England has a long and illustrious history in timekeeping, from Thomas Mudge’s invention of the lever escapement, to John Harrison’s first marine chronometer to modern day heroes like the late George Daniels and his protege (and the man who carries England’s watchmaking torch), Roger Smith. But large-scale production of watches in Old Blighty foundered on the same rocks that wrecked the Swiss industry in the 1970s; the last great British brands, Smiths, Cabot and Precista either went defunct or now exist in name only, mere shadows of their former selves.
But Anglophile watch lovers needn’t despair. In recent years there has been a renaissance of British watchmaking, resulting in stellar timepieces with distinctive style and high quality — fine alternatives to the offerings from the Continent or the Far East.
The three watch companies at the vanguard of this British renaissance — Bremont, Christopher Ward and Schofield — represent very different approaches, price points and designs. Yet they share one thing: a distinctively British take on the wristwatch. We spent some time with each to establish a solid cross section of timepieces from across the pond. Put the kettle on and settle in for our impressions.
Bremont U-2 Blue
Of the watch companies leading the resurgence of timekeeping in England, Bremont is unquestionably the best known, thanks to an engaging genesis story, great marketing and high-quality timepieces. Though the Henley-on-Thames-based brand is barely over ten years old, it has enjoyed meteoric success, winning awards for design and excellence and the favor of celebrities from Orlando Bloom to Bear Grylls — one was even on the wrist of the “Queen” when she parachuted into the London Olympic stadium in 2012. Bremont takes the “Made in England” moniker seriously. It has moved all of its production to England and closed its old factory in Switzerland. And while the company still makes use of Swiss movements in its watches, they are heavily breathed upon in England and housed in English cases.
The Bremont we chose to for testing was the U-2. The watch is not named for the Irish rock band but for the legendary spy plane built by Lockheed in the 1960s and still used by the American CIA. We’re wary of tenuous co-branding; there are countless watches named for fighter jets and race cars. But in this case, Bremont gets a pass. The elite U-2 pilots’ squadron, based in Beale, California, approached Bremont for a special version. Who are we to argue with those guys?
Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
Power reserve: 38 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds, day and date
Rotating timing flange
Material: Hardened stainless steel
Case Back: Steel with sapphire display
Water Resistance: 10 ATM (100 meters)
Lumed hands and hour markers
Padded blue leather with pin buckle
The U-2 is based on Bremont’s popular MBII, a super-tough watch built to resist insane levels of vibration, shock and magnetism, and it’s tested on the same equipment used for quality control on ejection seats. To meet the U-2 squadron’s request, Bremont responded with an even tougher watch that had the same features as the MBII but that would still work fine at 100,000 feet and minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The original U-2 was given a unique dial and stealthy black DLC steel case and built in a limited series of 150. Thankfully for us, Bremont decided to produce a civilian version, so we don’t need top security clearance to wear it.
For those who know the MBII, the styling of the U-2 (twin crowns, rotating inner flange and knurled aluminum case barrel) will be immediately familiar. But this one stands on its own, especially in its blue livery. The deep blue dial has a matte finish that appears to vacillate constantly: one moment it shimmers and the next it’s a flat cerulean slate. The blue theme is carried over to the distinctive case barrel, done in knurled aluminum and set off against those curling lugs for which Bremont is known. The blue padded leather strap completes the theme. Altogether, the blue could be a bit over the top for some. We’d probably occasionally swap the strap for something less, well…blue.
Fortunately, if you don’t like the blue there’s a black-dialed version and a DLC-cased black-on-black as well. The U-2 Blue differs from its brethren in another way, too: it is the only one with a display caseback. While this sacrifices its anti-magnetic properties, it does allow those of us not flying secret sorties over Cuba to admire its movement. That movement, by the way, is based on the ETA 2836, a top-grade day-and-date Swiss motor that Bremont modifies by swapping out its mainspring and hairspring for more anti-magnetic versions. While they’re in there tinkering, they also decorate the bridges, blue the screws and add a distinctive aviation-inspired winding rotor. That calibre is also chronometer-certified, as are all of Bremont’s movements, which bears witness to its timekeeping prowess.
For its size — a not-so-modest 43 millimeters — the U-2 actually wears small. That’s not a bad thing in this age of gargantuan watches. In fact, it was most wearable of the British trio we reviewed, thanks in part to the curved-down lugs. The twin-crown arrangement gives visual interest and the rotating inner flange, riding on a Roto-click ball bearing mechanism, gives you something to fiddle with even if you’re not timing anything. The overall styling is sleek and sporty, a true pilot’s watch that remains more versatile than most of its ilk.
The U-2 is certainly not the most “British” of Bremont’s lineup in terms of its looks, but it stands as a defining piece for the company’s capabilities. The U-2’s price tag may seem steep, but considering its features — chronometer grade movement, rugged build, unique styling and military origins — $5,400 could almost be called a bargain.
Schofield Signalman GMT
A connection with the sea is woven into the very fabric of British life, even for those who have never set foot on a boat. For generations, Brits have been lulled to sleep by the nightly recitation of the Met Office’s shipping forecast on the BBC; the country’s weather is at the mercy of the storms that blow across from the Atlantic; and its coastlines bristle with lighthouses. This maritime-based collective consciousness is ingrained in the watches of Schofield, a small company that is perhaps the most “British” of our trio, for reasons that will soon become apparent. While Bremont looks to the skies for inspiration, Schofield looks to the sea.
Schofield is the brainchild of Giles Ellis, a talented designer who is, by his own admission, obsessed with details. These details extend well beyond his watches, to the company’s straps and line of accessories that range from leather watch pouches to LED flashlights, all of which keep the same vibe of nostalgia, masculinity and seafaring culture. Though a young brand, Schofield already exudes a mature breadth and completeness of message and brand image that much larger companies would covet. With our sample Signalman GMT watch came a package of accessories that showcased Schofield’s attention to detail: Everything was wrapped in crinkled yellowed tissue with worn hang tags that bear messages like, “Fair Winds and Following Seas”; the leather watch pouch smelled of an old club chair and was lined with vintage sailcloth. Schofield clearly recognizes the tradition, nostalgia and ceremony involved in buying a luxury mechanical watch; these are instruments less about telling time and more about viscerally transporting you through it.
Calibre: Soprod 9335/A10
Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
Power reserve: 42 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds, date, power reserve, second time zone
Material: Polished stainless steel
Case Back: Steel screw-in
Water Resistance: 50 ATM (500 meters)
Black with applied markers
Waxed cotton (Millerain) with pin buckle
Lest you think Schofield is all about image, consider the Signalman GMT itself. A self-winding Swiss Soprod movement drives the hours, minutes and seconds and also provides both a second time zone and a power reserve function, two of the most useful complications for wearers. The power reserve, instead of being displayed in an arc like most of its kind, is shown at 12:00 on the dial with a graphic that mimics the beam of a lighthouse, with one side tinged red to show low mainspring power — clever but not gimmicky. The second time zone is indicated on a subdial at 6:00 that’s a bit hard to read. The date window at 3:00 is a tiny porthole that’s even more difficult to read; in fact, this is the only flaw the watch would have been better without.
The Signalman’s case is where Schofield shines (pun intended), inspired in its form by the old lighthouses that ring England’s shores. It is not so much the lighthouses themselves but the intricate Fresnel lens lamps inside that the watch resembles with its steep angular lugs, chamfered case flanks and a domed crystal set below the lip of the bezel. This is all done in high polished stainless steel, which, rather than lending a glitzy look, somehow accents an industrial aesthetic from an earlier era. The screw-down crown and robust build endow the Signalman with an impressive 500 meters of water resistance, creating a watch intended to be worn for all occasions on land and sea, no more matter how rough. Then there’s the other side of the coin: this is a very chunky and tall watch that won’t easily fit under a shirtsleeve or dodge doorjambs. Be prepared to scratch up that lovely polished bezel.
While Bremont perhaps best represents the lofty ambitions of Britain’s resurgent watch industry, Schofield seems to embody the quirkiness, individuality and respect for the past that we’ve come to appreciate about British culture. It’s a watch that seems to say, “there will always be an England”.
Christopher Ward C9 Harrison Jumping Hour
Like the other two brands in our trio, Christopher Ward is a young company (only started in 2005) rising with the tide of British watchmaking. But it has taken a decidedly different route than the ambitious Bremont or the individualist Schofield. Christopher Ward was proudly founded on the principle of providing high quality watches at affordable prices. In fact, their original objective was to build “the cheapest most expensive watches in the world”. By nearly all accounts they’ve succeeded. Thanks in large part to classic designs, smart pricing and the viral effects of the Internet, Christopher Ward has become one of the brands people offer up as an alternative to less accessible high-end timepieces.
Their lineup, in nine short years, has swelled from its first popular Malvern watch to includes dozens of references, including chronographs and pilot’s, dive and dress watches. While this approach risks a few duds in the family, the company’s designers have rarely put a foot wrong, even if the watches tend to err on the conservative — and, often, derivative — side. Lately, Ward has stretch its legs and stepped outside of its comfort zone with a new ceramic-cased pilot’s chronograph and a couple of complicated timepieces unique to the brand. The C9 Harrison Jumping Hour is one of those watches.
Calibre: JJ01 (modified ETA 2824-2)
Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
Power reserve: 38 hours
Minutes, jumping hours
Material: Polished and brushed stainless steel
Case Back: Steel and sapphire
Water Resistance: 3 ATM (30 meters)
White with applied markers
Alligator leather with foldover deployant
The jumping hour, or jump hour, complication, isn’t new but it is uncommon. Done well, its elegant simplicity belies the complexity of the movement — and the C9 Harrison is done very well. True to its classic form, the hour indication is separated from the minutes hand, instead displayed as a Roman numeral in an aperture at the top of the dial. As the name “jumping hour” suggests, when the minute hand ticks past 12, the hour “jumps” to the next one instantaneously. It’s dressy yet playful, complicated yet utterly simple.
The C9 Harrison is particularly unique because its mechanism, known as the calibre JJ01, is based on one of the most ubiquitous automatic watch movements in the world, the ETA 2824-2. To modify the movement, Christopher Ward commissioned the help of master watchmaker Johannes Jahnke, who also collaborated with the company on its World Timer reference. Jahnke removed the hour hand and its pinion and added a cam to the movement’s minute gear. The cam makes one revolution per hour, and, upon reaching a certain point, clicks a tooth on a star wheel that drives the hour disc under the dial. Rather than slowly creeping over from one hour to the next, the action is instantaneous so the eye doesn’t even detect it, though you can hear the click. This is endlessly entertaining and impressive — even more so in a watch that costs less than $2,000.
Style-wise, the C9 Harrison is elegant and unambiguously dressy with its polished case, expansive white dial and alligator strap. However, at 43 millimeters, it’s too large for a dress watch by at least two or three millimeters. Flipping the watch over reveals the modified movement through the display caseback and the ample real estate surrounding it is proof that the case could have been made smaller. The movement is also surprisingly sparsely decorated, with only a CW-branded rotor as evidence that this is anything but a bog standard ETA 2824. Then again, affordability comes at a price, and we shouldn’t expect an impressive complication without giving up our hand-beveling and perlaged bridges.
The C9 Harrison Jumping Hour is a limited edition release of only 250 pieces that will no doubt sell out quickly. It’s great to see a brand not rest on its laurels or always play things safe. Christopher Ward could have kept producing handsome, vaguely familiar designs and relying on affordable pricing to succeed, but instead they’ve produced a beautiful watch with a unique complication that is refreshingly accessible to watch enthusiasts of almost any pay grade.