LONDON — It may not seem entirely rational to introduce a watch brand in today’s highly competitive market, but Don Cochrane is not a man driven by reason.
He is on a personal mission to revive Vertex Watches, a brand that his great-grandfather, Claude Octavius Lyons, founded in 1916 in London. The company, like many other watchmakers, fell victim to the rise of quartz watches — along with a general lack of family interest in the business — and was shuttered in 1972, three months after Mr. Cochrane was born. “Growing up, I heard quite a lot of sad stories about Vertex slowing down and closing,” he said.
Mr. Cochrane never knew his great-grandfather, but he was close to his grandparents Henry and Peggy Lazarus (she was Mr. Lyons’s daughter). “My grandfather had been in the business since 1938, and we used to draw watches together,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Though obviously as a child drawing a circle and putting hands on it is pretty straightforward.”
Two years ago, when his grandmother died about six months short of her 100th birthday, he had the idea to revive the brand.
“I was at work, thinking about my grandmother’s life and Vertex,” recalled Mr. Cochrane, who has a background in advertising and previously worked for Tesla, VistaJet and Aston Martin. “I Googled it and started learning all this really amazing stuff. It was a bit of an epiphany.”
Vertex, he found, was one of the “dirty dozen,” the nickname that the watch community uses for the 12 companies that the British military leadership authorized to produce timepieces for World War II troops. At the time, the watches were called W.W.W. — for Watch, Wristlet, Waterproof — and some are highly collectible today, like the Omega, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre designs.
Vertex was the only British brand in the group, although its movements were made in Switzerland.
“It was perhaps the only time in history when so many brands were licensed by the Ministry of Defense,” said Ken Kessler, a watch historian and editor at large of the watch magazine Revolution (he has owned eight “dirty dozen” watches over the last 35 years).
Mr. Cochrane said the narrative was perfect for a heritage watch brand — “These watches got beaten up and shot at,” he said. “They were used to navigate across enemy territory, for when to drop bombs or block that bridge.” — but he still felt he needed something that was, as he said, “emotionally different.”
He decided to build Vertex around a community, initially 60 people whom Mr. Cochrane personally invited to become Vertex owners. Forty-five accepted, and each was given five names to invite, growing the brand in turn. Sales are primarily limited to invitees, although anyone who owns one of the original W.W.W. Vertex models also can buy a new watch.
“Selling to retailers and customers is cool, but I think people want to feel more connected with brands now,” Mr. Cochrane said. “I know all of our owners, and they’re involved with the brand in some shape or form.” He also envisions holding events, like the one scheduled in New York this week, where owners and potential owners can meet and see the watch.
When Mr. Cochrane actually began working on the revival in mid-2015, his first step was to buy back the Vertex trademark — it had become the property of Columbia, the outdoor clothing and sportswear company — and, after remortgaging his house and borrowing from family members, he then set out to find Swiss partners. Eventually, he selected Roventa Henex to make the watches, and that company decided to use movements from ETA, the Swatch Group subsidiary.
As for the inaugural design, the steel Vertex M100 is true to its “dirty dozen” predecessor, including the dial’s pheon, or broad arrow, a heraldic symbol used on all sorts of British government items from uniforms to ornaments. “It didn’t have to be on the watch,” Mr. Cochrane said, adding that the government no longer used the emblem. “But it was important to have that continuation.”
The most notable differences are that the new case is 40 millimeters (the original was 35 millimeters) and the dial numbers are molded from SuperLuminova for easy reading in the dark. The watch also features an ETA 7001 movement, water resistance to a depth of more than 325 feet, a 42-hour power reserve and delivery in a Pelican box, the industrial-grade, foam-packed case beloved by the military and film crews. It comes with two straps, black leather and gray NATO, and is priced at 2,500 pounds ($3,320).
Only 600 watches have been made, and more than 200 have sold since the M100 became available in May. “When they’re gone, they’re gone — and that will pay for the next watch,” said Mr. Cochrane, who hinted at the appearance of a dive or dress watch next summer.
The M100’s owners include collectors as well as engineers, entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes, the designer behind all of Pink Floyd’s album art and a Victoria’s Secret model.
One is the Earl of Mornington, who was a host of Vertex’s inaugural event in London in March. He said he was intrigued by Mr. Cochrane’s family connection to the brand and the “unusual sequence of events that led to it being on my wrist.”
But not everyone is convinced. A review of the M100 on the watch website Hodinkee called the sales method “elitist and undemocratic,” with many of the 85 comments that followed criticizing Mr. Cochrane, calling the revival a “marketing trick” and the watch’s price “laughable” (vintage Vertexes sell for a few hundred dollars).
Mr. Cochrane said the comments made him “annoyed and sad,” and he countered with examples of top-end watches that are accessible only by the ultrarich. “I think money is elitist,” he said. “If you have lots of it, you can have whatever you want.”