he world sets its time by Greenwich, England, not by Geneva, Switzerland, and for good reason. The British have contributed critical developments to the field of Haute Horlogerie as we know it today. In 1800, around half the world’s watches came from Britain’s shores. By the 20th century, it had boasted undeniable horological dominance for around 200 years. It was a period that yielded an illustrious list of inventions, including every major escapement design and around three-quarters of all other watchmaking innovations.
Nowadays, British watchmaking is a shadow of its former glory. However, an upswing in its fortunes is emerging because of a new official trade body: the Alliance of British Watch & Clock Makers. The Alliance formally represents watch and clock making brands trading in the United Kingdom, and also the Republic of Ireland. The mission is led by lauded watchmaker Dr Roger Smith OBE and Mike France, co-founder of Christopher Ward. Chief Executive, Alistair Audsley, who co-founded the Alliance with Smith and France in November 2020, says, “We have some real icons of time. I always say we only have one tradition in British watchmaking, and that is innovation.”
“We only have one tradition in British watchmaking, and that is innovation.”
- Alistair Audsley co-founded the Alliance of British Watch & Clock Makers with Roger Smith and Mike France in November 2020.
A few years ago, Europa Star reported on the rise of a new generation of independent watchmakers in Britain in this article. With high-end timepieces driving Swiss exports to record levels in 2021 and the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS) reporting a continued upward trajectory this year, Audsley has witnessed a similar trend bringing ‘encouraging growth’ to British brands.
In order to gauge the size and scope of the sector in Britain, the Alliance commissioned KPMG to conduct a Bellwether survey. It identified over 100 British watch and clock making brands – many formed within the last 10 years – which collectively produced over one million timepieces in 2020. The survey also indicated the sector may be experiencing a period of significant development, with 75% of respondents expecting growth over the coming years.
- Roger Smith created the GREAT Britain as a unique piece to celebrate British innovation and technology around the world.
Market growth is the principal objective of the Alliance. As an ambassador of the UK government’s GREAT Britain campaign, Audsley is no stranger to boosting trade and investment opportunities for the economy. “Our Alliance’s longer-term goal is what we call ‘Project One Billion’: we would like the industry to grow to that size,” he says. To find out more about the resurgence on the horizon, we sat down with Alistair Audsley.
“Our Alliance’s longer-term goal is what we call ‘Project One Billion’: we would like the industry to grow to that size.”
Europa Star: Project One Billion is quite an ambition. What insights did you derive from KPMG’s Bellwether report?
Alistair Audsley: Project One Billion is ambitious, but it is attainable. Fundamentally, the report proves that we have a sector. That has to be the first goal. And we need to codify it: What exactly does the sector comprise? How many companies are around? What’s their trading level? How much of their supply chain is in Britain? What do exports look like? What does employment look like?
Now we can say we are here, we have a sector. It’s very small in the grand scheme of things: we have 104 registered companies, of which 89 are trading and 74 are now members. The retail value of the market is about £145 million. I put together a strategy and objectives for what our trade body might look like and what it could achieve. Next is for us to engage with trade and create greater exports. The report shows that the USA is a tier-one market for us. We will go where our lowest hanging fruits are in the next few years.
“Now we can say we are here, we have a sector. It’s very small in the grand scheme of things: we have 104 registered companies, of which 89 are trading and 74 are now members. The retail value of the market is about £145 million.”
- A British record: this anniversary model by George Daniels was sold at the Phillips New York Auction last June for $2.389m.
Who do you represent? Who are your members?
The Alliance is the very first sector trade body for British watch and clock makers. Members need to be clock or watch brands that are producing and selling products. Although there are some restorers and makers in the clock segment, we wouldn’t normally have members who are solely restoring or repairing. A company has to be owned, managed, and trading from the UK. As for the membership, there is a sliding scale from Smith through to those who are designing watches but predominantly getting them made offshore. 97% of our members design their watches in Britain, which is a good start.
- Ed Sheeran is one of the most famous Brits in the world but also a watch aficionado. The singer is particularly fond of Roger Smith’s work.
- From the British Alliance of Watch and Clock Makers Instagram account
We notice some of the more established brands are not part of the Alliance, such as Bremont and Garrick.
They are still relevant to us. That’s the nature of being a trade body and not a club. We keep a close eye on both members and non-members. We want every business in the trade to thrive and flourish. And there is a universal desire to do more in Britain. We all want to get more of our watches and components made in the country. 74 members is a market as opposed to one company that is a customer for the supply chain. Hopefully, if we can start presenting a market then a supply chain becomes investable; it becomes interesting for entrepreneurs and engineers to get fired up about the potential and to build the supply.
“Next is for us to engage with trade and create greater exports. The report shows that the USA is a tier-one market for us. We will go where our lowest hanging fruits are in the next few years.”
- After Britain, the US market is the most important driver of sales for the members.
- Source: KPMG/British Alliance of Watch and Clock Makers
It is a mammoth challenge to develop a supply chain.
Local makers for cases, straps, and dials are already starting to exist, or going into the supply side. The holy grail is the movement. At the top of the curve, we have Roger (Smith) who makes everything in-house, and then it’s a rapid and massive drop-off in terms of sourcing local parts and components. That’s why we regard Switzerland as a key supply-chain partner to Britain. Switzerland is not an enemy. We’re a miniscule sector compared to the enormous success of the Swiss industry. For a significant period, Switzerland will remain key to us, as will China to our lower price-band makers, and as will Japan to some of the middle price-band makers.
- Roger Smith aims to perpetuate the legacy of Georges Daniels, moving from the the Co-axial escapement to the single-wheel iteration.
But then, are British makers just design houses?
When you look at the staggering number of innovations that came around in the 18th and 19th centuries, we have the heritage and credentials. Then of course, in more recent times, we had George Daniels. And now, Roger is taking George’s work with the Co-axial escapement to the next level with its single-wheel iteration. There is also nanomaterial research in the UK that could potentially benefit the durability of movements. Innovation is still at the heart of Britain’s offering. When you talk to our members, you can tell that’s what inspires them. I think in Britain in the past, we always had this one-man-or-woman-in-the-shed approach to innovation. As a trade sector body, one of the things we hope to offer is more guidance to commercialise and to help nurture those businesses.
“The holy grail is the movement. At the top of the curve, we have Roger (Smith) who makes everything in-house, and then it’s a rapid and massive drop-off in terms of sourcing local parts and components.”
- Three exceptional timepieces by George Daniels will be offered at the Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo’s Geneva Watch Auction XVI on November 5-6: the unique Spring Case Tourbillon in yellow gold (estimate in excess of CHF 1 million), a yellow gold Anniversary limited to 35 pieces in yellow gold (estimate CHF 300,000-600,000) and a yellow gold Millennium limited to 48 pieces (estimate CHF 250,000-500,000).
Is it how the Alliance will help scale up member brands?
It is with market growth, and by bringing manufacturing back to Britain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have identified that a barrier to growth is the lack of talent coming into the sector. Of course, Brexit adds another layer of complexity to get watchmakers to come in. I sit on a panel of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and I had a meeting with the Department for Work & Pensions, along with the National Association of Jewellers, to discuss how to encourage people into our respective sectors. As a trade body, we have to create vocational opportunities. We work with the government to provide recruitment support for job centres. And we work with educators to present to young people a career in making. This could contribute to potential growth of the sector.
- One of the missions of the British Alliance of Watch and Clock Makers is to create vocational opportunities.
And to aim for Project One Billion?
It starts with growth. On the wealth trickle-down assumption, it encourages investment, leads to a greater supply chain, greater employment, and greater GDP for the economy. We have a huge array of really interesting, niche, unusual designs and approaches to watchmaking. There’s clearly some sort of resurgence, but there was no guiding light for it.
We want to put a light up there. It is a lofty ambition to achieve that goal, probably over 10 years. The target is driven by a couple of our members seeing really high growth themselves and being the cornerstones of that sort of number. The idea is to help our members to develop a growth attitude. Attitude is so important to growth because you can set up a brand as a lifestyle business, or as the execution of a dream. But there could be something more to gain. We have a few stars among the members who are growing very well. We can remind our members a lofty ambition is attainable. It is ambitious, but maybe not crazy.
“There’s clearly some sort of resurgence, but there was no guiding light for it. We want to put a light up there.”
- The majority of members were founded in the last twenty years.
- Source: KPMG/British Alliance of Watch and Clock Makers