Dennison Watches: Birmingham Revival in Knightsbridge

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Unless one has a penchant for gold-plated Lamborghinis and tiny dogs on jeweled leashes, one does not usually frequent London’s Knightsbridge. Sure, there are a few good places for watchies, but the £4 espressos and brooding Russian minders tend to take the gloss off a little.

But this is where you’ll find Dennison’s HQ and its boss, Toby Sutton, and his range of watches. Not tucked away in some seedy backstreet either (these things are relative–‘Knightsbridge seedy’ would mean an Aventador with a full ashtray), but right next to the full-on five star Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.

DennisonWatches18At this point, if you know your watch history, you’ll be scratching your head. For a start, Dennison was a casemaker, not a watchmaker, and never a London casemaker. Instead, they turned out 250,000 watch cases a year for Tudor, Longines, Rolex, IWC and other Swiss makers. And they were based 130 miles north of Knightsbridge in the Handsworth area of Birmingham.

And it’s not just the miles that separate the two places. If Knightsbridge is gold-plated Lambos and gilt-collared chihuahuas, Handsworth is blinged up, slammed BMWs and pit bulls on chains.

So what’s happened to bring Dennison to Knightsbridge?

Ask ex-City trader and Watches of Knightsbridge Director Toby Sutton. Not exactly your typical trader, Toby has been into watches since he was a boy. And into the Dennison Watch Case Company for almost as long.  In fact, he’s the closest thing to a walking encyclopedia on the subject, and his enthusiasm for the firm is infectious.

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“I was always into vintage watches,” says Toby. “I knew about Dennison for ages because I used to love the old Rolexes–the Precisions–with Dennison cases. I looked into them and their history is amazing. I’ve got loads of old publications too–it’s a collection that’s taken years to put together.”

At this point in the conversation, Toby is surrounded by a blizzard of old magazines from the 1920s, trench watches and trench watch cases, examples of old Dennison-cased watches and his new revived Dennisons.

DennisonWatches-11Dennison is certainly a firm that deserves a revival. Not only were they making waterproof watch cases as early as 1872, they produced cases for some of the earliest trench watches in WWI. Edmund Hillary wore a Dennison-cased watch at the summit of Everest. Shackleton wore one on his ill-fated South Pole expedition too. Sadly, less than 14 years after Hillary’s summit, Dennison went bust and shut its doors for the last time.

DennisonWatches-16Last year, Toby and his business partner produced the first new Dennisons in nearly 50 years. It wasn’t plain sailing though. “We had quite a few hurdles, the biggest of which was getting cases made in England. Most casemakers weren’t keen to take on a project they’d not done before, and in such low quantities too.” After all, with a first batch of 50 watches, Dennison wasn’t going to give Rolex sleepless nights for a while.

But Toby persevered, and now has an English casemaking firm using two of the machines Dennison’s old technical director rescued from the factory before it shut. So if you buy a Dennison, it’ll have the stem-hole and lug holes cut with an original machine from the Handsworth factory. How’s that for continuity?

DennisonWatches19The first thing you notice about the Dennison Revival watches is their size. Not because they’re wrist mounted dinner plates–far from it–but because the originals were so much smaller. Toby hands over an original case from the 1940s. It’s just 33mm. It makes the revivals’ perfectly reasonable 38mm feel large, even though it’s absolutely standard today.

The cases are frosted or polished 316L stainless steel and there’s a real heft to them. They have screw-down crowns (as you’d expect) and screw backs. Lugs are 20mm.

DennisonWatchesProfileToby’s having the honeycomb dials made in Switzerland, as are the ETA-2824 movements. The Swiss-movement-in-a-British-case thing is a clear link to Dennison’s past as well as a commercially sensible move. As Toby explains, “Making our own movement would have made the whole project a no-go. Dennison have always been about Swiss movements in English cases, so it fits perfectly.”

DennisonWatchescasebackThe historic link fits with Dennison’s model designations too–DENCO. “Denco” was a brief attempt by the casemaker at retailing cased movements to the jewellery trade. At the moment you have the choice of three watches, the DENCO53E (£2,800) with concealed lug holes in the case’s polished sides, a black honeycomb dial, steel batons and dauphine hands covered by sapphire glass. The slightly cheaper DENCO53 (£2,400) has a plexi and visible lug holes (a much firmer link to the watches’ exploration heritage). The 53 also has either a black or a silver honeycomb dial.

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DennisonWatches(three)
L to R: DENCO53 Silver, DENCO53 Black, DENCO53E Black

Where next for Toby and Dennison? “It’s all about continuing with lots of small changes,” says Toby. “We’ll stick with this model, maybe look at a different batten dial, a non-date model, then I think we’ll go military style. All subtle changes though.” Just how Dennison worked back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It would be far too easy at first sight to dismiss Dennison as a simple, cynical brand resurrection exercise. Take an old brand, case up a few movements and tape on a bit of heritage. But when you meet Toby and get a sense of his sheer love for vintage watches and for Dennison, you realise it’s through-and-through genuine. He’s revived a lot more than a name and is making some splendid watches.

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Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
markchristie mark_mcarthur_christie
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  • Matt Rowe

    It’s probably very well made, and I like the attention to detail but the price seems high. Maybe in person it’s an easier sell but not online.

  • bcarbs

    ~$3200 USD for a plexiglass crystal and an ETA 2824 in a stainless case? I get that there’s some history there (sort of anyway… it’s a stretch), but you can get so, so much more for that price point. This is a $500 watch trying to compete against Tudors, pre-owned Rolexes and, well, far too many other options to list!

    • chenpofu

      Totally agree, difficult to imagine someone picking this over a Tudor Black Bay 36, for example.

  • chenpofu

    Not keen on the design, and agree with others here that this is a tough sell.

  • jasonjwwilliams

    The dial is great, but the price is too high by at least half for what you’re getting. If they’d resurrected a Smith’s movement to go inside then the price might be worth it.

  • Dave Ryan

    I was all in. Then I saw the price and was soooo far out. Bold move. Good luck to them, they’ll need it.

  • Stanley K

    That is not the caseback for a watch with that price tag

  • Joe

    I actually like the design but agree with the others that it’s overpriced compared to the competition. Between $800 ~ $1000 it might be competitive.

  • speedylover

    I was hoping this would say $600. Massively overpriced.

  • Никита

    Startup brand coming with the watch on 2824 for $3,800? Great.

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