Having conquered the skies with their range of pilots’ watches, English brand Bremont has its eyes set on the sea. Two thousand and nine’s launch of their first diving watch, the Supermarine 500 and the all-black limited edition Supermarine 500 Descent, has been followed by that most unexpected of new models: a mechanical marine clock aimed at yacht owners, in the tradition of Yorkshireman and pioneering marine clockmaker John Harrison, who gave use to longitude.
Watershed moments in the history of timekeeping have had no greater impact than that of the quest for longitude. Harrison transformed portable clocks from relatively vague and unreliable indicators of the passage of time into instruments of exceptional precision.
Harrison’s inventions would sire devices that would improve navigation for the next century and a half, until superseded by electronics. There cannot be an ocean-going craft on the seas today without satellite-fed electronics to provide pin-point locations, those state-of-the-art replacements for marine chronometers. But there’s something reassuring about a non-electrical, wholly mechanical device, at the very least as a back up. And like the revival of the fountain pen, and – indeed – the continued desirability of mechanical watches, traditional marine chronometers maintain their appeal.
While the term “chronometer” now has a specific technical application to modern wristwatches regarding a series of official tests—and every Bremont wristwatch is chronometer-certified—the definition was slightly different when defining ships’ clocks. For timekeeping at sea, it is often described as a massive clock in a protective box, mounted on gimbals to keep it level. Such a timepiece would be referred to constantly by the ship’s captain or officers, the readings noted in a ship’s log.
While the manufacture of ships’ clocks has diminished during the electronic age, demand for them has been fuelled of late by a number of occurrences. Not least is the revival of the mechanical wristwatch, which runs concurrently with the global passion for vintage yachts and other “period” craft.
Bremont has responded to this with a new B-1 Marine Clock made entirely in England, the first all-new mechanical device of its time for the 21st Century.
Even though navigation at sea is now in the hands of computers, mechanical clocks retain their appeal. If you’re a watch enthusiast who sails a vintage craft in one of the many historic regattas, something in your psychological make-up will lead you to a clock for which “batteries are not required.”
While a number of watch companies such as Ulysse-Nardin and Panerai continue to issue mechanical marine clocks on a small scale, they tend to be—primarily—exercises in nostalgia rather than attempts at creating something new. Not so at Bremont, a watch company less than a decade-old that has already made its mark as a producer of rugged pilots’ watches.
Among the company’s specialties are steel cases with a hardness of 2000 Vickers, more than three times the norm for a wristwatch. Having also produced timepieces that surpass the standards set by Martin-Baker – the company manufacturing the world’s finest aircraft ejector seats – and a diving watch tested by professional divers, Bremont has responded to another muse.
A proper clock
“John Harrison, who produced the first accurate chronometer for naval use, has always been a hero of mine and my brother Nick,” explains Bremont co-founder Giles English. ”We were always fascinated by the longitude saga. And as English watch manufacturers, we’d always wanted to build a proper ship’s clock. We just needed to be nudged. The trigger came from a client who wanted one for his yacht. It follows logically from the introduction in 2009 of our first diving watch.”
Developing a ship’s clock is consistent with Giles’ and Nick’s sense of adventure: they’re both highly experienced, professional pilots, partial to historical planes, while Giles worked as a naval architect.
“And, as boys,” Giles adds, “we sailed half-way around the world in a boat our father built. We grew up around clocks, which Dad taught us to dismantle and assemble. So we simply can’t understand why someone would want a quartz clock on the wall in their yacht.”
With the successful transition from air to sea via the Supermarine 500 diving watches, and now thanks to customer demand, Bremont has announced that it is producing an all-new Ship’s Clock. The professional timekeeper is completely an in-house design–including the escapement–devised in its entirety by the company’s technical director, Peter Roberts.
Roberts has created a modern take on a form that goes back over 300 years, though the functions would communicate their purposes immediately to a navigator from the 1700s. “Bremont is an English company, and we were guided by the English chronometers of the past. It’s something there’s a demand for; we already have clients who have expressed interest in it. Essentially, they wanted a Bremont clock to go in their yachts.”
Despite the omnipresent, sophisticated, satellite-fed navigational equipment found on all modern ocean-going craft, the hidden desire for all-mechanical ship’s clocks led Roberts to devise a modern take on what will appeal for its technical merits as well as the obvious retro element. As Roberts wryly points out, “Should there be an electrical failure, the completely water-proof Bremont clock will continue to operate.
“We didn’t want to go the way of a traditional chronometer because, in many ways, they’re not terribly useful in modern times. When you have a gimbal-mounted chronometer, you have to go to the box, lift the lid, look at it—it’s something you won’t do very often on your yacht. But if you have something mounted up on the wall, you can see it all the time. What I wanted, design-wise, was something that not only told you the time, but also gave you other indications that would be useful on a yacht.”
Roberts developed the movement around a true English lever escapement as found in the very best classic pocket watches.
“It’s hand wound via built-in winding crank,” he adds. “We also employ two fusées, for the mainspring and center wheel for balanced motive power. Harrison-type roller bearings, ball races, and jewels are fitted everywhere as required, while the plates—fashioned from are brass—are plated to prevent corrosion at sea.”
Functions with purpose
As one who is unimpressed by the current craze for outré complications, Roberts insisted on “functions that have a purpose. Our clock will tell the time locally and at home, and the duration of a trip up to ninety days, by days and hours and months—rather like a chronograph, but with longer intervals than minutes, seconds and hours. So if you go off on your voyage, from, say, Rio de Janeiro to Monte Carlo, and a glance at the clock will tell you how many days and hours you’ve been travelling.’
To ensure the reliability of the clock and its ability to track long intervals, Roberts says that, “fully-wound, it will run for at least a month. There’s a power reserve indicator on the dial because we don’t want anyone to forget to wind it. The watch also shows GMT and date. The hands are hand-made, silvered and blued to the highest quality, and the dial can be customized on request.” Equally important for Roberts is the insistence that, “Every component in the Ship’s Clock will be made in England.”
Bremont hopes to deliver the first of its fully waterproof, 12-inch-diameter Ship Clocks by December.
“Each is made to order,” says Giles, “and we anticipate a production rate of one per month.” It will be offered with a wall-mount frame that allows the 12-inch diameter clock to be removed and fitted to a second or third frame on a private plane or in an office, or to be placed on a table. External finishes can also be customized to match a craft’s interior. Bremont supplies locking fixing to a bulkhead security plate, while a desk mount security plate is optional.
Prices start at around $75,000. Which, Roberts points out, is astonishing value for a multi-function, hand-made, limited-edition ship’s timekeeper made entirely in England, a timekeeper of which even Harrison would be proud.