Back to the Roaring Twenties – Vario Empire Grey Tuxedo Review

The glitz and glam of the 1920s meets modern day watchmaking in this art deco inspired piece.

This is part one of a two-part series on the Vario Empire. Check out part 2 here.

I’m going to start by confessing that I know almost nothing about the 1920s; I was born in the 90s and the 20s seem (literally) a lifetime away. As Wikipedia has taught me however, the 20s was a decade of rapid economic growth and cultural development. Modernity and technology were central themes, with the spread of the automobile, radio, film and other electrical appliances we pretty much take for granted today.

This video will do a much better job of telling you about the 20s than I ever will

Of greater relevance to the watch in question however, is the birth of the Art Deco movement, which flourished during this period in history. The Art Deco movement got its name from the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) held in Paris. It was characterised by strong geometric shapes and a sense of modernity with exotic influences from China, Japan, India, Persia, ancient Egypt and Maya art. For me however, Art Deco is about luxury; almost bordering opulence. Think DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby:

In any case, pictures will do Art Deco more justice than my words ever could; after all a picture paints a thousand words and that’s probably what you came for anyway.

Art Deco was highly popular in the United States, and 2 great examples are the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. The bold geometric patterns are prominently featured on the external facades and leave an immediate impression. Step into the lobby of the Chrysler Building however, and you’ll get what I mean about luxury.

Warm orange light bathes over you as you are immersed by a sense of richness, induced by futuristic shapes featuring exotic motifs. Except I haven’t ever been to the states, much less the Chrysler Building. I have however, been to Parkview Square here in Sunny Singapore, which is pretty close I guess.

Situated in the Downtown area of Singapore, the building stands out amongst the sea of glass and steel towers you would commonly associated with a commercial business district, looking honestly a bit odd. Some have named it the “Gotham Tower” for its dark look, reminiscent of a scene straight out of a Batman movie. Step inside however, and you are transported to a place unlike no other (well except for the Chrysler Building lobby. Now you see the link?). The lobby oozes luxury and grandeur, and it gets better – it’s actually a bar (say what!). The Atlas Bar features one of the largest gin libraries in the world, and has been ranked within the top 50 bars in Asia. SG pride!

And that finally brings us to the watch in question: the Vario Empire Automatic.

The Brand

The brand has been featured by various watch media, and you may recognise it from its Vario 1918 Trench watch, which was how I first learnt about it.

Vario is a Singaporean microbrand that was founded in 2016, born out of founder Ivan Chua’s desire for a watch strap that could express his personality. The young company soon branched into producing its own watches, tapping on Ivan’s expertise as a designer. Vario specialises in vintage inspired pieces, producing each model in small batches making them somewhat of a limited edition.

With only 7 years under its belt, the brand has released multiple models and aplenty of straps, and is definitely an up and coming watch brand to keep an eye out for.

The Case & Specifications

The Vario Empire Automatic comes in at a case size of 38mm (41mm including the crown), a lug to lug of 46mm and a lug width of 20mm. The watch measures 11.5mm thick, and comes with a flat sapphire crystal with inner AR coating.

The case features drilled lugs, which I felt was not necessary considering its nature as a dress watch. It does however make strap changes a breeze if your strap doesn’t have a quick release springbar.

The case features a varied finish; the sides are vertically brushed while the top and lugs come in a high polish. These added “features” are always nice to have, and I appreciate it when brands put in the effort.

The push-pull crown is located at 3 o’ clock with a slight recess; Vario has opted for a custom made “onion” crown that makes winding the crown a nice, tactile experience. I did however find it slightly difficult to pull the crown out for time setting, though that’s just a minor inconvenience.

From afar, the case shape seems pretty standard, but a closer look reveals subtle details, clearly drawing inspiration from the art deco theme the Empire draws inspiration from. The case features a stepped bezel along with horn lugs that attach at an angle with the case, creating angles and “blocks” characteristic of art deco motifs.

One of the best things I liked about the Empire was how it wore. It is extremely wearable on wrist, with its compact lug to lug and 38mm case size. I don’t have huge wrists (16cm / 6.29 in), and the Empire looks well-proportioned on wrist without any fear of overhang – something I’m sure most Singaporeans would be able to appreciate especially in a market that seems to favour larger case sizes. It’s hard to explain and you’ll probably have to try it for yourself, but the case shape contoured nicely to my wrist.

One other observation I had was the lightness (or at least the feeling thereof) of the Empire. All day wear was not a problem, and while the watch felt light, you get the sense that the stainless steel case is well-constructed and can probably take a bump or two.

A screw down case back is used, offering 5 ATM of water resistance. The case back features a graphic illustration of the Empire State Building, a proud example of Art Deco architecture and the (obvious) namesake of the timepiece.

Vario offers a hand-wound version of the Empire line with an exhibition case back; I felt that it would have been fitting to extend this to the automatic range as well, with the Empire being a dress watch. Though not technically necessary, there’s something about a dressy piece and being able to look into the movement. Maybe it’s just me?

The Dial

The dial is where the Vario Empire truly shines. The guilloche dial sports a tuxedo colour scheme, with a silver-white minute track on the outside and a brushed inner black ring on which the arabic numeral indices are applied. The dial is clean, with just the brand logo under 12 o’clock, and the guilloche pattern has been well executed and you can’t help but to be drawn in the longer you stare at it.

The indices have also adopted a font fitting of its art deco theme, with a retro yet futuristic look to it. It feels more like the work of a graphic design poster, than a timepiece. My favourite is the hour marker at “8”; it reminds me of a little chunky snowman.

The handset that Vario has opted for is also custom made for the Empire series – I haven’t seen a similar design elsewhere and it does have a unique look to it. The hour hand has a syringe like design, while the minute hand is closer to that of a sword styled hand. Both are skeletonised, which I felt was a good choice as it minimises any blockage of the guilloche dial underneath. A lollipop hand has been used for the seconds. All the hands feature a polished finish, giving the Empire a fancy look.

There is no lume on the dial or hands, which is fine given its intent as a dress piece. I wouldn’t say the Empire is the most legible of timepieces, but the contrast between the black ring and the high polished hands does help a little. If you were wearing the Empire, you’d probably be wearing it for the decorative guilloche dial anyway, rather than legibility.

All in all, the dial is particularly eye catching, making use of high contrast colours together with polished components, and the dial is a visual spectacle especially when it catches the light at different angles. The Art Deco influence comes through strongly, and the dial seeks to evoke a sense of luxury.

The Movement

The Vario Empire Automatic uses a Seiko NH38 movement, a popular choice especially amongst microbrands. The NH38 is essentially a no date version of the popular NH35, which itself is basically an unbranded Seiko 4R35.

The movement comes with a power reserve of 41 hours, 21,600 bph beat rate and features hacking and hand winding. The movement is reliable and a workhorse, and you shouldn’t expect any problems with it.

Some brands use the NH35 for all their models regardless of whether they have a date window. Good to see that Vario hasn’t slacked off and chose the appropriate movement.

The Strap

The Empire comes with a Vario Vintage Epsom Italian leather watch strap. The strap has a nice texture, with white stitching adding a touch of visual interest. The strap starts at 20mm and tapers down to 16mm, where it ends off with a signed buckle. Quick release pins are included, allowing for easy strap removal.

The leather strap is soft and supple, and was very comfortable on wrist. Amongst the numerous leather straps I’ve tried so far, the Vario one is by far the most comfortable.

When purchasing the watch, you can choose between 5 different colours so there’s something for everyone.


I would say the Empire Automatic remains relatively adaptable in terms of strap choices, but it definitely isn’t what we would call a “strap” monster. To match its dressier feel, I would recommend leather straps, in particular textured ones that can add a bit of flair and match the guilloche dial.

Vario Vintage Epsom Italian Leather Pewter Grey
Vario Vintage Veg Tan Italian Leather Onyx Black
Cordura Fabric – Black
Suede Leather – Grey

The Price

The Vario Empire Automatic is priced at S$473 (US$ 355 at time of writing) and comes with a 12 month warranty, which I feel is a fair price for what you’re getting. I struggle to think of an alternative with a similar guilloche styled dial at this price range, and I believe you are getting quite a fair bit of value (do let me know if you have any alternatives!). In terms of quality, you aren’t being shortchanged and you are getting a piece that will stand out amongst the crowd of usual picks.

That being said however, that same uniqueness may become the very reason that makes it difficult for some to make the purchase. I feel that the Empire Automatic may not be as versatile as other watches, and its design falls into a niche category. If you’re a one watch collection kind of person, this may not be the right piece for you. But if you’re looking for a dress watch or to fill in a gap in your collection, the Vario Empire Automatic is definitely worth consideration.

In terms of alternatives, while not entirely the same, one could consider going for a dressy Seiko Presage, which would be somewhere in the 5 to 600s as a comparison.

Overall Thoughts

In my watch collecting journey so far, I have always gravitated towards watches that offer a solid value proposition, or present an interesting take on the usually serious world of watch making. The Vario Empire Automatic has succeeded in doing both – the watch takes heavy design inspiration from Art Deco that is usually seen in watches that are much more expensive, and manages to pack it into an affordable package with good build quality. It wears great on the wrist, and its eye catching dial is sure to be a conversation starter.

If you’re searching for something outside the run-of-the-mill suggestions or looking to expand your collection, you should definitely put this piece on your radar. However, I do feel that the Empire Automatic is somewhat of a niche piece, and may not be as versatile as other watches, which is something to consider. But hey, as they say, wear what makes you happy, and if you want a piece of the roaring twenties on your wrist? I say go for it.

An eye catching guilloche dial with an interesting Art Deco theme, the Vario Empire Automatic is sure to be a conversation starter and a dress watch worth your consideration



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