May 3, 2024
Garrick’s David Brailsford on Keeping Independent Watches Attainable, and Flying the Flag for British Watchmaking
May 3, 2024 Words by David Von Bader

For so many watch collectors, the ultimate point of the hobby is self-expression. It’s why we love to wear something unique, why vintage collectors pay a premium for examples with unexpected patinas, and why fans of modern watches are absolutely reveling in the mind-boggling variety the current wristwatch renaissance has given us. And it’s a big part of why we absolutely love the ultra customizable watches made by Garrick Watchmakers, the remarkable “micro-indie” at the nucleus of the British watchmaking resurgence. 

Founded in 2014, Garrick is a brand that makes bespoke, truly handmade watches that are produced largely in-house using traditional techniques (we’re talking lathes and syringes full of India ink). Garrick offers a downright staggering array of options, and according to the brand’s co-founder, David Brailsford (who founded Garrick with watchmaker Simon Michlmayr), every watch Garrick has made is one-of-one thanks to how granular clients can get when spec’ing a watch. While any brand that boasts a bespoke program and uses traditional techniques is pretty impressive these days, Garrick’s great magic trick has been making (and keeping) elevated, bespoke horology relatively attainable, with price points that are shockingly low for watches made the way Garrick’s pieces are. 

The Norfolk-based company first made serious waves when they released the almost impossibly affordable S4 model in 2021. With the S4, Garrick proved that the creativity and mystique of great independent watchmaking could be applied to pieces at an attainable price point without sacrificing fit and finish, and it solidified Garrick’s position as a true insider’s brand. The brand began 2024 by making waves yet again, this time by introducing an S2 model which takes their already complex in-house UT-G movement and adds the absurdly niche complication of deadbeat seconds. Adding such a complication to an already impressive model like the S2 shows just what kind of virtuosity the small brand is capable of, and while it may be seen by some as a technical flex for the sake of technicality, it’s an addition to the Garrick lineup that’s made an already captivating independent even more intriguing. 

The S2 with deadbeat seconds

For David Brailsford, introducing the S2 Deadbeat Seconds was an undeniably proud moment. Brailsford will be the first to tell you it’s been a long road for the upstart brand since its early days, but since the S4 became the brand’s breakout hit, Garrick’s order books have remained filled, they’ve managed to continue innovating and progressing within their idiom, and – most importantly to Brailsford – they’ve managed to keep their price point low without selling their souls to outside investors or buying a CNC machine. If there was ever a punk-rock approach to a craft as steeped in tradition and establishment worship as watchmaking, Brailsford and his team have figured it out. 

It’s also immediately apparent when speaking to Brailsford that he eats, sleeps, and breathes Garrick. It’s more than his business, it’s his passion – and Brailsford’s love for Garrick is infectious. In the following interview, Brailsford goes deep on Garrick’s ethos and discusses the contemporary British watchmaking resurgence, the quagmire that is scaling a company that deliberately does everything the slow way, and spills the beans on a trio of exciting future releases soon-to-come from what we consider one of the world’s most exciting independent watchmakers. 

Do you find many Garrick clients are converted devotees of the typical mainstream establishment brands? 

Dave Brailsford: Yeah, quite a few! The big thing that happened was during COVID, collectors couldn’t get hold of watches from the likes of Rolex or Audemars because of supply chain issues or the brands just playing around with availability, so a lot of people started looking at independents like us. That became a massive resurgence for independents and our orders went through the roof. It’s slowing down a bit now, so we have to stay one step ahead. We do that by trying to do everything as uniquely as possible, but the difficulty is that every brand eventually ends up doing the same old stuff. For example, we were the first brand of our kind doing the engine-turned dials with an applied skeleton chapter ring and now you can find those dials everywhere. The key is staying relevant and a step ahead, but it’s difficult for a brand like us because we don’t mass produce anything and finding time for development is difficult. Our approach is to use traditional techniques and make everything from scratch, and there’s only so much you can do on a traditional lathe when it comes to output. There’s only so much you can do if you’re plating everything in-house without the specialized equipment that larger brands use. We turn all our dials in-house on traditional rose and straight-line engines, and even though many brands now offer similar dials, they’re either stamped out or made on a CNC machine. Our clients love that we are keeping the art of traditional engine-turning alive. In fact, two of our lathes are historic pieces that were once used to turn dials for legendary watchmaker Derek Pratt. For us, the only way to keep a bit of an edge is by keeping our watches truly handmade. And it’s a niche edge, but we’ve found it’s what people like.

Garrick is really without peer with the level of bespoke customization the brand offers at its price point. Providing the ability to really express oneself through traditional watchmaking at that price point feels like an increasingly special thing these days. 

Every watch we build is essentially a unique piece. We never ever build two watches quite the same way because of subtle little changes within the spec of each piece – things like the movement being plated differently from watch-to-watch. That makes every Garrick a one-of-one. The goal is to make them as unique as possible without creating a “Frankenwatch” or something ridiculous. 

It’s also really important to me personally that a handmade watch looks handmade. The Regulator looks like a properly engineered, handmade watch and those that know what they’re looking at can see those handmade touches in how the dial is constructed and the small details like that. That’s a big part of why people buy our watches and that’s the difference between us and most of our peer brands. We’re not just bringing dials in from outside manufacturers and assembling a watch. And obviously, we also have our in-house caliber, which features a large balance wheel on the dial side, which is truly unique and means that our aesthetic can’t be copied too closely. I’d also like to mention that when I say “copied,” I don’t mean to sound disrespectful. Every brand will respectfully take design elements from others, and indeed, the S4 was inspired by Breguet and Daniels. The difference is that I wanted to offer this type of watch to collectors at an affordable price point.

When left to their own devices with deep customization, a lot of people tend to come out the other side with something ostensibly pretty terrible. You see it a lot in car culture, where people spec out fantastic cars from heritage brands in really wacky ways. How do you approach guiding clients whose vision might not align with the brand’s identity? 

It can get crazy when clients want something really out there, so we have to speak to the client first before anyone orders a watch. You can’t just order on the website because the sky’s the limit with what we can option into a watch, but we want to make sure the watches are still cohesive and represent our brand well. A lot of our customers are absolutely fanatical about every detail of the watch, so when it comes to bespoke pieces like we make, they can get very passionate about how they spec a watch, but they also tend to change their choices a lot between the time when they order a piece and the time we deliver it. There can be a lot of back-and-forth; it often gets to a point that I have to get on the phone to remind them that the watch they fell in love with that inspired them to order a Garrick wasn’t a “Frankenwatch.” I understand it because they see something new every time we post a watch and because every watch we build is different, it’s easy to get distracted by the impulse to want to cram every exciting new option in – but that usually doesn’t make for a watch that someone’s going to keep and love longterm.

For the layman that might not yet appreciate the technical side of watchmaking, could you explain why a niche complication like the deadbeat seconds on the S2 made such waves when it was introduced. What makes it so remarkable to include that on a watch at the S2’s price point?

It’s all about the watchmaking itself. Any time we add more complications to our own movement with that big balance ring, it’s completely unknown territory. We’ve got two in-house calibers: A smaller one, which we use on the S5 model, and our UT-G caliber, which was released in 2017. The UT-G has a large balance rim on the front, and developing a movement with the balance rim on the front is really difficult. If you look at most watches with balance wheels on a movement – or even on a Tourbillon – they’re tiny little things. I always feel like the dial overpowered the balance wheel visually on most of those watches and it always looked off to me. So we wanted a balance rim that filled a lot of the dial to balance it visually. The problem is when you increase the size of anything on a movement, it requires more power because the inertia needed to turn it becomes greater. The amplitude – which is critical to keep the timing accurate – drops down, and you have to make loads of adjustments to accommodate that one little change. It takes months and months and months of work to plan something like that and get it to run properly. 

A deadbeat seconds is not a really difficult complication to pull off by itself – you’re just making the seconds hand do the tick/tock, start/stop thing with each count like you’d see on a quartz watch. However, adding deadbeat seconds to a mechanical movement means adding a lot more components to make the wheel stop and start with each seconds count, and adding all of those components to an existing caliber that wasn’t designed around that concept is where the fun starts. Adding any complication to an existing movement has a massive knock-on effect all the way down the line in the movement; you have to update the power in the mainspring to drive everything. It’s got more components running. So it takes a really long time to work through every piece that needs to change so that adding that complication can work. It’s a lot of time and clever thinking to make it right.

We’re also really stringent when it comes to timing and accuracy – to the point of it being a bit crazy. When we build a watch, the timing can take up to two months to perfect, believe it or not! We test it in all positions and we’re mega stringent about it being plus three/plus five seconds – which is below Swiss Chronometer Standards. We’re simply fanatical about things like that, so to keep that standard and add clever complications takes a lot.

Even if the brand wasn’t dedicated to hyper-accurate timing as a point of pride, you’re undoubtedly forced to keep a high standard because of the way people like to find the faults in a handmade watch at Garrick’s price point. Despite how striking the watches are, a brand like Garrick can’t live and die on the charm of aesthetics or things being made in-house if they aren’t accurate.

Yeah, everything we make has to be incredibly accurate and we won’t just put any movement into a watch. Even our lower end models, like the S4 and S6, start with an ETA/Unitas 6498 – which is a workhorse and a fantastic manual movement. Of course, we modify it heavily and add new bridges and a skeletonized balance cock with a swan neck regulator, so it looks completely different and unique. 

What annoys me is when we send the watches out to collectors groups and the first thing they all do is sit there and put it under a loupe to try and find faults with the piece. I hate that because our watches are handmade, which means a human did it. If the first thing you do is actively look to find the faults in a truly handmade watch – where every watch is going to be slightly different – you’re kind of missing the point of a handmade piece. Criticizing the signs of manufacture that truly handmade pieces show is something I find really frustrating, and bigger brands that make more normal watches don’t receive that kind of critique. 

If you had to hang your hat on one technical achievement for Garrick at this point, what would it be? Your proudest moment as an independent. 

We’re always innovating and working on new things, and it’s not necessarily just the movements, but it’s finishing techniques, our dials, and things like that. As far as pure technicality goes, the biggest thing for us over the last year was without-a-doubt introducing the deadbeat seconds complication. It was extremely difficult for us to incorporate that on an in-house caliber with all of the high-end finishing and options that come with it. For instance, the deadbeat seconds watches we made for a collectors group were ordered with mirror-polished pallet cocks, engraved balance cocks, and heavily beveled edges. My watchmaker spent six months alone working on the finishing. 

To me, it’s more about the overall statement of the watches we make – the way everything we do comes together within a piece. I get immense satisfaction out of seeing them come together, especially on pieces like those we made for that collectors group. Seeing my watchmaker and our team hone their skills to bring these pieces to life brings me immense satisfaction. And we’re advancing everything we do constantly because we’re always confronting the learning curve by crafting everything in-house, and I’m proud of that progress. It’s more than a design exercise for us. Being able to say a watch is truly handmade, from scratch, and handmade in-house, is something I take immense satisfaction in.

I know waving the flag for British watchmaking is a huge point of pride for Garrick. Is there anything in particular you can point to that connects today’s British watch brands? What is the shared hallmark of the British watchmaker?

It’s difficult to say because a lot of British watch brands aren’t doing stuff in-house and I think that makes a big difference. There’s only a handful of British brands that are truly watchmakers and it’s not financially viable for most brands to do what we’re doing. To that point, our profits are extremely low and we make a very big point of keeping our prices down. It’s a big thing for me personally as I find it disgusting when a brand’s got a 60% margin in a watch. I hate it, really. Most other brands have to sell through retailers, so they have to have larger margins in a watch, and that means bringing parts in from outside, and most of them are having watches made externally. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and I’m a fan of brands that do it, but to your point, there’s only a handful of brands in the UK that I consider peers doing anything remotely similar to what we’re doing.

What I do like is that when we started 10 years ago, we were the only brand at the time doing anything like what we do. When I started Garrick, I wanted to put British watchmaking back on the map. Now, there’s some up-and-coming British watchmakers that are investing in lathes and machining, modifying movements, and really doing their own thing. For example, I like what James Lamb’s doing with his dials; he’s got his own aesthetic with the small, dark sub-dial and the enamel base, and he’s using craftsmen to put this thing together. 

It involves a lot of other British craftspeople to make a watch this way now, so there’s been a resurgence with things like enameling due to the demand of watchmakers. There were a lot of crafts that were dying in the UK that have been resurrected thanks to British watch brands, and I think that’s a damn good thing. I think over the next year or two, when a lot of these up–and-coming smaller watchmakers progress, you’re going to see more and more in-house stuff. That said, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing at the moment that ties British watchmaking together because it’s such a small group of watchmakers and they all want to have their own voice.

Is there a shared spirit of some sort between the brands carrying the new wave of British watches? 

Yeah, it’s a watchmaking community and everybody knows each other. You won’t find any negativity between brands because everybody admires what everybody else is doing. There’s no competition within it because if you look at all the British brands – and there are a lot – everybody’s doing their own unique thing. Everybody’s got their own aesthetic. 

I’m a fan of brands like Pinion and Fears. I love what they are doing and both have a really cool design language. I love that most of the British brands aren’t just trying to create overpriced watches; they’re giving the public what they want and they know their market. To that point, what we do is difficult at the price point we’re at and a lot of people ask why we don’t up our prices to compete in a higher category and the reality is I’m an honest guy and I still think we’ve got a long way to go before we do that. I still think we’ve got a lot to learn. When I believe the time’s right, that’s when I’ll take Garrick’s prices to the next tier. But for now, I believe everything’s priced according to our skill set. When we first released the S4, many journalists came back and said “Dave, why is it so cheap? It’s crazy cheap. How can you do that?” It was around $6K at the time. The simple answer was, “we are trying to keep our prices down and put watches on wrists.” 

I would hope that Garrick has clawed beyond subsistence watchmaking at this point? The brand seems to be growing, correct? 

Things are going extremely well. We’re booked up a year in advance on all of our watches. We don’t really send press releases out much anymore – we just announce a watch on our Instagram and all of the build slots sell out. We’re in a damn fine position, don’t get me wrong, but – and this is the big but – we can only build a certain amount of watches every year. 

We aren’t churning watches out in the hundreds. It’s around 50 to 70 pieces per year. That’s it. That’s all we can do. So we’re kind of stuck in that rut, where we’ve got the demand for our watches, but we can only build what we can build because of their handmade nature. A set of hands is days of work. Beveling a bridge is days of work. The only way it works for us to grow as a brand in a tangible way is financially, which means going for the next tier up and raising our prices, but that means the work becomes even more labor intensive to make watches that I think deserve to command that price. It’s a vicious cycle and a crazy situation to be in because the only way to scale it is to take on more watchmakers and build more watches, but finding watchmakers with the skill set to do what we do is really hard. A lot of watchmakers come out of watchmaking school and go into repairs. Training someone to finish things to our standards takes years. So we’re growing without-a-doubt, but we’re still stuck at the same production and numbers and price point for the time being. It’s not been an easy road for Garrick by any means, but we’ve never had investors. We put our own money into it – myself and my partner [Simon Michlmayr] – and it was always about building the brand slowly. 

I think there is some lost sense of duty in enthusiast spaces to make interesting, quality-made things attainable, and I think there is more and more value in brands adopting that “for the community” spirit these days. Not to mention watch collectors are an astute bunch in general and it’s not hard to figure out what something really costs to make in 2024.

It doesn’t matter if it’s $500, $2,000, or $10,000, for most people, that’s a lot of money to spend on a watch! It’s an extravagance, no matter what. I know that, so when somebody buys one of our watches, I take that decision very seriously. I deal with the client from start-to-finish because of that. I don’t pass them on to anybody else and I’ve become friendly with most clients. We chat on WhatsApp at night and they call me at all hours. That’s how it works, but I love doing it because I know these watches mean so much to the clients. And it means a lot to me. And God forbid something goes wrong – I have a heart attack! Watches can mean a hell of a lot to people and I run Garrick with that in mind at all times. 

You had said earlier there are some things on the horizon that you really can’t go too in-depth on, but can you give us a little hint at what’s coming next for Garrick?

We’re always working on something. This is a bit of an exclusive I suppose, but since we’ve released a watch with deadbeat seconds, we’ve been working on a watch with the deadbeat seconds that also has the power reserve indication on the dial. That’s a really nice watch that we’ve been prototyping. 

We’ve also got a smaller S7 coming later this year; a lot of people complain our watches are too big at 42mm, but it’s the movement that dictates the size. So we’ve got to do something smaller, and the only smaller watch we’ve got at the moment is the S5 with an in-house caliber – which is a crazy amount of money for a lot of collectors at around $20k. That price is high because of the movement and finishing, so we’re working on the new S7, which we haven’t officially announced, but have teased on Instagram. This watch will be powered by a smaller, modified vintage new-old-stock Unitas movement. We’ve been modifying those movements at the moment with our own bridges and pieces to give it our aesthetic, and that watch is the big (smaller) thing on the horizon for us. We’re really excited to be able to give people a 38mm Garrick watch at a relatively affordable price under $10k, but with the fully engine-turned dials – which is something that people expect from Garrick now. We’ve got to go smaller at the moment. That’s important to us. 

I’m also mindful that because of the increased costs of materials these days, our watches have crept up in price, and even our basic models are becoming out-of-reach. With this in mind, we plan to resurrect our iconic Norfolk timepiece. The Norfolk MK2 will feature an updated dial design and be smaller in size at around 38mm. To keep the price down, we will offer the watch with a solid case back, which means we don’t have to spend days beveling and finishing parts. Garrick

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May 3, 2024
David Von Bader is an LA-based musician and journalist. His horological interests center around vintage tool watches, particularly those with a military or motorsports provenance. He is further afflicted by addictions to vintage shades, vinyl records, and guitars.