Elliot Brown have been developing watches in conjunction with a specialist branch of British military. We phoned up co-founder Ian Elliot to find out more about the company he formed with Alex Brown
Pictured above: Ian Elliot (left), and Alex Brown (right)
Some watches talk the talk, others walk it. Elliot Brown, based down in Poole, Dorset, are all about the latter. Started by long term friends Ian Elliot, who co-founded Animal back in 1988, and Alex Brown, who turned down a lucrative job at luxury goods company Cartier to help establish Animal’s watch offering, the pair set themselves a mission to “build the most wearable, affordable, toughest watches on the planet.”
With an outdoor playground right on the doorstep providing the perfect backdrop for inspiration, and idea testing, the ‘partners in time’ didn’t mess about in pursuing their vision for Elliot Brown – rapidly building up an incredibly loyal following.
“We’d prefer not to mention the unit by name. That’s not how we do things”
Their watches have faced down and survived extremely challenging conditions on the planet’s oceans. They’ve dealt with overbearing heat and bone-chilling cold, handled dramatic changes in altitude and air pressure, and are now being used by a specialist branch of the British military in some of the world’s most hostile places and environments.
“We’d prefer not to mention the unit by name. That’s not how we do things,” says Ian during a phone call that covers everything from baking during lockdown, to the journey of Elliot Brown, to what sets their hard-as-nails watches apart from the competition.
Here’s an edited down version of that conversation.
How did Elliot Brown come into being? What’s the story there?
We’re very lucky in the sense that Alex and I share a unique background, which enabled us to ask ‘how good a watch could we make’, if we really set our minds to it.
There aren’t many people who could even ask that question of themselves, let alone make it happen. And so, that unique background where Alex has sat at Animal, helping them to understand what was and wasn’t possible through manufacture, through delivery, and through servicing as well has been key.
He’s not just seen the design process but also what’s gone wrong with the watches that came back. That’s a really unique place to sit. Normally, you’d be doing one or the other but you wouldn’t be doing all of those things.
I, on the other hand, was responsible for designing our very first watches. A velcro watch strap at Animal was my first invention, and then I went onto researching making a watch – which took about four or five years. Eventually, we launched that in ’94 and tripled our turnover… the week we launched watches.
I’ve always had a big soft spot for watches. I love the engineering side, the details side and the doing things differently side of life.
With Elliot Brown, we set about thinking what we could put into a watch to make it tougher, longer lasting, more durable, more pleasurable to wear and own than anything else at the equivalent price point. It was clear there was a big gap in the market so we set about addressing all the weak points, then over engineering them.
“The devil is in the detail with us”
The devil is in the detail with us. We’re quite opaque in that we don’t go to town in telling everyone, everything we do. What we prefer is for people to buy our watches because they like the look and fit of it, and they maybe like our image. Then as the watch is worn and survives scrapes and knocks, they realise how good it is and some become massive advocates because it might be the first watch they have ever owned that they never need to take off.
We’re just people who’ve been lucky enough to spend our lives doing what we love. We live by the water. Yesterday, I was being towed behind a mate’s boat – learning how to foil because I’m going to take up wing foiling having been a windsurfer, and a surfer, and a paddle boarder. We live and breathe the things that we love.
Our watches are just a means for us to enjoy that without having to worry. You can just slap it on your wrist and never give it another thought. They’re not expensive drawer queens, watches that get left in the drawer because they’re too valuable to wear, but they have the engineering prowess, and finish, and fit of something much higher priced.
So, you get a lot of pleasure of owning and wearing with none of the downsides.
Does the Dorset location where you guys are based feed into the design of the watch, and vice-versa? Does it go full circle?
Yes, very much. It’s a coastal playground, and a land-based playground all in one. We’re lucky enough to have Europe’s second largest natural harbour here. It’s perfect for canoeing, and paddle boarding, and all the watersports. I’m sat looking out my window right now and can see people windsurfing, and foil windsurfing, and kitesurfing… like, right now, they’re just going across my view.
You’ve got the Purbeck Hills which are great for mountain biking, cycling, walking, hill running, triathlon. You can do it all. I always thought of Poole as being a little bit like the California of England. It was a real Mecca for the outdoor lifestyle when I first came here in the late 80s and it continues to be actually.
“What we effectively do is ruggedise something that’s inherently fragile”
You would never see more VW vans and camper vans anywhere else in the UK than Poole. It even shades Cornwall because of the outdoor lifestyle vibe which is very much embraced down here. It’s a great place to be, and it’s definitely influenced what we’ve done in terms of what the watch is meant to withstand.
A watch is a mechanical device. It’s got a very precise Swiss movement. It really doesn’t like things like shock, sand, mud, dust, extremes of temperatures, rocks, and things like that. They just don’t like it.
What we effectively do is ruggedise something that’s inherently fragile, so it can not only withstand all these elements but thrive in them.
Is that toughness thing Elliot Brown’s biggest selling point do you think?
Yes, it is. I also think we’re selling that in a marketplace that is economic with the truth. I don’t say that lightly, but there are many brands that claim to sell watches that are rugged or tough because of the way they look. When you look under the skin though, it’s a different story.
Say you’re walking down the high street and you look into a window of watches. You might see some sports watches in there, from brands who you might consider to be outdoors orientated and those watches might say “200 metres water resistant” on the dial. Interestingly, no more than about 5% would have ever been near a pressure test.
My point is that only a few of the watches in that store have actually been tested. The rest won’t have been near a test. The rest are assumed to be the same because they were made on the same production line.
“We’re selling that in a marketplace that is economic with the truth. I don’t say that lightly”
That effectively means watches are being tested by customers. If we’re giving a watch to someone who’s going on a polar expedition, or heading up the highest mountain in the world, or rowing an ocean, we want to know that they’re going to survive. We want to sleep well.
The only way we can do that is by testing every watch. We test every single watch in air pressure, twice at 150m equivalent pressure, then we test every single watch to at least 200 metres. That means every single watch we put into the market has been pressure tested three times, and the last time was actually in water at 200 metres.
When people put our watch in a shop window next to another one that says “200 metres,” they might both indicate a similar performance level but they’re actually very different things.
You once sent an Elliot Brown watch round the world on a clipper racing yacht. When you did that, how confident were you that it would come back in working condition?
Hahaha! Yeah, not very is the honest answer because you don’t know what that thing is going to hit. The only thing holding the watch to the boat were its normal strap retaining bars, and they were just attached to a bracket that was screwed to the boat.
The bow of the boat is hitting every single wave at speed, and every single object in the water, for a year. Over the course of 50-odd thousand miles, you’re totally in the lap of the gods as to whether it comes back in one piece. The one we took off the boat actually had bits of its metal bezel missing.
It had struck things so hard that it had gouges out of it. I don’t know if you know how hard it is to gouge stainless steel, but it’s pretty hard.
“Putting a tiny little watch into that environment is inherently risky”
It still kept perfect time though. Despite millions of thermal shocks, for example coming out into tropical sun and then straight down into the freezing Atlantic down by Cape Town. It’s been down in the Southern Ocean, which is freezing cold. It’s been up into tropical waters. It’s constantly in and out of salt water, fighting for its life every day.
There’s so much it had to cope with on a daily basis. We genuinely can’t think of a tougher test. Those boats charge through the water. On the previous race that we sponsored, the bow of one boat split and its whole stainless steel structure just got ripped off.
The forces at play, and the things they hit, and the speed they go at are otherworldly. Putting a tiny little watch into that environment is inherently risky.
Our whole attitude though is if you never try it, you’ll never know. We’re prepared to fail in public. I think it’s something very few brands and businesses would ever contemplate.
No matter what condition the watch got into, it was going to be on full public display in every port they stopped in. We’re prepared to put our money where our mouth is because we’re honest, we believe in our watches and we’ll have a go.
How do collaborations like the one with the armed forces come about?
With the Holton military watch, we got talking to a policeman who is in the military police. He knew someone in a military charity on the Royal Marines base here in Poole and we thought it’d be nice to do a watch for their members which raised a load of money for the charitable association and we continue to support them as much as we can.
“That’s how we came to supply our first issue watch with a Nato Stock Number”
The charity watch was really in keeping with the ethos of the unit. Some of the serving guys wore it for work and said “Hey, this is better than the stuff you issue us with. Can we go and talk to Elliot Brown?”
That was purely on merit. And that’s how we came to supply our first issue watch with a Nato Stock Number. Because we were asked to come to the table, then we developed something that was 100% fit for purpose which is the Holton.
In terms of the Holton Automatic, what’s so unique about?
The Holton itself was developed with a specialist military group. It has been tested in unbelievably harsh conditions so, for example, it might have done a free fall jump at higher than normal free fall altitudes – where it’s really cold and you’re effectively jumping into a freezing vacuum. You’re falling, and falling, and very quickly you’re subjecting the watch to a massive thermal shock – possibly jumping into tropical water.
It’s been in 98% humidity, jungle conditions, and in deserts where there’s constant dust and sand to fend off, both situations where on a normal watch you might suffer ingress of dust and moisture when pulling the crown out to change the time or the date. With our watches, that can’t happen. The crown’s got three seals on it that’ll always work. It’s beautifully engineered details like that which make our watches effortless to own.
“You’re effectively jumping into a freezing vacuum”
On one of our Canford models, for example, the crowns stick out from the case at the 2h and 4h positions. The crown just pushes in and out so when it’s in, it might still get a knock because it’s quite prominent. On the Holton we had to work out how to still incorporate the three seals, but in less material, because we recessed the crown deeply into the side of the case. We love overcoming those sort of challenges.
Presumably when putting a watch like this together, there’s a lot of trial and error?
Not really, it’s about solution orientated engineering and development.
For example, one of the problems on previous military watches was that they couldn’t turn the bezel with a gloved hand, because the bezel grip wasn’t fit for purpose. So we developed a high grip solution that goes onto the very top of the bezel as well, which isn’t great for your shirt cuffs by the way… but it doesn’t matter because it’s perfectly fit for purpose and it works. You can put the palm of a gloved hand on that bezel and turn it, to time your oxygen when you’re underwater.
Then we made a modification to the strap bars, where we created a five lobe key that locks into the end of the strap bar to un-screw it from the watch case for easy strap changes. With a single tool, you can remove it – making it easy to change from a rubber strap to whatever you want. The aim was to make it squaddie proof.
“The aim was to make it squaddie proof”
We put the most luminous ink that money can buy on the dial and bezel. We use high grade SuperLumiNova. It’ll glow for hours, and it really does glow. And then we put a two millimetre toughened anti-reflective sapphire crystal on, just for good measure.
The Holton has all of those things as standard. But obviously, it has a quartz movement which requires a battery change every three or so years. So we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to create a proper off-grid watch with all the Holton credentials in tact but with a self winding automatic movement.
The Holton Automatic doesn’t need to come back to base for probably ten years. It’s human powered. It’s spring wound. The term automatic comes from the fact it has a semi-circular rotor in movement, which rotates and automatically winds the spring as you move your wrist.
If it’s fully wound, which you’ll get to by lunchtime if you put it on in the morning, you can leave it on the side for about 41 hours before the spring winds itself down – hence the term 41 hour power reserve.
What’s the working dynamic between you and Alex like?
We’re very different people, but we have a very similar creative outlook on life. We’re both from an engineering background. I studied engineering and then ditched it to set up Animal. Whereas Alex comes from an engineering horology background. He’s a highly qualified watch engineer.
We both have an engineering brain, which wants to solve problems and do it with elegance and finesse, and all of those things. When we develop anything we really obsess over the details.
Does it get a bit competitive? Do you drive each other on?
That’s exactly how it works. And, what’s more, there’s nobody to tell us we can’t do it.
“We’ll have an idea and then, like the next day, it’s happening
One of the things someone who joined us late last year said, about working here, is that we’ll have an idea and then, like the next day, it’s happening.
That’s us in a nutshell. We’re doers.
Are you aware of a generational gap when it comes to watch appreciation?
No not at all. Our watches are analogue not digital, so they are the polar opposite of the smart watch is more of an appliance where as an analogue watch is more of a heart and head purchase. We see so many people who come here to buy an 18th or a 21st birthday present which is great to see and of course watches can be worn for a lifetime because we can keep them functioning forever.
We make beautiful objects that you wear on your wrist, that are super reliable, and that have a story. And, of course, they develop a personal finger print over time because they’re tough. You can wear them through all sorts of scrapes and near misses, and you end up becoming emotionally attached to them because they’ve coped with all that stuff that you’ve thrown at them.
“We make beautiful objects that you wear on your wrist, that are super reliable, and that have a story”
One of our ambassadors, Duncan Roy, is ex military and has done a number of arduous ocean rows. is a rower who’s in his twenties. He’s done a number of ocean rows. Now he won’t set off on his next adventure without our ‘row it forward’ watch that he and other rowers have worn on numerous ocean crossings. It has become a kind of talisman.
It might sound a little imaginative, but watches definitely take on a different kind of personal value depending on the person who’s wearing them, what they do and what sort of personality they are. There’s an emotional connection that’s totally different from the one you’d get with a digital watch.
Would you say it’s about the journey you go on with it, as much as the watch?
We like to wear a watch, because what we choose says a lot about us and the lifestyle we lead. I think the way we go about things, the honesty with which we approach what we do, the openness with how we test watches and who we collaborate with determines much of our story and hopefully resonates with the right audience.
“What we choose says a lot about us and the lifestyle we lead”
Because you wear a watch every day, it naturally becomes a little part of you and over time you form an attachment to it. A watch as capable as an Elliot Brown will naturally go on more arduous journeys and endure more and I think that gives it an even stronger connection with the wearer because it’s survived the harsh conditions, the knocks and the emotions and memories of the journey.
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