They Wear It Well: At the Emsworth Polo GroundsBy Tracey Llewellyn
It is just a fact of life that certain things go with luxury wristwatches and, in the sporting field, one of the most enduring connections is with polo. With that in mind, Revolution headed out for a chukka at Emsworth Polo Grounds to see who is wearing what.
Although never one to do things by half, when businessman, entrepreneur and non-rider Simon Arber decided to take up polo in 2007 at the age of 49, even his closest friends could not have guessed that within a decade he would own one of the finest private polo clubs in the UK: the 72-acre Emsworth Polo Grounds in Berkshire.
Arber co-founded the IT recruitment company SThree in 1986 with business partner and friend Bill Bottriell. It floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2005 with a valuation of close to £276 million. According to the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List, Arber sold about £20m of shares at the float and more than £50m worth in 2006 and early 2007. His remaining stake is said to be worth about £8 million. Arber says of his decision to step down: “SThree is still a brilliant business with great people running it but I just didn’t want to be CEO of a public company. I had enough money and four young children so I became a house husband with all the good bits and none of the bad.”
Encouraged by a close friend to pursue a childhood love of horses while on holiday in Ireland, Arber and his wife Romilla started playing polo ten years ago when Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s wife Madeleine set up a polo club close to their home in Hampshire. “I had always played football,” Arber says, “but was starting to slow down and was looking for a sport I could do with Romilla. We went and had lessons, enjoyed it and the whole thing snowballed. We met good people like Matias Ballesteros who has been instrumental in my polo story. In fact, everything was driven by meeting the right people and being encouraged by them and we now have 50-plus horses that we bought in Argentina through Matias.”
Always the businessman, Arber admits that, while a passion, Emsworth is an asset that, for now, he is happy to invest in. “It does take a lot of money but it is something I do with my wife and we enjoy it – and it’s a lot cheaper than getting divorced,” he quips. “All of our children play, which is great. You always want to have some influence on your kids but you don’t want to tell them what to do so you have to influence in an abstract way. The idea for us is that if we have people around us who we trust and whose values we like, we get a say in who influences our kids – and, because they want to play polo, it means we have more time with them which is brilliant.”
Arber is a fan of wristwatches, both vintage and contemporary, but always pure and simple. “There’s a brilliant guy that I go to in a Mayfair arcade,” he says. “He has great knowledge and makes spending money really nice – he is professional and likes to do deals. He believes in what he does and, for many reasons, I love buying watches from him.”
So, what first got Arber into watches? “I was running a multi-national company and our directors were all home-grown young bucks with big disposable incomes so they bought cars, suits, watches and it was all a part of their general conversation. My business partner Bill Bottriell was – and is – someone whose advice I take on board and he also has great style and a love of timepieces. He is the Sundance Kid to my Butch Cassidy and he taught me that after a big financial year it’s nice to have a trinket and all of my watches remind me of something now. I also have three boys who are all interested in their appearance so, for their sixteenth birthdays, we bought them each a proper “man watch”. I have to buy my watches in multiples of three now as they already have designs on them. Luckily for my daughter, she is the only girl so will get all of her mum’s.”
Arber’s collection is impressive by any standards, including a Patek Philippe rose-gold Nautilus and a Calatrava that was a gift from Romilla after he expressed a desire for something plain and simple that he could “jog with”. “I was offered a unique Eric Clapton watch not long ago,” he recalls. “But it was crazy money and I would much rather spend that on a rare book – my real passion – that’s where I really know what I’m doing. I guess it stems from the fact that I never had a formal education and my start in life was late.”
As well as a love of polo, Arber’s wife Romilla owns a food business and is the author of two cookbooks written with the aim of encouraging people to eat well and with the proceeds donated to the Food Education Trust. “It started off because I was concerned about the diseases caused by bad diet,” she explains. “I had four children to feed and it was tempting to grab a box of fish fingers. I originally trained as a lawyer, and, as the children got older and Simon took a step back, I decided I wanted to do something in business.”
She bought a run-down pub near Hungerford and developed it, turning the attached bar into a bakery and coffee shop. Quickly she saw a market for the additive-free bread and cakes and expanded by building a wholesale business and opening other outlets in village high streets. This was three years ago, and today, the Honesty Group consists of a cookery school that reinforces the simplicity of good food and how easy it is to look after yourself, five coffee shop outlets, a pub and restaurant and a wholesale business.
Romilla describes Emsworth as Arber’s day-to-day passion and cites it as part of the reason she decided to launch her own business. “We started playing together about 10 years ago and loved it,” she says of polo. “We have always been sporty so we had lessons and Simon never does things half-heartedly or badly so he wanted to get as good as he could in the shortest time. He had lessons three times a week and we started playing at different clubs. It’s a fun world, not like any other sport. It’s been scary because it can be terrifying – especially when you can’t ride. But it is character building and changes how you approach things in life. You have to overcome challenge and fear.”
As we sit chatting at a table in the Emsworth clubhouse, Romilla reaches into a small leather make-up pouch and starts to bring out the watches she has decided to show me today – and what treasures there are inside that small bag. The first to emerge is a Reverso Duetto in rose gold that was a birthday present from her husband. “I’d always had a watch but I didn’t know the Reversos existed before I started playing polo,” she says. “The game got me into them. And then my interest expanded. I wear watches more as an accessory or for a party as to tell the time during the day I just look at my phone. It is the care and attention to detail that interests me.
“Simon has a particular passion for vintage watches and through buying for himself he has seen pieces for me like my early Rolex platinum and diamond cocktail watch. I love it and find myself wondering how many parties it’s been to from the 1920s onwards – it’s bound to have seen some action. Another one that Simon bought for me as a birthday present is this 1914 gold Rolex. Unusually he had it engraved on the back.”
As the players start to arrive for the weekend tournament, Nacho Gonzalez, a six-goal polo player, is the first that I bump into. “Polo does not have a league like football,” he explains to me. “We just play tournament by tournament.” With an Argentinian polo-playing father and English mother, Gonzalez grew up in the UK surrounded by polo. He has 35 caps for England and says he turned professional on the day he got his first pay cheque. “I was 14 and it was in Richmond at Ham Polo Club. I got paid £50 for my first game.”
Gonzalez’s watches are all kept in their original boxes, although they do show signs of love and wear. “I love wristwatches and am so lucky that I’ve played in lots of tournaments where watches are the prizes,” he says. “I’ve played the Cartier Snow Polo World Cup in St Moritz six times and won it four. I have seven Cartiers including three Santos and two Ballon Bleus. My wife wears them too. I was given a Rolex for winning a tournament by the team owner and a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso for winning the Dutch Open. But my interest in watches started with my father’s Rolex Datejust. He knew I was keen on it and promised that when I reached seven goals he would give it to me. He kept his word and I still wear it today – it’s probably my favourite piece.”
Another British player, 26-year-old Max Charlton, is proving to be a bit of a draw for sponsors such as Land Rover. “A local architect was working on our house in Chobham. He owned a polo club and he invited me to have a lesson when I was about 11,” Charlton says of his route into polo. I loved it straight away – it gives you everything: horses, competition… everything.
“It takes a lot of time, money and effort. I got hooked and – as with any sport – it is stepping stones. You don’t have enough money at first so you have to improve, then you get a little money, invest it and get better mounted and then you improve some more and get a little more money… it’s a snowball effect. Sponsorship is rare because the sport is so niche but polo is perfectly suited to watches, elite cars and travel brands.”
Land Rover in particular, has been involved in equestrian sports for decades and with polo for the past few years. As Charlton’s favourite car brand, he was delighted to be asked to become an ambassador for them especially because of the amount of work the brand dedicates to the sport he loves. “They ask for very little in return for their personal support,” he says. “I occasionally get asked to host events and to explain the game of polo, but for me that is enjoyable. The other day I had to give a lesson to rugby player Jason Robinson, which was great fun.”
But outside of the fun part of the job, Charlton says that the polo life is a hard one. “It is 24/7 and you can never really get away,” he confesses. “We play 12 months a year and if you’re not in a season, you’re planning for the next one. Generally, when I go to a team in the UK I go mounted, so I am responsible for making sure I have the best horses as this reflects the jobs I will get. At the end of each season, I have a budget to spend on horses and I usually look for about three or so to replace my bottom ones. I have about 16 or 17 and they are not cheap, so that’s a lot of equity in horses.”
At 36, new father Tom Morley is a veteran. “I started playing at 10 years old,” he says. “My father managed a farm and the owner had his own polo team. After my A levels, I took a gap year, in which I played polo and I decided that I wanted to carry on with that. I turned professional at 19 and have travelled the world doing a job I love, meeting some amazing people from all walks of life along the way.
“Now I work permanently with Simon, but before that I would travel for up to seven months a year in Argentina, America, New Zealand, Australia, Barbados – it was wonderful.”
About eight years ago, Morley started to build a relationship with Arber, which led to him helping to organise the teams. “The great thing about Emsworth is the facilities,” he says. “Most of the team is here year-round, the fields are amazing, as are the stables and, of course, the horses. It is great being based here permanently, especially now I have a child.”
And although he doesn’t have a love of watches per se, Morley does have an appreciation for nice things. He may not know the mechanical intricacies behind them but he is grateful for the watches that he does have. “I love this one,” he says, showing me the Cartier Ballon Bleu on his wrist. “I won it playing polo, and I also have a Santos that I acquired the same way.” But one piece that is extra special to Morley is the Benson pocket watch that was a gift from his parents for his 21st birthday.
This piece he reserves for the many evening events that come along with his job. “Although my daywear is casual and practical,” he says, “I like to dress correctly for smarter occasions. I remember being at a black-tie party a few years ago and thinking that people had paid more for their tickets than I had for my suit. This was a wake-up call and so I had a bespoke tux made – the perfect home for my Benson.”