ore famous nowadays for its vibrant cultural scene and world-renowned artist Banksy, the city of Bristol in South-West England had a long history of being one of Britain’s great industrial heartlands. Among the most illustrious names emanating from this teeming hub of manufacturing activity was Fears Watch Company.
Founded in 1846 by Edwin Fear, during the heyday of British horology, the company grew to employ 100 watchmakers, producing hundreds of thousands of watches, and exporting to 95 countries. For 130 years, through three generations of the founding family, it prospered, surviving two world wars and the Great Depression before finally closing its doors in 1976. But unlike so many watch manufacturers, it wasn’t the ‘quartz crisis’ that caused the company’s decline. “It was actually due to the third managing director retiring, and his son – my great-grandfather – not wanting to continue the business,” says Nicholas Scargill-Bowman, the great-great-great-grandson of Edwin Fear.
- Since 2016, Nicholas Scargill-Bowman has been busy reviving the watch brand founded by his great-great-great-grandfather, Edwin Fear.
Having worked as an apprentice at Rolex in London, Bowman-Scargill re-launched the family company in Bristol in 2016, follwing four decades in obscurity. He became its fourth managing director at the age of 29. It may sound like a familiar story: a defunct legacy watch brand being rediscovered and rebooted, usually by investors, industry veterans, or deep-pocketed collectors. And it is often a risky venture that ends in failure, as Europa Star reported last year.
- Vintage timepiece from the Fears Watch Company with rolled gold case, circa 1946
Only this time, Bowman-Scargill has a different story arc. Unlike brands that artificially conjure up a sense of heritage, he is the true heir to a lost dynasty. The success or failure of Fears’ revival means more to him than a business. As he so aptly says, “That’s my family name on the dial.”
Unlike brands that artificially conjure up a sense of heritage, he is the true heir to a lost dynasty. The success or failure of Fears’ revival means more to him than a business.
Starting with the Fears archive was an important first step for Bowman-Scargill. However, with not much remained in the family’s possession, he had to build it from scratch six years ago. “I believe when you are lucky to have a business that has such an extensive heritage, you have to pay respect to that,” he says. On top of it, the fortunes of reviving Fears have not been handed to him on a silver plate. There has been no outside investment, no powerful industry network, and then there was the small matter of a global pandemic just as he was finding his feet.
Nevertheless, the revitalised Fears brand has been making progressive strides. Its inaugural collection was a quartz model, which served to validate the brand and design in the market. A mechanical series followed in 2017. Each product exudes style and centres around “quality of design, finishing, and materials”. As Bowman-Scargill says, “it’s very powerful to acknowledge what your special niche is and focus on that.” The company also believes in what he calls “good capitalism”, pursuing sustainable business practices and consciously choosing to work with family-run suppliers.
Six years on, these principles appear to be paying dividends. According to Bowman-Scargill, “the business has doubled in size for three years in a row”. Producing mechanical watches in the £3,000 range, Fears now employs seven people between two locations with annual output projected to reach 600. Later this year, it plans to open its first workshop, re-establishing assembly in its original home of Bristol.
- Advertisement for the centenary of the company in 1946
Bowman-Scargill is proud of Fears’ distinguished history, but he has his own vision for the brand. “What if Fears had never closed in 1976 and it kept on going? What would it have become?” he explains, “I looked back at what Fears used to do, and what their position in the market was, and figured what I wanted to continue. That, for me, is how the company operates, also what we design and what we make. So, it’s not about looking at the past and going, ‘oh, let’s recreate this vintage piece’. It’s about looking at the DNA of the company and of the design. And with those two things thinking ‘What’s the modern equivalent?’ I think that’s difficult to do, but it’s more exciting.”
“What if Fears had never closed in 1976 and it kept on going? What would it have become?”
Having established the product codes in-house, Fears’ focus is very much on strengthening its core collection. Collaboration is rarely entertained. “We try to stay clear of it,” Bowman-Scargill explains, “because I’m very protective and very strict on how we make bespoke watches.” That said, a special occasion has called for an exception. The first watch for the Alliance of British Watch & Clock Makers is a collaboration between Fears and Christopher Ward called Alliance 01. The goal of this watch is to raise funds for the Alliance, with all proceeds going to support its efforts in promoting British watch and clock making to the world.
- The first watch for the Alliance of British Watch & Clock Makers is a collaboration between Fears and Christopher Ward called Alliance 01.
The Alliance 01 timepiece is a limited edition of 50 and is only available to club members of the Alliance, as Europa Star shared the news here. Although the development process was nerve-wracking, Bowman-Scargill is proud of the result. “This watch is not something we would have created and yet it feels 100% Fears for me. I think it’s very clever, and I think it’s because [the Christopher Ward team] took the time to really understand Fears. They weren’t even asking me about watches. They were just trying to get into my head and see Fears through my eyes. And I think that’s clever. Difficult, but clever.”
As a founding member of the Alliance, the collaboration has a higher purpose for Fears, demonstrating how British brands can create synergy through sharing technical knowledge and expertise. It also aligns the company’s ambitions with the resurgence in British watchmaking. “I think now it’s about how we grow the company to be an example, not just in the watch industry, but also in terms of all young businesses,” says Bowman-Scargill.
- Pocket watch with Breguet style numerals, circa 1910s
Fears’ fourth leader is hoping the path he is paving will turn into a long road. “Every morning when I walk to the office in Bristol, I actually walk past the Arnos Vale Cemetery where the previous managing directors, my relatives, are buried. And it’s just a nice little subtle reminder that, ok, I restarted Fears, but I’m just the temporary custodian of the company. So, I have to be thinking, how will this company outlive me? That’s important every day to remember that and make decisions that will last fifty years, not five years.”
If Bowman-Scargill is successful, Fears may once again enter the history books, joining Banksy as one of Bristol’s most beloved exports.