Chase Fancher isn’t messing around.
The founder of Chicago-based Oak & Oscar has just finished showing off the independent watch brand at a series of fairs. I’m sitting next to him and his collaborator, a designer named John Hatherly, in a small coffee shop in the Flatiron district of Manhattan two weeks after the duo showed for the first time at our very own WatchTime New York.
The two could pass for brothers: both have strong beards only a few shades of red apart from each other, and can speak eloquently on the brand’s ambitions and intentions at a moment’s notice. They also might be related at some point in the future — Hatherly is dating Fancher’s sister-in-law.
While they should be exhausted after a hectic few weeks, both men seem at ease: it’s been a little over a month since the launch of their latest watch — the Jackson Flyback Chronograph — that marks the independent brand’s most complicated timepiece yet. It all started with the Burnham in 2015, a time-and-date only watch that grabbed attention thanks to its trademark sandwich dial and gunmetal gray and orange aesthetic. In 2016, Fancher continued with the Sandford, an attractive GMT model that sold out almost instantly. This year’s Jackson Flyback Chronograph marks the culmination of Fancher and his team’s work so far, their watch development an ever-continuing process that shows no sign of slowing down.
“I think it’s Oak & Oscar stepping up our game and really showing what we’re about, especially when it comes to making no little plans,” he tells me. “It’s about doing something that is unexpected that makes people sit back and say ‘Wow, I really respect that because that’s a big boy watch.’”
During our conversation, Fancher kept going back to the proverb, “Make no little plans.” It comes from a quote by the American architect Daniel Burnham — the namesake of the first Oak & Oscar watch — that impacts every part of Fancher’s life. When he wanted to move away from the corporate world, he stepped into the watch business — an industry not known for being exactly forgiving towards newcomers — and self-funded the entire project himself. When he wanted to take his watch brand to the next level, he didn’t make just any chronograph: he made a flyback, column-wheel chronograph with a 60 hour power reserve and a stacked register at 3 o’clock.
With Fancher’s bulldog-like tenacity and horological creativity, it’s no surprise that Oak & Oscar has taken a leading role among American independent watchmakers in such a short time frame. Read on to see the rest of our conversation and find out what’s coming next for Chase Fancher and Oak & Oscar.
What did you do before entering the watch industry?
Before this, I was in commercial real estate consulting for a Big Four firm in Chicago and it just wasn’t something I liked, or was inspired by, or passionate about. I didn’t want to work just to retire.
So is that why you started a watch brand?
Yes. It’s cliche, but very true. My wife and I wanted to have a kid and I knew that I wanted to be there for him. I wanted to go to doctor’s appointments and soccer or art or whatever. My dad didn’t have the ability to do that since he was always in the office. He and I are very close today and he’s told me that when he looks back he wishes he didn’t have to do that. I wanted to make sure that if I had to be away from my family it would be for something that I love.
How do you personally define Oak & Oscar? Is it a micro-brand? An independent?
I think right now we straddle in between the two. At WatchTime New York we were the youngest and smallest brand, surrounded by A. Lange & Söhne and Grand Seiko and the like, and then at some of the other fairs — where it’s all about accessibility and the brands coming out there are in the smaller micro-world — we felt kind of like veterans. It’s an interesting world that we straddle. It’s a good thing in fact. We have the ability to be small and nimble but also lucky enough to play in the world of independent status. And we’re still defining what exactly it means to be micro or independent. I think for me, the number one goal for Oak & Oscar over the next few years is to continue making awesome watches for people. We’ve been lucky and had an amazing amount of humbling success and that to me is unimaginable. I quit the day job to do this and it’s working. It’s like woah, I get to do this full time. We need to figure out where to go from here and we’re lucky to have those options.
Where does your design inspiration come from? From the orange and gray color scheme to the sandwich dial in the Sandford and Burnham, it’s immediately recognizable.
When it comes to the color scheme, it’s as simple as that those are the colors I’m drawn to. You could take a look in my suitcase and you’d see that almost every shirt is navy or gray and all the accent colors are either orange or brown. It’s just colors I’m naturally drawn towards and they inherently go well together: orange, gray, navy. When it comes to the sandwich dial, I absolutely love depth in a dial and a sandwich structure allows for that. I love the fact that you have this watch face and normally it goes up or it’s painted but this goes down and becomes its own little world within the dial. And that’s the same thing we did with the Jackson, we wanted to create that same depth factor, so we did the raised indices. And that for me, is the most important because we aren’t just looking at the watch for the time, or for the beauty of it, so much of it also is what adds up to the beauty. It adds that extra intrigue with the shadow play. It’s just really fun.
Were you influenced by any specific watch designers or time periods in the industry?
One thing that people tell me is that my watch has its own personality, it has its own unique flavor. It’s inherently Oak & Oscar. It’s distinct. But at the same time it looks like it’s already been around for 60 years. Like why didn’t someone design that already? So for me it’s about making that classic timepiece with a modern reflection. There’s no singular time period I’m really inspired by, but it’s more so what do I like? And for the Jackson chronograph, with its two-register construction, I really like the symmetry of its design. Was there a phase in history where two register chronos were really popular? Absolutely. But I also like having the information — the hours and minutes — of a three register so I was lucky to find a movement with a stacked register at 3 o’clock. The design comes into it but functionality is also very important. Having that preference for the symmetry of the two register but adding in the extra stacked register to me was very vital. That wasn’t spawned off of a design cue but off of a natural preference for it. So there isn’t a key designer or reference that we adhere to, it’s just what’s internal. Now that we’ve done three models we’ve really begun to clearly develop what is the Oak & Oscar design language. We have a lot of other ideas and ways to continue our visual aesthetic in order to keep with the brand appeal.
How have your goals evolved over the years?
For the first watch, the vision was “Holy shit, I hope this doesn’t fail.” For the next one, it was definitely a little less puckering. With the launch of the Sandford, it was really exciting to be able to launch a GMT because I just always loved GMTs. It was an amazing thing for me to say, “OK the Burnham did well, now I get to make this watch with a complication that is probably my favorite ever.” And then that did very well!
And now with the Jackson, I feel like making a chronograph is on its own a major step for a micro-brand — an American independent brand if you will — then having it be a flyback, column-wheel, sixty hour power reserve with a stacked register at 3 o’clock, it just keeps upping the ante of doing more than what’s expected. We live by “Make no little plans” in the sense that we aren’t here to push something into the market that is simple and safe. We’re here to do something that hasn’t really been done before.
So you aren’t necessarily going to stick to the one watch a year model?
I don’t know. These are all things we get to explore and decide. Frankly, one thing that is frustrating about having one limited watch per year is having that — and this is a lucky thing — for half the year, I have to respond to a ton of emails: “I’m sorry, we don’t have anymore in stock and no we aren’t going to make that again.” It does get disheartening when you have to continuously tell people: “No we don’t have that watch anymore, you can find them on the secondary market.” I hate that because there are guys that absolutely love what we’re doing but they can’t be part of it because there are no more to buy. So I don’t know if that means we’ll do something where there is always a staple piece available. I think that’s a good idea and it’s something that we are going to explore, but I can promise you that we will always have some sort of limited-edition watch because I love the idea of knowing that there are only a 100 of the PVD Jacksons out there. It’s just really fun.
Watch journalism is changing rapidly. Where have you found the most support over the years? Social media, online forums, blogs, or traditional watch magazines?
I think the easiest answer is everywhere. I get people all the time saying I see you in this magazine, or on this forum, or online, or this, that, and the other. They’ll tell me: “Your PR firm must be amazing.” They don’t realize that it’s all me. It’s literally me. I don’t sleep much. But, if I had to pick one as the forefront for our success, it would have to be Instagram followed by the really respected watch publications.
What is one watch you would never part with?
That’s tough because I’ve made three of them. If we really want to be super sentimental, I have my grandfather’s old Hamilton that was in my pocket when my son was born. I wasn’t wearing it but I had it with me. It’s a very sentimental piece and I don’t think it has any value monetarily so I would have no reason to sell it. I don’t sell many watches. I fall in love with them, keep them, and don’t sell them. I have a Nivada Grenchen Datomaster that is one of only 10 or 11 known. I get offers on it all the time and I don’t know if I can say I would never sell it, but I don’t plan on it.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the watch industry today?
Lack of transparency and greed. There’s so many big brands that are trying to ask for way too much money when I know for a fact that they shouldn’t be. I’m very proud of the fact that we use a lot of the same factories and that we charge a crap ton less. We’re very lean and very transparent about what we do.
What advice do you have for younger micro-brands that are just getting started?
First of all, make sure it’s something that you want to do, that you’re passionate about it, and you aren’t in it for the wrong reasons. Make sure it’s a product that you’re proud of. You can’t sit there and talk about something that you don’t like. People can quickly tell if you have a lack of genuine care for what you’re doing. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn your lessons and always know that people out there know more than you do, but find a way to get there too.