British (made) Watches – do they exist?

Unfortunately, today you’ve got to look very carefully to find a British watch – and this would have been unthinkable 200 years ago, when Great Britain produced over 200,000 pieces, or half the world’s supply.  Though we are talking of another world in terms of watchmaking, as most all of them would be hand made.  This incredible fact I picked up the other day when checking out the great-british-watch.co.uk web site run by Colin Andrews, who knows a thing or two about watches and watchmaking.  If you want to know more about him and British Watchmakers, then HERE is where you can find this excellent site and some great information.

It is indeed fact that to find a true “Made in Britain” watch is not that easy and in my watch collection I only have a few models, which apart from one are vintage models.  So as this is about British Made, I thought I’d re-post an excerpt from an older 2010 feature I wrote on one particular model, which is as good today as the day it was made.

Called England’s finest.(excerpt)

August 14, 2010

A simple and stylish English under-statement of timekeeping – a Smiths Astral gold plate Gents watch from the 1950′s.

Smiths Astral 17j

An elegant watch indeed and with “Made in England” below the 6 makes it a rarity these days.  Produced by the Smiths Watch Company in the 1950′s it shows all the best attributes of English watchmaking.
Lovely blued steel hands on a virtually unmarked clear dial plus a red filled tip centre seconds hand and with neat raised numerals – it is quite simply – a classic.

Not a UK built or assembled watch with a Swiss movement, but an English watch built with an English movement too – and in reality a darned good one at that – so a bit unique in my opinion.  AND as it happens this one is pretty much original and in superb condition – another plus.

I’m sure this one will receive quite a bit of wrist time which is always a good sign as my philosophy on watch collecting is simple – if I get it I have to wear it.

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So back to today –

That was an excerpt from my article about the Smiths Astral watch I posted in 2010.   I can also confirm that has been worn quite regularly ever since.  In fact it shares equal wrist time with my vintage Swiss Blancpain dress watch and both a delight to wear.
I also have a non vintage 60% “Made in England” J&T Windmills watch, which within it’s elegant solid silver case sports a Swiss ébauche movement.

For the uninitiated an ébauche (blank) is a generic movement from vendors such as Swiss ETA or Sellita, who supply clients who don’t have in-house movements (and let’s be honest, few do).  The client assembles and fits this movement to their watch, often modifying certain elements for their own purposes.

So the J&T designed in the UK, has a Swiss hand wound movement and is UK assembled and worked.  I bought it in 2009 and it’s an elegant model with an interesting and original Windmills design dial.

J T Windmills "Threadneedle" Made in England model (60%)

J T Windmills “Threadneedle” Made in England model (60%)

Today as I understand it there are only two (2) true 100%  “Made in Britain”  watchmakers (according to great-british-watch.co.uk) plus around half a dozen others with varying percentages of British parts or manufacture.

So perhaps seeking a 100% “Made in Britain” watch brand is being unrealistic.  A 100% “Made in Anywhere” watch is just about as rare!  However finding a watch maker who sources from good quality components and assembles, perhaps modifies and produces an own Brand watch is something else – and easier to find.

After all there are relatively few Watch Makers who do produce 100% of their own models.   Parts are often out-sourced, perhaps too the watch case, dial and movements.  Movements are sourced from Japan to India to Switzerland and China, then assembled in the home country (as the J&T Windmills) and far from being the precedent, it’s very much the normal.

So what about British Watchmakers – are there any and if so  – are they any good?
Well we have J & T Windmills with about 60% Made in Britain, so pretty much on a par with the Swiss edict, but we can do better than that . . .

Our only 100% British watchmaker (as I understand it) is Bremont, located in Henley on Thames in England.

Not as well known as Swiss brands perhaps and relatively new with their first watch appearing in 2007 after 5 years in development.  They tend to specialize in mechanical Military and Aviation inspired chronometer models.

Bremont Alti-B Chrono Made in Britain

Bremont Alti-B Chrono Made in Britain

They do however assemble and manufacture as much as they can in the UK and quoting from their web site –

“Bremont is on a long term staged investment program to develop mechanical watch manufacturing expertise in the UK”, so are very committed to being very much a British Made company”.
Prices are from around £2000 upwards, so not “man in the street” range, but for quality/price ratio, their watch models appear to represent extremely good value.

Bremont and the other UK Watch Manufacturers I’ve come across I hope to feature in a new series of Posts “Independent British Artists” in the very near future.

So – Made in Britain watches do exist, from designed & assembled to 100% British Made – but you really have to look for them.

NoteIt’s interesting that so many watch brands today are simply smart designer watch cases and dials, with a low cost Japanese or Asian quartz movement dropped in and that’s it.  Then market the product under “whatever” Watch Company – and job done.
And I should emphasize here that there is absolutely nothing wrong in doing just that.

But when it comes to Britain, maybe it’s something to do with heritage, when the British decide to come up with a British Watch company – it seems we have to be the best, top quality, innovative, inventive (after all we used to be!) and all about true watchmaking, using mechanical movements and not a quartz among them . . . . Now is that British or what?

England’s finest

A simple and stylish English under-statement of timekeeping – a Smiths Astral gold plate Gents watch from the 1950’s.

Smiths Astral 17j

An elegant watch indeed and with “Made in England” below the 6 makes it a rarity these days.  Produced by the Smiths Watch Company in the 1950’s it shows all the best attributes of English watchmaking.
Lovely blued steel hands on a virtually unmarked clear dial plus a red filled tip centre seconds hand and with neat raised numerals – it is quite simply – a classic.

Smiths 17 jewel lever movement with centre seconds

A neat Smiths 17 jewel hack shockproof lever movement is fitted underneath an unmarked well fitting press stainless steel back keeps this watch ticking along nicely.

Sometimes mistaken for a Jaeger LeCoultre movement, whilst it has some technical similarities it has nothing to do with that Company at all.  This is a common misconception as the only link with that company was because Robert Lenoir, Smith’s Technical Director was an ex LeCoultre employee.

High quality models were manufactured at Cheltenham mostly whilst the lower market models were produced at Ystradgynlais in Wales in a joint venture with Ingersol.   Usually noted by the dial inscription “Gt Britain” or “Made in Britain” – which is quite a useful way of identifying the origins of particular watch models.

Classic dial Smiths.

So it would appear that this particular model is not a product of the Anglo-Celtic Watch Co of Wales, but from the Smiths factory at Cheltenham.
The Astral model is perhaps not top of the range or as popular as the “everest” models, but I think does represent the classic elegance of a “Made in England” watch to perfection.

This particular movement is going as strong now as when it was new.  This one is a manual wound version which feels nice and strong when wound and set.  Perhaps a little wear in the hand setting I admit but easily sorted should this be necessary.

The watch is also a good size at 34mm diameter without crown and 39mm top to bottom with a strap size of 18mm and in consequence wears very well –

At 34mm diameter – a nice size for the wrist.

So another nice purchase for my “UK” – “Made in England” vintage collectors cabinet and this one will hold quite a decent position in that box.
Not a UK built or assembled watch with a Swiss movement, but an English watch built with an English movement too – and in reality a darned good one at that – so a bit unique in my opinion.  AND as it happens this one is pretty much original and in superb condition – another plus.

I’m sure this one will receive quite a bit of wrist time which is always a good sign as my philosophy on watch collecting is simple – if I get it I must wear it – these watches are for wearing and every watch I own MUST work – that’s what they do best.

My next purchase though may be a little bit different.  A choice of two really.  One an early “electric” watch (around 1962) and the other a “direct read” watch from about the same era  – a mechanical “digital” if you will and somewhat different from their more commonly seen “mystery dial” style.

I’m I’m looking forward to posting both here – so watch this space.