The Topper Blog consists mainly of original writing by Rob & Russ Caplan with occasional special contributions and interviews. All photography in the blog is taken at Topper Fine Jewelers , or on location unless otherwise indicated in the photo captions.

American at Bletchley: A Recap of the Bremont Codebreaker Launch

On June 26th, Bremont launched the limited edition Codebreaker in a night that celebrated the nine thousand men and women who successfully deciphered secret German communications in World War II. The event was held at Bletchley Park, the central hub of Britain’s intelligence efforts during the war., General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said “The intelligence... from you (Bletchley Park)...has been of priceless value. It has saved thousands of British and American lives and, in no small way, contributed to the speed with which the enemy was routed and eventually forced to surrender.” During WWII the Park was converted into a codebreaking mill where cryptanalysts famously decrypted the ciphers generated by the German Enigma and Lorenz machines.

An hour before the launch event, on an obscure country road behind a tractor, we drove to Bletchley Park with a Codebreaker on Mike Pearson’s six.

I was fortunate to make the 90 minute drive to Bletchley Park from Bremont H.Q. with Bremont’s North America Director, Michael Pearson. Joining us in the car were some of the watch world’s finest editors, as well as 91-year-old WWII veteran, Jean Valentine. Ms. Valentine was not only an original member of the “Wrens,” the Women’s Royal Navy Service, but also worked at Bletchley Park as a codebreaker during the war. Even at 91, she was sharp as a tack! About 10 minutes into the drive, a GPS mishap led us down a plush country road that neither Michael nor Jean had ever seen before, and we found ourselves stuck behind a very slow tractor. Jean was hysterical and gave Mike a hard time. With proper English wit she exclaimed, “I told you not that left, but I don’t know why you’d listen to me. I’ve only made the drive from Henley Park to Bletchley three or four times a week for years.” As she gave him the business, I joked to Mike “Codebreaker on your Six...I repeat, you have a Codebreaker on your six!”

Several minutes later, we were back on a road that Jean and Mike recognized, and we were all relieved that we would actually be attending the event on time. While in the car, I had the opportunity to interview Jean about her experience at Bletchley Park during the war working at on a Turing Bombe Machine. She explained to me that during the war, she never knew what she was decoding, and only found out that she was helping to decipher German messages in the mid 1970s. She described her work very matter-of-factly. She came to work. The hours were long. She performed the work without asking any questions, and she went home. She was told not to talk about any of the details of the work, and she kept her silence for decades without fail. When I asked her why she believed she was selected to operate the Turing Bombe Machine, she said that when she applied for the service she wrote that she enjoyed crossword puzzles. After her initial training, she was the only one in her class that was sent to secondary training where she learned how to operate the Turing Bombe Machine. Was she ever tempted to talk about her time at Bletchley? Never.

Mike Pearson and Jean Valentine got along famously at the party with the tractor incident far in the rear view mirror!

Ultimately, we made it to Bletchley Park with plenty of time to spare. The facilities were beautiful, and the weather was perfect. About two-hundred Bremont enthusiasts gathered in black-tie apparel for the Bremont Codebreaker’s grand reveal.

The guests were serenaded by the the 1940’s sounds of The Abingdon Town Band, a brass ensemble which features Bremont’s Finance Manager Joanne Grundonner on the solo tenor horn. The band played uplifting 1940’s standards such as “The Great Escape,” “Colonel Bogey March,” and “A Bridge Too Far.” Relatively speaking, this was a small gig for the band, which is so revered in England that it has played annually at Windsor Castle since 2010. Good show Joanne!

While waiting for the event to start, a group of about twenty of us embarked on a tour of the grounds with the head of the Bletchley Park Trust, Iain Standen. We walked by the “huts,” which the Bletchley Park Trust is currently in the process of restoring, and saw the effort that the Bremont Codebreaker watch is helping to fund. The huts’ restoration is scheduled to be completed by 2014.

One highlight of the tour was when we were shown a recreation of the Turing Bombe Machine that was used to decode secret German messages.  Looking at the front and back of the Machine, it was amazing to see mechanical devices designed to decode the 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 possible settings of the Enigma machine, which the German’s used to send coded communications in World War II.

The incredibly complicated front and back of a recreated Turing Bombe Machine, and a statue of Alan Turing, the man who developed it. This recreation of the Turing Bombe Machine took about 20 years to build.

As we were taking in the complexity of the Bombe Machine, Bremont Co-Founder Giles English fathered everyone’s attention and surprised us all by revealing a steel Codebreaker prototype before the main presentation. Everyone’s camera was quickly out, as Giles showed the watch we had all come to see.

Photos of the Codebreaker from the Official Bremont website. The Codebreaker is priced in steel at $18,500 (240 pieces) and $33,995 in 18kt rose gold (40 pieces).

The Codebreaker, which is inspired by the military watches of the 1940s, is no doubt expensive, but it is unique in both its technical mechanical complication and its integration of Bletchley’s history. First, the mechanics- In similar fashion to the Bremont Victory, Codebreaker features a new Bremont calibre, the BE-83AR. This calibre is made by the Swiss manufacturing house, La Joux Perret.[1] The Codebreaker may be the first mechanical chronograph to combine a flyback function and a GMT function. Next, the historical integration- Each limited edition piece will have three artifacts integrated into the case, crown, and movement: The rotor of each watch will have components of a type IV German Enigma machine, the 9 O'clock side of the black DLC barrel will display the watch’s limited edition number using actual punch cards used at Bletchley Park,[2] and the crown will contain pine from the floor of hut 6, where the British decrypted German Army and Air Force Enigma machine ciphers. There is also a philanthropic component to the watch, as a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each piece goes to the Bletchley Park Trust, whose mission is to restore Bletchley Park.

At the end of the tour we made our way back to the central Mansion where a spot-on Winston Churchill impersonator emceed the evening’s formal presentation. We heard from the Director of the Bletchley Park Trust, Bremont Co-founders Nick & Giles English, and each of the Bletchley Park veterans that were on hand. The last speaker, and for me the most memorable, was Captain Jerry Roberts. Captain Roberts was a senior cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park during the war who had such high clearance that he personally deciphered messages not only from the German high command, but from Adolf Hitler himself. Time had weathered Captain Roberts’s voice, heightened his pitch, and getting his words out at an audible volume took all of his effort. His message was to remember the others- the brilliant mathematicians not spoken of that evening, whose work was instrumental in both ending the war, and planting the seeds of modern computing. As Captain Roberts spoke, the room swelled with both a gratitude for his work in World War II, and his courage to deliver his message despite the physical strain he endured when speaking. My thoughts turned to my father and how much he would have loved the Bremont Codebreaker.  His favorite Bremont watches were the P51 & the Victory because the timepieces incorporated real historical components. When Bremont Co-founder Nick English came to visit the store last fall, I remember how excited my dad was to congratulate Nick on the creation of the Victory. My dad explained to Nick that in his opinion, the battle of Trafalgar only ranked behind Augustus Caesar's victory at Actium in terms of a naval battle’s lasting impact on world events.[3] As much as my father liked the Victory, I think he would have loved the Codebreaker even more as it would have touched on his love of math in addition to history. I can picture him getting books on the Enigma and the Turing Bombe Machine, and excitedly reading through them. He would would have eagerly looked forward to Nick’s annual visit to share what he had learned.

Captain Jerry Roberts gave a stirring speech about the wartime effort, and encouraged us to remember the great mathematicians that were not spoken of that evening.

After the presentation, the crowd was given a taste of the 1940s, as Bremont period-themed entertainment. The Three Belles, a three-woman acapella singing group inspired by the Andrews Sisters, set the mood with popular songs from the 1940s. I had fun hamming it up in the War Room, pretending to somberly take in events with the Winston Churchill impersonator. It was a wonderful and memorable evening.

After the Codebreaker presentation, we had a great time taking in the feel of the 1940s.

A Return to Bremont H.Q. in Henley-on-Thames.

The next morning, Mike Pearson and I went back to Bremont’s H.Q. with the press that was on hand to cover the event. We sat down with Nick English, who went over the details of the watch we had seen the night before. I found myself in new ground sitting at a table as the lone retailer among an A-list of watch reporters who were combing over the details of the piece. On-hand were editors from Europa Star, iW, Revolution magazine, and freelance watch-writing royalty Elizabeth Doerr. All of them liked the watch, and all considered Bremont to be a brand on the rise that was gaining considerable momentum. It was an amazing opportunity to watch such sharp minds critique watch details such as the the crown, font, date wheel, and colors of the movement screws.

Bremont Co-Founcer Nick English discussing the technical aspects of the Codebreaker with Europa Star editor Keith Strandberg. A group of reporters and I looking at the the Codebreaker prototype and the historical elements at Bremont H.Q.

Nick presented us with the actual Enigma Wheels and punch cards that would ultimately go into the piece. The wood in the crown, the punch cards, and the Enigma rotor were only simulated in the prototype, as the integration of the historical components will be saved for the production run. Perhaps the detail Nick was least happy with was the crown on the prototype. He told us that while he wanted it to look thin, it looked way too thin when he saw it assembled. When I asked him how the final crown would be different, he said that he had four slightly different crowns on the way to Henley to help him hone the final design. Michael told me that the Victory went through the same process of post-prototype refinement.

One of the type IV[4] Enigma Rotors that will be incorporated into the Codebreaker rotors, and one of the five punch cards that will be used to display the limited edition number.

Thank you to everyone at Bremont for your amazing hospitality. Like the rest of the Bremont world, I am extremely excited to see the final timepiece later this year!

[1] A flyback chronograph allows the wearer to stop, start and reset the watch with a single press of the reset button. The GMT complication allows for the setting of an independent timezone.   While Nick and Giles cannot definitively say this series of complications has never been used together before, they couldn’t think of another watch with these two complications..

[2] The five cards are from the British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM) that were used in the daily decoding of the Enigma machines by the Bombe Machine. At the height of it's output, there were 2 million punch cards used a week. Now only 1/2 a box of known punch cards from the Bombe Machine remain.

[3] The Bremont Victory incorporated material from the H.M.S. Victory, Lord Nelson’s personal ship at the Battle of Trafalgar where the English fleet defeated both the French and Spanish Armada.

[4] Type IV are the rarer, more collectable Enigma rotors, and were used on the more complicated four rotor machines. The more common German Enigma machines used three rotors. To those concerned about the dismantling of a historical artifact, Nick pointed out at the press meeting that there are in existence complete, functioning Enigma machines with full sets of rotors. The two type-four rotors that Bremont purchased were not part of a historically complete set.
The Topper Blog consists mainly of original writing by Rob & Russ Caplan with occasional special contributions and interviews. All photography in the blog is taken at Topper Fine Jewelers , or on location unless otherwise indicated in the photo captions.