Time and Design, for Less

3 Young Companies Reinventing the Fashion Watch


September 13, 2016 Watches By
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The term “fashion watch” has a negative connotation with watch enthusiasts, conjuring up images of a department store jewelry case stuffed with anonymous, chintzy-looking watches, likely powered by a low-rent quartz movement. Odds are these are cheap watches, not made to particularly good (at least in the eyes of a watch nerd) finish or quality, that will likely be tossed once the battery dies, or replaced on a whim.

But let’s take a minute to understand the merits of the so-called fashion watch. Not everyone who buys a watch is a “Watch Idiot Savant.” Not everyone cares about obscure complications or in-house manufacturing. Not everyone wants to spend thousands on a timepiece. Many simply want an attractive watch to tell the time and look nice on the wrist. And that’s wonderful — but it shouldn’t by design be paired with low quality and uninspired design.

That is where small, young watch brands come in. Many use wonderful movements from respected manufacturers, be they high-end quartz or mechanical. But their main appeal comes from their penchant for attractive designs and affordable prices, sans the fuddy-duddy associations of horology and old-world watchmaking. In many ways they seek to deliver what fashion-watch buyers look for — simplicity, style and affordability — and just do it better, offering more nuanced designs and higher build quality.

We spoke with the founders of three of our favorite young, style-forward watch brands and asked them what inspires their product and their designs. Some, understandably, don’t like to consider themselves “fashion watch” brands because of the negative implications. But what they’ve done is reinvented the concept, and invigorated the market of affordable wrist wear.

Oliver Fowles, Co-Founder of Uniform Wares

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Founded in 2009, Uniform Wares makes minimalist two-hand, three-hand and chronograph watches for men and women, utilizing Swiss quartz movements from Ronda and ETA. Prices start at $300, topping out at $1,175.

Why did you decide to start a watch company?

When we started seven years ago there were no timepieces available that we wanted to wear — something refined, well designed and manufactured that was a contemporary timepiece…something in between a Mondaine and a NOMOS, that was rooted in being a premium contemporary brand, that was progressive, and with whom we could identify. In men’s and women’s fashion you have everyday premium brands like APC, Common Projects, JWA and Margiella, that we wore and connected with because they eschewed old luxury. There was nothing like that in the horological world.

There is a big market of fashion watches out there — some good, some not so good. So how do you and other brands like yours stand out in a crowded market?

Ensuring we’re in control of every element is important — from design and development in our London office, to the 20+ manufacturers with whom we work individually to produce each element of the collection. Most of our partners produce watch parts for brands whose watches retail in four- and five-figure territory. It’s our devotion to producing what we believe to be a great watch that resonates with these partners, and why they choose to work with us and not others.

To you, does the look of the watch matter more or less than the movement?

We design each watch starting with the movement, which is always Swiss-made with jeweled bearings and all-metal components. It’s important to us that the watch is considered inside and out. There are plenty of brands who don’t take designing a watch seriously, using stock parts, inadequate movements, or plagiarizing the aesthetic or concept of another brand. We’ve observed it all. They don’t really register on our radar, or our customers’ for that matter.

John Tarantino, Founder of Martenero

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Martenero launched its first watch in early 2014 and currently sells five different three-hand models — each customizable with different dials, hands and straps, and each powered by a Miyota automatic movement. Prices start at $495 and go up to $595.

Describe to me your design language, and what dictated it.

Creating clean, modern designs that stand apart through balanced design subtle details. Never showy or over the top, and creating well-designed pieces that people can enjoy wearing in a variety of settings. These things very closely mirror my own personal taste in watches, which existed far earlier than I started the brand. I’ve never had a taste for things that are designed to draw attention to themselves, or things that look at all generic.

There is a big market of fashion watches out there — some good, some not so good. So how do you and other brands like yours stand out in a crowded market?

I don’t consider us a “fashion” watch brand. When I hear that term, I think of brands that are more focused on branding and marketing, while the quality of the product becomes secondary.

As far as standing out, though — especially when your watch isn’t going to be the biggest and boldest — it’s a matter of trying to get every single little thing right: the size, the colorways, the proportions, the details, the construction. Every non-movement component is also originally designed by us — no stock parts. So if every piece is originally designed, very well thought out and executed upon, you hopefully end up with something special.

Do you find your customers are more in it for the style, or for horology?

Many customers are buying what they consider to be their first “real” watch — something with a mechanical movement, and originally designed components. People that had traditionally worn fashion watches (as I define the term), are starting to develop an interest in horology, and are graduating to something nicer. We get some people from the watch enthusiast crowd, the types who regularly read Hodinkee. They may wear a Rolex Sub most days but also want something a little more casual, but still well designed and well made.

Paul Sweetenham, Co-Founder of Farer Watches

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Farer has only been around since 2015, but the brand already sells a few styles, utilizing quartz and automatic movements from Ronda and ETA. Prices start at $350 for a three-hander and go up to $1,075 for their Automatics line.

Describe to me your design language, and what dictated it.

Sixties watchmaking was typified by modestly sized watches that were focused on design details and the use of color. Farer’s design ethos is to create universal, practical and traditional watches with pops of color and detail that catch the eye and reveal themselves only on closer inspection. We design all of our watches in our studio in Piccadilly, London, before they are handmade in Switzerland using Swiss movements.

There is a big market of fashion watches out there — some good, some not so good. So how do you and other brands like yours stand out in a crowded market?

We don’t classify ourselves as a “fashion watch.” We have deliberately chosen to hearken back to the finest days of watchmaking to create timeless pieces that are not dictated by changing trends, especially the recent trend towards minimalist, Scandinavian-influenced design. A smaller 39.5mm face makes our watches suitable for men and women, our innovative strap mechanism allows you to change the look of your watch in seconds, and we use pops of color and detail to define Farer against sometimes uninteresting competitors.

To you, does the look of the watch matter more or less than the movement?

The look of our watches is of equal importance to the other elements — no single feature gains more attention than the other. We’ve always wanted to make watches that become lifelong possessions, and if you are to make something that lasts, then you need to have a great movement. Currently, for us Swiss are the best.

Do you find your customers are more in it for the style, or for horology?

Although most customers comment on the look and design of Farer watches, we have had a lot of requests to make an automatic watch — which we are in the process of perfecting ahead of launch this year. The move into automatic movements will shift our audience further into the horology world.

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