The spirit of adventure
It has been labelled one of the best sporting comebacks in history. In September 2013, in the shadow of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Oracle Team USA was trailing Team New Zealand in sailing’s 34th America’s Cup by a score of 8-1. Yet, somehow, against all probability it came back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and win the world’s oldest sporting trophy 9-8.
As the team rejoiced, sports fans the world over began to start taking sailing a bit more seriously — none more so than brothers Giles and Nick English. Sitting in their office in the chocolate box English town of Henley-on-Thames, the co-founders of British watchmaker Bremont set about becoming the official timing partners of the 35th America’s Cup.
Since it first started in 2002, Bremont has steadily built a reputation for its aviation-inspired timepieces — both Giles and Nick are qualified pilots, as was their father — and it has become the proud standard-bearer for the British watchmaking industry.
Since its first collection in 2007, the company has consolidated its adventurous spirit via partnerships with Jaguar (the MK1 and MK2), Boeing (Model 1 and Model 247), the world-record-setting expedition to the South Pole (Terra Nova) and most recently by becoming the official timekeeper of the 35th America’s Cup and the defending champion Oracle Team USA.
Bremont is widely associated with two things: aviation and Britishness. So, why the decision to sponsor the America’s Cup?
I have always been slightly obsessed with sailing. My brother and I, actually lived on a boat as kids and I later trained as a naval architect. But there are several reasons why we wanted to associate ourselves with the America’s Cup. It has the prestige of being the oldest international sporting trophy, and for decades since it was founded in 1851 it pitted the US against the British — although we never won the thing! This time, with the British sailing superstar Ben Ainslie involved, we saw a great opportunity to become the official timing partner of the event — especially with the new boat designs and racing regulations, its competitiveness has such global appeal. The new foiling technology of the boats [which lift the boats out the water to reduce friction and increase speed] means that they can now travel three times the speed of the wind! The US billionaire Larry Ellison described it as the world’s only extreme team sport, and for us, it has that combination of Britishness, engineering and adventure that is very Bremont.
You launched a series of four timepieces for the event (The AC1, AC2, Oracle 1 and Oracle 2). What did you want to achieve with the collection?
We wanted to tell the story of the America’s Cup. The AC1 and AC2 are very classic-looking limited-edition watches, inspired by history. We love the fact that in 1851 there would have been a British chronometer timing the race — maybe a Harrison original chronometer — and we’re trying to carry on that story. The Oracle 1 and 2 are very much built for the defending champions, Oracle Team USA, to use for racing.
Bremont has a history of teaming up with brands to create some seriously tough watches…
We don’t go into partnerships thinking “let’s do a branding exercise.” At heart, my brother and I are engineers. We love a challenge and love to work with people doing interesting things. For example, we made our Terra Nova watch for the British adventurer Ben Saunders, who walked to the South Pole and back. He had to have a mechanical watch for that trip, because quartz doesn’t work at those temperatures. He needed it to be titanium and lightweight, and for it to have a second time-zone feature so that he could navigate by the sun. With Jaguar, when we teamed up to make clocks for their E-types, it was a way to bring a sense of pride back to British watchmaking. That’s what differentiates us from the 750 Swiss watch companies out there.
How important is that British pride?
We’ve invested a lot in British. Three years ago we converted to full “made in England”. Our watchmakers are in Henley-on-Thames, and we do all the machining and metalwork in Silverstone. Economically, it would make far more sense to keep making our pieces in Switzerland, but it was our aim to revitalise British watchmaking. There are parallels with what the German watchmakers have done successfully in the past 20 years. Before the war the Brits and Germans had thriving watch industries, but all of a sudden those engineering skills were transferred to building guns, aircraft engines etc., which led to the demise of both industries. But there is no reason why we cannot build that industry back up.
Are the Swiss are losing their hold on the industry?
No. I think we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Swiss. The entire industry is reliant on them. There are components that they produce that it’s not feasible to build yourself, because they are the guys with the volume. But, I think as the market matures, collectors begin to realise that there is more than just Swiss-made out there. The Swiss are the masters, but the history of watchmaking is not exclusive to Switzerland. Rolex was founded in Clerkenwell, and six percent of the modern mechanical watch can be associated to British watchmakers. The world still sets its time by Greenwich Mean Time, not Geneva Mean Time!
“The Swiss are the masters, but the history of watchmaking is not exclusive to Switzerland”
Boats, cars, watches... do all engineers see them as forms of mechanical challenges?
Very much so. Underneath it all, Bremont is an engineering business. A lot of our staff have a Formula One background, and it is fascinating to see the difference between that and horology. In an F1 car, there are approximately 8,000 individual components, and 6,000 are manufactured bespoke and then thrown away at the end of the year. So every year, they literally need to reinvent the wheel! When it comes to watchmaking, those staff tend to fall apart on day one because they’re not used to building parts to the tolerance we require. Timepieces need a very high level of finish, on such a minute level. You have to be good at everything.
How has business been over the past 18 months?
It’s been very good, actually. We’re growing as a brand and the challenge is to keep that going in what is a difficult market. Because we do all our distribution around the world, there is never an issue of grey market or oversupply, so it’s really exciting. I think it’s our opportunity over the next few years to really go up to the next level.
What is it like working with your brother?
I find you can be brutally honest, because he’s family. That means you can be much harsher, but it helps you get disagreements out the way and get on with the job. With other people, you tend to tiptoe around a situation that can grow into something much worse. We really trust each other’s design. There is no argument as to what looks good or doesn’t. I’ll design something and he might say “that looks [terrible],” and I’ll be [annoyed] momentarily, but then I will realise that he’s right. The downside is that you lose a friend, because when you see each other all you talk about is work!
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This interview was originally published in the Esquire Big Watch Book. Buy your copy here