Paul Sweetenham is a busy man. The former retail executive (he spent 18 years at TK Maxx, working his way up to European president) is in the process of launching not one but three ranges of chronograph, starting last September with an ETA 2894-based automatic and continuing throughout 2019.
Farer, the brand that he co-founded in 2015, has gone from a simple set of quartz time-onlys and GMTs to offering automatics, mechanical GMTs, a supercompressor-styled 300m dive watch and, launched in spring 2018, a range of 37mm hand-wound cushion-cased watches. “We’re going to be up to 31 references by the middle of 2019,” says Sweetenham, “of which only six are quartz.” It had initially been planned to phase out the quartz watches as the brand matured, but Sweetenham says he realised the role they had to play as a ‘feeder’ model (not to mention, one suspects, good business). Last October, revisions of the Frobisher and Stark, both key quartz pieces, were released and this February sees the debut of two quartz chronographs, the Ainsdale and the Pendine.
Ah yes, those names. One of Farer’s hallmarks has been to christen all of its models after historical explorers or pioneers. The new chronos will all be named for pre-war British land speed record holders (Eldridge, Cobb and Segrave); Sweetenham says he has no problem remembering all the names – “it’s like naming a child, not that I want to have 31 children, but you really pore over the names” – and swears that his customers not only refer to the watches that way (never ‘the GMT’ or ‘the diver’) and have even been known to swot up on the historical figures.
More than unusual names, the thing that stands out as core to the Farer brand is design, specifically a generous use of colour and meticulous attention to dial construction. You’ll find multiple bright colours on nearly every model, and a range of textures and 3D surfaces across the dials. And it’s here to stay, says Sweetenham: “There are only two serious dial makers in the watch world, and I can only use one of them because of the detail we’ve put into it. Lead times have gone from four months to 14 months, and you cannot get in that queue just by rocking up. If we don’t keep up the intricacy and the detail, we lose our place.”
Some of the brand’s design flourishes – the bronze crowns, or the more adventurous colour combinations – haven’t been to everyone’s taste. But that feels like less and less of a problem as time goes on; Farer clearly has enough customers to justify the rapid expansion of models – sales are in the low thousands annually – and Sweetenham knows the value of strong brand identity.
“Ours is a detail thing. There is nothing customers love more than macro shots. It’s not intentional but our products do particularly well in Instagram posts.” Sweetenham denies the charge that Farer is a millennial watch brand – “our average customer is 40, probably older in America” – but in its approach to marketing and retail (all direct, all online, and set to reach 95 countries in 16 languages thanks to a new partnership with e-commerce platform Global-E) there is something of a model for a modern watch brand. To that you can also add a rare honesty about production and pricing: the watches are made by Rowenta Henex, a white-label firm that assembles and produces watches for dozens of major brands including Bell & Ross, and priced far below their specifications or build quality would imply. The movements are ETA, but Sweetenham is committed to the higher grades of finishing and timekeeping on offer – all are either Elaboré or Top grade.
The 37mm hand-wound costs £975, the Aqua Compressor dive watch £1,095 and the new chronograph is set to cost £1,675. “People do ask me what the catch is,” says Sweetenham. “There isn’t one. I make a very decent amount of money from the watches. We have a shrewd advertising plan, and focus our efforts on social media.” Of the eight people working for Farer – not all full-time – one is Sweetenham’s daughter, the brand’s social media manager. “You’d be amazed how big a company can get before you find anyone dedicated to social media,” says the openly Instagram-addicted Sweetenham. “It gets you to the front of the queue if you use it right; from an information point of view, [Instagram] does everything – stories, shops, video. It’s close to being the Swiss army knife of retail.” The irony is not lost: Farer’s use of digital marketing and accessible image is the fairy dust many Swiss brands are seeking, often still in vain. “We’ve just made a film of every single one of our watches. No big brand does that – it doesn’t even occur to them, despite their resources,” Sweetenham says.
He may confess to a respect for Oris and Bell & Ross, and adds that “Rolex is not a watch brand, and I say that with absolute admiration”, but for the most part is focussed on doing what the rest of the industry isn’t, including taking a different tack with his brand’s events. “We have bought a racecar – a Ford Anglia that raced at Goodwood. We’re going to hold a track day at Castle Combe where 20 customers can come and scream around to their heart’s content. In the spring, we’re going to do a driving tour to Tavannes in Switzerland, to see our watches being made.”
Cars are an obsession for Sweetenham, who used to collect Porsche 911s and recently drove his E-Type convertible to Switzerland to collect the first samples of the hand-wound model. His latest love is vintage Jaguar, about which he can rhapsodise for hours. So it’s only natural that the launch of the brand’s first chronograph is being treated with more fanfare – but it’s in the air, not on the tarmac: after our interview, he is heading off to film a recreation of the glider scene from The Thomas Crown Affair over south east England, and the quartz chronographs are launched with a visit to Pendine sands in Wales.
Despite such ‘boys own’ larks, he also admits the journey so far hasn’t always been straightforward. “It is an extremely frustrating world, and it’s complex. You have to order in minimum quantities, and forecast worldwide demand for your watches per design, per week, a year in advance.” The pressures of customer service are beginning to be felt, and he speaks compellingly about the importance of treating major collectors and first-time buyers with the same care and respect, while acknowledging that if Farer continues to grow, the challenge is finding staff that share his passion: “They’ve got to have the same pain if something goes wrong.”
For now though, things are exactly where they want them. “We’re miles ahead of where we thought we’d be three years in. You never want to get arrogant, but the response is amazing.” The next twelve months will be pivotal for the brand, as it embarks on its most ambitious phase of growth to date.
“Next year we’ll have four models, including a worldtimer. It was mentally exhausting – I don’t think I can do another watch design for about six months. The year after I imagine we’ll do very little – maybe some special editions – but we’ll go on a world tour. We’ve got a lot of requests to travel – to San Francisco, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Melbourne.” On present form, you can bet on Farer receiving a warm welcome.