Retail and marketing veteran Paul Sweetenham talks to WatchPro editor James Buttery about his route to market with Farer, a premium quartz watch brand with vintage flair.
You might have heard of Paul Sweetenham’s previous venture into the watch industry. He invested in the foundation of Shore Projects, the stylish, minimalist watch brand that continues to cut a swath through the sector with its quick-change strap concept that offers myriad different looks for minimal outlay.
Sweetenham is a veteran of US retail giant TJX, the company behind TK Maxx, and Arcadia and is chairman and investor in a marketing and communications company called OtherWay, making him ideally suited to creating a compelling brand story as well as making it succeed at retail. But before all of that, some 30 years ago, Sweetenham was a watch buyer in the travel retail sector back when, as he describes it, ‘duty free was still luxury’.
While he admits that the success of Shore Projects served to encourage his interest in Farer, it was a desire to tackle a new brand at a more premium position that attracted him most to the project, saying: “I had a latent desire to do this with my partners Ben [Lewin], Jono [Shore Projects’ co-founder Jono Holt] and Stew [Stewart Finlayson].
“It’s not often you get people of a like-mind who want to do the same thing; hence we decided to scratch that itch and go off into, clearly not top-of-the-range, but a more premium position and certainly one with elasticity as the business develops.”
Farer pitches its brand as ‘watches for the modern adventurer’ with a collection of clearly vintage-inspired quartz pieces with brightly coloured hands and a bronze crown adding modern highlights. Some pieces in the collection feature either small seconds or a GMT hand.
“The bronze crown is completely unique,” adds Sweetenham. “It wasn’t an inspiration from anywhere, I couldn’t see one commercially available watch with a crown in counter-colour to the main case. The only place I saw it was a watch on the internet with a worn-out crown, where the plating had come away and I saw the contrast and thought it looked fantastic.”
The watches are premium through their aesthetic, the materials used and the fact that the watches have been designed from the ground up, with no off-the-shelf components used aside from their movements. The design process took five months while it took a further 14 months to create the finished products.
“It is a different market and I would say Shore Projects and our established competitors Larsson & Jennings and Daniel Wellington, they are fashion watches, although ours [Shore] might be a very high quality product in 316L stainless steel et cetera. This [Farer] is a watch watch, not a fashion watch. It is a proper watch built with one of the very limited, exclusive partners that constructs these things in Switzerland,” he adds.
“We’re influenced by a couple of things, not overtly but in the peripheral. A brand called Universal Geneve [the word Universal sits under the Farer name on the watch dials] which in my opinion is probably the brand we all wish was still alive today. Their design and flair was incredible. And then a desire to bring back the curved dial rather than the market obsession of the flat and flange look that all of the premium brands seem to adopt and bring back a domed glass.”
One important lesson that Sweetenham has learned during his time in retail is the importance of brand integrity and how to preserve it through carefully selecting retail partners. Farer will launch with Selfridges in London as well as direct sales through its own website and, for the moment, Sweetenham sees that as enough.
“Not that it’s the same model for Shore [Projects] at all, but with Shore we’ve been very, very, very selective about who we’ve gone with – Selfridges, Libertys, it’s just opened in Harrods today, Bloomingdales, Nordstrom – people who are not going to mess around with brand integrity and retail value of the product. We intend to do as diligent, if not even more so, a job with Farer. We’re very experienced brand building people, if not the most experienced horologists, although I’ve been active in buying and selling watches in the classic world for 30 years or so. I think brand integrity is really very important, so for us to build up a community and a following, we will want to do that with very few partners and mainly direct.”
Sweetenham describes the potential damage that brands can face without a selective retail policy as ‘huge’, saying: “Ours is a distribution about wanting to get a like-minded consumer, it’s inclusive – Farer by definition is called Universal – we are trying to encourage everyone to participate in the Farer story but we want the story to be authentic and real and you’ve got to work hard as a brand owner to make sure no-one damages that.”
Farer is marketing the longevity and premium construction of its watches, the idea of a watch as an heirloom possession.
“When I was 25 my first possession might have been an Oris or a Bell & Ross. For a person of that age today, those brands are well beyond their economic reach. We want to bring back innovative design products into that price point. But it’s a possession, one mustn’t take lightly the fact that between £300 and £500 is not cheap.”
So Farer will launch with Selfridges and direct online sales. Its watch designs are certainly eye-catching and attractively priced considering those of the brand most easy to draw comparison with, namely Detroit-based Shinola. But what does Sweetenham have planned for the future?
“The watch case has been specifically designed to take future ETA and other Swiss automatic movements. But we feel that the right thing to do is put a foot in the water with an affordable watch. To a large part of the consumer market there is no distinction between a quartz and mechanical, but I have a total desire to do mechanical. Our longer term dream is to bring back UK watch manufacturing at an affordable price. Bremont have done a great job but it’s not everyone that can afford one of their watches.”
Grand plans indeed.