As children, Nick and Giles English could routinely be found tinkering in their father's aeroplane workshop in the east of England, repairing planes, making clocks, models, musical instruments and fixing anything mechanical they could lay their hands on. Their father Euan was a World War Two RAF aerobatic champion and it was hardly a surprise when Nick and Giles grew up to become professional pilots and aviation junkies.
But in 1995, it was this gift for flying that was to tragically claim Euan's life. One spring day while Nick was flying with his father and Giles was flying in formation in another plane, a manoeuvre went wrong and Giles watched his father and brother plummet to the earth. Euan was killed but Nick survived, having broken 20 bones.
Nick was in intensive care for two weeks. He went through 90 litres of blood in various transfusions and operations and caught MRSA. When his mother asked the doctor if her son would manage on crutches on a trip to the theatre when he left hospital, the doctor looked at her aghast and said: "Crutches? You'll be lucky if he walks again." Eventually it was Nick's brother Giles who sneaked him out of the hospital early, after which his recovery accelerated.
The terrible tragedy prompted the brothers to re-evaluate their lives and careers. They had inherited their father's love of all things mechanical and knew in their hearts they wanted to start a watch company. While on a flying trip together, they were forced to make an overnight emergency landing in a French field, whose owner turned out fortuitously to be as passionate about watches and clocks as they were. His name was Bremont. He inspired the brothers to make the changes in their lives that were now inevitable.
Within a matter of months, they had left their corporate finance jobs at Price Waterhouse Coopers and Williams de Broë, and started up a digital music download business, Virtue Broadcasting, distributing and creating content including concerts by Madonna, Paul McCartney and a reunion of the remaining members of The Doors. Several years later, they floated the firm on the UK's AIM index, which provided the cash to buy a Swiss workshop.
Fast forward five years and the first of their very own Bremont watches emerged from their Swiss workshop in Bel-Bienne in 2006. It wasn't long before the US navy test pilot school heard about Bremont. "They knew our aviation links and were looking for an exclusive aviation watch brand," says Nick. Apparently, the pilots welcomed a change from seeing all their colleagues wearing Breitlings. Pilots can only buy the Bremont watch that relates to their squadron and sports their emblem on the dial. They appreciate the fact that all the watches are handmade in limited editions and individually registered.
The brothers pride themselves on the durability and accuracy of their watches. All the watches are chronometer tested and durability tested for temperature, shocks, magnetic fields and water resistance. The stainless steel cases of all Bremont watches are made to an exceptional hardness of 2000 Vickers, meaning they are nine times as durable as an average steel watch case. The anti-reflective, convex sapphire crystal is equally hard and, during the arduous chronometer certification process, each Bremont watch returns an accuracy level of 99.998%.
Clearly, Nick and Giles are not your average watch-making entrepreneurs. Their frank and down-to-earth style coupled with innate charm and enthusiasm for what has become a labour of love has spilled over into a host of illustrious fans and clients. Actor Ewan MacGregor asked Bremont if he could use early prototypes for a motorbike trip through Africa, which was filmed for the BBC. The King of Spain is said to be a loyal fan as is three times world record breaking free-diving champion, Sara Campbell, who has recently been testing the latest Bremont watch, the Supermarine 500, for water resistance as well as dial and strap designs. And all this, with zero budget for sponsorships of brand ambassadors.
"Most watch brands are soulless because they're owned by big corporations," says Giles. "But when, for example, we first thought of taking part of a Second World War Spitfire plane and turning it into a limited edition watch, I'm convinced most people would have looked at us as if we were crazy. But because we are brothers, we both thought it was a great idea. The interest has been huge – perhaps because people know we're a quirky brand up against the big boys."
Within 18 months of launching onto the watch scene in July 2007, Bremont timepieces were to be found in the showcases of department stores such as Harrods in London and Barneys in New York. The brothers are currently in talks with major retailers in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The brothers are resolutely patriotic and hope to bring about a renaissance in English watchmaking. The EP-120, for example, is based on the clock in the cockpit of a British Spitfire plane. Each of the 120 watches has a piece in it taken from an original panel of EP-120, a Spitfire delivered in 1942, which is still flying today and which has appeared in films including Pearl Harbour and The Battle of Britain. "The Spitfire was the saviour of the British in World War Two," says Giles. "Each watch contains parts of a panel we procured from a 1942 Spitfire Mk V aircraft, possibly the most credited WWII fighter in existence."
For the moment, Bremont's movements are entirely Swiss and the watches come back to the UK to be finished. But the brothers look forward to a time when they can repeat the British success of a century ago, when watches from the likes of Arnold, Dent and Graham were being hunted down by the Swiss just as the British now covet Swiss timepieces. The brothers plan to create a British made movement within the next three years.
In 2008, Bremont reached new heights, receiving financial investment from two gurus of the luxury world – John Ayton, co-founder of jeweller Links of London, and Robert Bensoussan, the former CEO of Jimmy Choo shoes. So how much cash, sweat and tears does starting up a luxury watch brand ex nihilo really take?
"The main challenge of this business is cashflow," says Nick frankly. "We both worked five years full time on the brand before the launch. Just building one watch prototype takes several hundred thousand pounds. We were determined that the watch should be Swiss-made. The people who finish the cases are the same people who are making jet turbine blades for Rolls Royce, while the movement and hand assembly takes place by skilled watchmakers in Biel-Bienne, home to the factories of big players like Swatch and Omega."
The brothers joke about their humble marketing budget which stands in contrast to their upscale rivals. But despite self-deprecating claims of amateurishness, they seem to repeatedly pull it all off with enviable style and copious doses of world class networking.
"Before Bensoussan and Ayton bought into our company, it was as if we'd been in a dark shed for five years. Their support has been fantastic. We sat round John Ayton's kitchen table with his wife Annoushka Ducas. Together, they opened 60 worldwide Links of London stores between 1990 and 2006, before selling up for €50 million. Their help is invaluable to us. They've given us confidence, opened doors to retailers like Barneys and guide us in running a fast-growing business," says Giles.
Last summer, Bremont were the official timekeeping sponsors of the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the prestigious celebration of cars and motorbikes from the last century. "We thought we'd save money by buying our own marquee and setting it up ourselves, so we invited a few friends along to help," smiles Nick. "We could hardly believe it when we saw our humble tent was next to serious players including BMW, Audi and Mazda."
Bremont's refreshingly authentic approach to luxury seems to be paying off. The brothers recently scooped up the Walpole award for emerging luxury brand of the year 2008 at a ceremony which saw other winners include long-established names Vivienne Westwood, Chanel and Dunhill.
"We set out knowing nothing about luxury but felt we could build beautiful watches. We are immensely pleased we left the City. It involved risking our houses and was a bit like playing Russian roulette with our futures. But even despite the fact it's likely to be a hard year or two ahead, I wouldn't change anything," says Giles.