Nicholas Bowman-Scargill has resurrected the family firm, FEARS watches after a multi-generational gap. And the results are rather elegant
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
It’s not at every Sunday lunch that you get told your ancestors were manging directors of a rather large British watch firm. However, this was the case for Nicholas Bowman-Scargill. Having worked for Rolex for five years he knew that there were watch makers in the family background and that watches were in some way in his blood but, until that roast luncheon, Nicholas had no idea how senior they actually were. “I had long had the itch to create and nurture my own company,” and so this realisation was the genesis for the re-birth of Fears watches.
Originally founded in 1846 by Nicholas’s great great great grandfather, Fears was, for 110 years, a Bristol-based watch manufacturer. At its peak in the early 20th century, the firm employed 100 people including 40 watch makers for servicing and repair. Given that Britain’s horological heritage has always been very small and niche, Fears had always imported its internal movements from Switzerland. Although, during the late Victorian period, Nicholas proudly notes that the firm made its own pocket watches in their entirety. This family firm came to a (temporary) end in the 1950s with changing market dynamics and a situation when, after four decades at the firm, Nicholas’s great grandfather retired and the next generation declined to take it on. “In many ways though this may have been a blessing – it was therefore not bought out or subsumed by larger conglomerates in the 1970s and 1980s. It was easy to re-activate the trade mark” Nicholas comments.
The reborn Fears is the fruition of the idea Nicholas had in 2014 and the first watches came to market at the end of 2016, after two years of research and testing. Following the family tradition, Nicholas headed to Switzerland for the manufacture of the actual watch, visiting Basel World to approach possible manufacturers. “Actually it was a very good time to be approaching the Swiss manufacturers” Nicholas recalls, “they were going through a period of flux as the Chinese market slowed and the effects of over-production were biting.” He remarks that Swiss firms were suddenly a lot more interested in small, start-up businesses – in fact he still receives emails from many seeking his business. This dis-location of the Swiss trade has continued. In 2016 the country had to reimport over $1 billion worth of watches as overcapacity and a slacker market continued.
Nicholas located a small family-run 90-year-old firm outside Basel who he now uses to make Fears watches. The internal movements are Ronda quartz rather than mechanic but, as Nicholas says, he has no desire to create an unattainable product. “A Fears now costs in the vicinity of £700, which, if you convert that to pre-decimalisation pounds, shillings and pence is what the firm’s watches have always cost. They are an aspirational, serious watch – something that can be cherished for many years. They might never have been the sort of watches owned by board members but they were – and are – the excellent, solid watch that professionals own, have serviced and look after.” Along with his Swiss team, Nicholas has sourced his straps – Indian goat’s leather from Madras – from a small second generation family firm in Belgium, while he found the packaging he wanted in Italy.
The path to resurrecting his family firm has been both oddly logical and full of slightly surprising turns. Having read Economics at the University of York, Nicholas graduated in 2008, “not exactly the finest year to enter the financial jobs market!” he smiles, looking back. Having moved into PR for three years, he then decided to pursue his passion for watches – as said earlier, he was still in the dark as to the extent of his Fears history – working for Rolex in their repair and service departments. This however gave him a thorough grounding in both the internal workings and detail of watches and in the customer relationships, front of house role he has taken on at Fears. Just as importantly, it gave him an overview of the watch world and enabled him to begin to build his own network within it.
Now a one-man brand, Nicholas visits Switzerland three to four times a year, designs all the watches himself and handles all aspects of the marketing and business. Yet this small scale allows some very personal touches – he includes a hand written note with each newly sold watch.
Nicholas currently offers one model of watch, the Redcliff – the name harking back to the Bristol street that the factory was on – with two differing faces and five strap colour combinations. Straps can very quickly be changed and Nicholas remarks many customers do either buy more than one strap or return to him for a second one.
Throughout the process, Nicholas remains keen to have the original backbone of Fears continuity running through the watch design; the logo, minute and hour hands are taken from a 1946 model, “regardless of how many models or iterations are bought out, I want certain essential points to remain, so that someone can say, ‘that’s a Fears.’” Thus far, he has found a willing and enthusiastic clientele, with 2017 starting well, although he has found most buyers are either international or not London-based thus far. Most buyers are men, by four to one, though Nicholas stresses, “I do not market it as a unisex watch per se, but I don’t use “male” when talking about it.” The watch, being simple, uncluttered and elegant certainly carries a wide appeal – especially in this era of women being drawn to larger watch faces – and the different face and strap colour combinations gives Fears a variety. That said, Nicholas mentions that, so far, a combination of a blue face and blue strap has been incredibly popular, accounting for 26 per cent of sales. It is a refined and discreet combination, “it can be worn in both smart and casual environments.”
One area that Nicholas is looking to expand and evolve in is the engraving of the watches. Using a Mayfair jeweller, 40 per cent of Fears are already engraved in some way – initialling up to four letters is currently offered. In a world of ever increasing interest in the bespoke and unique, Nicholas is looking to introduce “Fears Custom” later in the year which will expand the engraving to include coats of arms amongst other detailing. This custom service will also offer the possibility of one-off straps.
And so Fears is reborn. Nicholas is keen to grow the brand very carefully. He has no plans to offer deals or cut price sales, “this is a proper, investment watch and should be treated as such” but he has looked into various collaborations with small Bristol-based craft firms. Likewise, he rightly will not bow to the current freebie culture with bloggers and so called style influencers demanding a watch in return for coverage. “Only one watch has and ever will be given away” he says, “and this was to a senior friend in the Swiss watch industry who was indescribably helpful when I first had the idea and went to Basel World.” Nicholas recently came across an old 1950s Fears model and, when he opened up the watch, he found that the mechanism had actually been made by IWC. Times have certainly changed but there be horological history in Fears.