Today a new British watchmaking company called Bremont is ensuring the watch industry (and consumers) are fully aware that they are restoring England’s lost horological roots. This article will explore both the good and the bad, hopefully by providing a fair and balanced look at this company that has demonstrated incredible growth.
Why There Are Very Few English Watch Companies
The British used to dominate the world of watchmaking. An English-made fusee watch was considered the watch of the wealthy. Long before the Swiss were the best watchmakers, everyone of status sought English watches. Yet by 1840, the English watchmakers had failed to adopt new mechanical movement styles that made watches thinner, insisting the much thicker fusee escapement was superior. from 1800-1840, the English watches fell out of fashion, and so did the English watch industry.
By 1870, the English were not a going concern in a watch industry dominated by the Swiss and the Americans. The lost industry led the British economy to focus on other industries where their comparative labor advantage could compete, rather than trying to challenge the cheap and quality production of American machinery and Swiss watchmakers. Apart from a few small luxury makers, there have been few dominant English watch producing companies since.
Bremont, the Company
Bremont watch company is a relatively new company that many watch consumers are unfamiliar with. Among the enthusiast crowd, Bremont has developed a love or hate reputation. Despite these salient opinions, Bremont is producing some innovative products that are garnering attention and earning the company a reputation. In this article, I will analyze the company’s apparent strategy and what that means for the company and their competitors (the biggest competitor — I believe — is Breitling).
Bremont was founded by two brothers, Nick and Giles English of England. It is a company of inspiration and passion for aviation. It was inspired by their late father Euan, a former Royal Air Force pilot whose life was sadly cut short in a plane crash in 1995. The brothers started the company, but without a name, they became inspired by an untimely aircraft breakdown of theirs in a French field owned by a farmer named Antoine Bremont, a veteran pilot of WWII, who fixed their plane (full story on their website). The company was formally formed in 2002 but didn’t produce its first watches until 2007. The company has positioned itself as an aviation brand, but like many other companies, it produces a full array of watches including pilot chronographs, dive watches, and even sailboat racing watches. According to a JCK report, the company produces 10,000 watches annually, which is about 25% of the production of Audemars Piguet, a company with about 175 years of production history.
The company has come to distinguish itself based on a few key design aspects. The first is a minute attention to detail on the watch case, which frequently features hobnail engraving or other small engraving features. The second aspect is exposition backs that feature (usually) aviation-centric themes and not just a standard disk rotor to wind the movement. Finally, while limited to only a few models, Bremont has become known for limited edition or lines of watches that are unique, to say the least, but fully embody an aura or historical grounding behind them. A few examples are the U-2 watch (famous spy plane), the Boeing models (pairing with the famous aircraft company), the P-51 special edition (after the famous American WWII plane), and the Martin Baker line (after the famous fighter plane ejection seat maker).
Bremont has quite a few friends of the brand who seem to be interested in what Bremont is doing. These include Orlando Bloom, Tom Cruise, Gordon Ramsay, survivalist Bear Grylls, Roger Daltry of ‘The Who’, legendary Rolling Stones member Ronnie Wood, and Ryan Seacrest.
Can Bremont Compete in the Crowded Pilot Watch Space?The pilot watch space is crowded, yet Bremont manages to throw around some weight among the pilot community. This is a very difficult market segment to compete in, mostly because of existing aviation heavyweights Breitling, IWC, and Bell and Ross. However, the pilot community has consistently demonstrated a love for watches and a desire to own a pilot-themed watch. While I can’t provide numbers to back this up, just ask any pilot or look on the wrist of a pilot at the airport and more often than not, they will be wearing a watch, usually a large pilot-style chronograph. Most of this obsession comes down to a culture, where pilot watches were essential for early aviators and became part of the “uniform” within the pilot culture. Just as apple pie has earned the “American as Apple Pie” designation, so has the pilot watch engrained itself in culture along with the leather jacket, large sunglasses, and “remove before flight” tags. Even for those who don’t pilot an aircraft, the pilot watch has come to represent an aviation identity.
Bremont has done well from a marketing perspective creating watches that connect with pilots. The first way they have done so is by creating lines that are unequivocally designed for pilots. One example is the Martin Baker line, which is a line of watches designed to survive the G-forces incurred during an ejection sequence from a plane. While 99.99% of us have no need for this type of feature, that doesn’t stop consumers from buying watches that are waterproof beyond 5,000′ (and even 10,000′). Consumers have consistently demonstrated an affinity for technical capability despite our inability to use the feature (in product design, this is usually called “overshoot” and considered a wasted set of capabilities, yet in many luxury products, consumers like to pay more for the unusable “overshoot”). Bremont doesn’t view this as overshoot, rather they see the product as actually being for pilots who might have to eject. Bremont actually offers a restricted edition of the Martin Baker watch to pilots who have had to eject before (formally know as the MBI, now known as the ‘Red Barrel’ edition as the watch has a red barrel [i.e. sides of the watch case]). Co-founder Nick English, on the company’s website, says:
With this [Martin Baker watch] comes some truly inspirational stories of those pilots that have been ejected, many of whom now own a red-barreled Bremont MBI watch. We have also seen some fairly remarkable accounts where pilots who already own one of our exclusive military edition Bremont MBII or III watches have subsequently ejected from their aircraft. Rather than get an Bremont MBI watch, they have asked to exchange their current watch barrel to red signifying that they have survived an ejection.
Bremont Limited Editions are the Main Event
While aviators demonstrate an affinity for heritage from much older companies like Breitling (around since 1884), Bremont has managed to overcome this deficit in a fairly short period of time (they only produced their first watch in 2007). From a marketing perspective, it is actually quite a coup. While aviation is ensconced in heritage, Bremont has managed to overcome this lack of company history by offering watches that integrate ACTUAL aviation heritage. By doing so, they have provided a direct connection to aviation history that out-does the industry incumbents. A few examples of watches that exhibit this are the Bremont Wright Flyer and the Bremont P-51, of which both are very difficult to buy on the open market. (The company noted to me that a few Wright Watches are still available through retailers, though unlike other watches, good luck finding one selling used). When these limited edition watches do come on the market, they sell at a premium. For example, the P-51 originally retailed (in stainless steel) in 2011 for $11,900; one was recently listed on Chrono24 in steel for $18,400.
Why are these models so hard to buy? They both integrate priceless pieces of aviation heritage. The Wright Brothers Flyer watch integrates a very small piece of the original canvas of the Wright Brothers’ Flyer. You’d be correct that the original plane is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., but the Bremont co-founders were able to get the Wright family to provide a very small piece of the original canvas to the project. This provides 450 owners of this watch a chance to have a piece of the Wright Flyer and the very birth of powered flight in a pilot watch. Wright family member Amanda Wright Lane said of the project
The wing cloth from the 1903 Wright Flyer is considered almost priceless by some, but we felt Bremont’s passion for aviation heritage made them a suitable choice for this rare use of the cloth.
As an interesting aside, the Wright Flyer, while housed in the Smithsonian museum, does not have the original fabric on the plane. The fabric was changed out at least twice, the first time by Orville Wright in 1928 and a second time by the Smithsonian during restoration in 1985. Learn more on the Smithsonian’s blog.
The second model is the P-51, which apart from its aviation-centric theme and propeller shaped rotor, it integrates actual metal from a veteran WWII Pacific Theater P-51 Mustang. While the metal is not nearly as “limited” in nature as the fabric from the Wright Flyer, these watches have demonstrated a scarcity on the secondary market. Bremont recently released another limited edition piece, the DH-88, named after a famous British plane that flew from England to Australia in 3 days in 1934, a significant aviation milestone. This watch also integrates a small piece of wood from the aircraft.
I asked Nick and Giles where they come up with the ideas for the limited editions. For the most part, their special editions are virtually impossible to buy on the secondary market. Nick told me:
It is about manufacturing beautiful engineered timepieces that, together with that magical historical ingredient, become pieces of history in their own right. The fact that many have become significant investment pieces in a relatively short timescale is hopefully testament to this.
Some other notable limited release watches (good luck finding one):
Bremont Victory, which incorporates wood and copper from the HMS Victory warship of the 1700’s. (As a side note, seeing one of these watches featured in a jewelry store in 2013 was my first introduction to Bremont. I thought the watch was very neat then and I still am impressed with it now).
Bremont Codebreaker, which incorporates wood and an original punch card from the famous Hut 6 that was critical to the allied victory in WWII.
Bremont EP120, which integrates actual pieces from a veteran WWII British Spitfire Mk V aircraft.
Is Bremont Beating the Grey Market?
From limited research, the answer seems to be yes. Grey markets occur when a consumer can buy a product new, but at a market-clearing price that is much cheaper than retail, usually through a non-authorized dealer. Grey market examples are Jomashop, where almost any watch brand can be found for 20-50% less than authorized dealer retail prices. Grey markets arise when suppliers, dealers, or producers (or SOMEONE in the supply chain), who have too many watches in stock, sell them at wholesale cost to a store like Jomashop who then sells them for cheaper-than-retail price. As John at Quill & Pad recently wrote on the effect of the grey market:
Since the Internet, grey market retailers have been able to create a presence on the web, so doing a Google search for a watch is likely to allow consumers visibility of the prices offered by grey market dealers and buy online. The negative effects of this turn of events on the official side of the industry are extremely damaging for authorized dealers, distributors, and even the brands themselves. For the authorized retailers it causes problems because now a client walks in, tries on the watch, asks how much, then says, “Gee, I can get the same watch for 20 percent less from www.blahblahblah.com.
While Bremont watches can be found used online as well as new through authorized dealers, very few (if any) grey market examples can be found. How Bremont is able to control this is unknown. However, it prevents their active dealers from having to compete with market-clearing prices while also preserving secondary (used) market prices, who also don’t have to compete with grey markets. A strong used market is very important for watch brands, whose customers frequently consider new vs. used pricing both for collectability reasons and also determining whether the new vs. used price difference is worth the money.
Is Bremont Being Innovative?
What is innovative in today’s watch market? I frequently hear that “innovative companies” are making new movements and new materials for watches. Neither of these is innovative. Innovation implies improvement (read the article “Tilting at Windmills: Innovation in the Watch Industry“). New movement designs by themselves are not innovative because they only re-engineer a design that has not changed for well over 50 years. In 1876, mass-produced Waltham watches are well documented as keeping time within 1/2 second/day. A new design cannot improve time function, therefore innovation would imply something significantly different: shock resistance, anti-magnetism improvements, automatic winding, etc. However, all of these have been done. A movement could have a 30-day power reserve, but that is providing a feature that does not provide a tangible benefit to the customer, rather it becomes a feature.
New materials are equally difficult to quantify because (usually) they are worth LESS but customers are charged MORE for a new material that has a fancy name. However, within 3 years, even counterfeit watches or “me too” copies are using the same or very similar materials (to the point where the consumer can find the same material for 75% less).
Where does ACTUAL INNOVATION come in the watch industry? Bold design and warranties. Bremont is doing something on the design front that no other company is successfully matching and that is integrating heritage into a watch. This cannot be easily replicated. Where else can someone get a piece of the Wright Flyer, much less built into a pilot watch? Many companies say “this is the watch of pilots” but who determines that? It’s a marketing claim. Meanwhile, putting a physical specimen in a watch is not just marketing, rather it is physically there. There is no doubt that it will be marketed by Bremont, but it’s not just a claim, there is physically something there connecting the watch to aviation history, and that is the major difference. No other company is doing what Bremont is doing, so I consider that innovation.
Bremont is Not Without Controversy
Bremont drew a lot of negative attention in 2014 with the release of their Wright Flyer Watch. Some have even dubbed it “a scandal”. What happened? The company called the movement of the watch “in house” when it was actually made in Switzerland. What the company meant to say and were forced to clarify is that the watch movement was actually designed in partnership with a Swiss firm, with a few parts made in England, but actually made in Switzerland. However, the movement was exclusively made for Bremont, which is the crux of the claims. Giles English was quoted by the Financial Times, clarifying the claims by stating:
BWC/01 is a joint effort – our designers have been working with La Joux-Perret’s designers long and hard on this, and we’re making some of the parts here in the UK. This movement is a stepping stone to … making everything [in a watch movement] in the UK.
The Financial Times rightly points out that there is no real industry standard for what qualifies as “in house” (read the previous Watch Ponder article on this). There is also a lot of equivocation in the watch industry over what qualifies for “made in” Switzerland, the United States, and in Bremont’s case, London. Switzerland has the lowest of the standards for qualifying for a “made in” label, while U.S. companies have had their share controversies as well while trying to meet the almost-100% standard. Bremont, like their U.S. counterparts, is trying to overcome the barriers to watch production in their respective countries. It is not easy and while they deserve some grace while they establish their production base, all manufacturers need to be sure they are forthcoming. Consumers seem to care less about the “made in” label in today’s global economy, but they also expect full disclosure as consumers are becoming more discriminating. There will likely never be an equal standard among producing countries, rather consumers count on companies like Bremont being fully forthcoming on what is-and-isn’t. aBlogToWatch’s comments on the 2014 situation provide timeless advice for any company, but especially watch companies:
In the aBlogtoWatch article debuting the Bremont Wright Flyer, James Stacey wrote “the movement is signed “London” and many of its components are manufactured at Bremont HQ in Henley-on-Thames, England.” This remains true and we hope that Bremont will be more careful moving forward in regard to how they communicate about their novel products and accomplishments moving forward.
Bremont has worked diligently to make a unique movement for the special editions to ensure they warrant respect from the watch community. While the controversy caused a stir in the watch world, the founders worked hard to set the record straight, which isn’t always the case in business. They have made the movement a central piece of their watchmaking, something many companies give little attention to. Nick emphasized
The use of double retrograde, GMT Flybacks, and our own proprietary movements within our limited editions has made those watches even more unique. In addition, the beautifully Bremont finished chronometer rated movements that can be found in every other Bremont ensures respect from all future watchmakers coming into contact with the watch.
In Conclusion: Competitor Breitling Might Be Up For Sale
While Bremont has demonstrated strong sales growth, reputation growth, and improving cache, the “other aviation brand”, their incumbent competitor Breitling is considering a sale of the company. It has been a few difficult years for the watch industry. While there have been no updates since November 2016 on Breitling’s consideration, it does beg one to question a few things from a business perspective. Is Bremont impacting Breitling’s sales or their aviator cache? Or maybe Breitling’s owners see something about the broader watch industry that Nick and Giles English are missing and realize now is a good time to exit? Breitling is a tough opponent to topple. One thing is sure: Bremont is not “stalling out.”