The Coolest Watch Right Now Is Also A Total Bargain
Unimatic is a Milan-based watchmaker of no-nonsense dive watches that take inspiration from the classic divers of the Fifties, as produced by Rolex, Omega and Blancpain. They are distinguished by their industrial, minimalist design and their competitive (read: total bargain) price. They are sold at End Clothing and Mr Porter in this country, and made their debut at Colette in Paris. That’s good going for a watch brand that celebrates its fifth anniversary this year.
It was founded by Giovanni Moro and Simone Nunziato, who met while they were studying industrial design at technical college in Italy. They bonded over a love of vintage watches (see above), buying up cheap models on eBay.
This led them to having a go at designing their own. They came up with Unimatic’s first and most popular model, the Modello Uno [U1-A]. A slim, 40mm dive watch with a black DLC coating and lumed hour markers displayed in chunky, geometric shapes: circles, triangles and rectangles. It used a Seiko movement and cost less than £500. It looked simple because it was simple. They sold the lot.
Moro and Nunziato continued this aesthetic through several more models (39 to date), all of which were released as limited editions, securing Unimatic's reputation as the hippest microbrand in watches. That accolade was carved in stone with last October’s Unimatic x SpongeBob SquarePants U1-SS watch, featuring an “all-black” SpongeBob motif on the dial and a “SpongeBob SquarePants yellow” nylon strap. It was surely the only dive watch specifically made to function down in Bikini Bottom. Limited to 50 pieces, good luck trying to find one now. This was followed by the Unimatic x Nigel Cabourn Modello U2-NC, co-designed with the iconic fashion designer, and featuring his trademark workwear influence in its stonewashed olive coating.
We recently spoke with Giovanni Moro about the success of Unimatic – a brand that now employs a staff of four – and his plans for the future. “We try to do what we like in the first place,” he says. “And then cross our fingers, hoping that people will like it.”
How did you start?
Unimatic was born in 2015. It was me and my business partner, Simone. We were at college and we started it, basically, as a game. Back in the day we worked as industrial designers and in our spare time we tried to combine our industrial design background with our passion for watch collecting and watch design. We tried to translate these design principles into a physical product, into a watch. Our idea was only to a kind of side project to our nine to five job. And instead the U1-A started selling and very soon we had some contacts from shops and private customers, and so we kept going. We tried to scale up these experiments by applying the same design principle into a collection of watches, a family of different models – and lastly to have a proper brand. This is how we started, and the same spirit in which we try to keep going! Trying to improve our product and our company all together, and trying to to bring something nice that is coherent with what we think about watch design. That’s the short version of the story.
Setting up a watch business doesn't sound straightforward
It wasn’t straightforward. But we were lucky – very lucky. During my previous job I got in touch with this company that was ready to believe in the project, and they agreed to make a very small batch – only 300 pieces – but without compromising the custom design, the quality level and the price point. So we received help from our supplier on Day Zero. And we were able to do it. We will owe them possibly forever, because our first retailer ever was [super-hip, now defunct, shop] Colette in Paris. That was a good start. The highest point we could possibly start from.
Why do you think the watches have caught people’s attention?
I think that the recipe is design plus the quality of execution plus the price point. Then… I don't know exactly what drove the interest of so many to the watch! But we are very happy that we managed to build a company that is very, very, very product/ design driven. There is a very little marketing. No budget. No endorsing. Nothing. Just the product. Take it or leave it.
What are you design influences?
There's a lot of inspirations. I’m fascinated by companies with continuous improvement of a product. Not disruptive innovation, but where you start from a point and then you improve it and improve it, and improve it again. If I have to say brands, I’d say Braun – Dieter Rams. Olivetti, in the Seventies. Porsche cars. And also modern ones – there’s a a lot of good examples: Hyundai, Ferrari. There are number that we humbly try to look at, as masters.
Why the black-on-black aesthetic?
Again, from Colette. In the very beginning we only had the watches in stainless steel. Then we ran out of watches, and they had people asking for new ones. So the guy over there came up with the idea of our first collab. This was the U1-C, Unimatic for Colette. That one was completely black. Dial, hands, case: everything black. And this was a quite a huge success. So we started producing the current lineup. Every single model comes in some kind of stainless steel finishing plus the DLC [Diamond-like carbon] black. We like it. As I say we started as a game. So we try to do what we like in first place and then cross our fingers, hoping that also people will like it. We liked the blacked-out watch. So we keep going that direction.
The knock-down price is clearly important to you
I don’t know. Maybe we could be selling for twice the price. We really don’t know. I see companies using a crazy multiplier to get very, very nice margins. When we did the first watch we tried to price it in a fair way that could allow us to get our small investment back, without such a large profit margin. And this is more or less the same way now. Obviously I'm biassed but I’m trying to be honest: for the quality, it’s very hard to buy at a lower price point than we have. And release after release, we are trying to improve the quality. Not only of the execution, but also the straps, the kit that come with the watch, the box. And so we are slightly adjusting the price to notch higher. But very progressively and, in my opinion, very fairly. Maybe this is a huge mistake. Maybe I should have doubled it.
What watch companies do you admire?
I like a lot of vintage watches. Seiko, Blancpain, Omega, Audemars Piguet, Rolex. There’s so many. My favourite modern watches are Ressence.
Is there a typical Unimatic customer?
We have a very generous customer base. We have hypebeasts, these kind of niche brand people. We also have high-level watch collectors. They own very beautiful and very important pieces, both modern and vintage. And for some reason, they can understand our product and they end up buying and also collecting it. Also, for some reason, people that are into cars: vintage Porsches, and vintage car in general. We have architects. And we also have watch nerds. It’s very weird. There are so many different people that for a reason or another, end up liking and buying Unimatic. Since our company is very small, many customers become friends with us. Having customers from such a different background and such a different life-view, it’s nice. Talking as a human being it's a very, very beautiful feeling – very rewarding – and the highest satisfaction we can get out of Unimatic, quite aside from any business consideration.
None of us need a watch in 2020. Why should be buy a Unimatic?
We are surrounded by a reality where we don’t need a watch at all. But then this has applied to so many objects in the history of humanity. So I don’t know why you should invest in a Unimatic! If you like something in the watch, you are going to end up buying it. Otherwise it is not for you. Wearing a watch in 2020, in the age of the iPhone? It’s mostly a symbolic object. It’s quite a pointless exercise.
We should have some nice collabs coming in September or October. And also we will have a new watch, a new family. It’s going to be a military watch. It has a nice story. It’s a special commission and if everything goes as planned we could have it before the end of the year.
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