Hands-On: The New Vario Empire GMT — A 1920s-Inspired Travel Watch
Yes, in the past couple of years, we’ve seen many GMT watches come to market from major players in the industry and micro/independent brands alike. It might seem like there are too many GMTs now, but on the positive side, it’s a great time to shop for a travel watch. The latest GMT I want to direct your attention to is the Vario Empire GMT. It is an Art Deco flyer GMT that looks like no other and has a reasonable price tag of just under US$700. I promise that you will agree this is reasonable. However, right off the bat, I’ll say that this watch won’t be for everyone because looks matter more than function here. It may or may not be for you, and I’ll await your comments at the end of this review.
Truth be told, GMT watches used to be out of reach for many of us. Now, though, we can find several good ones for less than $1,000, such as the Nodus Sector GMT and the Traska Venturer GMT. I would also direct you to my two-part series on GMTs from micro/independent brands (here and here) for more options. To put the Vario Empire GMT in context, flyer/traveler GMTs from micro/independent brands typically retail in the US$750–1,500 range. So the US$698 price tag of this watch is fairly in line with what we could now call “industry standards.” As we will see, the strongest selling point of the Vario Empire GMT is its design rather than the movement within because, let’s face it, the Miyota 9075 is no longer a novelty.
The Vario Empire GMT and the Empire Collection
Vario designs watches that hark back to times long gone. More precisely, the brand gravitates toward the Art Deco period of the 1910s–1930s when watches were endowed with highly stylized cases and dials. I’ll refer you to my review of the Versa, which was an amalgam of a classic Cartier Tank and Basculante. In the days when those watches debuted, everything was ornate, complex, bold, and generally contrasting in shapes and colors. Vario debuted the Empire collection a few years back as an elegant, manually wound, time-only watch, to which today’s GMT is a follow-up. You had to like this type of design to buy one. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d like it as much as I do, but this style has quickly grown on me.
What set the Empire collection apart from the brand’s other ones was how thoroughly developed it was. Besides the watches having modest dimensions and solid movements, buyers could choose from many colors and dial textures, including salmon dials, green dials, mother-of-pearl options, and more. So it’s rather exciting to see Vario expand the collection further by adding a GMT variant. And it’s not just any GMT. It is a so-called (perhaps erroneously) “true” GMT with an independently adjustable 12-hour hand. This is what we at Fratello often call a “flyer GMT,” akin to a Rolex GMT-Master II or Tudor Black Bay GMT. Anyway, the Empire collection looks different from what I generally write about, and it stands out for a few reasons.
It’s all about the looks
There’s a lot to see on the Empire GMT, starting at the center of the dial. Although it might be hard to see in photos, Vario opted for a guilloché-like pattern that is exquisitely executed. The level of precision is quite outstanding and unlike many stamped dials I’ve seen at this price point (if you know of any other good ones, please mention them in the comments below). The pattern looks especially nice with the salmon-tone dial, which feels “period correct,” although I couldn’t tell you why. Vario’s printed logo above the pinion is crisp and, I would say, of the right size. Encircling the central portion of the dial is the GMT scale, showing Arabic numerals for the even hours and dots for the odd ones. The GMT scale is printed in white on a black background for maximum legibility.
While the GMT hand is small, its luminescent arrow tip nicely contrasts the dial color. Displaying the local time are a black syringe hour hand and a lance-shaped minute hand, both of which are skeletonized. These pair with Art Deco-styled Arabic hour markers and hash marks, also printed in black. While the hour markers are easy to see, the hour and minute hands aren’t always super legible. This is especially true for the minute hand, which passes over the black GMT scale. Thankfully, the Empire GMT comes in three other colors (blue, green, and white), which appear to be more legible overall. The outer section of the dial with the hour markers also contains gray concentric circles. This decoration adds another layer of complexity to the dial. All of this, then, explains why the Empire GMT is more about looks than function. I hope you like the former!
The specs to back it up
What I’ve come to like about Vario’s watches is the high quality that they offer for the asking price. Everything that you can see on the dial is crisp and flawless to an extent that exceeds its price tag (at least, what I’m used to seeing at this price point). And the same applies to the superb mirror-like polishing on the bezel and top of the lugs. And I would say that the vertical brushing on the case flanks is nicely executed as well. What is perhaps more surprising to me are the clean transitions of the finishes, especially considering the Art Deco design of the lugs. They were designed to appear as if they were welded to the case afterward. It’s a neat detail that is harmonious with the intricate layout of the dial.
Specs-wise, we already know what beats inside — the Miyota 9075 “true” GMT with a 28,800vph (4Hz) frequency and 42-hour power reserve. By now, we’ve seen this caliber in enough watches to know that it’s solid. The 9075 sits inside a case that measures 38mm in diameter, 46mm long, and 12mm thick. The Empire GMT has 20mm lug spacing and drilled lugs for easy strap changes. Note: the watch comes with a stainless steel bracelet (not pictured) and a quick-release Epsom leather strap in your choice of six colors. The crystal is a flat piece of sapphire complemented by an underside antireflective coating, and the crown, though small, is easy to operate. It doesn’t screw down, which explains the reasonable 50m water resistance rating. Lume is almost non-existent, however, and only appears on the tip of the GMT hand.
Knowing what you now know about the Empire GMT, how do you feel about the US$698 price tag? Perhaps, like me, you think it’s reasonable given the specs, execution, and the inclusion of a bracelet and strap. How would you feel if I were to tell you that Vario applies a hardening compound to the case and bracelet? What if I were to add that Vario offers free express worldwide shipping? Not too shabby, right? Of course, whether or not you would pull the trigger on the Empire GMT comes down to this: do you like the way it looks? I do, actually. I generally go for simple tool watches, but the design and execution of the Empire GMT won me over.
If you like what you saw today, I suggest giving Vario’s website a visit here.