Although they are competing against Swiss watch brands with hundreds of years of history, two British brothers, Giles and Nick English, are flying high with a brand named for a French farmer. The brothers narrowly escaped impoundment when they ditched their plane in the farmer’s field. Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan met the duo over Martinis at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel to get the inside story on Spitfires, rock bands and how a family tragedy stoked their passion for timepieces.
ET: How did you start Bremont Watches, and what did you do beforehand?
Giles English: Our father was a big watch collector. So we spent our lives in the workshop with him building things. We’d always had a passion for watches. The reason for aviation watches? We’ve both come from an aviation background. Our business before was restoring historical aircraft. We had the opportunity about six years ago to set up a workshop in Switzerland and get into watch-making. But we realized very quickly it would take longer than we thought to launch a watch company. The premise of the whole business plan for us, in terms of the watches, was to produce a watch that was beautifully made, very precise, but at the same time very robust. We wanted to come up with a watch that appealed to those in aviation, and of course the watch lover, but also the person who wanted to wear a beautiful watch and go out and use it properly.
Nick English: We realized early on that that it was going to take a lot longer to build a watch, have it tested, and ready for sale than we had originally anticipated. It took about five years to actually get the watches into the first retailers.
ET: It’s interesting to start your own watch company without having been in the watch business. For someone who wants to start their own watch company, what is a step-by-step guide to starting a workshop? Who you have to look for and what you have to buy?
Nick English: One of the key issues is getting all of the watch parts of the quality we required. We were very lucky when we started. We knew some people in the industry, through our interest in timepieces. We didn’t realize the lead times you need to make watch, though. If I press the button today, it’s at least three years before you can actually sell that watch. That’s just securing all the parts you need, not including all the design time and everything else.
When you’re starting, you realize that you’re a tiny minnow in a pond full of some fairly giant fish. You’ve just got to believe in your product. If you’ve got enough tenacity, I think you will get there. It’s like anything in life, isn’t it? Just a whole load of determination is needed, and in this industry of course a fascination with all things mechanical. We spent ages, as Giles said, in the workshop with our father as kids experimenting and making. We still fly aeroplanes we built with our father, drive cars we restored and watch clocks we repaired. You start to understand and you start to appreciate what goes into a watch – I think this is quite important.
Giles English: For an established brand, it’s easy to follow fashions, because you think, next season it’s going to be gold and rubber, and you build your watch around that. Starting out with a brand, you have to be true to your principles. You can’t follow trends because it’s going to be so long before you come out with it. You’re creating a design and a watch that’s going to be around for generations. You just have to follow your own desires and hope that when it comes to market, people actually like what you’re creating. There’s a lot of personal effort.
ET: So it took about three years for your first prototype. Who did you take it to, and what was the reaction?
Giles English: One of the first people we would have liked to show it to was our father – Euan. The other would have been Antoine Bremont, who the watch brand is named after. He was a very special character. When we first set up the business, we were wondering what we were going to name it, which is the key to any brand. Our surname’s English, so we thought that would be a great idea, but it’s slightly corny. So after much deliberation and many months, we came back to this old chap we met during a forced landing we had in a field on the south side of Paris.
We’ve had many forced landings in England for various reasons. You land, you buy the farmer a bottle of whiskey, and you apologize. He’s very happy, and you have a cup of tea with him. In France you do the same thing – and the airplane gets impounded. It costs an awful lot of money. So we landed in this field—the weather was awful—and this old chap helped us. He put the airplane in his barn, and we had a fantastic couple of days with him. He was an old wartime pilot himself. His workshop was very similar to our father’s, and his name was Antoine Bremont.
We wanted to show our first prototype to him. He thought it was quite amusing, but thought it was quite good of course. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago, so he never saw the first finished watch that bears his name.
Nick English: Once we had finished the prototypes, it was making sure the watches were being tested. It was very important to us that we didn’t release a watch on the market that was going to break and come back in droves, which does happen. So we got the likes of Bear Grylls, the adventurer, and Mike Golding, one of the world’s best single-handed yachtsman, to test the watches. He sailed the globe competing in various races wearing our watch and Bear tried to destroy his watch on a regular basis on his ‘Born Survivor’ shows. So that was fantastic testing all round.
We were also lucky to have Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman choose to wear them on their various motorcycling adventures. It was really perfect field testing for us. We’ve changed some designs, whether it’s the strap or crown type, and it got to a stage where, just over a year ago, where we were happy to actually launch them on the market.
ET: Where did you launch it? Who did you launch it with? And how is it going so far, now that you’re a commercial operation?
Giles English: First of all, you turn up in English retailers and say, “I’m a British brand launching a watch,” they sort of look at you slightly wryly. And we’re very lucky Harrods’s loved the watches and took them on. The whole process in the U.K. – we’re now in 30 retailers – has been a huge break.
ET: Thirty retailers?
Giles English: Yes, some of the best retailers in the U.K. as well. It’s gone very well. Obviously now we’re in America, so it will be interesting to see how the Americans take us.
ET: Both of you are pilots. Tell us about how you got involved with aviation. What type of planes you fly?
Nick English: We’re very lucky. From a very early age, our father was in the Royal Air Force. He started flying with us in the ‘70s, after doing various aerobatic displays earlier in his life. So when we were very young, we would fly with him, travel to air displays and be in the back of the aircraft whilst he displayed them. We were so small, we couldn’t see out of the cockpit so we’d be strapped in the back, which is probably illegal. Flying was a huge part of our lives. Virtually every weekend we’d be going off to do these things.
When we each turned 17, we got our licenses. As we passed through university, we joined the volunteer flying reserves for the RAF. We started display flying as well. Everyone’s got to have a pastime where they can feel completely at ease and free. Flying is one of those things.
The main passion is historic aircraft. We’ve been involved in restoring old wartime aircraft – spitfires and interesting aircraft like that. Nowadays we have an old French bomber and old German biplane that we fly the family around in. What’s lovely about these things is they’re 60- to 70-years old. They’re like a good watch. They’re all mechanical, and if they’re looked after, they’ll go on forever and ever. You get out of it smelling of oil and fuel, but you have a massive grin on your face. For us it’s quite special. Whether it’s an old vintage car, or an old motorbike, it’s these mechanical things these boy toys, and to a certain extent watches, they are all very similar. It’s for those who appreciate fine engineering and fine mechanical devises.
ET: Since you’re a new brand, can you give an overview your product line.
Giles English: Our strength is classical styling, so our watch range is mechanical. It covers about 17 different watch types. The core range is we have the Classic range, the Pilots range, and the Zulu range, which is a 24-hour range. Everything is made with this interesting 3-piece case construction that comes from Switzerland to the U.K., where we do a special heat and surface treatment on it. It won’t scratch as easily as your average watch. This year, we are only creating about 2,000 watches, so part of the reason people are buying our watches is the exclusivity. And generally they’re the people who may own one or two nice watches already.
Nick English: This year we’ve also come out with our first limited edition, which is quite exciting. It’s called EP120, which is based on a very famous wartime spitfire that shot down seven aircraft in one day and had many more kills during the war. It’s still flying in its original condition today. We’re very lucky to have gotten a part of a panel on its wing, which was being restored in the early ‘90s. We’ve now integrated it into this watch. Part of this aircraft is built into the dial and the rotor. We didn’t know how we could come out with a number of watches, but it’s 120 pieces!!
So that’s our first dip in the ocean in terms of a limited edition. It’s a very personal thing we wanted to do, to involve the Spitfires. It’s an amazing piece of history. You’re wearing this watch, part of which was flying over Europe in 1942. It has an emotive feel about it. Hopefully we’ll be bringing a few more interesting things out like that over the next year as well.
ET: Outside of watch making and flying, do you two have any other hobbies?
Giles English: There’s a lot of sports. The usual biking, wimdsurfing and tennis. I think boys’ toys, so cars and planes.
Nick English: What he’s trying to ignore is the fact we’re in a really good band as well. A rock band called Trash Alley, which we’ve been since we were in our teens. It’s very, very bad indeed. We seem to only be invited to friends’ weddings who’ve never heard us.
ET: What instruments you play in the band?
Giles English: The guitar. We both play the guitar very, very badly.
ET: Do either of you sing?
Nick English: Very, very badly as well. But it’s all very, very good fun. And it’s, again, sort of a way of letting your hair down.
ET: How old are each of you?
Nick English: Thirty-seven, I’m afraid.
Giles English: Thirty-four.
ET: Tell us about your families.
Nick English: I try to follow my brother. Normally it’s the other way around, but in this respect, my brother had twins first. Twin girls, and now he has three very lovely little girls. Then my wife, Catherine, and I decided to have twins as well. Now it’s all a question of juggling work and home life, but it’s great. Really, really good fun.
Giles English: Having very young children and working extremely hard, you have to cut short a lot of your hobbies. But we’re very lucky with our flying. A lot of our clients want to go flying with us, so we manage to keep that going during the week.
ET: Are you taking your children on the planes like your father did?
Nick English: We try to as much as possible. I took my wife up about a year and a half ago, when she was very pregnant and her waters broke in the aircraft. The children are very much into it, and it’s a great way of getting around. We call it the plane the family bus.
ET: Have you thought at all about the children coming into the watch-making business?
Giles English: To be honest, having a family watch company is wonderful, and we’d love that to happen. But it’s quite a long way off. I think we both have to get through the next year or two at the moment.
Nick English: I think my son’s more interested in the new scooter he got last week than watches at the moment. But it’s one of those dreams you always have, isn’t it? You set up a business that your family can continue. It would be so, so special if it could happen, but obviously it’s a long, long way away.
ET: Are there any other family members involved in the business right now?
Giles English: Just us two. And our wives live through it.
ET: How many people in the company today?
Giles English: We’re tiny. We have five and a half in Switzerland. It’s not one very small person—it’s one person who comes in to help occasionally– but basically five engineers and watchmakers. Then we have six or seven in the U.K. and now a couple in the States.
ET: As you grow globally, you were talking also about Asia, what are the challenges?
Giles English: The first thing about a watch business is it’s hugely complicated. Because your lead times for making watches, as Nick was saying earlier, is about three years, you have to anticipate your demand in three years time. Your cash-flow is a nightmare. The quickest and easiest way to grow a watch company is to go through distributors around the world, but then you can, if you are not careful, loose some control over your brand. We’re a clean company, we feel very strongly about what Bremont represents, and we’re very concerned about handing that over to just anyone.
For example at the moment, coming to the States – we’re doing it all ourselves, literally. Nick and I coming to meetings with all the shops. In certain countries, we’ll have to go through distributors. And we have to make sure that we don’t grow too quickly.
ET: Where do you see the company in 5 to 7 years?
Nick English: Five years seems like such a long way away. Next year we’ve got some really fun models coming out, so it’s hard to know model-wise what’ll be out in five years. But we know the next three years. We’ve got a marine range of watch, and some other limited editions coming out which will be fantastic.
In terms of the company itself, everyone wants to get to a stage where they’re self-sufficient, where you can reinvest properly for the future, and you can see it grow in a nice way. For any watch business you have to look at the global market. It’s very difficult to stay in the U.K. or the States. So fingers crossed, that would mean some nice business in the Far East.
Giles English: Nick is currently learning Chinese and doing a really bad job of it. Having said that, he can barely understand his children who speak French, due to his wife Catherine being French-Canadian. He has no hope!
ET: Any thoughts that Bremont might be part of a bigger company someday? Would you look for outside investors?
Giles English: At this stage, it’s far too early to ever consider that. But also, Nick and I set out to build a family business, and it’s something that we love. You treat it like one of your children. I do hope cash flow-wise we can control that growth, so we don’t need to look for a bigger partner.
You can understand why the watch companies do get owned by the big groups – for the distribution and the whole rollout plan. But I think it’s about keeping that passion there. We’re enjoying it too much to hand it over.
ET: In family businesses, there are points of tension and disagreement. How do you work through the difficult times and how do you divide responsibilities? What do you think makes your partnership successful?
Nick English: I mainly come up with the design, finance, the marketing and the retail. My brother’s very good at office management, sweeping the floor and that side of things – generally there are leaders and followers, and I’m very lucky to have my brother as a follower!! In all seriousness, we’re very lucky, because we’ve worked together now for 10-15 years and we both do a bit of everything. When you design a watch, the thought will come up, “Dear oh dear, I don’t like this.” But we have very, very similar views on what we like, which makes it so much easier. Because you’re family and worked together so long, you can guess as to what the other’s thinking. In any meeting, you almost know what the other person’s going to say.
Giles English: You’re designing a watch, which is such a personal thing to do, so each watch is a bit of a compromise of our different views on it. We can argue, but not full out, so to date, it’s worked.
ET: If you hadn’t gotten involved in the watch business what else could you have seen yourself doing?
Nick English: My wife would love to live in Maui and just be a surf goddess, so I’d probably be following her there. That’d be really good, but, unfortunately, I don’t have the resource to retire! I think something in aviation really, because it’s such a huge passion of ours. They always say, “How do you make a million pounds out of aviation? You have to start with 10 million”, because it’s such a nightmare business to make any money in. But it’s a hugely passionate business, like watches, and it’s immensely good fun.
Giles English: Obviously, aviation is a big part of our lives. I started as an engineer, a naval architect. My design was always to build boats, so a yacht designer would be a lovely thing to do.
ET: Anything else that you want to tell our readers?
Giles English: Life changing experiences change your way of doing things. Being an entrepreneur, going out and doing your own thing, is not necessarily the hard way of doing things. Often, it’s the easier way of doing things. We’ve never been very good in big corporate enterprises. Our big, life-changing experience for us was a very bad plane crash with Nick and our father.
ET: In what year?
Giles English: This was in ’95. Nick was very badly injured, but survived. He broke over 20 bones. I think we came out of that and viewed life in a very different way. You start to think that life is so short and I still think everyday that I could be dead tomorrow. You just want to go out and do something you love doing. Everyone has to have a bit of that attitude to life, because we don’t know where we’re going to be. That was a big reason why we’ve done this, with our father’s attitude in mind, because we’re living up to him.
Nick English: We found one of the most enjoyable things about this business is the burning passion, what we’re doing behind the watches themselves. Over the last year and a half, with the watches out in the marketplace, we have heard amazing stories about the people who’ve bought the watches. You learn so much about people and the passions. Some of the people buying the watches have the same enthusiasm we do and have been through similar experiences. For us that’s so, so special.
Giles English: You love each watch you create, and you want it to go into a good home and be used lovingly. That’s how we view our watches.