The Modern Watchmaker

Posted on by Lizzie Watson

I suspect that in the history of British watchmaking and design, there has never been quite such a charismatic, thoroughly modern watch maker as Nicholas Bowman-Scargill. Five decades after its demise, Nicholas has re-established Fears watches, following in the footsteps of original business brainchild - his great-great-great grandfather Edwin Fear.

The Fears Watch Company was founded during Queen Victoria's first decade on the throne, 1846, in a workshop located at 33-35 Redcliff Street in Bristol, England. Business ran for 110 years and with its re-establishment, is one of Britain's oldest family-run watch companies today. Nicholas' story is a marvellous one, and whereas he has ensured the same values and design principles Fears represented years ago, he has created a modern watch that's elegant and refined, with 'graceful yet purposeful function.' Only Nicholas could marriage those early mid-Victorian designs with 21st century ones, and the result is breathtaking.

Releasing its first wristwatch in the 21st century last year – the Redcliff is a lovely nod towards the Fears watches of the 1940s/50s, its hands, still the same historic shape, are now filled with Super-LumiNova luminance.

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The Brunswick too (making its debut this year) has a secret modern twist: majority made in the UK, and finished by hand, the watch hands are 'skeletonised' with a hollow central section; they are thermally blued using intense heat to give them a deep rich blue colour. Fears offers the personalised engraving by a master engraver in Mayfair, London, as well as a cleverly designed, easy-release mechanism to allow you to change the strap and choose from a wide range of beautiful leather varieties.
Coming out as gay aged 13 and being very matter of fact about his dyslexia, only gives you a more rounded picture of this thoroughly modern and brilliantly British designer and maker of watches. Nicholas' unfaltering passion for his business, combined with his huge determination for success, has given him a solid foundation upon which to design a watch that has walked right into its niche market with ease. 

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Over the sound of tea cups and saucers chinking, and a delectable pastry laden with sugar dusting, everything about my meeting with Nicholas was a pleasure. He told me how he had come to discover such an exciting part of his own family's history and heritage that planted the seeds for his own incredible success.

Can you remember your very first watch?
"I remember very clearly being about 6 or 7 years old and getting my first ever watch, which was a 'learn how to tell the time' watch on a bright blue strap, and it was a Timex. All my friends were given these at the same sort of time, so it was everybody's first watch. The blue strap meant it had a battery powered movement, and if it was on a red strap it meant that you had to wind it up. In the early 90's, the blue strap quartz one was considered the better watch and amongst my friends, that was really cool, whereas the mechanical one with the red strap wasn't – which is bizarre, because now it’s the other way around. It’s a good thing I'm not trying to sell to 6-year old's!
Once I started working – I had a Saturday job at a department store when I was 16 - I saved up for two years to buy a beautiful Swiss made, mechanical Omega SeaMaster watch. All my friends asked me why I would spend that sort of money on a watch. For me being interested in watches at that time was a niche, weird, geeky thing to do, and as far as they were concerned, I'd put my money into something random! Nowadays, of course, people regularly save up and buy expensive watches, because they're a cool thing."

Tell me about your life and work before Fears;
"I went to university and did a degree in economics and took an internship, but when I graduated in July 2008 it was just as the economy was crashing, so I had to step back and think, 'right, what else can I do?'
At university, I'd spent a lot of time working with various societies doing all their press and publicity, so I went into marketing and I started working for a PR agency in London. It was a scary time to join because a third of the workplace were being let go, and whilst people were being made redundant, I was kept on – perhaps because of my hard work, but most likely because I was the cheapest person they employed!
During Christmas 2010, my husband and I sat down with a piece of paper and I wrote down what I'd like to do. Being dyslexic, I didn't want to have a job that involved lots of writing, but I also wanted to do something practical, so 'watches' was one of the words I wrote down and the other was 'trains'. I researched both, and despite my long love of trains, I preferred the sound of working in a workshop as a watchmaker. I researched big watchmaking companies that have a base in the UK, because I didn’t want to move to Switzerland, and that was when my mother said, "oh you had some relatives who used to be watchmakers." At that time, that was all she said, and I thought, "oh it's in the blood," but nothing more."

You worked for Rolex for a while, how did you get into that?
"When I was about 11, I realised what a Rolex was and was fascinated by how they were made. After my decision to venture into watchmaking, I wrote Rolex a two-page covering letter explaining why this was my natural career progression, and after 7 months of assessments and interviews, they eventually gave in and said, "fine, we'll take this PR-boy on and give him a job!"
I couldn't have asked for better; it was a fantastic job and I lived just around the corner."

What made you want to leave?
"After a few years of working there you realise that after you’ve finished your apprenticeship, you go on to being a watchmaker, and then there's only one Master watchmaker – and you only get his job once he's died off, so it's very old school. I've always wanted to get on. For me 100% is not good enough – it's got to be more than that."

This is the exciting question Nicholas – when did you discover the family Fears business!?
"So, one weekend back home, I was chatting with my parent's and I said 'look, I'm enjoying my work, but I feel like I can do more with my life.' And as my mum was serving up the roast potatoes, she jokingly said, 'well why don’t you re-start the family watch business?' I'm glad I wasn't holding those roast potatoes as I would have dropped them on the floor!
When people talk about 'eureka moments', this was it. Everything froze and a big lightbulb came on!
I assumed they were one-man-band makers, but as my mother explained I was excited to discover that they were managing directors of the West of England's largest watch manufacturing company. So, from then on, every weekend and every evening, was spent researching the old business and I discovered that Fears used to export to, as their old advert said - 95 foreign and colonial countries."

Was there ever any doubt that this was the next step in your career?
"I felt such a need to do this, but I'd never run a business, never produced anything, never trademarked anything. I went to the library and read every book I could find on how to run a business and how to write a business plan. I'm a big believer in doing things for yourself and funding came entirely from my husband and I; we stopped going on expensive holidays and eating out. It would have cost me £30,000 to have technical watch drawings made in Switzerland; that was my entire start-up budget, so I spent some of my money on a 20-week night course at City University to learn Adobe InDesign and Illustrator so I could do those technical watch drawings myself.
I've designed the brochure; after learning basic coding I've built my own website, and although it takes a lot of time, I like the fact that I can very quickly make the brand, the look of the watch, the packaging, exactly how I want them. There are always sacrifices - I don't have the same Christmas card list I did a few years ago, but the friends I have understand and know that these days Fears is number one. Yes, there's a lot to do, but I'm entirely in charge of how I do it."

What makes the Fears watch unique in its modern-day setting?
"In all my photography, you with find three unusual things about a Fears watch. The hands on a watch dial are usually set at 10:10am, or 1:50pm; this is because the hands make a smiley face; but the Fears watch hands are always set to 3:42pm, and the reason is because historically Fears watch adverts were always set like that. I have no idea why, but it's different and I like it! I've built in secret things; the second hand will always point to 46, representing 1846 when the company first started. The date is always 29, for two reasons - my age when the company relaunched, and the first day I worked a full day as managing director for Fears was a leap year; 29th February 2016. I felt I needed to commemorate the day I worked full time for myself. It will either be the most foolish thing I've ever done, or the most brilliant! If you're going to design something, you might as well give it a reason."

How important is Britishness in the design of the Fears watches and the running of the business?
"People all over the world want to buy British; it’s all about craft and engineering, not mass production. This year we released the Brunswick and the majority of it is made in East Anglia; the case of the watch is milled by an engineering firm in Suffolk and then it's hand polished by a watchmaker in Norwich. Yes, it's more expensive but it features a cold resin enamelled dial which gives it a different feel.
I've put a lot of investment and time into the watchmakers, because this is an unusual shape to make, but you get much more from a collaborative approach; I visit every workshop and supplier I outsource to. I want to trace back to the source. It's very important to me that they're family run – they understand and we have that connection. It might be more expensive, but it's worth it. It's not about price; as Warren Buffett said, 'Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.'
As for marketing the business, purely digital doesn't work, but purely traditional doesn't work either. The wonderful thing is that people discover the brand through an online article, but then after that first enquiry, I'll send them a printed brochure. This is 2017, but I'm taking them back to the 1930's by sending out a sort of ‘mail order’ catalogue. Once they've chosen the watch they want, they order form the website which brings it all back online again. I then send the watch out with a handwritten note, so for me, this is about taking the best bits."

What's your favourite watch from the Fears archive?
"The oldest watch I have in the Fears archive was one I brought on eBay, because no one in the family had any old Fears watches; they'd all been lost. This watch had a starting price of 99 pence; it had a Sterling silver case and was made in 1868, 4 years before Edwin Fear retired. When I received the watch, and I'm holding it, I had this incredible feeling. There in my hands was a watch that was made my great, great, great, grandfather, which is remarkable: He signed the movement and the case makers mark says EF, for Edwin Fear.
It felt so important and special. It's like serendipity. So many little things have happened – everything I've learnt, from my early love of watches, my university degree, my job in PR to my time with Rolex, has helped me on this Fears journey."

What does the future hold for Fears?
"Time might be valuable, but a business has got to grow and it can't if you're putting money elsewhere, so every penny I make goes back in to the product. It doesn't need to go into the hands of other designers, yet. The moment I take on investment, which I may at some point need to, I also take on other people's opinions. I was 29 when I re-established the business, and business today, particularly entrepreneurship, is all about growing and selling. The last managing directors of Fears celebrated their 50th anniversaries working in the company, so when people ask me about my exit strategy, I tell them to ask me when I'm 79 years old. But everything's changing, all of them time, and we can't have a narrow minded view of business; you have to grow and evolve, but not change for changing sake."

"The person who buys a Fears watch," Nicholas concludes, "isn't the sort of person who just goes out one day and wants to buy a watch. They're someone who actually thinks, 'you know what, I think the guy who runs Fears is a bit of an old romantic.'"

And they'd be absolutely right. With brands like Fears deep rooted in our British history, we will always have a story to tell our children's children and a product to pass on, and it will last for all the millennials to come.

To learn more about the Fears Watch Company, click here.