How a small Norfolk company is at the front of a revival of British watchmaking
The Norwich firm creating amazing watches
The watch sits comfortably on my wrist, the cool, mirror-polished 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 well-heeled. 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 re-emerging English watchmaking scene, but Simon Michlmayr, one half of the partnership behind the brand, is well-known in the county, having run the watch and clock repair business which bears the family name for over three decades. He is a second-generation 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.
Then he met watch-loving, straight-talking 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, not batteries.
“There are some amazing watch brands out there – the obvious one is Rolex – but they are a mass-produced watch. We are in a different market were we are a group of people who hand-make 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 high-end Garrick watches use movements made by Swiss watch meister Andreas Strehler.
He and Simon designed the movement – essentially the ‘engine’ of the watch – which is then made in volume by Andreas because he has production machinery which Simon doesn’t have in his workshops.
The analogy might be a small-volume, high-end sports car maker who buys in certain components like gearboxes, for example. Simon would ideally like to bring everything in-house, 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 well-built. 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?” garrick.co.uk michlmayr.com
“My own watch has dinks and dents in it – I don’t take it off. I just wear it, and that’s part of its life”
RIGHT:Putting a watch together is a painstaking process
LEFT AND BELOW:The S1 and the Regulator
ABOVE: Watchmaker Simon Michlmayr
LEFT: The S1 TimepieceRIGHT: The Portsmouth