tudio Underd0g burst onto the scene during the depths of the Covid pandemic. What started out as a passion project quickly developed into a fully-fledged commercial venture, as the company released one sell-out collection after another. With dial themes like Watermel0n, Mint Ch0c Chip, Go0fy Panda, and Pepper0ni Pizza, these watches guarantee to spark joy. Now, according to the man behind the brand, Richard Benc, the microbrand is one of the UK’s top three mechanical watch producers.
Launched in 2021, Studio Underd0g’s aim is to inject whimsy into traditional watch styling. It puts playfulness front and centre, starting with names. The number “0” that replaces the letter “o” is no print error, it is a deliberate design choice that forms the brand identity. The market evidently cannot get enough of such eccentricity. From Richard Mille’s 2019 Bonbon collection featuring fruits and marshmallow, and Hublot’s smiling flower in rainbow-coloured sapphires, to Rolex’s newest “Bubble” and “Puzzle” graphical dials unveiled at Watches and Wonders, the industry is getting serious about fun vibes.
- Richard Benc
- Credit: James Porter & Son
From the outset, Benc took an unrestrained approach to combining vintage aesthetics with a refreshing, modern twist. Cue a quirky lopsided bi-compax chronograph in delicious colours, powered by the Seagull calibre ST-1901 with an interesting backstory. This hand-wound column-wheel movement started life in the 1940s as the Swiss Venus Cal.175. Its technical know-how was sold to the Chinese in the 1960s so they could develop a chronograph for their Air Force. “I love the history. And I like the idea of the juxtaposition of this incredibly old technology with this sort of modern playful dial,” says Benc.
With dial themes like Watermel0n, Mint Ch0c Chip, Go0fy Panda, and Pepper0ni Pizza, these watches guarantee to spark joy.
If that sounds like a watch enthusiast talking, it’s because Benc very much is one. He recalls how he “became obsessed” with watches during a five-year stint working as a product designer for Braun watches. He would absorb as much information as he could and visit Baselworld to keep abreast of the latest and greatest in the industry. Meanwhile, he matured professionally in watch development projects including Red Dot and iF design award-winning products.
“I had a head start,” he admits, “I’ve been to Switzerland. I’ve been to Hong Kong. I’ve been to China. I visited multiple different factories and had built relationships with suppliers around the world. So, once I had my concept, I instantly knew who I wanted to work with. I knew which suppliers would be able to overcome certain technical challenges with the development or to achieve the best colour for the dial.”
While things were looking promising, though, there was a minor hindrance of the pandemic. Starting a business is not easy at the best of times, but especially not when the global supply chain was in utter disarray. “Fortunately, [my suppliers] were prepared to take on what, at the time, was a risk in developing products for a brand that didn’t exist,” Benc adds, with a smile, “but I like to think that’s paid off for everyone.”
Getting parts, though, was only half the battle, as Benc decided to have assembly and testing done in Britain. “Because there is no foundation of doing it here in the UK, the first challenge is finding the talent, the second is, it’s really expensive,” he explains, “As a ball park, assembling watches in the UK versus in Switzerland costs multiples more. And if you think of Swiss made and the reputation that Switzerland has in the watch industry, people ask themselves, actually, why would I bother with all that extra investment for something that may not be perceived as valuable?”
Getting parts, though, was only half the battle, as Benc decided to have assembly and testing done in Britain.
It’s a question which most British watch brands do not have an answer for. For many, in order to run a viable business, going overseas is the only way to make commercial sense. But not for Benc: “I’m personally passionate about [the resurgence of British watchmaking]. So, I’m happy, to an extent, to pave the way or help along that development and bring a bit of work to this country.”
Benc is a fervent supporter of scaling the British watch sector and is as sanguine about this topic as he is discussing his watches. “I feel like we’re at the start of the rising tides. It’s a case that we’re all in this together and that’s why people aren’t necessarily looking at each other as competitors. Everyone can grow and be successful, not only in terms of scalability but also the community aspects. Besides brands that are working together, enthusiasts and customers are excited about this.”
Armed with a compelling mission, Studio Underd0g has managed to team up with a local watchmaker to ride the new wave together. From flying solo, his partner’s workshop has doubled its space and grown to a staff of eight, serving 90-95% of Studio Underd0g’s business. The straps are also locally made by an artisan watch strap specialist. Impressively, for a price of 500 British pounds, these mechanical watches see their final assembly and quality control entirely in England.
Benc is a fervent supporter of scaling the British watch sector and is as sanguine about this topic as he is discussing his watches.
Primarily targeting the enthusiast community, the value proposition is as irresistible as one of the brand’s Strawberries & Cream dials. Even for the non-limited regular collections, all models are currently out of stock. The last sales window was open for just six hours and took in over 2,000 orders. “At the end of the day, the reason for that success is because of the interest in the market,” says Benc, highlighting his unique selling points, “Customers are obviously valuing Studio Underd0g for its quality of components, its design, and the storytelling of the work that we’re doing in the UK.”
Benc is methodical and perceptive about developing his business. This underdog has shown entrepreneurial ambition as well as all the ingredients to become a serious player. Now, he’s bringing in a new team member and scheming the next design phase to go beyond colourful chronographs. “Actually, I’m developing a new line of a field watch… for future projects, I really want to innovate with materials,” he shares, “And we’re developing some techniques that, as far as I know, haven’t been done before in the industry.”
With novel development comes technical challenges. “Because there’s nothing like it out on the market, these hurdles are difficult to overcome and may often trip people up,” says Benc with a big grin. “But this is part of the process and what’s exciting about innovation. It’s something I want to keep pushing on with and pushing through. Hopefully, it means by the end of it, it’ll be a superior product and people can be really excited about it.” Here is a man who makes even the most formidable obstacles part of the fun.
Even for the non-limited regular collections, all models are currently out of stock. The last sales window was open for just six hours and took in over 2,000 orders.