Oak & Oscar
So far I’ve written 10 profile stories about independent brands (two of which have yet to be published). What fascinates me about speaking to a brand owner is hearing the reasons why and how they created the brand. There is always a desire to put a little piece of where they come from in their watches, be it in the name of the brand, the design of the dial, or the place where the watches are made or assembled. Chase, the founder of Oak & Oscar, wanted to put a little bit of himself and of American history in his brand and its various models in addition to creating timepieces that could very well become one-watch collections.
Let’s find out how he did it.
Chase Fancher, Oak & Oscar's Founder
Most brand owners rarely ever start their careers in watchmaking. They typically begin their working life with a career for which they trained at university, all the while indulging a completely different and secret side hobby. Chase himself first worked as a commercial real estate consultant for many years before shifting to horology. He worked on large-scale projects that, while exciting and rewarding, devoured all of his personal time and energy. Chase realized that he was not as passionate about this work as he at first thought, and when he eventually burned out, he decided it was time for a change of pace, much to the benefit of the watch community, I must say.
Chase needed a new project that would allow him to spend more time with his family and control his time better. He also always had an affinity for managing new projects, he always had an entrepreneurial mindset, and he loved the idea of creating a brand and defining its vision. Since he was a watch collector, he naturally hit upon the idea of creating his own watch brand. At the very onset of this new effort, Chase knew he wanted to only produce high-quality timepieces that could become any collector’s one-watch collection or everyday watch.
The Humboldt GMT
You may have heard the saying that “behind every great man stands a great woman,” and that is absolutely true of any successful man that the history books tell us about. This was also true of Chase himself. From the beginning, his wife supported the idea of creating a watch brand 100 percent, so much so that they agreed that he could use their savings to build what would become Oak & Oscar.
Chase therefore had the time and financial resources to be deliberate in building the brand. Arguably, the reason why the brand produces such fine timepieces is that Chase was able to take his time. Just like any other brand owner that is successful in making good watches—and who for the most part have full-time careers and families—Chase was able to clearly delineate the brand’s visions and find the right partners who could produce high-quality parts to make robust, elegant tool watches.
When I look at their catalog and read people’s comments about Oak & Oscar, I would say that the success of the brand boils down to one word: deliberate. Chase and his cofounders very deliberately positioned themselves as an independent brand and not a microbrand. They were also deliberate in the design, the packaging (they loathe over-the-top wooden boxes and instead ship their watches in a watch wallet), and the naming of their models.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about Chase was the fact that he is not only a brand owner but a watch owner who collects watches produced by other brands. He currently owns a vintage Nivada Grenchen Datomaster, a Rolex, a couple of Omega Speedmasters, and a Nomos GMT that he bought to celebrate the success of Oak & Oscar’s first model.
Owners, Not Customers
Isn’t it nice when you are treated not as a customer number in a company roster but as an actual person with a name and a story? For Chase, those who buy an Oak & Oscar watch are owners of a piece of the brand who help communicate brand messaging to the outside world and not just customers. By buying an Oak & Oscar watch, they became the rightful owners of a refined piece of mechanical engineering that they wear with pride and take great pleasure looking at several times a day and using to tell the time. This approach says a lot about Chase and how he sees the watch world, as a community of which we are all equal parts. It also shows that Chase designs his watches to actually be used rather than sitting in a drawer.
Owners are so important to Chase and the brand that they created a dedicated section of their website to share stories they receive from people who own an Oak & Oscar timepiece. One story, for example, highlights the experience of a commercial photographer who took his watch on a road trip in California. He explains how the more he uses his equipment (camera and watch), the more he connects with it. This is the type of story we can all relate to. Another owner took his Oak & Oscar timepiece along on a culinary exploration of Thailand. Again, we can relate to the profound desire to create new experiences with one watch. I’ve taken certain watches on many adventures myself, so their stories resonate with me, even though I don’t own an Oak & Oscar.
Whether we’re looking at Apple’s CEO Tim Cook or Chase himself, the way leaders speak about their products and the ways in which they interact with their customers says a lot about them and the brand. I actually met Tim Cook for a brief moment at a work event many years ago, and although the interaction was brief, he didn’t come across as someone to whom I could pose a question. By contrast, Chase took the time to speak with me and share his story in the same way he encourages Oak & Oscar owners to share their stories. Knowing that Chase cares so much about the people who buy his watches demonstrates what’s best about horology and the watch community.
The Humboldt GMT
The Importance of Names
As I mentioned before, Chase didn’t want his watches to sound generic a la Omega or Rolex. Names such as Speedmaster or Datejust don’t say much about the watch itself except which functions it fulfills. Looking at Oak & Oscar’s catalog, we immediately notice how deliberately Chase chose names for his models. Before we get into that, however, let’s take a brief look at the name of the brand itself. The “oak” in Oak & Oscar comes from the wood used to make barrels for aging bourbon, a tip of the hat to Chase’s avocation as a bourbon connoisseur. Oscar is the name of his dog and also the brand’s mascot (there’s an adorable picture of Oscar and Chase above).
Chase really did put a lot of himself in the brand’s name, but alas, not everyone appreciated the value of the personal element, and many consequently criticized Chase for choosing a name that sounded “hipsterish.”
The brand’s first model, now sold out and retired, was the Burnham, which the company named after city planner and designer Daniel Burnham. Burnham famously co-authored the 1909 Plan of Chicago and designed the Flatiron Building in New York City. He in fact redesigned the city’s urban plan to redistribute the city’s infrastructure to match the pace at which the city was growing. And guess what? Chase is from Chicago, so naming the brand’s first model after Daniel Burnham only made sense.
You learn something new every day, right?
The Olmsted 38mm field watch was named after Frederick Law Olmsted, who was known as the father of landscape architecture in the United States. Among his other accomplishments was co-designing New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The Humboldt, which was recently re-released as GMT, was named after Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist and renowned explorer from the 19th century, a more appealing approach than naming such a watch something like the Field Master or the Traveler.
Chase is deliberate in naming his watches because he wants to imbue them with a unique character. He also deliberately told me what he considers the difference between a microbrand and an independent brand.
Independent Brand vs. Microbrand
When I first started reviewing watches more than two years ago, I used to talk about “microbrands,” putting all non-Swiss and Japanese household names in the mix. Any brand that was founded in the past 10 years and produced a limited quantity of watches was a microbrand by my definition, a definition that would probably include Oak & Oscar. Chase, however, provided a clear distinction that I tend to agree with, and now that I see his point, I can better differentiate brands from one another.
So, what did Chase say?
According to him, a microbrand is a brand that gets its watches manufactured, assembled, and quality-controlled at the factory and that ships the watches from the brand’s office, wherever that office might be. Without naming any brand here, I do know of many, many brands that do that. Some go the extra step of doing their own QC before shipping the watches. I can actually name two dozen brands that do this off the top of my head.
So, what makes an independent brand? It’s one that assembles and regulates the watches at their office in addition to doing the QC and handling the shipping. This means that the brand has an in-house watchmaker and that they make their own parts and handle all servicing.
Oak & Oscar is, according to this definition, an independent brand. They get their parts manufactured in various countries—Switzerland, China, Singapore, France, the United States—and while most large batches are assembled in Switzerland, they do their own quality control, regulation, and testing on all of their watches at their office in Chicago (small-batch production is also assembled in Chicago). This allows the brand to have better control of how the watches are put together and avoid little annoyances such as dust underneath the crystal or a misaligned chapter ring. All of these issues would have required sending the watch back to the factory if Oak & Oscar was operating as a microbrand.
Conclusion: Pushing the Boundaries
When looking back at the conversation I had with Chase, it is clear that he and his team like to push boundaries. Unlike many watch brands that came to life in the past 10 years, Oak & Oscar came straight out with a watch that costs much more than most first models from other brands (the Burnham retailed for $1,650.) This actually mirrors the path Chase took into watch collecting. The first significant watch he bought cost well over $1,000, which shows (at least to me) that Chase has always cared about quality (this is not to say that you can’t get a quality watch for less than $1,000; it just means that for more than $1,000, you certainly can get a high-quality watch).
Oak & Oscar was also pushing the boundaries of redefining the concept of watch ownership in that they ask their customers to fully participate in telling the brand’s story. Owners of Oak & Oscar watches therefore participate in what the brand is doing. Additionally, we saw that Oak & Oscar is deliberate in choosing how to name their watches and are not afraid of choosing names that people might criticize.
Although I have not yet gotten the chance to see an Oak & Oscar watch in real life, I know for a fact that I would like any of their models because Chase’s philosophy and approach to watchmaking resonates with me deeply. I therefore know for a fact that he puts all of his passion and energy into making good watches that can be worn by anyone in any circumstance. I cannot wait to see what Chase and his team will release next, and what kind of stories they will want to tell us.
Thanks for reading.