In terms of established modern watchmaking nations, Switzerland, of course, but also Germany and Japan tend to dominate the watch industry. Some of the most interesting brands, however, are bringing national character from other corners of the world. Nowadays, a watch enthusiast can't ignore British watchmaking.
With the help of the internet and globalization in finding suppliers and sourcing parts, more independent brands than ever before have popped up all over the world. In the United States and France, for instance, the countries’ watchmaking histories have been rediscovered and capitalized upon. Among the most notable countries with prominent and growing watchmaking industries of their own, the UK is one of the most energetic.
London was the center of the watchmaking industry from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and many of the most important horological innovations came from British watchmakers — and those of other nationalities that congregated and were active in and around London. The most notable horological developments came from England during this time, from clockmaker John Harrison’s world-changing marine chronometer to incremental innovations and spectacular craftsmanship by notable names in the watchmaking world. The British watch industry slowed in the 20th century as Switzerland and the United States became prevalent and it all but ceased to exist by the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and 1980s.
Now, however, there are not only more British-based watch companies, but a healthy variety of them. This includes brands that emphasize British design but produce their watches elsewhere, those that assemble their watches from sourced parts, and those that have a mission to actually produce as much as possible domestically — then, of course, there is the exceptional Roger Smith, but more on him later. Some of these are young contemporary brands with affordable, minimalist designs, for example, while others are classical and high-end, claiming heritage from famous watchmakers of past centuries. Not every British watchmaker would fit on this list, but below are some of the most notable and interesting companies we know of.
Bremont is a relatively young brand, founded in 2002, but a remarkably successful one — and particularly notable as the only modern British brand to compete among established and well-known luxury watchmakers in terms of its target audience. Founded by the appropriately surnamed English brothers, Giles and Nick, Bremont has watchmaking facilities in England and endeavors to increasingly use in-house and domestic production. While the brand was founded with an overall aviation theme, it has a well-rounded range with dive watches, pilot watches, motoring watches and military watches that tend to display a conservative British design sensibility.
Christopher Ward was an early example of the now familiar watch brand startup model but is today a British watchmaking success story. Beginning small with a focus on affordability, the brand has maintained that mission but grown to produce a much higher volume than what can any longer be considered a “microbrand.” Further, it acquired Swiss watchmaking facilities and now even produces its own in-house movements, a dream for brands of various sizes. The brand's collections are wide ranging and regularly churn out new designs, but the sub-$1k C63 Sealander GMT is a great example of the type of design and value you can expect.
Cabot Watch Company, better known as CWC, has built a company around a history of military watches just as some other watchmakers on this list. The brand's catalog offers a range of styles and movements which mostly draw upon legacy models, all with the no-nonsense approach any purpose-built military watch should have. These are available directly from the brand online and are notably affordable, even for models with Swiss movements and other specs that tend to be associated with higher prices.
Dent traces its foundation to the clockmaker Edward John Dent in 1814, but the brand has had a number of notable achievements through the centuries. These include manufacturing the Standard Clock at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and the symbol of London itself, the clock tower known as Big Ben. The company later provided watches and clocks for a number of notable figures, as well as for the British military in WW2. Following the Quartz Crisis, Dent downsized and continued with clock repairs and occasional commissions, but its modern incarnation began making new watches in 2008 with the help of British investors. Dent today makes high-end watches using precious metals, some of which are based on its well-known clocks like Big Ben. They also continue to make “architectural clocks” as bespoke installations.
Farer is another young British company offering a mix of quality, affordability, and often a colorful design ethos that helps them stand out. With reasonable prices for specifications like sapphire crystal and Swiss movements, the brand has earned many fans — they're most certainly among the boutique watch companies you should know about, British or otherwise. Though heavily influenced by vintage watches of the the 1960s and 1970s, Farer has cultivated a fresh and youthful aesthetic combining vibrant dial designs and moderate sizes.
Garrick has a distinctive personality combining a strong sense of its Britishness, a laudable effort to bring its production in-house, and an often quirky design sense. The brand’s dedication to a “stereotypically British” aesthetic extends even to the look of its movements. Beyond finishing and assembling its movements in-house, the brand uses techniques like engine-turned guilloché decoration at its Norfolk, England, facilities. Garrick’s prices also seem quite reasonable for the level of personality and craftsmanship they seem to be offering.
Robert Loomes claims to have an entirely in-house designed and built movement, even the jewels being locally sourced. This is an exceedingly rare feat in the watch industry and a substantial investment, but Loomes remains relatively obscure as it quietly produces horologically interesting, high-end British-made watches in precious metals. With a lineage of watchmakers traced back to 1600s, this family-run company is one of the brands doing more to bring genuine watchmaking back to the UK.
Mr Jones Watches may not have been conceived for enthusiasts, but it has become known even among the often snobby watch community for its creative, artistic approach and affordable prices. Created by designer Crispin Jones, the brand makes watches that are as much wearable art as they are time-telling devices. These range from artistic dials to concepts and statement pieces, but they're always fun and relatively inexpensive. Many of Mr Jones watches are quartz, but the brand has some mechanical options.
Even many watch enthusiasts might not have Pinion on their radar, but the brand emphasizes its Britishness (with London on its dials) and is making handsome watches with a lot of the right specs. Pinion, part of the "microbrand" world, was founded by a designer, sources quality movements and parts, and uses a direct-to-consumer online sales model. While the brand takes some inspiration from historical British military watches, a contemporary feel and hip design characterize the brand’s approach.
Roger W. Smith is one of the most important names in high-end independent horology, and he's not just exceptional among the brands on this list but within all the watch industry. Protegé of the legendary British watchmaker George Daniels, Smith takes boutique watchmaking to the extreme. Following in his teacher’s footsteps, he's one of the only people today making every piece of every watch literally by hand, including the tools to make the components, using only traditional methods. Unsurprisingly, he makes only around 10 watches per year, they are stratospherically expensive, and a favorite of elite collectors.
Timor is among a trend of historic brand names that have been resurrected for the sake of reproducing their most famous heritage models. In Timor's case, it's the field watch that was made for soldiers in WWII, known as the W.W.W., or Watch Wrist Waterproof — Timor being one of the dozen companies that made these watches for the military. The modern incarnation of the brand makes a worthy homage to that watch, staying true to many details such as a smaller diameter and manually wound movement option (automatic also being available).
Vertex is best known for the watches it produced for the British military, including an iconic favorite of vintage collectors. While it closed its doors in 1972 along with many other watch companies unable to compete during the Quartz Crisis around the same time, it was reestablished in 2016 by the founder’s great-grandson. Referencing their history of field watches and chronographs designed for the armed forces, the company today produces luxury watches with Swiss movements and a generally badass demeanor.