The Norfolk watchmakers selling £28,000 watches
- Credit: Archant
How a small Norfolk company is at the front of a revival of British watchmaking
The watch sits comfortably on my wrist, the cool, mirrorpolished steel back almost impossibly smooth on my skin. The face is mostly cut away, revealing a beautiful, mechanical, golden interior, all cogs, gears, wheels and jewels.
A spring hypnotically pulses out the heartbeat of the watch, its rhythm easing the blued steel hands round the dial. It is fabulous.
It is also, unless I have a dramatic shift in personal fortunes, the first and last time I will wear it for it would cost me £27,995 to buy. But I’m not interested in it just because it is expensive; I’m interested because it is made in Norfolk.
In a small, extremely secure, unit on a Norwich industrial estate, Garrick of England craft timepieces for the discerning and wellheeled. The S1 which has left my wrist and been returned to its showcase, is the top of the tree.
Garrick is very much a new boy on a reemerging English watchmaking scene, but Simon Michlmayr, one half of the partnership behind the brand, is wellknown in the county, having run the watch and clock repair business which bears the family name for over three decades. He is a secondgeneration watchmaker; his Austrian father started the business in 1958.
“My aim was always, from day one, to build watches. I’ve built various things over the years for other people and we had a brand called Meridian which I started doing on my own a few years ago,” he says.
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Then he met watchloving, straighttalking businessman David Brailsford at a watch fair.
“Dave said ‘why don’t we do something together where I can take over the dealing with clients and so on and you can do what you want to do’ – which was building watches.” Thus Garrick was born in 2014.
It is a specialised firm in a specialised world, making statement mechanical watches – i.e. they have winders,
“There are some amazing watch brands out there – the obvious one is Rolex – but they are a massproduced watch. We are in a different market were we are a group of people who handmake watches,” says Simon.
Watches are made in low numbers. “We’re not producing hundreds and virtually every watch we build ends up being customised,” says Simon. “It’s very rare we sell a watch from stock. In effect everything we do is a prototype.”
For instance one local buyer was passionate about his Morgan sports car, so the dial was given the same colour as the bodywork and the strap was made from leather to match the upholstery. The final touch was to put the car’s registration where the Garrick legend would be.
The appeal of a Garrick watch to a collector who values the rare and special is huge but some of those who buy one will never wear it. “If they want to do that that’s up to them,” says Simon.
“My own watch has dinks and dents in it – I don’t take it off. I just wear it and for me that’s part of its life. ”
They are also investment pieces and 90% of what they make goes abroad, to the Far East, USA, Hong Kong or Dubai. And they mostly go to men.
Simon says that they have sold a Norfolk model to a woman buyer. But that could be about to change.
“That’s something we are addressing because there are a lot of ladies who are interested in watches and that wasn’t true a few years ago.”
So the next big thing for Garrick will be a smaller watch, partly driven by the opportunity to tap into the female market, partly by a perceived shift away from the current vogue for chunky timepieces.
Simon takes me on a tour of the workshops. It’s an horologist’s delight; resting on a steel cradle is the huge mechanism for a Great Yarmouth church clock while a few feet away, in one of the workshops, a craftsman peers through his eyeglass at the innards of a £13,000 watch.
Simon’s team is a compact one; in fact finding staff with the right skills is a real challenge. “There aren’t many of us here but there is a lot of knowledge,” he says.
“To find watchmakers is immensely difficult.”
Fewer than 20 properlytrained people leave college each year and the big players take a chunk of those, paying to put them through their training then retaining them for a set number of years. But working for Michlmayr is different, says Simon.
“We offer our watchmakers a lot of variety and the big companies can’t offer that. A lot of watchmakers can repair watches but can’t machine, for instance.”
This approach brings in different skill sets. For instance Simon has taken on a young apprentice who brought CAD (computer aided design) knowledge which the company didn’t have.
Michlmayr has long made watches and components for other watchmakers. That is how the industry works; for instance its own highend Garrick watches use some parts made by Swiss watch meister Andreas Strehler.
He and Simon designed the movement – essentially the ‘engine’ of the watch – some parts of which are then made in volume by Andreas because he has production machinery which Simon doesn’t have in his workshops.
The analogy might be a smallvolume, highend sports car maker who buys in certain components like gearboxes, for example. Simon would ideally like to bring everything inhouse, but is pragmatic about the practicalities of doing so.
“I want to build everything ourselves. Whether we get to that point comes down to the economics of it.”
As with finding watchmakers, locating the equipment needed to build precision timepieces is also difficult. Simon shows me a Swiss Hauser milling machine which works to an accuracy of one thousandth of a millimetre. It looks almost new, but is actually approaching 70 years old.
“They’re amazingly wellbuilt. It took me 10 years to find one – at the point I got offered it I sold the car I had at the time and bought it,” he says. “Once you have got one you are never going to part with it.”
I ask Simon what watch he would save if there was a fire in the workshop. “None. I’d run out with the Hauser because I could make another watch!” he laughs.
At this rarefied level of watchmaking the devil is in the detail. For instance every component of the watch is polished and properly finished, even though it may never be seen by anyone other than the builder or someone repairing or servicing it.
“It’s about doing the best job to the nth degree and that’s where we are, that’s what we do.
“And it’s nice. And there’s nothing wrong with nice, is there?”
At the top of the range of Garrick watches is the S1. It takes master watchmaker Craig Baird two months just to assemble this remarkable piece, which in part accounts for the price tag of £27,995.
But you don’t need to be an oligarch or Premier League footballer to buy into the brand. The Norfolk, a handsome, much simpler-looking watch, can be on your wrist for a little over £2,500. Not cheap, but it is mixing it as a viable alternative to the mass-produced brands.
The Regulator, at £7,995, is where it starts to get serious, with a wide range of customisation available. You’d like skulls engraved on the face? Certainly sir.
The Portsmouth, inspired by old maritime pieces, will lighten your wallet by £18,000.