hase Fancher’s story of how he created his watch brand, Oak & Oscar
, might sound familiar in 2017. Unhappy with his day job (real estate), Fancher quit to pursue his passion, and managed to bring his vision for a small, independent brand to fruition. What’s unique about this story, though, is that Oak & Oscar has very quickly become one of the most unique watch brands in an otherwise crowded micro-brand segment
, despite only having released two limited-edition watches in the two years since it started.
Fancher’s first watch — a three-hander inspired by Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham — sold out in less than a year, while his second — a mechanical GMT named after Scottish engineer Sandford Fleming — went in less than seven months. Now, Fancher is currently working on his next release, due later this year. I sat down with Fancher at his Chicago studio to talk about starting a watch brand from scratch, and the ways Oak & Oscar has been able to successfully stand out in an ever-expanding group of small brands.
Q: Why did you decide to start Oak & Oscar?
It started with the hatred of my day job. It was a good company to work for, they were good at what they do, but I couldn’t stand the corporate lifestyle — everything down to the business-casual wear. It just didn’t fit with who I was as a person. In combination, I wanted to spend more time with my wife, with my future kid and my dog, Oscar. It really came down to not having the freedom to do what I wanted and when I wanted. I don’t mean that in a selfish way, but I had to fight to go to my kid’s checkups, for example. And as a father before anything else, I struggled with that. So it really came down to wanting to do something on my own and combining that with a love of watches, product design, marketing and putting it into something I could really be proud of.
Q: You have a pretty loyal following of watch enthusiasts. How were you able to cultivate that despite being such a young brand?
I’ve been surprised with the very true relationships [that have developed]. Not just with the people I work with but with the customers. Some of them have literally become my best friends. It was a very puzzling but pleasant surprise. I think they get it because they’re attracted to the genuine nature of what I do, as a family man and as a watchmaker just trying to make something that’s good. People know I’m just trying to do something cool here. I’m not in it for corporate backing or anything like that. I don’t try to overhype anything, I don’t say we’re the best at anything, and I try to be clear that I do the best I can with what I make. I do Oak & Oscar because it’s a real passion of mine and it’s really, really fun.
Q: A lot of new American micro-brands bill themselves on using American-made parts. How do you balance the baggage of being an American watch brand that relies on some overseas parts from Switzerland and Asia?
It’s a really interesting balance, and I don’t believe there’s a single company that could say they’re fully American made, though a couple are getting close. That’s their strategy and business practice and that’s awesome. But, for me, I’m not trying to make the most American watch. I’m just trying to make the best watch I can, and more likely than not that involves parts from overseas. We have a global market, I think it’s impractical and ends up being a waste of money to pay more for something that’s likely lesser quality. I see better value in making something well made. I think a lot of the savvy customers understand that even their big, five-digit watches are made with parts from Asia. And maybe it’s more about educating the rest of the watch industry that they make really good stuff [over there].
Q: What was it like pivoting from an office job to designing a line of products with such a cohesive design language?
It’s important to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. I can tell people what I want it to have, what I don’t want it to have, but I can’t go and make all of those things happen on a computer screen. I’ll be honest, I can’t do that. As for the design, it was a design I had in my head and what I liked — I didn’t try to give it any sort of look. It’s an odd position to be put in where you’re mostly working on Excel sheets and move to a position that’s about aesthetic. But it’s been a phenomenal experience to have something come from my head and turn into something people appreciate and love, that they buy to give to their kids someday or buy for weddings, anniversaries, promotions and big life events. For example, Daniel Burnham’s family reached out to me. Unfortunately, I had sold out of the Burnhams and I didn’t have a watch to give them, but I did make three prototypes and now one is in the Burnham family, which is just nuts.
Q: As someone who has quickly become successful in a space as crowded as micro-brands, what advice do you have to give to other would-be watch makers?
I have a very optimistic viewpoint of Oak & Oscar. The way I look at it is, “I hope I’m lucky enough to make another watch.” The most recent model that I released is loved by the watch community and I get the opportunity to make another one. I can’t sit back and rest on the successes of the first and second watch. Each time I go to design a new piece it needs to be just as special as every piece before. When it comes to the micro-brand world, it is super crowded. There are a whole bunch of different people coming out with new “stuff.” Some good, some bad. I think the biggest thing I could give advice on, and it doesn’t matter what you’re making: Do something special. Do something that’s genuine to you. Don’t do it to make a quick buck, and stand behind what you’re trying to sell.