This article originally featured in Issue 70 of QP Magazine.
How designer Piers Berry created a suave young watch brand
Since launching in 2013, British watch company Pinion has blossomed as a street-smart modern brand that wears its traditional influences lightly. Founder Piers Berry tells QP how he’s built a brand from nothing.
By Chris Hall (Originally published in QP Magazine, January 2015)
It is a cold fact that only a minority of new watch brands succeed. And much as it’s satisfying to have witnessed several making their world debut SalonQP over the years, it’s even better to see them return stronger subsequently. Oxfordshire-based Pinion has done just that. Having launched at 2013’s Salon with the warmly-received Axis Automatic – a watch whose sleek, military-tinged looks reflected the design pedigree of its creator, Piers Berry – Pinion was back last November with a new chronograph, the Revival 1969 (below).
Pinion has also recently been taken on by San Diego specialist in independent watches, Passion Fine Jewelry, where it will sit alongside the likes of Habring, Speake-Marin and Lang & Heyne. According to Berry, further retail developments are in the offing. It’s not bad for a company whose founder, prior to launching, had no experience of the watch industry.
Connoisseur to entrepreneur
On paper at least, it would look like Pinion was born in a storm. Three years ago, with Britain still mired in recession, who would have put money on a digital designer of 20 years’ standing leaving the world of pixels, apps and wireframes – just as the first generation of smart watches emerged, no less – to found a watch brand rooted steadfastly in past traditions?
That, however, is exactly what Piers Berry did. A digital designer who had been running his own creative agency for a decade before he launched Pinion, Berry was bitten by the watch bug in 2004 when he came across a friend’s Panerai. “I had had an interest in watches from the point of view of product design since the ’90s,” Berry says, “but it was mostly Casio G-Shocks, that sort of thing. It didn’t really take off until about ten years ago when I discovered Panerai. I was absolutely bowled over by their watches from a design perspective.”
After a few years, he had bought his own Panerais, and started to make contacts in the industry which would later prove valuable. Nevertheless, he was finding himself increasingly dissatisfied with the watches he encountered, and gradually started forming a plan to do something about it.
“As a designer, I always felt that there was something missing. Maybe I was being hypercritical but I’d see a watch and think, ‘If only they’d done this, or that’,” he says. “I had a vision of owning my own watch company, but from my initial enquiries it seemed too difficult.”
Nevertheless, Berry started sketching out his own designs, toying with the idea in his free time, working to a few basic criteria. “I had no experience in watch design whatsoever but I had an idea of what I wanted,” he explains. The designs were rooted in the tool watch tradition, with functionality trumping embellishments.”
“I wanted a watch which was no-nonsense that I could produce in a few flavours,” he says. “I was interested in a raw bronze case, because you could only get a bronze watch for £15,000 – like a Panerai – or £500, which was something less satisfying. There was nothing in between.”
After making contact with potential Swiss movement suppliers, dial specialists and case makers, Berry began to see that his dream could become a reality after all. In 2013 Pinion watches was born, launching its debut collection, the Axis, at SalonQP – with, as Berry had hoped, a bronze-cased watch at its core. This model, notable particularly for its green dial iteration, became the lynchpin of Pinion’s fledgling collection.
For Berry, however, getting even this far had been a rollercoaster ride in itself. “When the brand launched at SalonQP, I didn’t actually have any watches until two days before the event. Six weeks before, we didn’t think there were going to be any watches at all. I had to start again from scratch quite late on,” he says. A lack of physical product in fact resulted in an extra watch being added to the collection at the last minute. “The only reason I launched a DLC version is that it was the only watch I could mimic accurately enough in Photoshop to show online how it was going to look,” Berry admits. Inevitably the watch, the Axis Black (below), sold out.
Immediate interest in the Axis suggested Pinion was clearing one of the toughest hurdles facing any new brand, which is to prove it has a viable idea in the first place.
Next Berry needed to show he could keep developing the idea. First came a limited-edition collaboration, the Axis Iron Heart, produced with a high-end Japanese denim manufacturer. Next was the Axis Pure, also limited in number, which played to retro tastes by replacing the ETA 2824-2 movement of the Axis Automatic with a hand-wound Unitas 6498, and adding a small seconds subdial and applied markers. This is available in both steel and bronze iterations.
Having produced variants of a time-only watch, with nods to classic British military stylings, it might have seemed logical that Pinion’s next move would be a chronograph. But Berry was not, initially, too keen. “I’m not a massive chronograph fan”, he declares. “They don’t come naturally to me; I don’t like busy dials with tachymetre, telemeter scales. Doing the Revival 1969 was a challenge for me to do one that I liked.”
Key to that was finding the right movement, and top of Berry’s wish list was a manual caliber that would increase the sense of functional, tactile engagement with the watch. Manual chronograph calibers, however, are not produced for supply these days, and Berry had resigned himself to designing the R1969 to suit the tri-compax layout of the perennial Valjoux 7750 movement.
However, Berry has been able to source a batch of unopened ebauches – unassembled blank movement kits – for another historic Valjoux movement, the 7734. The ebauches were made in 1969 but never assembled, and had remained packaged up in their boxes, as new, for 45 years.
The 7734 was used by a number of brands in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Breitling, Heuer and Tudor, and was seen as a rugged and reliable workhorse. Today, with handwound chronographs (aside from Omega’s Moonwatch) pretty much the preserve of the haute horlogerie sector, the open case-back affords a pleasing look back into history; while one of the movement’s most recognizable features, the v-shaped chronograph bridge, has been customized with an engraving of the Pinion logo.
The dial is, as promised, free of calculating scales, but on close inspection is full of finely-nuanced details. The subdials, the hour markers, the outer minute track and the raised centre section are all cut to different heights and given different finishes.
The Revival 1969 is being created in a limited run of 100 pieces (there being 100 movements), priced at £4,950. A heady price, perhaps, but then it’s an unusual watch created with a deeply independent spirit, as Berry points out.
“Part of the ethos of Pinion is that it’s totally self-funded, self-financed. We own all the stock, with no debt, no overdraft, and full control over our destiny. It’s nice knowing that it’s all yours,” he says. “There are a lot of people who think they could make their own watches, and think theirs would only cost £400, and they could do it all just from sitting at a desk. They don’t do any of it. It’s not as easy as it sounds – it’s more than just the sum of its parts.”
The British Question
One thing about which Berry is more circumspect is the notion of Britishness within what he does. It’s a fact that while movements are assembled on these shores and Berry uses British-made straps, the rest comes from Switzerland, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future. While he proudly inscribes “England” on the dial of his watches, the much-vaunted “revival” in British watchmaking – overhyped, undercooked – is something from which he distances himself.
“We’re a British brand but we don’t try to shove Britishness down people’s throats. I think the product and the design should do the talking,” he says. “People often say to me ‘oh it’s not a very British design.’ You wouldn’t say that if it was an Australian watch company. I think people pick up on things too much. Why can’t we be British and look Swiss, or Japanese? I want Pinion to be able to go anywhere in the world and for people to not know where it comes from.”
Now that the Revival 1969 is out, Berry’s aim is to keep building the collection, with GMT and titanium models both in his sights, and both vintage and modern movements on the cards for future watches. That’s all down the line though. “This year I want to focus on widening awareness of the brand, and with that in mind we’re hosting a series of evenings with Pinion for customers and anyone interested, to acquaint themselves with us on a more intimate scale.”