Jonathan Ferrer’s father is a jewelry designer for Tiffany. His grandfather designed for Cartier. So, when it came to schooling, Ferrer’s parents were determined to send him off to learn a different trade, one that wasn’t so tough, didn’t involve working with his hands. He went off to engineering school, then majored in industrial design, then took an internship with Movado, the massive American watchmaker, designing jewelry that ticked.
Ferrer embarked on a half-decade journey, hustling to build the infrastructure he needed to start his own watch company. Designing a watch was “just as cool as designing a car,” he says. He met CEOs and factory owners around the world, working freelance, and sometimes getting paid in lunches and industry contacts. In 2015, he combined that networking with a Kickstarter campaign and started Brew watches. He designed one collection a year, selling 400-500 watches. In 2018, he released the Retrograph, a tank-cased, mecha-quartz-driven watch with a built-in espresso timer function that put him on the map as one of the hottest young American watch designers.
The 29-year-old still works alone, and this year released three limited-edition one-offs based on the original Retrograph. We asked him about his evolutionary designs, balancing his own desires with customer feedback, and why he chose a mecha-quartz movement.
Q: Walk me through your design process in creating the Retrograph.
A: There’s so much thinking that went into that specific design. I wanted to implant my coffee story into the watch. I also had to understand that every person that I sell my watch to isn’t going to necessarily want to hear this story. So it also had to be very open ended. It couldn’t scream “coffee making.”
The idea was that it had the coffee design, but was still an everyday watch. If they know it’s there, it’s more special — they can share and talk about it. You can point it out and have that aha moment — ‘Oh, I see the 35 seconds transition there, that’s pretty cool.’ There’s a balance between staying niche and unique, and staying open for the everyday person too.
Also, I had to think about what I wanted my signature style to be in the future. I wanted it to be that square case.
Q: Why the square case?
A: It’s not considered a very sellable silhouette. But it’s the most unique silhouette to come from vintage watches. I decided to go for a specific time period, around 1970, when there were lots of cushion cases.
Q: How did you approach tweaking the design with the three new versions?
A:The longer you do this, the more pressure there is for each new design. Ever since the Retrograph, I’ve been working on a new watch. But you’re never complete — you’re always trying to chisel away the idea, make it smarter.
But in the short term, you’re spending so much time designing, that you can’t jump too quickly to an entirely new piece. You’d shoot yourself in the foot. So for the updates to the Retrograph, I decided to make small tweaks that were noticeably impactful, and that side by side would give the watches distinct personalities. The Remington versus the Technicolor feel like two completely different watches.
“You’re never complete — you’re always trying to chisel away the idea, make it smarter.”
With the Remington, people think of a vintage reverse panda dial, and it’s familiar yet unique. The Technicolor is a wild card that catches their attention, but they’d totally wear it, too. I chose the colors very specifically — if you search for 1970s industrial designs, you see all these bright blues, yellows, and greens. It makes sense for the time period, and it’s consistent with my story, and with the design.
Q: How do you balance your own design desires with what the market seems to want?
A:I’m always thinking about how people will talk about a design, share it, photograph it. I’m thinking about them so much, I have to make sure I leave a certain layer — what do I love about this?
I asked Max Busser, at MB&F, one of my favorite designers: ‘What percentage of designs you make are based on feedback from buyers versus your personal passion?’ He chuckled, and said, ‘It’s 100-percent personal.’ The minute he starts designing what customers want, he said, he’d be boring, and MB&F would cease to exist. So that was a good kick in the back to stay true to my bones, and do what I think is best.
Q: Your watches cost $350. Why did you decide on that price point?
A:I decided to price so that I could keep the watch affordable but keep my head above water. I thought, the more people who are wearing my watch, the longer I’ll be able to exist and grow naturally. Then I can slowly elevate my watches and price points. I want the audience to grow with me. Yes, I could have come out and say, here’s a three-thousand dollar watch, it’s seriously overbuilt, and have a handful of people buying it and supporting me. I’d rather come out of the gate and have a crowd supporting me, with less hesitation to buy.
“The more people who are wearing my watch, the longer I’ll be able to exist and grow naturally.”
Q: The mecha-quartz chronograph movement (a hybrid mechanical and quartz movement) is an interesting choice. Why did you go with it?
A:I know myself. I’m in that watch snob community — if it’s not automatic, it’s not interesting. Even people that don’t know much about watches, the first thing they ask is, is it automatic or quartz?
But I didn’t want to do an automatic chronograph, for a couple reasons. The cost is ridiculously high. The movement is very thick. So the mecha-quartz was the perfect blend of both worlds. It has a beautiful smooth sweep like an automatic movement, but it’s more precise.
When Bill Yao from MKII and Jason Lim from Halios both bought one, I asked them: ‘You’re mechanical gurus. Why did you buy this watch?’ They said they loved the way it was designed, and that it looks beautiful, and it’s different from anything out there. So that was amazing to hear.
Q: You started out working in the big corporate watchmaking world. What do you enjoy about being a small, independent American-based watchmaker?
A: You do it for the love of making, and the craft, but also for the conversations you have when you share your project. In the corporate world, you don’t get that. Here, you’re chiseling away from a solid stainless steel block, taking your idea from its inception to the final piece, and then you’re literally handing it to a client. That’s the most special thing, and you’ll never get it with a big watch brand. I hope to never outgrow that.
“Here, you’re chiseling away from a solid stainless steel block, taking your idea from its inception to the final piece, and then you’re literally handing it to a client. That’s the most special thing…I hope to never outgrow that.”