Watchmaker Bremont takes its own time with move into China market

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 4:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 4:11am

British-based Bremont has become the latest luxury watchmaker joining the fray for a piece of the mainland's fast-growing middle-class market despite signs of a slowing economy.

The watchmaker, which sold its first piece in 2007, opened its first overseas store in Hong Kong as "a stepping stone" to the mainland, co-founder Giles English told the South China Morning Post.

"Many mainland people come to Hong Kong and shop, and we make sure they go home and know Bremont," English said. "It is silly to miss China, a market so important that one has to do it correctly."

Better known among chronometer collectors and the aviation and military industries, the mechanical watch brand is a relative newcomer to a market seemingly overrun by Swiss rivals such as Rolex and Breitling.

China, which encourages domestic consumption and is moving away from an export-based economy for sustainable growth, has turned into a battleground for overseas consumer brands.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief economist Lu Ting said the mainland's retail sales might be stronger in the first few months of this year than the same period last year.

In 2013, domestic consumption felt the chill of the Chinese state leadership's crackdown on government officials' spending on luxuries, which saw retail sales growth taper to 13.1 per cent from 14.3 per cent in 2012.

For English, the challenge for Bremont is more about lifting output to meet demand.

"It takes two years to make a watch, and raising production capacity can't happen over night because different components have different cycles and it takes time to train engineers and technicians," he said.

Bremont is a no ordinary creation. English, 40, and his 43-year-old brother, Nick, founded the watch company in 2002.

Instead of taking over a watch company, they chose to start from scratch by designing and producing high-end watches in a factory that employs about 65 people in Henley-on-Thames in Britain.

Engineers by training, the brothers focused their passion on mechanical watches. An aircraft accident claimed their father's life in 1995 and almost killed Nick.

"We came out of it, and thought 'we could be dead tomorrow'," English said. "So we let ourselves follow our passion and do something we love doing."

Production output of the British factory will rise by a third to about 8,000 pieces this year.

Bremont got a taste of Chinese spending power on luxury watches after opening a 2,000 square foot store in Central three months ago. A single Chinese customer walked out with five Bremont watches in a HK$130,000 shopping spree, something unseen even in the flagship store in London.

For now, the company plans to serve mainly as a wholesaler to local retailers. Opening a directly owned store in China is the next step, which might take place two or three years later.

English said mainland shoppers tend to favour more "subtle brands with a history".