Norfolk-based luxury watch brand Garrick was launched in 2014 on a mission to revive British watchmaking. Co-founder Dave Brailsford tells Director the secrets of setting up in a fiercely competitive market – and why Brexit has been good for business
For a man who builds luxury watches, Dave Brailsford is not blessed with the luxury of time. As Director attempted to pin down the founder of Norwich-based Garrick to discuss the head-turning arrival of his new watch brand in a notoriously difficult market, we found him dashing between his Devon home, the company’s Norfolk factory and appointments with watch-industry luminaries in London – taking calls from contacts in America and feverishly working on the website’s SEO as he went.
Garrick, the creation of serial entrepreneur Brailsford and master watchmaker Simon Michlmayr, has had a similarly fleet-footed rise – gaining respect in the industry and making a name for itself among luxury watch collectors little more than two years after the founders first conceived of the idea. “The concept was to make a British watch – that is, to build watches in Britain without mass-producing in Switzerland or China, which is what most brands do,” Brailsford tells Director at his workshop.
The distinction, he explains, is that most other UK-based watch brands design their timepieces here but source their cases (the outer housing of the watch) and movements (the internal mechanism) from Switzerland, China, the US or Germany, and have them assembled overseas. Garrick, they decided, would set out to build as much of the watch as possible in the UK, with the eventual aim of building everything in Britain – helping to revive the nation’s horological reputation in the process.
“In the past we’ve had world-renowned watchmakers, from Thomas Mudge in the 18th century [who invented the ‘lever escapement’ – a leap forward in pocket watch technology], to George Daniels, who was arguably the world’s greatest and created the ‘coaxial escapement’, which was sold to Omega,” says Brailsford. “The engineering firm S Smith & Sons [now Smiths Group] made watch movements in this country in the early 20th century but, after the war, that died a death and eventually everything was made in Switzerland. Today there’s only one watchmaker, [Isle-of-Man-based] Roger Smith, a protégé of George Daniels, who builds his own watch movement in the British Isles.”
Setting out to build British watches when the country no longer has engineering infrastructure in the industry was a huge challenge, and would stretch Garrick’s “well over £100,000” of start-up capital. “It’s entirely self-funded with no loans or anything else,” says Brailsford, who had previously worked in the realms of mobile phone accessories and antiques before developing and selling two successful watch websites in the run-up to investing in Garrick. “I’ve never been one for bank loans, I don’t like the pressure it puts you under. If I didn’t have the funds to do it, I would never have done it in the first place.”
He adds: “The first year was spent getting the right machinery – Simon had existing workshops, and we set about improving everything. But finding the right UK manufacturers to do things we couldn’t do ourselves was a massive heartache – we made a lot of costly mistakes. For example, a big hurdle was getting the watch cases made in the UK. We’re capable of doing one-off cases ourselves, but when you want to do 50 you need a manufacturing facility. We went to various firms who had CNC [computer numeric control] machines and spent lots of money.
“The hardest part of building a watch case is cutting between the lugs of the case, so you get that square look where the strap fits against a circular case. You need both a CNC machine and a wire-cutting machine and most engineering firms either didn’t have both or couldn’t perfect it. Of course, prototyping always costs 10 times more than the product, so we spent months and lots of money before we found the right engineering firm and machines fit for purpose. But because it’s a luxury watch it was essential they were absolutely perfect.”
Remarkably, considering Brailsford and Michlmayr’s initial discussions took place in early 2014, the first Garrick watch – the Shaftesbury – launched in November of that year. Priced at £3,995, it deliberately left the luxury watch connoisseur in no doubt of the craftsmanship that had gone into producing it: “It’s a very simple-looking, traditional watch – but, rather than having one dial, we had chapter rings that were engineered separately and screwed on top, so you can see a watchmaker has actually put it together. It was an absolute number one priority for us that everybody saw that the watches were handmade.”
While the movement within Garrick’s early models is Swiss-made, it has been significantly modified in the UK by Michlmayr, as Brailsford explains: “If we’d have tried to build our own watch movement, it would have cost us £200,000 and hundreds of man-hours. We’re quite capable of doing it, because Simon has had the designs on the table for his own watch movement for some time, but it just wasn’t viable. Instead we took a Swiss movement called ‘unitas’, originally used in old pocket watches, and heavily modified it. We put in our own balance wheel – the beating heart of the watch – and we hand-cut the bridges [the plates that hold the components in place].”
For the company’s newest watch, the Portsmouth – to be launched in November – Garrick has taken the next step of commissioning a bespoke movement made for the business by Swiss watchmaker Andreas Strehler: “He’s world-renowned and sells watches himself, in the £100,000 and upwards mark, as well as working for other brands,” says Brailsford. “I was looking after his media and we became good friends. I approached him and said, ‘Could you come up with a concept for a movement that would be viable for us to build at the right price?’ So that’s what he has done. He’s building some parts in Switzerland, we’re building the rest in the UK and then it will be assembled in the UK. But it’s an exclusive movement for Garrick – which is pretty incredible.”
With the Portsmouth set to retail for “between £15,000 and £20,000”, Brailsford says the company will reinvest its profits and drive towards its dream: “We invest every penny back into the business – everything we’ve ever made we have ploughed back in – but we’re sadly lacking in backers. Because it’s self-funded, everything takes twice as long. It’s going to take us four or five years before we’re where we want to be… there’s a lot of machinery we still need, but the number one priority is to build the entire watch in-house. We won’t be happy until we’re building a fully British watch.”
From working with the British Guild of Enamellers, to developing leather goods for the brand with independent Gloucestershire business Kingsley Leather, Garrick is staying true to its ‘handcrafted in England’ philosophy across its wider supply chain. And it’s an approach with appeal to overseas buyers: “Our market is not the average guy walking down the street, we haven’t got the PR budget to reach them. But serious collectors know about us and buy our watches. We sell a lot to America, Japan, China and Dubai. They want British luxury products and they love anything that’s handcrafted.”
On the impact of Brexit, he adds: “It’s not an issue for us. Obviously, the negative for a lot of people has been the drop in the value of the pound. But for us it worked in our favour – we had an influx of orders for watches all of a sudden because of the strength of the dollar against the pound. And because most of our parts are from the UK and we build our watches inside the UK, we don’t have the concern of importing and dealing with overseas manufacturers.”
So how has Garrick managed to gain recognition in a luxury market occupied by behemoths like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Omega? “The greatest asset in business is building contacts,” he says. “We’ve worked hard at building good relationships with journalists and other watchmakers. The more they learnt about the brand, the more they had passion for what we did. It’s about taking journalists out and getting them on board. I’ll fire email after email, I won’t take no for an answer, and in the end they’ll give in and say ‘OK, let’s meet’. It’s the same with international blog sites, and I’ll phone if they don’t reply to the email. You can’t be afraid what people think about you – you have to use every tool at your disposal.”
Another essential tool, says Brailsford, is SEO: “I’ve worked night after night on the website for the past 18 months, so that it ranks really well on Google – type ‘bespoke watches’ or ‘British watches’ into Google and we’re right up there. Social media has also been massive in our success.” And while the company’s dream of a wholly British-made watch is still distant for the moment, Brailsford says Garrick can be truly proud of what it has achieved so far: “We’ve basically built an international watch brand in 18 months and I think that’s pretty good. Judging by that, we’ll be a huge success in the future – we don’t have any doubts at all.”
Garrick vital stats
Founded 2014 by Dave Brailsford and Simon Michlmayr
Start-up capital “Well over £100,000,” says Brailsford
Key export markets China, Dubai, Japan, US
Turnover £650,000, projected for the next 12 months
Highlight so far “We made a bespoke watch for a hedge fund manager in the US – he had become fascinated by skulls after his daughter pulled a skull charm out of a lucky dip. We designed him a watch with a skull on the dial, with luminous orange eyes. That was our first bespoke watch – we built it from scratch, the dial, everything. Today we still do bespoke, though we don’t promote it as much as it’s very time-consuming. But that’s our favourite so far – we loved building it.”
Find out more about Garrick’s engineering at garrick.co.uk