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Studio Underd0g’s Richard Benc On Creating Watches With A Fruity Twist

Studio Underd0g’s Richard Benc On Creating Watches With A Fruity Twist

By Natasha Fernandes
8 Dec 2023
10 min read

London-based designer Richard Benc is all set to woo the world with his “serious but not-so-serious” fruity twists to traditional chronographs and field watches

It’s often hard to imagine watches with names like Watermel0n, Go0fy Panda, Pink Lem0nade and Full Mo0n, mostly because timepieces are perceived as “serious” objects. However, London-based designer, Richard Benc, is out to change all that more. His playful, fruity twists to traditional chronographs and field watches have been exceptionally popular with enthusiasts looking to add wild and wonderful watches to their collection.

Studio Underd0g's 01SERIES

Over the last few years, Benc has worked on a variety of things — right from pocket-friendly character watches for kids (the first set of watches he worked on featured little minions that shot small discs) to fashion watches. In early 2020, he launched his very own brand so he could create a "not-so-serious watch that's also a serious watch" —enter Studio Underd0g. The success of his debut 01Series and the subsequent collections have solidified Benc’s position in the British watchmaking story as he continues to create captivating watches, which resonate with both himself and collectors.

Read on to learn more about Richard Benc and the making of his microbrand.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background as the founder of Studio Underd0g?

Early on, I applied for jobs in London, determined to make my mark in the big city. After much effort, I successfully secured a job as a watch designer. For six years, my primary focus was on designing character watches, fashion watches, and watches for various brands.

The first set of watches I worked on included a kids' watch featuring little minions that shot small discs. Interestingly, until that point, I didn't personally own a watch and had even borrowed my dad's watch for the job interview. This experience opened the door to the industry and sparked my enthusiasm for watches, making me an avid enthusiast from that moment onward.

During one of the COVID lockdowns, I had the opportunity to bring to life an idea that had been lingering in the back of my mind. With the closure of pubs and newfound free time, I dedicated myself to exploring this passion project: Studio Underd0g. Over the past two and a half years, this project has grown into an incredibly exciting and enjoyable business venture.

Photo: Richard Benc

How did the brand name ‘Studio Underd0g’ come to be?

I always saw myself as an underdog in the industry, and because I approach design with a unique perspective, the name came to me naturally. I spent months searching for the perfect brand name, following rules like having a five or six-letter word that's punchy. I decided to disregard all those guidelines and opted for something truly unique. And so, Studio Underd0g was born. The addition of the '0' was a playful nod to the experience of creating a unique password, where you might throw in a '0' to make it more secure.

What was the initial response to Studio Under0g?

It was exciting. I still have a live screen recording of my very first project. The way the project came about was that I put some initial graphics, renders, and images online. People started engaging with them, which motivated me to continue pursuing this project and creating samples and whatnot. I was somewhat nervous but excited to go live with the products. And as far as I was concerned, even in the worst-case scenario, it wasn't particularly bad if no one liked them and I didn't sell a single one. I would still have some cool samples I developed and could wear. It wasn't really meant to be a commercial project; it was just a pure passion project. I think that approach was one of the keys to the success of the brand. I just wanted to design a product myself that I thought was a bit of fun. No one would have said that a watermelon-themed column wheel chronograph was a good idea for a business, but because it had such a unique approach to the industry, it resonated with a small group of people, the enthusiast community.

Studio Underd0g 01SERIES Watermel0n
Studio Underd0g 01SERIES Watermel0n

What inspired the 01SERIES?

The concept was to create a not-so-serious watch, that's also serious. From the perspective of finishing, the quality of my suppliers and the people I work with - it was important for it to be a serious watch. If you look at my customer base, I get sent photos of someone’s collection and they’ll have a Daytona, an Audemars Piguet and they’ll have their Studio Underd0g.

What about the 02SERIES and how would you compare it to the 01SERIES?

To understand the inspiration, you have to understand my process. At first glance, the 01SERIES and the 02SERIES may appear as vastly different products, stemming from distinct briefs or originating from contrasting sources. The reality is that the brief was the same, and my approach to design was identical. Yet, it led to entirely different outcomes. What I mean by this is when you examine the 01SERIES and the 02SERIES, I embraced a rather conventional, vintage reference for one series, drawing inspiration from a 1960s chronograph. I adhered to the design concept of that era, encompassing the case, materials, and the tapered strap. I infused a modern, playful dial through the use of color and graphic design. The 02SERIES followed the same principles. I took inspiration from a traditional field watch, specifically the 1940s Omega ‘Dirty Dozen’. Many design decisions, such as the drill-like NATO strap closure and the closed caseback, aligned with the guidelines of the traditional brief. In the midst of battle, a sapphire crystal is unnecessary as one doesn't need to view the back of their watch. Moreover, it increases production costs and compromises water resistance. Hence, the closed caseback. The bezel is integrated with the mid-case as a single component to enhance water resistance and other factors. I adhered to all the rules outlined by the traditional brief. Once again, I added a modern, playful twist to the dial. With the 02SERIES, there was more experimentation with materials. The process and mindset in approaching the design were very similar, but the outcomes resulted in distinct products. I believe this was crucial for my second endeavor—to convey, through my approach, what it truly means to be a Studio Underd0g. Prior to the 02SERIES, many people may have assumed that being an underdog solely equated to watermelon colors on a dial, but there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Studio Underd0g 02SERIES Pink Lem0nade

Which watch designs do you admire?

The brands that come to mind, for a number of reasons, are MB&F and H. Moser & Cie. I think their designs are interesting and innovative. Those brands resonate with me because they have a similar approach to the industry, but on steroids. In the watch industry, which is a serious place, they come in with a playful angle while also taking it very seriously. That's something that I try to do as well, albeit at different price points and in slightly different ways. My take is more design-led and materials-focused, which brings a whole lot more to the table. But those are the two brands that I look up to in terms of pure design. Also, Brew Watches, in particular, has a unique approach to the industry, and it's something that I respect and was motivated by when I started my brand.

According to you, what makes for a great watch design?

So much about watches is about storytelling or connecting it with a core memory or occasion. A good watch is something you want to talk about, I think that's what makes a good watch. A good watch can be a USD15 Casio you bought in the ‘90s to mark your first job or a USD100,000 AP, that’s one-of-a-kind. It could also just be a watch you’re comfortable wearing. 

In terms of design, something as simple as the position of your logo can make a difference. For example, if you place your logo between the center pinion of the hands, where the 12-hour marking sits, or even position it in a peculiar place, that's one aspect to consider. When you examine my 01SERIES with the ST-1901 movement, the challenge was to create something super modern and fresh, yet familiar. You will notice many design cues that I've drawn from vintage watches in the 01SERIES. As a result, it might feel like something you've never seen before, but it also feels familiar. When you achieve the right design and create something intriguing people can't necessarily explain why they like it – that's essentially a good design.

Studio Underd0g 01SERIES Desert Sky

Studio Underd0g was launched during the pandemic. What challenges did you face, especially in creating a micro watch brand?

There were certainly some challenges and obstacles. but that helped me refine my next move over time. For a new, non-Swiss brand like Studio Underd0g, to be nominated for the GPHG (Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève) awards, was incredible. It gave me hope when Christopher Ward won a competitive category “Petite Aiguille,” it represented some progress and growth for British horology.

How does it feel to be a part of the British watchmaking story?

When I initially entered the industry as a British microbrand, I reached out to all the prominent players and admired British brands, such as Roger Smith, the re-founder and owner of Fears Watches, Bowman-Scargill, and Mike France, the co-founder and CEO of Christopher Ward. I was eager to engage in conversations and absorb as much knowledge as possible. I think in most industries when a new player, no matter how big or small comes to ask for advice or guidance, they’re seen as a competitor and it’s a door slammed in the face. There’s no conversation to be had. Whereas, I had the opposite experience. Everyone understands there’s so much potential in British horology that if we work together, we can grow together – a rising tide lifts all boats

Recently, I was having an issue with shipping and duties and taxes to the US. I was easily able to pick up the phone and call Paul from Farer watches for advice – everyone wants to collaborate rather than compete. Speaking of Roger Smith, he actively participates in the alliance of British watchmaking and clockmakers. He possesses a profound understanding that British horology encompasses more than just his own work; it encompasses the broader industry. This understanding will contribute to the growth of the entire industry.

Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, Roger Smith and Richard Benc Photo: Richard Benc

Which watches do you have in your personal watch collection?

Once I had a few years under my belt in the industry, I kind of went with a classic choice, which may not be super unique or surprising considering what I'm doing now. But it was the Tudor Black Bay 58. I still have it in my collection, which is fortunate because at one point, my house got broken into, and it was stolen. However, six months later, I somehow managed to recover it, which was amazing. So that's one watch that I have to hold onto now and never let leave the collection. But now, of course, the collection varies so much. I really love what Mr. Jones watches are doing. They have a similar approach in terms of not taking it too seriously. I also recently acquired a C1 Bel Canto from Christopher Ward and a Rolex Datejust ‘Palm’.

Tudor Black Bay 58 Photo: Richard Benc

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to start their own watch brand?

There’s a famous saying from Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But the message still stands in the fact that you can get as much feedback and try to give the market what the market wants. But that’s not going to always result in the best product. 1. If you've got an idea, and you've got a vision, just stick with it. 2. Find the right people to work with from the get go, even if it comes at a premium price. Know what their skill sets and abilities are. 

How do you envision the future of Studio Underd0g?

My focus has always been on product. I think as long as I can create products that I find interesting and that resonate with the enthusiast community – that’s the kind of approach that I want to stick with. Storytelling is incredibly important, so helping to continue to tell the story as to what it means to be a studio under the overwatch. A lot of my decision making and what I look forward to in the future is the physical products rather than business goals or targets. I keep it quite simple.