It looks like the sort of place that should make Formula 1 cars or fighter jets. And that’s somewhat appropriate as the building is called ‘The Wing’, taking flight over the gentle Oxfordshire countryside near the well-heeled town of Henley upon Thames, famous for its regatta and striped blazers.
It’s also famous for watches, as Bremont has been based there ever since the company was founded back in 2002. The story of its creation is an incredible tale of triumph out of tragedy. Brothers Nick and Giles English had the worlds turned upside down on one March day in 1995, when a vintage plane crash claimed their father’s life and left Nick with terrible injuries.
Yet as Giles says, had it not been for that seismic event – and, unbelievably, another plane crash just a few years later, in which he wound up in a French field belonging to a former pilot called Antoine Bremont – the Bremont watch company would probably never have been started.
Bremont exists both as a tribute to their father and his lifelong passion for planes and cars, but also as an expression of the philosophy that both Nick and Giles adopted following the tragedy: follow your dreams and live for the moment, as one never knows what is around the corner.
Not that there’s any short-hand thinking behind Bremont. Giles points out that they want the brand to exist in perpetuity, or at least for several hundred years beyond our lifetimes. And that long-term vision is certainly necessary, because the breath-taking amount of tangible investment – in buildings, equipment, people, and unusual artefacts (such as a Boeing 747 cockpit; but more on that later) – will undoubtedly take plenty of time and sales to recoup.
Yet this is the ambitious goal that the English brothers have set themselves. Given some of their celebrity customers – including Tom Cruise and Gordon Ramsay – it’s not unrealistic. If you manage to walk away from a plane crash or two, it probably makes you a little bit fearless and skews your perception of risk.
At the time we look around Bremont’s already-impressive manufacturing facility – thanks to a generous invitation to take a deep dive behind the scenes – a large space is being cleared, in preparation for a few doors and windows to be taken out that will facilitate the arrival of a brand new machine to make watch cases. In a few weeks from now, it should be up and running.
It’s all part of a remarkable plan to dramatically ramp up production over the next few years, to an extent that will help Bremont join the really big players in the watchmaking world. The idea is also to ensure that as much as possible is manufactured in-house, which is already the case to a large extent right now.
That’s what makes Bremont unique in the world of British watchmaking, as it’s the only company that makes everything by itself, including the movements. Obviously, you don’t need us to tell you that the definition of ‘in-house’ when it comes to watches is notoriously nebulous: especially in Switzerland, where ‘in-house’ is a kind of mantra that frequently flatters to deceive.
Here, the evidence is laid out before you. If the movement is something that you can create or engineer yourself on the premises, it adds to perceived value and scratches an itch that’s common to many watch enthusiasts. And this is something that the English brothers swiftly recognised and capitalised upon.
Bremont has evolved organically into manufacturing movements, having created its first ENG300 movement last year for the Longitude collection (inspired by the famous Greenwich observatory, complete with a red ball to indicate the power reserve). This year though, the company stepped it up a gear with the launch of the new H1 generation, which consists of three very different watches featuring a variety of proprietary complications.
The main difference is that while the Longitude was a limited edition, the three H1 watches – called the Audley, the Fury, and the Supernova – form part of the regular line-up, meaning that this truly represents an important milestone for Bremont, as a firm declaration of global intent.
The significance of these three watches – which Giles proudly shows us, in Bremont’s incredible bar area, overlooking fields that one day will probably become more Bremont buildings (planning has already been agreed) cannot be underestimated.
And what’s incredible to comprehend is the fact that every bit of those watches has been created just a few metres away from where we are sitting. To say that it's not been an easy journey would be a gross understatement. But the hardest climbs are the ones that give you the greatest view: a bit like the place we are sitting in. And it’s hard to remember, walking around the building, that the company hasn’t even existed for 25 years yet.
During the first five of them, it didn’t sell a single watch: with the emphasis being on research and development. Giles and Nick are such unstinting perfectionists that it’s actually impossible to work out where they get enough free time from to indulge their passion for aviation and cars (they both race the magnificent Austin Healey on display in Bremont’s reception).
Giles says that he often struggles to know the answer himself, but that ultimately it’s down to having the right team around him. That’s easier said than done, because outside of Switzerland it’s very hard to recruit people with the sort of specialist knowledge that Bremont requires, which means a lot of the training has to happen in-house.
It’s a lengthy and complex process, but it results in the sort of home-grown expertise that allow Bremont’s watchmakers to be involved in every aspect of the manufacture. Perhaps the biggest compliment has come from a couple of heavy hitters in this Swiss watch industry who have toured Bremont and commented that the facilities and quality are equal to anything coming out of their home country. Not that they would necessarily like to admit that in public.
For all the adoption of Swiss methodology, Bremont’s calling card is the fact that it is resolutely British in approach. That is evident in everything the company does, including its amusing ad campaigns that like to poke occasional fun at vanquished foreigners (‘we do not anticipate huge sales in France or Spain’ said one ad for a watch celebrating a limited edition inspired by the 18th century warship HMS Victory – those not familiar with history can look the story up later.)
Most of all, it's the fascinating subjects that the limited editions are based on that evoke Britishness, such as the fascinating ‘Codebreaker’ watch that uses parts of a World War II enigma machine. There are also watches that showcase parts of the Spitfire, and of Concorde. Not to mention the family of Martin Baker ejector seat watches, which have a cult following – and not only among pilots who have successfully survived an ejection (a surprisingly high number). Those watches are subjected to the ultimate field test: being fired through a fighter jet canopy as part of an ejection. One of my favourite limited editions is the Stephen Hawking watch: using pieces of Hawking’s desk in the back. The eminent scientist was at school and then university with Nick and Giles’ father, hence the family connection.
It’s fair to say that the influence of their father is everywhere throughout the company. He would be astonished, and incredibly proud, of the legacy that his memory has left behind – as well as the regular association with pioneering achievements in the areas that he loved. Another fascinating watch, the Wright Flyer, uses original pieces of the fabric from the wings of the 1903 aircraft built by two other brothers and aviators who left their mark on the world: Orville and Wilbur Wright.
The genius of Bremont lies in spotting opportunities that resonate with people. And for that, you have to be spontaneous. Giles and Nick never actually meant to buy a Boeing 747 cockpit: instead only a few interesting artefacts to use as decorations (which is why you find jet engine cowlings on the lawn instead of sculptures and desks made out of wingtips).
But the chance to acquire a complete Boeing cockpit came up out of the blue and they went for it: only a few years ago, it was still flying across the world as part of British Airways. Don’t be too surprised if you end up wearing it on your wrist one day.
A surprisingly high number of the watches produced by Bremont never make it onto general sale though: instead they are commissioned as limited editions by organisations that range from Boeing itself through to specific military regiments. That part of the business will always remain, even when the company reaches the next level.
Then there are the automotive partnerships, which range from the Williams Formula 1 team (based just down the road in Grove, Oxfordshire) to Jaguar. This might explain why a Jaguar E-Type bonnet forms the centrepiece of another room in The Wing.
Lots of watchmakers talk about passion and the emotional journey that brought them to where they are now. But there’s no story more engrossing than that of Bremont: a fearless company where the founders are no strangers to living in the moment, while celebrating the past.