In Focus Watches

Vario Bring Early 20th Century Watch Design to the Modern Era

Vario 1918 Trench

Given how hot vintage watches – and honestly any watches inspired by vintage – are these days, most of us can appreciate the kind of archival looks and more minimal, elegant designs that come from the early days of watchmaking. The 1920s (and a decade or two either side) offer plenty of inspiration to any would-be watch designer, inspiration that Vario founder, Ivan Chua, has leveraged like few other emerging brands could hope to.

Like many a recent watch brand, Vario came about after a bit of a mid-life crisis. After years as a graphic designer pining to move to product design, Ivan made the leap to do just that in 2015 – though not directly into watches. Prior to launching Vario, he, like many of the as yet unenlightened out there, didn’t wear a watch. His phone was his watch. But phone fatigue set in and when he took a look at some of his old watches, the straps had completely disintegrated. Rather than buy new ones, Ivan went one step further and designed his own graphic canvas straps – and he never looked back.

Vario 1918 Trench

Vario 1918 Trench, £312

From there he of course had to fill the space between the straps and, after realising he was drawn to vintage pieces, he set about creating what is now an impressive range of accessible collector catnip. That’s perhaps clearest in the Trench 1918, an inspired reinterpretation of WWI military timepieces. It nails that utilitarian look, like an old stopwatch repurposed for the wrist, just like the first versions would have been. They’re definitely modern watches of course, with all the mod cons of build quality including a nicely finished workhorse Miyota movement.

Vario Empire

Vario Empire, £296 – £344

But it’s not just the early 20th century that’s apparently enraptured Ivan’s design sensibilities. Or, at least, not just military. The Empire, as its name suggests, is inspired by the roaring ‘20s with its range of beautiful, glitzy dials, concentric circles and typography that would be at home on the cover of the Great Gatsby.

Vario Versa Dual Time

Vario Versa Dual Time Reversible Dual Time, £344

Then there’s the VERSA Dual Time and, while it might not be an entirely original concept (a reversible rectangular watch from the 1930s? Go figure), it’s method of making itself accessible is truly inspired. The case is set into a wider frame, which allows it to spin, offering two dials in one in a patented system and a superb Streamline Moderne style. It’s a classic concept in an entirely new execution.

Vario Navi Popeye

Vario Navi Popeye, £320 (sold out)

Finally, we have the Navi, a minimal, nautical watch inspired by old marine chronometers with its gorgeous guilloche dial and seafaring touches like a compass or anchor second hand. It might not be anchored to a specific year or decade, but the vintage touches are there aplenty. Those touches are joined by a tidal wave of nostalgia in the Popeye edition, with the spinach-guzzling sailor front and centre, pointing to the time. Popeye’s been getting about a lot recently, but this is most definitely one of our favourite executions, with the juxtaposition of classical design and quirky cartoon.

Even within these collections there are plenty of variations. There are some collections that have since been discontinued and yet more on the horizon awaiting Ivan’s final seal of approval. Sure, they might all be rooted in vintage, but Vario’s is an incredibly varied range of watches – made even more so with their even broader array of straps to put them on. If only every mid-life crisis could be this productive.

More details at Vario.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.