Fashionable chaps with an eye for quality design are wearing their heart under their sleeve, thanks to a new school of cool British watch brands, built to exacting but affordable Swiss standards. This is no wind-up, says Alex Doak
That rousing chorus of anachronistic jingoism wasn’t lying: Britannia really did once rule the waves. And quite apart from the Royal Navy’s mastery in boatbuilding and helmsmanship, the British Empire’s transoceanic reach was down in large part to London’s world-class watchmaking industry. After all, before the days of GPS, there was no other way of working out your longitudinal position at sea without a precise time reference on board.
Of course, the Empire collapsed from the mid-20th-century onwards, dragging British watchmaking with it and clearing the way for the Swiss. But with little hope of a major, high-end brand re-establishing itself on these shores any time soon (keep your eye on Bremont, though, who have progressed in leaps and bounds with an engineering facility in Silverstone that taps into the local automotive talent) a new sort of British watch has emerged, concomitant with the recent renaissance of style-led watch-wearing. A British watch that doesn’t pretend to be linked with Britannia’s glorious past; rather its thriving pool of creative talent, at the forefront of international fashion and design.
In keeping with the trend for artisanal pedigree and provenance, this British watch makes no bones about its manufacturing origins (where else but Switzerland? It’s still the best after all) but doesn’t let this provenance justify ridiculous mark-ups – these are all highly affordable style statements, with a subsequent “cost per wear” that’ll rival your hardest-wearing coat.
It started with Shoreditch’s master of modernism, Uniform Wares – a brand that still, arguably, leads the pack – but the downstream choice is now a rainbow of robust coolness that looks as good as it tells the time, and marks you out as anyone but an anachronism, ruling the new wave, not the waves.
INSTRMNT 01-A GM/T, £180
INSTRMNT is a multi-disciplinary, vowel-phobic team based in Glasgow with a single objective: to create minimalist, high quality goods, “accessible to all”. For that price it certainly is accessible, but it says a lot about Instrmnt’s actual audience that besides its perfectly balanced, pared-back “01” watch, instrument number “02” happens to be a 2-speed city bike, also perfectly balanced and pared back. The finer side of hipsterdom.
Farer Carter GMT Dual Time, £420
One of the newest kids on the Britwatch block is Farer, as in the Latin for “to journey”, with every watch named after an iconic British explorer. They are made in Switzerland by Roventa-Henex – a prestigious private label watchmaker who does work for brands you will definitely know but that it isn’t at liberty to discuss. Meaning that beneath that decidedly plucky, tally-ho Fifties exterior lies a rocksolid bit of kit, built for striking out in the field. Watch out for the new mechanical automatic model, launching next month.
Sekford Type 1A, £795
A Clerkenwell-based collective of aesthetic obsessives have wrangled over this brand-new Britwatch contender for years, and it shows in every exacting detail, from the fox logo designed by a Lincolnshire woodcut printmaker to the original numbers and letters, drawn by one of the world’s most respected foundries, Commercial Type – positioned so as not to clutter the clean white expanse of the dial inspired by England’s old pocket watches.
Larsson & Jennings, £225
As the “STHLM LDN” dial marking indicates (INSTRMNT would presumably approve), Larsson & Jennings has roots in both Stockholm and London, expertly blending Swedish minimalism with a classic British aesthetic. Things don’t venture beyond a wide, slim circle with two dauphine-blade hands, but you’d be amazed by this pared-back cocktail’s versatility, from dressy gold plate and leather to this mesh-bracelet model’s nostalgic take on sportiness.
Elliot Brown Canford, £325
When Ian Elliot and Alex Brown left surf brand Animal to establish Elliot Brown on the English south coast, they had a specific aim: to create honest, durable watches that, in Elliot’s words, “you put on, and forget about.” This is aperfectly judged, great-value bit of kit, built with 316L Marine-grade steel whose heft you certainly won’t learn to forget particularly quickly, which is no bad thing.
Shore Projects Newquay, £125
The runaway success story of Shore Projects is down to three brilliant things: clean, unisex design that will bring out the magpie in your girlfriend, easily interchangeable straps for just £15 a pop that instantly switch up your watch’s entire look, plus a keen sense for windswept British coastal nostalgia. But you don’t have to be a Rock-frequenting, Jack Wills-clad trustafarian to appreciate it all; especially because the latest collection introduces a military edge to proceedings, right down to the battered brown-leather strap.