Tim Ole Benkus
Sometimes we feel moved by a sense of duty to act.
This urge to act may manifest itself in a number of different ways. Maybe it will show up as a sense of necessity to create something new that fulfills a need for something that doesn’t yet exist. It could also look like a longing to bring back something that existed in previous generations, something that worked well in the past and still works well.
Every generation thinks that cars or watches, for example, were better made before and that they looked more original. Tim Ole Benkus, cofounder of the German watch company Vandaag, felt there was a need to bring back genuine, solid, affordable watchmaking in a market saturated with soulless, cheaply made fashion watches.
There is a pun intended here, by the way: the word “vandaag” means “today” in German. Before creating Vandaag in 2020, Tim worked in marketing and sales for a company in Northern Germany that has been creating collections and components for other watch brands for over two centuries. From design to production to supply chain management, the company set the standard for the distinct specifications and design styles for the customers of those other companies. Such factories are now more prevalent in China and Hong Kong, and much less common in Europe. Think of it as a locally known version of Gay Frères or Squale that manufacturs bracelets and cases for other brands.
Through this experience, Tim has gained a familiarity with all aspects of watch manufacturing and created a solid knowledge base that would prove useful in the future when laying down the foundations of Vandaag. His experience of watchmaking was formed within fairly narrow confines defined by the company he was working for, so Tim made a few trips to Switzerland to visit prominent manufacturers. Doing so opened up his imagination, and as he considered the type of watches that his company was making at the time, the idea of creating his own brand was born.
The Call for Duty
This move was a long time in coming. Working in the watch company, Tim noticed that all watches being requested by their customers were more or the less the same. Minimalists in designs and simplistic in their specifications, the company was making what is customarily known as “fashion watches” in the style of Daniel Wellington and MVMT. Germany had its own versions of the aforementioned brands, and those were the only brands that people seemed interested in, or at least that’s what he was told by industry insiders he had met during his many years working for the German company. Tim, however, couldn’t accept the idea that watchmaking was doomed to a lack of originality that foreclosed striking out in new, fresh directions.
As mass-market watch requests were becoming less and less original, Tim and his partner, then, decided to go the opposite direction and bring back quality and affordable watch manufacturing to Germany. This is not to say that Germany lacks great watch manufacturers—naturally we must mention Sinn, Nomos, and Damasko among others—but none of these brands offer good watches for under $1,000. There was a niche there ready to be explored, and Tim and his partner were the men for the job. Their overarching objective was to create watches that pay tribute to the people of Northern Germany—where they are from—who are known to be reliable and versatile in their friendships.
Tim wanted his watches to be just that: versatile and reliable.
The Creative Process
As someone who had long been working in watchmaking for a company that made and assembled watches for more than 200 years, it was expected that Tim would want his watches to be assembled in Germany. The first model the brand produced was a quartz chronograph, the Schallmauer, which is probably their most iconic model to date. Looking at this watch, one can tell how Vandaag approaches watchmaking: with a great deal of attention to detail, an unapologetically straightforward approach, and a commitment to offering great value for the money. While it may be easy to summarize the spirit of Vandaag in one sentence, the process of creating the first model was not so quick and easy.
It took six months, in fact.
The first and longest step in watchmaking is, of course, design. Tim and his colleagues spent about three months planning and creating multiple drawings of the Schallmauer, tweaking every single detail until—28 versions later—they came up with the right proportions, feel, and personality. Just to name one change, Tim mentioned having to switch the way in which the crown was engraved: from laser engraving to a more involved engraving process that would give the crown a lot of character, thus signaling that the entire watch was as well-made and given as much attention as the crown.
The following step was coming up with the list of ideal specifications for the watch. Although it may sound like what would be the best part of the process—I imagine being at a watch factory, being presented several options for the dial color, texture, hands, crystal, and leather straps, and having to come up with the perfect recipe—it turns out to be a game of juggling. Tim and his colleagues had to work hard to find the right balance between specifications, production costs, and, ultimately, the sale price. Vandaag’s watches are reasonably priced, given the amazing spec sheet. Creating the list of specifications takes Vandaag about three to four weeks.
The next step is the engineering of the watch. This means the translation of the 3D renderings into technical drawings. At this stage, the team combs through all dimensions of the watch case and parts, tests the tolerances for the hands and case, and fine-tunes the design of the case and the lugs. In this period that lasts four to six weeks, Tim and his colleagues create 3D drawings and 3D printed prototypes, in the process of which they get a better feel for the overall proportions of the watch and the ways that every element comes into play and looks next to one another.
Once the engineering phase is complete, Vandaag selects the best factory to make the materials necessary for the production of the first prototypes, including the hands, cases, dials, and movements, and this is when they take a first look at the dial colors in person. Once the prototypes have been produced and checked—and most likely adjusted—they put in the order for the production of all the parts that they will assemble in their factory in Germany. At this point in the process, it’s interesting to compare how different brands go about this phase differently. While some order the already-made watches from a factory, Vandaag goes a step further in assembling the watches themselves.
Three months after having received the first prototypes, all the parts arrive, ready to be assembled. The assembling and quality control takes about two weeks for each batch of watches, after which another two weeks of in-house testing for reliability, accuracy, and water resistance ensues. Aided by their long experience working in watch manufacturing, the team makes a point of doing all the testing themselves in-house. Their technical competency distinguishes them from many other young brands that receive the watches already assembled.
Having worked behind the scenes for many years, Tim has a sincere passion for the manufacturing process and design of the watches, and his longstanding involvement in the industry has had a positive influence on the other sides of the business. The Vandaag staff has built friendships with the vendors they have worked with by virtue of the dedication to creating well-built watches they all share. While watchmakers (normally called owners, but I like to see them for who they actually are) design the watches and outsource everything else, Tim gets involved in every step of the process. His full dedication shows through when one looks at the Vandaag catalog, especially when handling the watches in person. For a few hundred dollars, you get a well-built watch that makes you feel you have an honest product in your hands.
Of all the aspects of creating a watch, Tim is particularly drawn to the design, both the production of the first sketches, the 3D renderings, and 3D printed prototypes. During each phase, Tim keeps working on the design to adjust all aspects of the watch, making sure the dimensions are right to guarantee that the watch is readable and has character. He loves the intricacy of designing a watch and solving problems throughout the multiple redesigns of the prototypes.
I think it’s fair to assume that anyone who creates a business of any sort likes interacting with customers. Tim likes this part too. The pandemic was tough on him, as it prevented him from interacting with watch enthusiasts in person. He had to wait almost two years before at last resuming this part of the job at the WatchTime watchmaker industry event in Düsseldorf in October 2021. We can only imagine how exciting it must be to showcase the collections you worked so hard to produce to fans and potential new supporters of the brand.
A Dedication to Well-Made Watches
Part of the process of getting to know the people behind the brands requires digging a bit deeper into their own watch philosophy. We cannot fully understand a brand if we don’t fully grasp what motivates entrepreneurs to launch watch brands. As we already know, Tim did not get into horology in 2020 when Vandaag was founded. He and his team have a combined experience of 20 years in watchmaking. Truly, then, Vandaag is not really a young brand. Its creators and employees have experience equal to those who work for long-established horological houses.
Personally, Tim has an affinity for well-built sport watches with simple designs, designs that have been proven time and time again to be effective and timeless. If he hadn’t created Vandaag, he would be wearing an Oris Aquis GMT, a sturdy, legible, and subtly intricate watch that will stand the test of time. To Tim, this Oris is a good example of a sturdy and honest watch that has undergone changes (Oris modifies the movements) to make it a better watch. Such modifications and this attention to detail inspires Tim—and by definition his colleagues—to make even better timepieces.
A testimony of Tim’s dedication to well-made watches is that in 2022, we saw the release of an automatic version of the Schallmauer. After releasing an automatic version of their dress watch, the Primus, and after the successful release of their first dive watch, the Tiefsee, the next logical step for the Vandaag team is to push the envelope and put an automatic movement in their best-seller chronograph. Vandaag settled on a Swiss-made Sellita 500 movement for the updated Schallmauer, a robust movement with two subregisters, a date, and a customized rotor.
There doesn’t seem to be just one way to make a watch. A big part of the personality of the creator gets mixed in the process, and what comes out of it is something unique. There might be, for example, many quartz chronographs on the market with a price tag of less than $500, but it is the details of the case design, the addition of a count-up bezel, and the contrasting red date wheel that sets the Schallmauer apart from other chronos. What truly makes it different—and what makes all Vandaag models different—is the personality of the creator.
Thanks for reading.