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Vario Watches

Words by Chris Antzoulis (@poppingcrowns)

The enthusiast community is used to seeing divers, integrated bracelet sport watches, field watches…but what about 37mm trench watches or affordable takes on a reversible watch? It’s a rarity to find someone going against the grain with almost every watch they release, and even more rare to see that it’s working! But a feat of this magnitude couldn’t work without passion and perseverance. Ivan Chua, founder of Vario, has been doing exactly this with his wife Judy, out of Singapore, for the last eight years.

Ivan Chua

Ivan Chua, a Singapore native, was a creative student who went down a winding road to find his path. While studying for an engineering diploma, he found that he had a real knack for building websites at a time when the internet first became widely available. Companies started to reach out to him and pay him to build their sites. Ivan quickly started to make a modest living. “This was my first taste of real entrepreneurship. I was making good money, but knew I needed more and did not want to give up on my education,” he said. So, he moved to Australia to complete a digital media degree in Sydney. It was here that Ivan was introduced, by one of his professors, to animation. 


He grew his own business background in broadcast design, working for the likes of MTV, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic. Ivan was able to navigate through the different tones and design motifs of these companies, to help them build upon their well-established brands. However, after Ivan returned to Singapore with his business, he began feeling as though he wanted to rely less on his phone in day-to-day life, so he went to find his old watches. 

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Most of his old quartz watches worked as soon as he changed the battery, but he found that their straps were poorly made and had fallen apart. Using his design ingenuity, Ivan sought to solve the problem by making quality affordable watch straps. He saw a problem, had a solution, and then utilized IndieGoGo to execute it. Ivan wasn’t intending for this to spark a long running business, but soon something special happened; Ivan started receiving photos from his customers pairing their Vario straps with the watches in their collection. “This is when I started to really learn all about different watches and brands,” he said. 


As Ivan’s knowledge of watches grew, he started to find his own taste. When he finds styles of watches that he likes, he is inspired to design his own take. “I just want to do things that I think are cool, and find my own tribe,” he said. Many of Ivan’s watches are modern takes on dress watches or military inspired designs, yet he always wants to inject them with classy elements, so they can be worn for many different occasions. He does this using modern materials and case finishing. For instance, if you look at the Vario 1945 D12, you’ll notice it’s a modern take on a Dirty Dozen watch. An original WW2 field watch would not have had polished elements on the bezel, but the D12 has a polished ring on the side of the bezel that acts as an outline to the dial, enabling it to stand out in a way the original design didn’t (and for their old purposes were not meant to). The effect is beautiful and creates a classy look to an otherwise simple tool watch design. 

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“I have some people that only buy the Versa, or the Trench watch, and some who buy from multiple lines,” Ivan said. He has been successful in building a community of people who are after unique and approachable watches. But also, people who are looking for modernized classics that are often looked over by other brands. This is the tribe of people Ivan always wanted to find, and he’s utilized their input through surveys and questionnaires for new watches, so that he could best gather information regarding what they want to see. Although, he admittedly doesn’t always take their advice, “a slight majority of people didn’t want the proper fixed lugs on the Trench. And I decided, ‘no, that’s a key part of what the watch is.’ So, I did it anyway, and I think I made the right choice.” 


After this watch came out, it was received well by customers. “I’ve had multiple customers who have messaged me saying how happy they are with the Trench, that they collect trench watches, but that I could provide them with one they are comfortable wearing all the time, and they could save their original trench watches for special occasions.” Ivan explains that he loves these types of conversations and interactions with customers. And when Ivan brought Vario to District Time 2024 in Washington D.C., he finally got to meet some of those U.S. customers in person. “I remembered people who contacted me through email, and now I was meeting them in person at my first US show.” The exuberance on Ivan’s face as he recalled meeting members of this community was apparent, as it represented a validation of the passion he’s put into his business.

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Vario exhibiting at the 2024 District Time Show

It’s important to also know that Ivan hasn’t built Vario and this community alone. Ivan’s wife, Judy, runs Vario with him and is equally important to the foundation of the brand. Ivan met Judy in Hong Kong where they both worked for the same company. They often worked late together, and they soon started to chat and get drinks together. “We had things in common. We both like arts and history. And she was easy to talk to. So, we hit it off.” But their relationship wasn’t without some hardship. For a time, there was a physical distance between them. Ivan saw a gap in the market in Singapore and started his own studio in his home country, while Judy remained in Hong Kong. But eventually Judy came to Singapore and began working with Ivan once again. And now they both work for Vario full-time. 

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Ivan and Judy Chua

“At Vario I like to say we have two monkeys. One is the email monkey, and that’s me. And Judy is the fulfillment monkey.” Judy packs everything and writes all the notes to customers, while Ivan converses with customers digitally. During each step of the process, Vario customers get a personal touch, and that seems to be reflective of Ivan and Judy’s own relationship with one another. As Ivan spoke more of Judy, he seemed to be more relaxed in the conversation. “Funny enough, as a husband-and-wife relationship, we never fought before. Can you believe that?” He asked rhetorically. His voice went soft, eyes gleamed, and his face loosened. As proud as Ivan is of Vario, it seems that the company is an extension of the joy emanating from his relationship with Judy. “We both seem to know when to be calm,” he took a small pause, “maybe she would complain that I’m always talking about work […] but she’s very understanding when it comes to me.” 


When Ivan made the decision that he wanted to stop working for his own studio in broadcast design and transition to Vario full-time, Judy was supportive. “When I had my studio, I was also teaching motion design part-time, so the money was good. But I became so passionate about Vario. She could’ve told me this wasn’t a real job, but she didn’t. She believed in Vario and in me.” He took a small pause, looked down as if recalling moments that have led to this point, before saying, “I am very fortunate.” 

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Judy QC'ing at the Factory

The future seems bright for Ivan, Judy, and Vario. Up until this point, Ivan and Judy have been running the company from their home, but their sights are set on moving to a new office space soon, with plans to hire their first employee and then hopefully start their own showroom. 


Ivan embodies perseverance and proves that if the passion is there you can do great things. Vario has earned the trust of their customers through the world class attention that Ivan gives to the details of his watches, and the customer service that Ivan and Judy provide to everyone that reaches out to the brand. It’s Vario’s mission to continue to offer a variety of watches and straps from different genres for enthusiasts to enjoy. 


“Not every brand can be like Zelos or Baltic, they make one watch, it’s a hit and they keep going. Many of us need to find our way and come out with multiple watches before people trust us […] Many brands make a watch, the results are not fantastic, and they give up. They lose passion. When you don’t have the passion anymore, that’s when you know you should leave. Because then it’s just a drag. But, if you have the passion, don’t give up.”  - Ivan Chua 

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