.
And there’s that ambitious pace again: Giles is confident the first watches bearing the calibre could emerge by the end of 2018. It’s a lot to take in from a day trip that began behind a garden centre, but I just wouldn’t bet against it; and no doubt it’ll be in a pilot’s watch we see it first.