By Ken Kessler
With the slogan 'Made In England… For the World', Meridian demonstrates no attempt at hiding its intent. "We proudly proclaim that we are English, rather than British," says co-founder Richard Baldwin, "in recognition of England's part in the history of horology." The feistiness inherent in the stance is an indicator of the type of watch the company is producing.
Having been privileged to observe up close the company's evolution from computer-generated drawings to actual watches - Baldwin has called on me from time to time to discuss the watch industry and to proof-read some of his missives - I've had a short, sharp lesson in what it takes to launch a new brand. The challenge has been made greater by the insistence on being as English as John Bull.
Baldwin and WOSTEP-trained watchmaker Simon Michlmayr, another of Peter Roberts' highly-skilled former students from his years at Hackney Technical College (others include Stephen Forsey and Peter Speake-Marin), are in-your-face about the Englishness. They're making the watches in Norfolk. "The crystals are even coated in England to a military spec." Thankfully Baldwin and Michlmayr stop short of engraving a bulldog on the back, something that's been tried (unsuccessfully) in the past. Any elements they do not make in-house, like the strap and the packaging, are English-made, too. Bar one.
Three years ago, after discussing the heyday of English watchmaking, two friends set themselves the challenge of making a watch on English soil. SalonQP 2012 saw the culmination of that project when The Prime was unveiled.
Think of England
Like every other English brand with the exception of Roger W. Smith and Robert Loomes, the watch contains a Swiss base movement. It is indicative of the unique obstinacy of watch fanatics that this is cited as a dilution of the Englishness, though it never stopped automobile enthusiasts from deeming a Jensen Interceptor or an AC Cobra as being English, despite their Detroit motors.
Be that contradiction as it may, all that Meridian uses is the raw Unitas 6497/8 in component form. In order to maintain the physical integrity of a watch meant to be water-resistant to 1,000ft (not metres!), the watches do not feature glass backs, so what the client will witness only if he or she visits the atelier to see the watch being made is the complete refinishing: frosting, spotting and polishing, with fully-engraved bridges, the hand-blued screws, the handbevelled edges.
"Every movement, is completely refinished in-house, by hand." It's a phrase that Baldwin should have as a ring-tone on his iPhone because it peppers every conversation he has. But he has reason to repeat this mantra because, for Baldwin, it defines the inherent exclusivity and value of the watch.
"We have nine staff working flat-out, but we expect to make no more than 250 watches a year. The same person starts and finishes the watch, like the way they made motors for Aston Martins. The cause of these self-imposed limits is our insistence on everything - and I mean everything - being hand-made."
A nerve is touched. Like the Duracell Bunny, Baldwin is off. "We are a watch manufacturer, not a marketing company putting our name on dials on watches made abroad." The silent implication is, again, We Are English.
Heart and soul
What I've learned over the past year is that he's an insatiable and knowledgeable collector of military-style watches of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms/Lemania RAF Chronograph variety, and the co-owner of a watchmaking concern in Switzerland involved in manufacturing and prototyping for Swiss watch brands. This is no watchloving arriviste cashing in on the boom.
Baldwin bristles at the thought of 'factoryless' producers, whose sole interaction with the process of watchmaking is a click of a mouse to send an email to a supplier.
The Prime's case is manufactured completely in Meridian's Norwich workshops from one solid piece of stainless steel.
"We start with raw steel bars, and then rough out our case blank and back. The two are made as a pair. The cases are then machined to size and fitted together. We want our watches to last a lifetime. It's only by making our cases this way that we can ensure that they're solid and strong.
"We don't just test one movement. We test every single movement for between five and seven days, before final encasing takes place. The watches are then pressure checked to well over 1,000ft, but they'll survive 2,000 easily."
The first of many
Meridian's debut model, the Prime, is a 46mm-diameter watch identified by model numbers MP-01 through MP-10. The numbers account for a choice of black or white dials, small seconds at 6 o'clock or 9 o'clock and cases in four finishes: handpolished, hand-brushed, Meridian Black with its 'worn, vintage look' and DLC Pure Black. Baldwin points out that the handpolished case requires 3-4 hours finishing, while the hand-brushed version needs 2-3 hours work. Prices start at £4,695.
Each watch is fitted with a sandwich dial, made in-house, as are the bold skeleton hand sets. Meridian regards the handpainting of these parts as a way of ensuring each watch's individual identity, in the way that A. Lange & Söhne has made a virtue of the hand-engraving on its bridges differing from example to example.
Assembled from raw parts in the Norfolk workshops to Meridian's specification, from a Swiss-made Unitas 6497/98 base calibre, the reworked ebauche serves as a platform for the modifications of the five Prime calibres.
Baldwin's obsession to detail is that of an enthusiast rather than a manufacturer who needs to fixate about costs. Every Prime is supplied with a leather strap and a nylon strap, with complex, multi-part buckles. They attach to the watch with bars fixed by hex screws; each watch comes with a toolkit containing a special hex key, spare screws and spare bars.
Meridian has already planned its models for the next few years. Soon to arrive is a Prime with a 100-hour power reserve, achieved by adding an extra barrel; it will also feature hacking seconds and power reserve. As the 46mm diameter of the Prime may be too large for some, a new range of 42mm watches is also under development.
Thanks to Baldwin's Swiss connections, and his access to skill sets within his own Swiss interests that can benefit Meridian, it is no idle boast when he says that: "We're working on our own in-house movement, which we hope will be ready in 24 months." It's a bold claim made, ad nauseam, by every watch brand based in England. This time, though, there's reason to believe it.
Further information: www.meridianwatches.com