British Watchmakers Renew Traditions of Excellence
New York Times, November 7, 2007
LONDON — Axiomatic is the notion that the best-made watches come from Switzerland. It has not always been that way, however, and it may not be that way much longer.
Up until the 19th century, when Americans began mass-producing cheap, accurate timepieces - followed in short order by the Swiss - the British were at the cutting edge of watchmaking science. London, not Geneva, drew the most talented members of the trade.
The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers of London, founded under royal charter in 1631, gathered men like Thomas Tompion, John Harrison and Thomas Mudge, whose chronometric and navigational inventions helped Britannia to rule the seas.
Perhaps the end of that reign was marked only in 1919, when Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, moved his headquarters from London to Geneva.
Now, the pendulum is swinging back. With London again claiming supremacy, at least in matters of global style and the vogue for all things British, a bevy of contemporary brands, most of them Swiss-made, are resurrecting the British horological tradition.
Among the first to see opportunity across the Channel was a Swiss entrepreneur, Eric Loth, who, in 1994, set out to create a new watch brand.
Naturally, he looked for marketing inspiration to the history of Swiss achievements in timekeeping, only to find that it had already been picked clean.
"I found myself trapped in somebody else's story," Loth, a former product development executive with Swatch Group, recalled. "Then I rediscovered something that I already knew: Most mechanical inventions in horological history were originally invented by Englishmen in the 17th and 18th centuries."
The epiphany inspired him to found British Masters, a Swiss watchmaking company that markets two collections named for British innovators. The Graham collection of chronographs pays homage to George Graham, the 18th-century clock maker known as the "father of the chronograph." Arnold & Son is an up-market line of timepieces named for John Arnold, another 18th-century technical genius, who excelled at making marine chronometers.
"The Brits have always had the empirical backbone and practicality of that island nation," said Matthew Morse, editor in chief of Revolution USA, a specialty watch magazine started last year, "while the Swiss appealed to the aristocracy because they made things of great beauty."
Today, those roles have been reversed.
"People want to see Swiss-made because they want to feel safe and comfortable with the technical origin," Loth said, "but they appreciate the British branding, the British face, the British eccentricity."
Britain's distinct contribution to gentlemanly luxury - Savile Row suits, Bentley motors, single-malt Scotch - is the guiding spirit behind Backes & Strauss, a new watch brand that celebrates a London provenance in collections named after Regent Street, Berkeley Square and Piccadilly Circus.
The managing director for Backes & Strauss, Vartkess Knadjian, born in Ethiopia to Haile Selassie's chief watchmaker, was a student in London in the 1970s. When the emperor was deposed in 1974, all hopes of returning home and joining his father in the business "were dashed," he said.
Instead, Knadjian turned to Backes & Strauss, a diamond company founded in Germany in 1789 and later relocated to London. By the late 1990s, he was supplying diamonds to Franck Muller Watchland, a collection of avant-garde brands named after the eccentric Swiss watchmaker.
A collaboration on a diamond-intense watch line soon followed.
"We took a team of designers to the hustle and bustle of London," Knadjian said of the planning behind the debut collection this year. "I feel now that it has become a very global city, the thing New York had in the '50s or '60s."
Greubel Forsey, a Swiss company that marries the talents of two watchmakers - Robert Greubel from France and Stephen Forsey from England - also promotes its English heritage, reviving and referencing esoteric English techniques.
One of Greubel Forsey's signature models, the Double Tourbillon 30°, features a movement hand-finished in "jade gold," lending the metal plates a frosted pale yellow color that epitomizes the gilded style for which English makers of watches and clocks were known.