Impressions can be deceiving though. Give-a-damn is actually what Ian Elliot and Alex Brown are all about. And with their company, Elliot Brown, they prove it over and over with both their product and their general approach.
I came across these two swashbucklers via a friend who, somewhat serendipitously, has a son named Elliot Brown. Being something of a small-time collector of timepieces myself I was intrigued to hear his tales extolling their virtues. They had to be a quirk, surely? A passing fancy not to be taken all that seriously. Not a company or a brand that would be of interest to readers of Halcyon magazine or Halcyon Lifestyle. How wrong I was.
To many people – watch collector or not – value is usually measured in price. A Rolex or a Rolls-Royce costs an arm and, rather often, also a leg, so it must be valuable right? Not even close. Often, with these big ‘name’ brands an awfully large portion of the price accommodates extravagant marketing costs that need to be recouped.
Not so with Elliot Brown. Their watches start at £350 for the Kimmeridge range and run up to the not-so-nosebleed-heights of just £875 for a couple of watches in the Tyneham range. You would be comfortably adding a zero to these prices if they were any other brand.
Elliot and Brown met at the now-closed surfing-inspired Animal clothing brand when Alex Brown was brought in to help the company venture into steel watches. Turning down a job offer from Cartier to do so allowed Brown to indulge his love of the coast in the idyllic Dorset setting.
After leaving Animal the two remained friends and, in their own words, would often ‘meet up and set the world to rights over a drink’. It was during one of these occasions when the germ of the idea of what was to become Elliot Brown was sown.
The two realised that they had a unique blend of contacts, skills and knowledge that would allow them to produce exactly the types of watches that would appeal to themselves.
According to Brown, ‘we realised we might be unlikely to raise the vast funds we’d need to compete with the Swiss establishment so we just went ahead and designed the best watches we knew how to make using all the unique knowledge developed over years of making and servicing watches that were punished by Animal customers – hitting pavements, snow, mud, rocks, sand and salt water. As it turned out, we could sell them for a very reasonable sum.’
Inspired by their coastal lifestyle in Dorset, they forge collaborations with ‘highly regarded organisations’ who share their ethos and that of the company.
Partnering with the likes of the RNLI, Mountain Rescue England & Wales and the armed forces provides a philanthropic and emotional synergy that shines through in the product.
Beyond the partnership watches there are ambassadorial roles with wildlife photographers, open water swimmers, firefighters, adventurers and the like. These rugged individuals lend gravitas to the brand while maintaining the uniqueness that is key to its identity.
There are no flashy sponsorship deals with internationally known stars here – simply providing a top quality product to top quality people doing tough jobs.
The watch has to keep up with the person and their demands not merely adorn their wrist. Real people require real watches.
Mostly the designs come from Brown while Elliot ‘hones and refines the ideas’. As the latter says: ‘We’re both engineers at heart and develop every idea together to the Nth degree. It verges on the obsessive!’
Talk about understatement.
The two are so determined that their watches should be everything they claim them to be that they run tests on them that are scarcely to be believed. Should a diver’s watch state it is suitable to be used to 200m depth then the watch itself will actually have been there. Watches from the Holton Professional and Kimmeridge lines were actually sent to the ocean depths straight out of the box merely as a test. The latter only stopped ticking at 1,400m as the glass deformed from the extreme pressure while the Holton was still telling the time at 1,921m down.
This testing OCD (let’s acknowledge what it really is) of the pair has led them to develop their own proprietary shock absorbing steel movement housing allowing the watches to survive being submerged in Poole Harbour for an entire winter, being strapped to a petrol bomb and detonated (with only charred webbing to show it had actually happened) and, most astonishingly, being affixed to the bow of a racing yacht and sent to sail the world for 12 months and 40,000 miles.
This last watch was the Broadstone Clipper and was part of Elliot Brown being the official timing partner for the 2017-18 edition of the Round the World Yacht Race. The watch returned with but a few scars from ocean debris but it had kept perfect time and was ‘unscathed by long-term salt water exposure, millions of thermal shocks hitting every wave, hurricane force winds with 14m swells and extremes of temperature from the freezing icebergs of the southern ocean to the tropics.’
The above-mentioned scars only lend character in my mind as they are action watches not jewellery. However, if you do want to ‘fix’ these scars then the company will repair them. Every part of their watches are component-based meaning that they can replace case, strap, glass, dial ... pretty much anything to keep the watch on the road.
And they are elegantly designed too. They aren’t just for wearing while on a mission, covered in camo paint while under fire in enemy territory. Having designed a simple tool to unlock the bar you can change the strap to anything from within the range giving you virtually unlimited options for ‘looks’ on your wrist.
Personally I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for two of the Bloxworth range – the one with the champagne dial and the other which boasts a waxed leather strap. Decisions, decisions.
I’m not alone in my indecision either. Our two intrepid horologists fall in love with every new watch with both of them currently wearing a Holton Auto. Elliot is ‘alternating between matt steel on grey-blue webbing or bronze on desert brown webbing while Brown is a bronze or gunmetal kind’a guy.’
As they agree: ‘All our watches can be worn at work, in the outdoors or for an evening out – that’s the whole point of EB, a watch you can do your worst to destroy but need never take off and it gains a very personal character over time.’
It’s not just about the ‘look’ for these guys either; they get involved with their ambassadors and their partners to get the full feel. For the last ‘Movember’ a couple of the ambassadors spent two weeks repeatedly climbing Ben Nevis under the moniker Project Vertical to raise awareness and funds for men’s mental health and testicular cancer charities.
Elliot wanted to show his support and feel ‘just a little of their physical and mental strain’ so joined them for two days of the challenge. I didn’t ask if he did this while dressed as a Victorian explorer but somehow I wouldn’t put it past him. This sense of involvement spread throughout the company and Gem Parker, who is responsible for marketing, scaled the office stairs 417 times – the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis.
So what of the future? Well they will continue to make excellent watches at reasonable prices of course but, allied to this, will be more partnerships with organisations and people who ‘share their spirit’. For example, Land Rover are about to build 25 re-engineered Defender Works V8 Trophy vehicles for an adventure event at Eastnor Castle. A three-year conversation has culminated in Elliot Brown providing the clock faces for the fleet. And equally rugged watches for the new owners.
It’s easy to see how this fits. The new Defender’s ability and reductionist approach is a natural partner for Elliot Brown and their no-nonsense timepieces. Cue another test: during filming for the launch video a new Land Rover had to drive over the watch. After 15 takes the perfectionist director was finally happy.
As Elliot blithely recounts, with no hint that there was ever any anxiety: ‘It was resting in a rocky puddle and the Defender stunt driver accelerated hard almost spitting the watch out behind. We’ve got that one in the office – it’s still muddy but the watch is unscathed.’
The final word is an argument from me. The Elliot Brown website defiantly states that ‘in some ways we’re hopelessly uncommercial as we insist on doing the right thing and behaving in the right way first, because it matters.’ I am a firm believer that this is actually the only way to do business.
Yes, you have to earn the money to keep the lights on, but ethos matters and soul sings. It’s this that will earn Elliot Brown the new and returning customers. If you ever find yourself in Poole just pop into the office and showroom (post-lockdown!) and talk to one of these two doughty buccaneers. They’ll welcome you into the family.
For more information go to the Elliot Brown website.