22nd April 2021 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ
When you’re forging the identity of a brand, you need to be clear about exactly who you are and what you want to be. But it’s just as important to know what you’re not – and that’s something about which Elliot Brown are unequivocal. Elliot Brown are not like other watch brands. In fact, for co-founder Ian Elliot, they’re not really a watch brand at all. “Many other watch manufacturers are essentially luxury lifestyle brands,” he says. “Whereas we see ourselves as an outdoor brand selling watches”.
That statement is borne out in the way that he and fellow founder Alex Brown live their lives. Elliot Brown’s HQ is in a working boat yard bordering Poole Harbour in Dorset, on England’s south coast. It’s a location that makes perfect sense for those who thrive on a coastal, outdoor existence, one based around boards and bikes. “The brand suits our lifestyle,” Ian explains. “When you love something, you kind of find a way to fit work around being able to do the things you love – whether that’s surfing or windsurfing or downhill mountain biking. So, the outdoors is and always has been intrinsically part of what we do”.
You get the sense that the guys behind the brand are very much the ‘work hard, play hard’ type. They value and enjoy their work as much as they do their downtime. But they take it seriously. In fact, from the day that Elliot Brown was formed back in 2013, the pair knew exactly what kind of watches they wanted to make: the most wearable, affordable, and toughest timepieces on the planet. To do that, they test each and every watch to its limits – and occasionally, to destruction. “We go to town when it comes to testing,” says Ian. “There isn’t another watch company doing even a fraction of what we do, despite the number of so-called sports watches on the market”.
He tells me that normal practice in the watch industry is to test maybe four or five per cent of the watches that come off the production line. Cases and seals are tested in an air pressure chamber. But Elliot Brown do that to every single watch they make, twice. And the final, third test they do is actually performed in water, at 200m depth – or 300m on some models. But why go to all that extra trouble – why incur the additional time and expense? “We feel the industry is a little less than entirely honest, which is why we took a totally different route. You know, if we’re going to put a watch on someone’s wrist that might go up Everest or cross the Atlantic, they’re reliant on that watch. And we sleep well knowing it's going to work”.
It’s a statement that will ring true for anyone who has ever put their trust in a bit of outdoor kit at a crucial moment – whether you’re a trad climber placing a nut just before the crux of a tricky pitch or a rider pointing a mountain bike down a highly technical singletrack. It’s reassuring to know that Elliot Brown build watches the same way that other brands make safety-critical equipment like disc brakes or climbing hardware.
And though being able to tell the time might not seem a life-or-death matter in day-to-day life, there are undoubtedly occasions when it could be. As all experienced hillwalkers know, from a safety point of view in the great outdoors, there is always a need for a rugged and reliable timepiece. That’s why Mountain Rescue advise people to go out on the hills with exactly that – not something that runs out of battery and signal. How many MRT call-outs could be avoided if more people heeded that advice? And unlike many other watch brands producing ‘military’ or ‘field’ watches, Elliot Brown watches have genuine credibility in this arena. Various models have been produced for and worn by firefighters, RNLI crews, mountain rescue teams and military special forces units. They have been used on operations when time was not just precious, but where every second was vital.
“The military relationships and what we’ve managed to achieve in such a short space of time makes us really proud,” reveals Ian. Given the specialist nature of some of the units concerned, he has to be necessarily vague about the details. “But driving on to a certain camp and delivering that first batch of watches as issued military equipment with a NATO stock number – quite simply, that’s about as good as it gets in the watch world if you're us”.
The watch in question is the Holton Professional, specifically the black 101-001 model, the first new military issue watch to be created by a British watch company in more than ten years. The Holton came about as a natural consequence of another of the brand’s best-selling watches, the Canford, being co-opted by members of the military community. The brief for the Holton went a step further, specifying some exceptionally demanding functional requirements. The watch needed to be capable of prolonged exposure to water and dust, durable, shock resistant, with clear visibility day or night, fitted with a unidirectional timing bezel operable with a gloved hand, and finished with easy-change and comfortable strapping options that would not break.
Few watches have ever attained the status of being developed in this way and being issued as military equipment. Even fewer are issued to the type of specialist unit using the Holton. Perhaps the most famous example that did make the grade was the iconic ‘Milsub’ Rolex Submariner, made specifically for the British Ministry of Defence in the 1970s. These watches were factory-modified by Rolex to satisfy MoD requirements: with fixed bar rather than spring bar lugs, larger ‘sword’ hands for enhanced visibility, guaranteed tritium luminescence for low-light use and a rotating bezel with sixty-minute hashing (as opposed to just the first 15 minutes). They’ve become incredibly collectable. “Some of the Rolex Submariners that were issued to the same corps now fetch 70 or 80k when they come up for sale,” says Ian. “We’re not saying we’re in that bracket but getting to the same point was certainly a feather in our cap”.
Taking a deeper dive into the design of a watch like the Holton also reveals another thing about Elliot Brown: the brand’s attention to detail verges on the compulsive. Arguably, with the Holton, they went way further than Rolex ever did with the Submariner. That obsessive trait is a quality that comes straight from the founders, as Ian openly admits. “We’re both engineers at heart, so we have that slight OCD nature. It can drive people mad, but it’s only that obsessiveness that produces the special personal character, I think”. He’s right: there’s no denying the Holton is special. But there are actually almost too many little details about the watch to convey easily or effectively – something that Elliot Brown have sometimes struggled to convey.
“We know that our watches may appear more of a risk for certain retailers to stock”, admits Ian. “A typical watch or jewellery chain tends to stick to brands that are already successful, like Michael Kors or BOSS, or Omega or Tag Heuer. It’s a very traditional marketing model with a high-profile celebrity ambassador and a slick ad campaign, plus an agency contract for placing the products in style and fashion publications. That creates demand but not the personality. But the larger buyers want to know all those pieces are in place before they’ll take our watches”. That’s one reason why the brand looked to build credibility in other ways, through those successful collaborations with emergency services, military units and, most recently, Jaguar Land Rover. “They’re well-known entities, but we’re still a little left-field to some retailers, because we’re not a typical watch brand and don’t fit the mould”.
The specification of the Holton is also the perfect illustration of what Elliot Brown mean when they call their watches ‘100% fit for purpose’. The watch is designed to work, purely and simply, not to follow current fashion or market trends. Ian loves to point to the Holton’s idiosyncratic details. “You can use the palm of a gloved hand to turn the bezel, to time your oxygen if you’re diving. That bezel’s knurling pattern is specifically designed to fit a glove – any glove, whether fabric or leather or neoprene. But to ensure that, the knurling pattern comes over onto the top of the bezel. So, if you’re wearing a stiff-cuffed dress shirt, it’ll tear it to pieces. We don’t care about that. We’re not trying to please everybody; it is about being super-focused on function”.
To work out where this horological obsession with functionality first came from though, we probably need to go right back to the start. The roots of Elliot Brown actually began with another British company: Animal. Founded in 1987, Animal was a brand that emerged from the south coast of England. It rode the rising wave of interest in extreme sports in the UK, appealing to budding surfers, snowboarders, windsurfers, mountain bikers, kite surfers and more. Throughout the 1990s, this home-grown brand traded punches with more established surfing behemoths from the US and Australia, clawing market share from mega-brands like Oakley, O’Neill, Quiksilver, Rip Curl and Billabong.
Animal sold a wide range of clothing and accessories. But the brand became best known for its webbing watch straps, which fastened with a hook and loop closure – that’s Velcro to you and me. Developed by Ian Elliot as a practical solution to the problem of losing your watch in the surf, they came to be an inexpensive, accessible and pretty soon an essential accessory. By the late ‘90s an Animal watch strap had become a useful signifier that marked out the wearer as a member of the action sports tribe: maybe a surfer, maybe a mountain biker, but definitely somebody who lived for adrenaline.
Today, Ian remembers: “The Animal watch strap was the first product I ever made that was quite successful. It’s basically what Animal’s business was built on. In its heyday we sold nearly a million a year.” Of course, the natural next step from watch straps was to start making a range of watches too, and so Animal enlisted expert help to develop, service and run their watch department. Enter trained horologist Alex Brown. Enticed by the prospect of living and working on the south coast, just minutes from the sea, he decided to turn down a job offer with Cartier and instead go and work for Animal.
The two soon became firm friends, a bond cemented when they discovered they shared a fascination for engineering and mechanics. They also learned an awful lot about watches. This included an in-depth knowledge of, as Ian describes it, “what went wrong when watches were subjected to hitting pavements and rocks, and encountering snow, salt water, sand, mud and all those things that mechanical things generally don’t like. That put us in a pretty unique position, being able to see the complete product cycle from concept to end use”.
So, ultimately, the skill set at the heart of Elliot Brown came from the pair’s work with Animal. But it was also born out of frustration at the limitations imposed on them at that time. All Animal watches were built from marine-grade stainless steel. But there were other factors that stopped them from building the watches they dreamed of. “Obviously we were limited by the price points of the watches we sold under the Animal brand,” says Ian. “Outside of the watch and jewellery industry, and certainly back then, it was difficult to sell anything outside of the £100 to 150 price range. We started thinking, do you know what, imagine what we could do if we had a blank sheet…”
It was an itch that eventually they had to scratch. But getting there was a long and complicated process. “We worked nights for about two and a half years to make Elliot Brown happen – putting it all together, working out the hows and whys”. In 2013 the brand launched with the Canford and Bloxworth models, each watch range comprising about half a dozen styles. The Canford was a quietly handsome evolution of the classic ‘super-compressor’ that was perfectly suited for everyday wear but could also do double duty as field or sport watch. The Bloxworth was a classic ‘tech-diver’ chronograph, designed to appeal to the kind of guy who drives a pick-up and maybe spends his weekends thrashing around on a rib or a jet-ski. Both watches are still core staples of the line-up today. “Each watch was – and still is – a colour story in its own right. So, everything about each watch is stylised, from the dial and the lume to the hands and hour markers, as well as the case finish,” says Ian. “Even the I-ring that goes around the glass is coloured to match the watch. We want it all to look unified and cohesive, so it just works”.
The brand’s design language is distinctive, drawing on different inspirations, which includes an unmistakably British aesthetic. Naturally, it has also evolved over time. “We don’t pretend to be British-made, but we are 100% British-designed, and our ethos is also very British. The toughness, the ruggedness, the house design style is distinctively British, I think. We feel like we’ve reached a maturity with that now. It takes an influence from traditional military instrumentation and signage – the Holton is a case in point – but it looks nice too. That’s important, because the forces guys tend to choose watches that look great”.
As a brand, Elliot Brown also thinks hard about why somebody would buy an analogue watch in the modern day, when you can have so much more information on your wrist. “I think ultimately, it’s because they have that longevity and go-anywhere, do-anything, rugged nature,” muses Ian. “They do become a bit of a talisman. And ultimately, they generate their own story, create their own fingerprint as they get a few marks and scuffs over time”.
Back at Elliot Brown HQ in Poole, there’s a select collection of battered watches that show plenty of marks and scuffs. These are the watches that have come back from some truly epic adventures. It includes three watches that were attached to the bows of various racing yachts competing in the prestigious Clipper Round The World Race, an event that Elliot Brown sponsored for four years running. “There’s one that we really like because it had some really big scars – something has obviously hit it and literally taken chunks of stainless steel off the edge of the watch”, says Ian. “It’s bonkers that something could survive that. No matter how hard we scratch our heads, we can’t think of a tougher test than that for any watch, ever. Spending a year at sea – it’s gone from freezing cold Southern Ocean to tropical waters, as well as places where the water is cold but the air temperature is very warm, like off the Western Cape. There are thermal shocks going on, saltwater corrosion, plus huge pressure shocks, as those boats go at a hell of a lick, and the bows hit the water pretty hard”.
The guys relish every opportunity to put their watches to the test. When they launched their Land Rover x Elliot Brown Holton collaboration, stunt driver Jess Hawkins smashed over the watch driving 2.9 tonnes of metal in the form of the new Defender. “Jess actually drove over it about 15 times in total, just to get the right shot!” laughs Ian. “We were convinced it was going to end up in pieces, but the watch survived unscathed”. Last year they dropped one in the harbour at Poole and left it there for six months, fastened to a post. The verdict? “It had stuff growing on it and was looking pretty gnarly, but it came up ticking”. More recently, they also petrol-bombed one as part of a police counter-terrorism training exercise, fastening a watch to the neck of a bottle and hurling it onto a concrete surface. “The webbing strap got a bit charred, but otherwise it was fine.”
In similar vein, they love to hear stories of where their watches have been and what they have achieved. “We’ve got ambassadors all over the world doing crazy stuff all the time,” says Ian. “Fraser Corsan broke the world speed record in a wing suit wearing an Elliot Brown watch, jumping from around 30,000ft. We’ve also got one watch we call our ‘Row it Forward’ watch, which is currently on its ninth ocean crossing. It’s halfway across the Atlantic at the moment with the Monkey Fist team. We plan to auction it off at some point, although two of the rowers – who we now know really well – won’t set off without it. It’s become a talisman for them”.
Supporting athletes, soldiers and other organisations is also a big part of what Elliot Brown do – though they don’t really talk about it. “Well, it’s nice to be nice, isn’t it?” says Ian, when pushed. He’s being modest. Actually, he sits on a panel for the Special Boat Service Association, a registered charity that exists to provide support to serving and retired members of the specialist military unit and their families. By all accounts, through various projects and events – which has included auctioning a few specially-commissioned, not for public sale watches – the money that Elliot Brown have raised for the association stretches well into six figures. Similar endeavours have benefited other armed forces charities too, along with various other good causes including the Fire Fighters Charity, MIND, Mountain Rescue, The Royal British Legion, Movember, the NHS and the RNLI.
Their attitude simply shows that the guys at Elliot Brown understand that actions speak louder than words. In similar vein, although they have a range of ambassadors – including explorers, adventurers and climbers – they aren’t treated as mouthpieces for the brand on paid contracts. Essentially, they have a free rein to do what they like. “We don’t pay anybody to wear our watches either,” adds Ian. “They just do because they like them. That includes people like Matt Tebbutt on Saturday Kitchen, Julia Bradbury, Steve Backshall – all sorts of people wear Elliot Brown but they don’t necessarily shout about it, and we don’t shout about it either. It’s a quiet revolution”.
Speaking to Ian Elliot, it’s hard not to come away impressed with the brand or the people behind it. Their collective passion for building watches is something that commands respect – as is the breadth of knowledge that they have built over the years. Though they are not watch geeks in the conventional sense, they certainly know their stuff. “Alex can stick his eyeglass into any mechanical watch and in minutes he’ll tell you why it’s running slow – that screw is loose or that spring is bent,” says Ian.
His own self-confessed area of expertise is watch straps: an area of watch design that for some brands is an afterthought, but which for Ian, and for Elliot Brown as a whole, is as important and integral as any other element. “I could give a lecture on watch strap webbing,” he says. We believe him – particularly when we discovered that the Elliot Brown webbing strap took nearly three years to design and manufacture. Unsurprisingly, it was a bit of a pet project that was initially inspired by that original Animal Velcro strap. “I’d always wanted to make a version 2.0 of that watch strap. So, at Elliot Brown we started playing around with bits of webbing, picking the idea up and putting it down again over a number of months. Then we came up with the idea of a clamp buckle based on a webbing belt buckle. But we thought we could make it more pleasurable to use and more practical, certainly preferable to Velcro – which after all was a bit noisy, and frayed easily, and got smelly.” This raises an interesting question. Have you ever washed your watch strap? No, thought not – but apparently, nobody does. “You think to wash your clothes, but never your strap,” says Ian. “I mean, at Animal we’d sometimes get watches in for servicing that were just disgusting. So, we needed to solve that and at the same time make the strap infinitely adjustable, without the bulk that you get from a traditional NATO strap with D-rings and multiple folds of webbing. We didn’t want any of that, because they soak up and retain moisture, but we wanted it to be just as strong and versatile”.
The first sample they had made didn’t quite work as they wanted it to, but it was close enough to apply for a patent in order to protect the design – which was granted, and in record time. “We got a patent in under a year, which is unheard of apparently. The idea is that you make the adjustment on the inside of the strap, not the outside, which only gives you a short tip rather than loads of excess strap to flap around”. This also obviated the need for the keepers or retainer loops that you get on a leather or rubber watch strap. “Those are always the first components to break or wear out on a watch, since they’re necessarily fragile – unless you make them out of metal, in which case they’ll scratch your desk or whatever. With our webbing system, the keeper is integrated into the buckle via a hinge, which also clamps down on the strap”.
Job done then, right? Wrong. The next step was to refine the webbing itself. With the buckle sorted, Ian went to Bowmer Bond, Elliot Brown’s webbing supplier, to create the strap. He knew what he wanted: a webbing with a natural look and feel like canvas or cotton, but one that was still crafted from a man-made fibre to ensure it didn’t rot, smell or absorb too much water. Unfortunately, such a webbing fabric didn’t exist. But another solution soon presented itself. “Although they didn’t really produce anything with the qualities we wanted, what they did have was a reconditioned Victorian shuttle loom that they thought they might be able to use to make something on,” Ian remembers. He sourced a yarn with the right finish and the supplier tried weaving some on that antique loom. Its unique advantage was that you got a woven edge on both sides of the webbing, which you don’t get with a modern needle loom – basically a double selvedge, a bit like premium denim. The problem was that the Victorian loom worked at about 10% of the speed of a normal loom and needed reloading every five or ten minutes. “This webbing costs us literally a hundred times more per metre than using a needle loom,” says Ian. “But it’s worth every penny. There’s nothing like it. We’ve invested many more thousands of pounds into webbing than is comfortable, but it means we’ve got the straps we wanted. It’s truly a labour of love”.
Labour of love. That, more than anything else, is perhaps the phrase that best encapsulates what Elliot Brown do, and why they do it. When it comes to play, the guys at Elliot Brown do what they love. And when it comes to work, they love what they do. It’s a simple and honest approach that isn’t part of some grand plan, some clever marketing strategy. But it’s one that, unsurprisingly, resonates with a certain sort of outdoorsy watch buyer.
What the brand has already managed to achieve is all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it is to carve out a niche in the modern watch industry. There are probably more watch brands around today than at any time since the golden age of the Swiss watch business, which reached its zenith just before the so-called ‘quartz revolution’ of the 1970s that killed off many heritage brands. The rise of a multitude of modern microbrands, many backed and launched via crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, means it is a competitive and cut-throat market. Sometimes it seems that there is already a watch out there for anyone and everyone.
But there aren’t so many watches that you can come to truly love, that will earn a place in your heart alongside your most trusted bits of outdoor kit. And maybe that’s where an Elliot Brown watch will always win out: it’s not a timepiece to sit in a display case on a dressing table, nor a flashy adornment that caters to the latest fast fashion trend. And it most certainly isn’t a smartwatch either, because let’s be honest, that is an object that, while useful, will never inspire a deep or meaningful affection. You may as well fall in love with your fridge-freezer. But an Elliot Brown watch is designed to be a constant companion on every adventure, from the everyday to the extraordinary. And moreover, they are built with infinite care and almost obsessive passion by a brand that understands, instinctively and intimately – just like anyone else with a sense of wanderlust – that time is precious. Why waste it?