A Brief History of British Watchmaking

October 25, 2017

A Brief History of British Watchmaking

Nowadays, the first country that comes to mind when talking about watchmaking is Switzerland. However, did you know that us Brits brought some of the greatest design innovations into the timekeeping world? Here is a brief history of British watchmaking, and an explanation of how and why we build our watches the way we do.

The 1600’s to the 1900’s : Britain leads the watchmaking industry

The great innovations started in the late 17th century with Thomas Tompion, often referred as the father of English clockmaking, and whose pieces are still considered as some of the most historically important and emblematic watches in the world.  
During his lifetime, Tompion passed down his knowledge and thirst for greatness to his students, including visionaries such as George Graham and Thomas Mudge, whose inventions are still used in most watches today.

Thomas Tompion The History of Watchmaking England

Not only did the British create long-lasting innovations for the clockmaking world, but through these innovations, they enabled the growth of the British Empire.

How? By creating the first British Chronometer. Indeed, John Harrison was the brains behind Captain James Cook’s discoveries. The watchmaker solved the problem of finding longitude at sea which enabled ships to travel the world with accuracy.


The History Of Watchmaking England
By the 19th century, Britain was leading the watchmaking industry, with more than half of the world’s watches being crafted on its shores and more specifically in Clerkenwell, London, the centre of the industry at the time.

However, with the arrival of the 20th century the industry had declined by half and eventually collapsed.

The History Of Watchmaking

So what happened?

The industrial revolution brought great changes in technology globally, however Britain’s watch industry relied on skilled craftsmen who rejected these technological advances. Craftsmen who couldn’t keep up with America and Switzerland who were already mass producing watches. After WWII, Britain made a small comeback, but were soon crushed under the emergence of the quartz.

Where does the UK stand now?

Even though the UK is making progress to climb back up the watchmaking ladder, it is practically impossible to find a timepiece which is 100% made in Britain. Only a hand full of British luxury watchmakers, like Roger Smith, are creating everything (including the movements) right here in the UK.


Where does that leave us?

All of The Camden Watch Company watches are designed right here in the heart of Camden, but we aren't just designers with a passion for watches, we're watch designers. It's what we do, it's what we've always done, and that makes a huge impact on the end product.

So, from being designed and developed in Camden, the watches are then made in the Far East using the old fashioned way of producing watches called “l’etablissage”, introduced by Swiss visionary Daniel JeanRichard. This technique basically means that each part of the watch is produced in individual factories; one for the hands, one for the dial, one for the case, and so on, and then assembled in a watch assembly factory. It’s a system then involves a lot more work, a lot more time, and a lot more logistics, but it means that we get a much better product at the end of it.

 Watch designer camden london watchmaking

Daniel JeanRichard was a Swiss craftsman, born in the 17th Century in the canton of Neuchâtel. Legend had it that one day, an English horse trader left his watch to JeanRichard, at the time a mere teenager, asking him if he could try to repair it. In order to do so, the young craftsman took the watch apart, making drawings of each part of the timepiece before repairing it and giving it back to the Englishman. Based on the drawings he made, JeanRichard taught himself, and then other craftsmen and farmers from his town, how to create a watch. And this is how Neuchâtel, became today’s watch valley.

Why Asia?

We produce our watches in Asia for the simple reason that it is the best price for the highest quality. Asia is a leading player in the watch industry and produces stunning craftsmanship. We make sure we work with great factories by visiting them regularly and by working the old fashioned way (see etablissage above). Moreover, for a watch to be “Swiss Made”, only 60% of the cost of production has to be Swiss-based, so we would end up with  a product produced in Asia regardless. We prefer to be honest and proud of the origins of our watches. The day we can produce high quality watches in the UK on the scale we need to, we absolutely will. Any takers?

The history of Watchmaking The Camden watch company



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