Hello everyone, and welcome to another Singaporean review! On this shiok Saturday, I’m reviewing the Empire from local watch and straps brand, Vario.
Although Vario is perhaps better known for their Harris Tweed and graphic NATO straps, they do offer their own line of watches. Their maiden watch attempt was their Eclipse series, a minimalist hand-wound/sweeping quartz dress watch. For their sophomore effort, Vario is stepping it up with the Empire watch, meant to be reminiscent of the art deco styling of the 1920s. Let’s see how it fares!
Vario – the Brand
Describing themselves as “an online store for watches and watch accessories that allows users to show off their unique style and grow their personal collection with custom strap designs”, Vario was started in 2016 by the duo of Ivan and Judy. Like most businesses, Vario started from a personal problem – Ivan couldn’t find a strap in the market that he felt expressed his personality. As such, he decided to set up Vario to deliver straps filled with “variation and striking a balance between sophistication, quality, and fun.”
To me, Vario definitely brings something different to the strap market.If you’re looking for fun, unique straps, their series of graphic NATO and Harris Tweed straps are certainly great bang-for-buck. The question is – while they can make great straps, can they make great watches too? Let’s find out.
Vario Empire – Build Quality
Given that the Vario Empire can be had for less than S$300 on Kickstarter currently, I have to say the build quality is pretty fantastic!
Firstly, the Vario Empire utilises a flat sapphire crystal. As aforementioned numerous times in my previous reviews, I’m a huge advocate of sapphire crystal due to their inherent scratch-resisting properties. Personally, I always look for sapphire crystal in my modern watches as it adds greatly to the durability of the watch. Furthermore, there’s also an internal AR coating on the underside of the sapphire crystal to prevent nasty reflections! In addition, the WR rating for the Empire is 50M, which is adequate for most daily activities except swimming/showering.
The Miyota 6T33 handwound movement serves as the default beating heart of the Empire. Some specs: the Miyota 6T33 runs at an impressive 28,800 bph, has 40 hours of power reserve, and hand-winds. Unfortunately, it does not hack. That being said, I still think that this is an impressive, manual winding movement – definitely one of the best bang-for-buck manual winding movement for its price! It’s beautiful as well, when one gaze through the sapphire exhibition caseback. Now, a Seiko NH38 automatic variant is planned as a stretch goal for the Empire, but I would personally stick with the Miyota 6T33. Not only is a manual winding movement more fitting given the 1920s inspiration of the Empire, the Miyota 6T33 is also a more uncommon movement as compared to its automatic Seiko counterpart. Furthermore, there’s something about a manual winding dress watch that’s just…special. I would definitely opt for the hand-wound option on the Empire!
Given that Vario started out as a strap brand, it’s of no surprise that the default strap on the Empire is simply fantastic. Pictured above is Vario’s latest strap offering – a vintage style Italian Leather Provincia di Vicenza strap with slight bi-colour effect and cream colour stitching. I have to say, it’s one stunning strap – a strap that can easily be paired on a 4 figures Swiss watch. The texture is gorgeous, and it is incredibly supple on the skin.
If leather is not your thing, there is an alternative Harris Tweed option. Seen here in a deep burgundy, I have to say that the Empire on a Harris Tweed strap looks pretty dope as well! Furthermore, Harris Tweed straps are rather uncommon on the market. If I have to pick between the two, I might have to lean towards the leather strap – while both straps looks great on the Empire watch, the leather strap is a tad more supple and comfortable on the wrist.
Overall, I’m definitely impressed by the build quality of the Vario Empire. For less than the price of a Daniel Wellington, one gets sapphire crystal (front and back), either a manual-winding Miyota 6T33 or an automatic Seiko NH38A movement, and a brilliant strap (whichever option you choose). In fact, I’ll go as far to say that it is probably the best built dress watch available under S$300 currently!
Vario Empire – Design
Dress watches can often get boring, featuring “minimalist” desings. If I’m being completely honest, Vario’s maiden watch attempt -the Eclipse- came across as a tad too plain for me. Luckily, the same cannot be said for the Vario Empire.
If you have read my review of the Arcturus LC-1, you would know that I love myself some art-deco inspired watches. In fact, one of my grail watches is the JLC Reverso. There’s just something about the typography and boldness of art deco styling, a little je ne sais quoi, that makes it so appealing. Here, the silver art-deco applied numerals look absolutely lovely, especially against the black circular track. In particular, I adore the curvature of the numeral “12” – there’s an innate understated elegance that’s hard to find in today’s designs. Also, I love the tuxedo colourway (pictured above) of the Empire. While the Empire does come in a variety of colourways (4 in total), this gunmetal tuxedo one is by far the best looking in my opinion. It is quite fitting too, given the fact that the lavish parties of the Roaring Twenties were most probably attended by men in tuxedos.
While the typography is beautiful, the star of the show has to be that beautiful guilloche dial. Now, guilloche isn’t uncommon on affordable dress watches anymore (I’ve reviewed a couple in the past), but I have not seen such a unique guilloche pattern before. Most microbrands simply adopt the clous de paris pattern (otherwise known as a waffle dial) – the patterning on the Empire looks far more intricate and complex. The spiraling guilloche pattern is really a sight to behold in person (especially under sunlight), and it stays true to the bold styling of the art deco era. Elsewhere, I also love the hollowed syringe hands, and the seconds hand with the ball-point counterweight. It comes across as the perfect balance of contemporary, but also retro – leaving one with an inexplicable joy. Overall, I have to say that the intricate dial of the Vario Empire is very impressive in the metal, especially considering its sub-S$300 price tag!
Furthermore, I love the stepped design of the Empire’s case. Most microbrands (especially on dress watches) simply choose a catalog case from their manufacturer to save cost. However, Vario has elected custom make their case, allowing for this stepped case design that is relatively uncommon in the dress watches of today. The layered case design comes across as bold and striking, and adds dimension to the watch. In addition, I love the horn lugs present in the Vario Empire – it adds a further dose of elegance to the watch.
In another retro throwback, Vario elected to adopt a pronounced onion crown on the Empire. Not only is this a great vintage touch, it also makes hand-winding an ease (crucial, given the default choice of a manual winding movement). One can also see the angular facets of the Empire’s side profile in the photo above – bold lines were one of the key styling features from the art deco era, so I’m glad the watch continues its art deco inspiration in the case!
Finally, I like the simple nature of the Empire’s caseback. There are some relevant information etched at the back (I particularly love the phrase “Designed in Singapore”), but the real draw is definitely the exhibition caseback which allows one to peer at the beautiful mechanical movement within. I must say, the gold plated Miyota 6T33 is a real looker from behind!
One of the best things about the Vario Empire is its 38mm case diameter. I think 38mm is perfect for a retro modern dress watch – it’s not too small by today’s standards (unlike the re-released 35mm Timex Marlin) but still smaller than usual (40mm is probably the average size of dress watches today), harkening one back to a bygone era. If you opt for the manual winding Miyota movement, the case thickness comes in at 11mm (12mm for the Seiko NH38 option), which allows the watch to slide under the cuff easily. On my 7 inch wrist, I think the watch wears extremely well.
Overall, I love the art deco design of the Vario Empire. I adore the typography, the stunning guilloche texture, the stepped case, the horn lugs, and the pronounced onion crown. Together, the Empire is an extremely compelling package, and a dress watch that conjures to mind the splendor of the Roaring Twenties.
Shootout: Vario Empire vs Timex Marlin 40mm
If you’re in the market for an affordable retro modern dress watch, one of the most popular options currently has to be the Timex Marlin in 40mm. As such, I’ll be comparing the Vario Empire to the Timex Marlin 40mm for today!
In terms of specifications, the Vario Empire trounces the Timex Marlin. Firstly, the Vario Empire utilises sapphire crystal (both front and back) with AR coating, while the Timex Marlin uses acrylic crystal. While the acrylic crystal does give a nice vintage touch, it is definitely way less scratch resistant than sapphire. Secondly, the Vario Empire features a reliable, high-beat Miyota 6T33 movement, the Timex Marlin relies upon the Miyota 8215 movement, which has a lower beat rate and infamously stutters. Even if you opt for the Seiko NH38 movement in the Empire, one cannot deny that the Seiko NH38 is pretty much better than the Miyota 8215 in almost every regard. Finally, the default straps on the Vario Empire is of much higher quality than the generic “genuine leather” ones on the Timex Marlin. As such, the Vario Empire possesses better specifications than the Timex Marlin overall.
From an aesthetics perspective, I have to give the win to the Vario Empire. The Vario Empire simply offers more – it’s more intricate in every way, from its art deco typography, to the spiralling guilloche pattern at its centre, to its stepped case, horn lugs and onion crown. In contrast, the Timex Marlin 40mm dial comes across as a tad boring and generic – remove the Timex branding, and it looks like a MVMT watch. There’s nothing interesting to note about the case and crown as well. As such, I find the Vario Empire to offer significantly more intrigue in its design.
Given that the Timex Marlin 40mm is over 15% more costly than the Vario Empire, I have to declare the Vario Empire as the winner of this shootout. It offers better specifications, a more intricate design, for less. The Timex Marlin 40mm caused quite a storm (Hodinkee, Worn and Wound, and many other prominent watch media covered it) when it was released last year, but I have to say – why not go for the Vario Empire instead?
Conclusion – so the Vario Empire “shiok” or not?
Hell yes. It has great specifications, and I love the art deco styling of the watch. Starting at just S$294 on Kickstarter, I sincerely believe that the Vario Empire is one of the best, if not the best, mechanical dress watch you can get for under S$300. Vario showed here that they can not only design straps, but knock watch design out of the park too!
Update: unfortunately, the super early bird pricing has sailed. However, one can still get a Vario Empire watch for just S$320 / ~$237 USD here, which I still believe is a steal. Act fast though, especially if you’re interested in the manual winding variants – there are very little left. In addition, interested readers can also use the promo code “WAHSOSHIOK” to get 10% off all products (straps and watches) off Vario’s web-store here. Great watches complemented by amazing straps – what more can one ask for?
View Vario’s ongoing Empire Kickstarter campaign here.
Lug to Lug: 46mm
Thickness: 11mm (6T33) , 12mm (NH38A)
Strap Width: 20mm
Movement: Miyota 6T33 Handwound or Seiko NH38A Automatic
Crystal: Sapphire on front and exhibition caseback with inner AR coating
Water Resistance: 5 ATM
Warranty: 1 Year Global warranty
Strap: Choice of vintage style Italian leather with slight bi-colour effect (20mm taper to 16mm) or Harris Tweed strap (20mm taper to 18mm)
P.S Do check out the new “Discounts!” page for exclusive discounts for Wahsoshiok readers! More brands will be added very soon – stay tuned!