Vario Empire

Review and photos by Guest Bum, Mike Razak.

When The Time Bum offered me the opportunity to review the Vario Empire, I immediately said yes. I’d never handled one of Vario's timepieces and at a glance, I was intrigued. Vario is the brainchild of a former designer Ivan Chua, who is based in Singapore. While the brand focuses on watch accessories including straps, cases, and other odds and ends, Ivan has already waded into the microbrand watch world once with the sleek and modern Eclipse, and now makes a second foray with the Empire. While he has made it clear that he intends to keep the company focused on accessories, I’m quite glad he’s made this divergence, as this watch is something special. The Empire draws from Art Deco style, seemingly crafted from the iconic 1930s skyscraper lobbies that epitomize the form. 

Vario Empire white wrist shot
The watch in profile is rather unassuming: the 38mm diameter and lug-to-lug of 46mm make the case a far cry from some of the behemoths that have been popular of late. While that smaller size may make some fans of larger watches turn away, it’s exactly what it should be. The watch draws from a bygone time, and in that time, watches were much smaller. What place is there for a 42mm Art Deco styled watch? I’d argue none, and I’d further argue that’s a good thing. Vario realized this; the initial prototypes were, in fact, quite a bit larger, and having seen pictures, I can tell you it simply didn’t work as well. It was one of the myriad changes that Ivan made during the development of the watch — so many that his manufacturer allegedly grew weary of his requests, which for me, is a testament to his passion and perfectionism. 


Vario Empire side profile

The Empire is not the thinnest of watches in the “dressy” category, but at 11mm and with lugs that curve to the wrist, I found it sat quite nicely on my 7in wrist. The case itself evokes the bold geometric style of the Art Deco form (recall the layered silhouette of the Empire State Building). The most elegant and enjoyable part is surely where the lugs join the case. They do not simply blend into the case but instead feel as though they are elegantly attached, separate pieces coming together to create a greater whole. Adding fluidity to the case where the lug meets the head, the case band and sides of the lugs feature a brushed finish, while the top of the case and lugs feature a high polish. I feel like the top of the mid-case (just outside the bezel) may have benefitted from being brushed as well. As it is it’s not flawed, but I’m a big proponent of visual contrast, and for me, that would’ve put this watch way over the top. As an added bonus, and a surprise at a watch in this price range, the lugs are drilled to allow for easy strap changes (smart thinking from a company that sells a lot of straps). 


Vario Empire side profile

The onion crown is a fitting choice and very workable; I had no trouble gripping it to wind the watch before strapping it on. The case back features a see-thru sapphire crystal to gaze upon the movement, and all the obligatory text you could want: Designed in Singapore, 5 ATM, Mechanical, Sapphire, Stainless Steel. If you’re ever in doubt of the watch’s features, just flip it over and it’s all right there! 

Vario Empire case back movement

Flipping the watch back over, the dial truly shines. The model I was given to review is the white dial, which features stylized black Arabic numerals on a metallic white dial. The Empire will also be available in silver, black, and black and white tuxedo dial. It may seem foolish to some, but I feel the font is one of the highlights. The asymmetry of the individual numbers is quite a joy to look at, if only while you’re checking the time. And when you get beyond your bargain bin digital watches and start buying timepieces for enjoyment, isn’t that the whole point, to enjoy checking the time? It’s made more enjoyable by the design of the dial itself, which features three sections. The outer track with minute markers is separated from a concentric hour track by a delicate groove, a further nod to the streamlined, clean-lined Art Deco style. The hour track features the aforementioned numerals and a circular brushed finish. When the finishing catches the light (which isn’t all the time) the effect is a good one. The remainder of the dial steps down to a central disc with a radiant guilloche pattern. At 12 o’clock is the Vario logo text, which surprised me in that it was not disruptive to the rest of the watch. The company's standard typeface was not changed for this watch but still blends well into the overall deco design. Perhaps it’s the lopsided ‘V’? Whatever it is, it works. As do the blued skeleton hands. Once again, light does the dial favors and the blue of the hands—syringe for the hour, lance for the minute—makes glancing at the watch a joyful game of “Will the hands shine?” Whether by design or not, the bluing of the hands and the circular finish of the hour track provide a sort of gambler’s reward: a wonderful outcome, but not every time you look at the watch. The light must hit it just right for both to be highlighted and brought out in full effect. In the end, this makes for a dial that never gets tired, and even without the right light, remains beautiful. 

Vario Empire white

Behind the dial (Do we have to leave? It’s so pretty!) the watch features the hand wound Miyota 6T33, just like its cousin the Vario Eclipse. This movement is skeletonized and gilt-finished, so having the sapphire case back allows for a great viewing party for you and your friends. While Miyota claims only -20 to +40s per day (plus a power reserve of about 40 hours), over an entire week of keeping the watch wound, I was averaging just over +6/day, which is unbelievable considering this is not a particularly high-end movement. As such, don’t expect a hacking mechanism for precise time setting—you’ll have to be a few seconds late or early. While I’d love the precision offered by a hacking movement, the fact of the matter is that most mass-produced manual wind mechanisms don’t offer it (such as the ETA-Unitas 6497/8 or 7001). You may balk at a hand wound mechanism, but I think the choice was obvious, just like going with a smaller case size. It just makes sense with a watch that harkens back to the roaring ’20s. There is a simplicity and grace to a manual movement, and to the ritual of winding it before putting it on the wrist. 

Vario Empire white

The Vario Empire will be delivered on the buyer’s choice of one of Vario’s new Hermes-style straps (20mm taper to 16mm), or one of their well-regarded Harris Tweed straps (20mm taper to 18mm). The watch features 20mm lugs and mine came on a grey Hermes-style and I thought it was not only perfectly paired with the watch but excellent in its own right as a strap. It is sturdy yet thin, and no break-in was required. I also found no issue running through quite a few of my 20mm straps, and the Empire ably handled them all. Both strap styles will be available separately as well and come in an array of colors, so you can really make the watch your own. I purchased a Vario Harris Tweed some time ago and can attest to the construction and appeal, but have found it to be a bit stiff and requiring significant break-in. As of publishing, Ivan is still deciding on whether the straps will be quick-change or standard spring bars. 

I must tell you that I’m glad I got the chance to review this watch. It is a stylized piece that transmits a bygone elegance without seeming overwrought or pretentious. No punches were pulled in applying the design language of the Art Deco style, and it is obvious that Ivan has pored over every detail to make sure the watch is just right. If you’re looking for an excellent and understated dress watch with a wallop of character and class, and don’t want to break the bank, I’m not sure you could do much better than the Vario Empire. The watch will be offered initially on Kickstarter at $218 to early birds, and $238 plus $20 shipping thereafter. Standard pricing after the campaign will come in somewhere around $348. Regardless of which price you pay, the watch is well worth it. 

Update August 20, 2019 - The Vario Empire is now available on Indiegogo.

About the reviewer - Mike Razak became obsessed with watches in 2015 after spending an inordinate amount of time finding the perfect wedding watch (the Frederique Constant Slimline Automatic). He prefers a well-executed date window or none at all and strives for a diverse collection with limited overlap. When not fretting over which watch to wear with which strap, he works as an emergency mental health clinician in Northern Virginia, where he lives with his wife and son.
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