We must say, the Vario 1918 is an extremely cool watch. Want to know more? Read this.
From bomber jackets to chinos, even down to the humble t-shirt, much of the clothing we wear today is rooted in military history.
That being the case, it may not come as a surprise that watches share a similar origin. In fact, the very idea of wearing a watch on the wrist was popularized by its practical benefits on the battlefield.
Technically, wristwatches have been around for centuries, but until the late 1800s, they were typically designed as dainty jewelry for women and stigmatized by the male population. Men were content with their big, manly pocket watches.
Soldiers were perhaps the first group of men to realize having a watch worn on the wrist was a lot more practical than having one stuffed in a pocket. Early wristwatches are especially useful on horseback, as the wearer can check the time at a glance, hands-free.
These early trailblazers wore special leather straps called wristlets, designed to securely house a pocket watch on the wrist. Watchmakers soon picked up on this trend among military men and started producing watches with wire lugs, or “handles.”
By the time of the First World War, the wristwatch had become an essential part of a commissioned officer’s uniform. The unprecedented scale of the war made synchronized timekeeping vital in the coordination of battlefield tactics.
After the war, vets continued to wear their watches as they returned to civilian life. Naturally, once battle-hardened veterans made wristwatches cool, the general population was quick to adopt them as well.
The boom in demand during the war sparked the mass production of “trench watches,” as we know them today. Named after the year the war ended, the Vario 1918 is a tribute to this grim but fascinating point in world history.
Vario is a Singapore-based microbrand created in 2016 by Ivan Chua. He got his start as a strap designer, aiming to bring fun and unique patterns to the market.
Using the crowdfunding model, Ivan has launched a series of successful Kickstarter campaigns, including his own watch designs, many of which are affordable callbacks to classic period-themed designs.
The 1918 is Vario’s third watch, introduced in 2020.
The watch came safely nestled in a Vario travel case. It’s a donut-shaped clamshell design that zips closed.
The case is fairly rigid, so you can toss it into a bag without worrying about it. It’s great for toting watches with bracelets that would otherwise scratch against their casebacks.
The interior is lined with soft microfiber, and one side has mesh webbing for storing small accessories. As the case also sells separately for $20, it might make an easy gift for a fellow watch enthusiast.
Here’s a quick look at the size of the Vario 1918:
- Case size: 36.9mm
- Case size w/crown: 39.7mm
- Lug width: 18mm
- Lug to lug: 44mm
- Case thickness: 10mm
- Thickness (including crystal): 12mm
- Case weight: 50g
- Watch weight (with bund strap): 70g
Vario offers the 1918 in two sizes: 37mm and 40mm — with 18mm and 20mm lug widths respectively. The notable aesthetic difference between the two is the cropped ‘6’ numeral on the smaller watch.
While the cropped ‘6’ may not be to your tastes, it may be a small compromise if the overall size and style of the watch suit you.
In traditional fashion, the case takes on a rounded shape. You can easily see the similarities in design between these early watches and their pocket predecessors.
The bezel, lugs, and crown are polished, while the midcase is horizontally brushed. This finish transitions to a radial brushing on caseback.
Protruding from the case are a pair of fixed wire lugs. These also curve downward to help the watch sit closer to the wrist. They’re more secure than spring bars but can only accommodate certain types of straps, which we’ll come back to.
The caseback engraving depicts a young soldier surrounded by barbed wire and the poppies which have come to symbolize Veterans Day.
In addition to the specs, 11.11.1918 is inscribed above. I quite like the illustration. Vario also offers blank casebacks, so it’s also possible to add a personalized text engraving.
As for the specs, the 1918 features a double-domed sapphire crystal and a screw-down crown for 100 meters of water resistance. The “onion” or “pumpkin” style crown, signed with Vario’s ‘V’ sits recessed in a small cutaway in the case.
If I had to offer a critique, I’d say the 4 o’clock positioning of the crown makes it somewhat difficult to operate. On the bund strap, the crown is nigh impossible to use without pulling the watch away from the layer underneath.
However, it pops out an extra millimeter or so when fully unscrewed, and the pumpkin design makes it very easy to grip. It’s one of those decorative old-world designs that are surprisingly as practical as they are charming.
Vario offers this watch in a plethora of color and case combinations. You can choose between four dial colors, stainless steel or brass casing, and either crisp white numerals or a deep orange faux patina.
There’s also a “Medic” version with a central seconds hand and pulsometer scale for measuring heart rates.
Here, we have the stainless steel cased gray dial on a black bund strap.
While it’s not based on any specific trench watch, the 1918 incorporates design elements highly reminiscent of the era.
Its distinguishing features are a glossy enamel dial, bold serif numerals, a cathedral handset, and a small seconds subdial, all encompassed by a railroad minute track.
The numerals are outlined with a black stroke that varies in thickness to create a drop shadow effect. This illusion of depth is further emphasized by their matte texture.
In contrast with the gloss dial, the numerals really pop from certain angles. The result is a gorgeous interplay of light across the elements of the dial. It’s very well done.
The antique styling of the dial is still quite effective in terms of legibility. For such a small watch, it’s very easy to read.
On the other hand, the dial and domed crystal catch a ton of glare. Vario has given the crystal an antireflective undercoating, but I think the watch would benefit greatly from an extra layer of AR.
Outside on a sunny day, I’ve found myself lifting my arm to eye level or even shielding my wrist from the sun to get a good read.
Powering the watch is the Miyota 82S5. It beats at 21,600 vph, and packs a 42-hour power reserve.
A standard-rated movement from Miyota’s 8000 family, it should perform between -20 to +40 seconds a day. My watch tends to gain a few seconds a day, which is not bad at all.
This one has a unidirectional winding rotor that can spin out at the flick of the wrist, triggering the infamous helicopter noise.
There’s a tactile “chunkiness” when setting the time, and the minute hand tends to jump around if you turn the crown quickly — though it’s easy enough to set the minute hand precisely if you take it slowly.
The numerals and hands are filled with C3 Super-LumiNova. The application is serviceable, but not great.
On a full charge, the lume fades after just a few minutes, with the hands just slightly outlasting the numerals. On the faux patina versions, the old radium style LumiNova likely differs in brightness and longevity.
Straps for the Vario 1918
The 1918 comes on a leather bund strap. Originally created for pilots, these straps are defined by their extra layer of leather between the watch and the wearer’s skin.
This was meant to insulate the wrist from extreme temperatures one may undergo in the cockpit. While not quite historically accurate for a trench watch, the bund is a close enough alternative (in my opinion) to the rudimentary leather straps worn in WWI.
Aesthetically, the bund can be a polarizing strap choice. Pulling one off requires confidence and a carefully chosen watch. Think Paul Newman and his signature Daytona.
In my opinion, the 1918 was made for the bund. In terms of color, the smoky black leather compliments the gray dial well. Design-wise, the strap perfectly integrates with the wire lugs, giving an otherwise small watch some proper presence on the wrist.
When strapped on, the bund creates a kind of leather cuff around the wrist. It sits a little tall, adding about 3.5mm to the height of the watch, but I find it highly comfortable to wear.
Trying the 1918 on other straps made it feel oddly small, at least on my 6.5” wrist. The wire lugs are understated in appearance, and they don’t add much to the overall size of the watch as other lugs would.
Considering this, I may have opted for the 40mm if I really wanted to wear the watch without the bund.
If the bund really isn’t your thing, Vario sells a few alternatives including a single-pass nylon twill strap and another style of leather strap.
Similar to a NATO, Vario’s leather strap is rather long and requires a fold-and-tuck at the end. Vario also offers a series of “clip-on” leather straps. Once fitted, it’s impossible to tell one apart from a standard two-piece.
So how do they work? Basically, instead of a closed loop, each strap-end conceals a rigid piece of metal folded into a “U” shape.
To attach them, the lug is fed into the opening of the U. It can be a little tricky to slip the lug through, but once it’s in you’re given a reassuring snap as it clicks into place.
It’s important to note that Vario’s bund strap runs on the short side, so if your wrist is larger than 7.2” they recommend pairing the bund pad with their single pass NATO.
At the time of writing, the Vario 1918 retails for $388 USD. I think this watch hits a sweet spot in the affordable market.
Modern trench watches are somewhat hard to come by, and the few examples I’ve seen come at higher price points like the Oris Big Crown 1917 or the Longines Heritage Military.
A Steinhart Military 42 will run you about $600 USD, but as the name implies, it’s on the larger side.
This watch is clearly targeted toward a niche of enthusiasts. It’s not exactly a versatile piece in terms of aesthetics, but if you have decided you want a trench watch, you’re in for a treat.
Built with hardy modern specs and a water resistance that outdoes many field watches, the 1918 is fit for service.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below!
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