Ivan Chua, Vario (Singapore)
In this instalment of Independent Insights, we interview Ivan Chua of Vario. Known for its large collection of watch straps and accessories, and more recently, its superbly executed line of vintage-inspired watches, Vario is perhaps one of the most interesting brands in the microbrand segment that surprises with each and every one of its releases. Find out more about Vario and the products they carry over at: www.vario.sg
Let’s hear it from Ivan!
Part 1. – Introducing Ivan
Constellar: It’s great to have you here with us Ivan, let’s kick things off with a self-introduction. Describe and introduce yourself as well as the brands you represent.
Ivan: I’m Ivan Chua, owner of Vario, a watch and accessories brand from Singapore and together with my wife Judy, we make affordable timepieces for customers looking to expand and vary their style.
C: What has been your profession prior to establishing Vario in 2016? How has your life changed since?
Ivan: I was a graphic designer working on promotions and marketing for broadcast stations such as HBO, MTV, Discovery and Disney (www.ivanchua.com). I’ve always wanted to be a product designer or architect growing up so I’m actually living my childhood dream now with this mid-career change.
C: That is quite the respectable portfolio! You’re definitely living the dream now with Vario. How would you describe your hobbies outside of watchmaking and how have your hobbies influenced your design language in your products?
Ivan: I don’t think I have any serious hobbies. My work is my hobby. Throughout my career as a designer, I’ve never had any Monday blues as I enjoy my work and dedicate my free time after work hours to improve my work. Even now, I will be doing research about watches late into the night. Sounds like a good job?
C: Can’t say that we fully understand how that feels but we’re happy that you are able to turn the work you do into something you love. I guess Mondays come a lot easier for you than for the rest of us!
Now, how would you describe your personal watch collection?
Ivan: I stopped wearing a watch since I got my mobile phone in the 90s. In 2015, I experienced phone fatigue and wanted to lessen my reliance on the phone and started digging for my old watches and found some of them to be still working after changing the batteries as all of them are quartz watches but the straps had disintegrated. I thought as a designer, I would design my own graphic Natos and that’s how Vario started.
It is by seeing the photos that my customers tagged me in or sent to me that got me into watches, and I quickly realised I am drawn to vintage watches. The watches I make are all vintage inspired so far, with my own spin on them.
C: We realised that the watches in the Vario universe have a very unique charm to them! It may well be the vintage cues speaking out to us! Share with us what would be your favourite watch in the Vario universe?
Ivan: My favourite Vario watch is always the next watch I work on and that would currently be the Empire Chrono prototype which I just received from my supplier. It’s like seeing your baby in real flesh for the 1st time which really gets me excited.
C: You’ve said it right! Nothing beats seeing the prototypes after months of conceptualisation, visualisation, and product development! We’re real excited for the impending Empire Chrono launch too!
As a brand owner, what do you want patrons of Vario to remember you for? What is the legacy you hope to leave behind?
Ivan: I love variety as a designer and would not want to be tied down to a certain genre. I have lots of watch ideas so hopefully I can continue to make more different watches for customers to enjoy.
Part 2. Insights
Constellar: Let’s talk more about Vario! How did Vario come into being?
Ivan: Vario came into being when I wanted to exercise my creativity and to challenge myself to design a product and step out of my comfort zone as a graphic designer which I’ve been for close to 20 years before I made the switch.
With Vario, I wanted men to vary their dress sense and for them to expand their wardrobe. I think the vision hasn’t changed much since I started, and I hope to continue to make different watches and accessories for years to come.
C: The endless selection of watch and straps combinations will most certainly challenge your customers to wear their watches differently!
With Vario being in existence for over 5 years, what are some key design elements or themes you have kept consistent/focused on in your watches
Ivan: All my watches to date are vintage inspired and I pay respect to the classics and put in my own twist in them. I didn’t want to be stuck in the same genre so after my 1st and 2nd watch which are considered dress watches, I made the Trench as my 3rd watch instead of digging deeper in the dress watch segment. I don’t think I have a particular design language to speak of but there is a design element that is consistent in all the 3 watches and that is Designed in Singapore which I’m proud of.
C: Yes, we can’t agree more! We also love just how well executed the vintage elements are in your watches. It isn’t easy to create vintage-inspired watches without going too much into being a homage, and we are of the opinion that Vario has mastered this.
In your brand journey thus far, were there concepts or design elements you have experimented with that didn’t work out?
Ivan: With my 5th watch collection which is more technically challenging, I’m not too sure if my concept will work. I’ve ordered a prototype so I’ll know if it will work in time to come. As of now, I can’t reveal much more.
C: We’ll be looking forward to further developments on this!
Would you like to share how you go about creating your very first watch? How did the process and final products measure up against your expectations?
Ivan: With my 1st watch, my goal was straightforward. Start with a simple project, get my feet wet and learn the watch making process. I come from a design background so that is easy for me, but learning to work with factories on the technical aspect is new to me and still I’m learning along the way. I was happy with the results as I felt it brought out the 60s Bauhaus design. With the 2nd watch, I went deeper and customized everything except the crystal and movement. Every watch is a learning experience and with each project I learn a bit more.
C: How about the very first order you fulfilled. How did it feel and how did the experience shape your journey since?
Ivan: It was unreal when I logged in and saw an actual sale from a stranger and every month I see growth and I was motivated to do more and make this work. I remember when I did my 1st campaign, I didn’t have much feedback but once I’ve slowly acquired customers, I started to show my growing pool of customers my next watch, ask them questions and use those feedbacks to shape the watch so my customers are my co-creators.
C: It must have been such an exciting moment to discover there were people out there who love your work! It is amazing that you’re keeping your client base informed and involved in the product development process, and that might explain the high-quality consistency from Vario!
What has been your most unforgettable experience in the running of Vario?
Ivan: I think having customers from as young as 20 to as old as 80 email me to chat about watches is just an amazing experience that I never expected. I remember an old gentleman told me that he bought my Empire because it looked like a watch he had when he was growing up and my watch makes him happy because he could relive those happy moments.
Part 3. Industry talk
Constellar: Let’s move on to some industry talk! What were some things you wish you knew, before stepping into the industry?
Ivan: I really don’t know much about the industry even now so I wish I knew a mentor who would shed some light about the industry.
C: What would be your advice for someone intending to start up their own brand?
Ivan: Everyone thinks they have the best idea but if you’ve never tried, you won’t know how far you would go. Starting a microbrand doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and it’s not expensive as many would think if you’re going the Kickstarter route. Many microbrand owners have a full time job and work on their brand part time.
C: We agree with your advice. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Moving on, what do you feel is lacking in the industry currently?
Ivan: I think there’s a lack of younger consumers buying and wearing watches in general which means it is a shrinking market.
C: We do agree that trends do in fact point towards a shrinking market for the mechanical watch industry, with the squeeze affecting more on our end of the industry spectrum. It is also for this same reason that we decided to start this column, to humanise the industry and hopefully be able to promote the independent / microbrand segment as a whole.
What are your predictions for our industry segment in the next 3 to 5 years?
Ivan: I think the microbrand segment will grow with luxury watches getting more expensive and big brands like Seiko pushing up their prices, microbrand watches presenting more value for money with their more daring designs.
C: We sure do hope so! What are some brands and brand owners you admire, in our segment?
Ivan: As a brand owner, I admire Mr Jones Watches who managed to craft out a brand space for themselves. They don’t have many competitors if you’re looking for a playful watch.
C: Indeed! I guess the closest competitor they have would be Happiewatch! But even then the type of “playfulness” is vastly different!
This leads us on to our next question! Who would you like to know more about as a brand owner or content creator, in our segment?
Ivan: The list would go on and on as it would be interesting to learn how different brand owners work and think. I’ll be following your interviews for sure so do keep it going!
C: Thank you Ivan! Let’s now move on to the most exciting part of the interview, your upcoming releases!
Part 4. Upcoming release
Constellar: Tell us about your upcoming release/releases
Ivan: As I mentioned earlier, I have an Empire Meca-quartz chrono in the works. I was surprised that the Empire series was well liked by the community and I wanted to reinvigorate this collection which has been selling for 2 years and I thought a Tux chrono hasn’t been done often and I thought it could be an interesting mix. This release is made for customers who like the Art Deco watch but want something a bit more versatile and casual.
C: We’re already convinced that it will be exceptionally well received!
We noticed that you have an upcoming Navi x Popeye jumping hour watch in the works as well. Tell us more about the collaboration.
Ivan: Usually when brands do a crossover, they have a base model as a starting point for the collaboration but for Navi it was built from the ground up.
The main inspiration of this watch came from Gerald Genta. You can see the case is inspired by Genta’s Polerouter and the use of Jumping hour is inspired by his Mickey Mouse collection. I’ve also integrated various elements from old steam engine ships to add to the Nautical theme.
The main challenge is the time frame. I was given 6 months development time and when you have a base model, it is not that hard to meet the timeline. However, as I’m building the watch from the ground up, it took much longer, meaning I have less time to sell this product. But I would rather spend more time on it to make a better product that will satisfy both Popeye and Horological fans.
Part 5. Closing words from Ivan
Constellar: And that’s all we have for the interview Ivan! Thank you so much for joining us on this column and we wish you all the best with your upcoming launches!
Ivan: Thank you for having me on your blog and I think what you guys are doing here is a good initiative to bring brand owners closer and for us to learn from each other. All the best to your Origin launch and keep up the good work!
We met with Ivan on a later date and managed to ask further questions for the purpose of this interview. The response below are transcribed, to the best of our ability, based on our conversation with Ivan:
C: You had shared with us earlier a picture of you getting some work done. May we ask what that item is on your head?
Ivan: Oh that is my “thinking hat”. It looks like a plunger, but it’s actually a giant lollipop packaging, the one that comes with many lollipops inside.
C: As Vario is originally a strap and accessories brand, what inspired you to enter the watchmaking side of the business?
Ivan: Shortly after I’ve started selling my graphic natos, I’ve received emails and instagram tags from customers who show me their watch-strap combinations with Vario straps. This got me interested in vintage watches, and then popular watches such as the Seiko SKX007. This gave birth to the idea of the Vario Eclipse, which was my take on a “poor man’s” Junghans Max Bill. The Vario Eclipse was also an exercise for me to learn the process of making a watch in preparation for the Vario Empire.
The inspiration for the Vario Empire came from an old Art-Deco clock I have seen in my research into vintage timekeepers. I was mesmerized by the face and handsets of the clock, which were cemented into design cues for the Vario Empire.
For the Vario Trench collection, my intention was to go on a tangent from solely producing dress watches, and to offer up a vintage military inspired watch with my own twist. While I started the design process with the field watches used in Vietnam in the 70’s, the idea soon evolved after coming across the Oris 1917 and the Longines 1918, both of which contained ideal elements of what I wanted the Vario Trench to become. I researched modern interpretations of this genre, but they were either not faithful to the classics or were simply too large for wear. The Vario Trench was thus created to fill this market gap, and I’m happy to find my customers liking what I’ve created.
C: Do you have a preference for smaller watches? We noticed that Vario watches have a diameter of 38mm and below.
Ivan: Actually I do have a preference for smaller watches. For the Eclipse and Empire, I do think that that is the right size for a dress watch.
C: You have delved into the dress watch and military watch genre. What’s next for Vario? Do you have any plans to release your take on a vintage-inspired dive watch?
Ivan: Not at the moment as there are too many dive watches in the market. I’ve toyed with the idea of utilizing similar forms as the cushion oyster and the Omega marine, but I could not make it work for the time being. Perhaps this will be a genre I can revisit in the future
C: We also noticed that you offer a very unique strap: The Harris Tweed. Tell us more about it!
Ivan: The Harris Tweed is a high-end material that is more popular with the UK and other commonwealth countries. I felt that it was a material that befitted the theme of the Vario Eclipse, so it was offered together with the Eclipse for the Kickstarter launch. However, the Harris Tweed does have its shortcomings as its constitution did not allow for a quick release function.
The remaining time we had were spent talking about watches, sharing our plans for the future and basically just chilling out in our office. We thoroughly enjoyed the sharing session and feel that it’s refreshing to learn more about the personalities behind the brands. We would like to thank Ivan for agreeing to head over for this meetup, and we do hope that there will be more of such get togethers soon.