Innovation Meets Timekeeping: Rick Cosgrove's Creative Journey At Sō Labs
Whimsy, playful and genuinely original in design, here’s how Sō Labs watches stand out in a crowd of USD 1000 watches
During a recent Zoom call with Sō Labs co-founder, Rick Cosgrove, I couldn’t help but notice the intriguing backdrop – wall clocks. Not just one but over 10 of them surrounded with vintage furniture pieces that resembled something out of the space-age or The Jetsons. As we progressed with our hour-long conversation, I figured these artifacts were totally in tune with his unwavering quest for distinctive designs in watchmaking. Cosgrove's funky creations epitomize a harmonious blend of form and function, resulting in timepieces that are as visually striking as they are technically impressive.
We explore Cosgrove’s love for collecting vintage furniture pieces and watches and the evolution of his fascinating brand, Sō Labs.
Excerpts from the interview:
How did you get into the rabbit hole of collecting vintage objects?
I've been collecting things since my childhood, even down to the chair I'm sitting in. This chair, designed by Luigi Colani, dates back to 1970. I mean, back in high school, my approach to eBay was quite unconventional. I didn't have direct access to my bank account, so I would engage in side deals with buyers on eBay. It was during the "Wild West" era of eBay. I would even strike deals with people from Germany, Switzerland, and Japan, conducting transactions through money orders sent via the US Postal Service, and then like crossing my fingers that the stuff would arrive. I would walk to the post office to handle these transactions, as I didn't have a car at the time. My mom eventually caught on to what I was doing when a chair from Germany and a large Elio Martinelli Serpent lamp from Switzerland arrived on the same day. It got to a point where she was like, “What the heck are you doing here?” She was understandably perplexed and questioned my spending habits. I had invested my earnings from summer jobs into buying furniture, rare lamps, and original pieces before Mid Century Modern became a popular trend.
I can still remember the first piece I bought, which was a lamp designed by Joe Colombo. I have collected various items over the years, including ashtrays, pipes, and unique decor pieces like my tissue holder, which is a ball of tissue from the ‘70s. I was fascinated by the designers, the time periods in which the items were created, and how they still held relevance and uniqueness in the present day.
How did you get into watches?
I've been collecting watches forever. It kind of started when I was a kid. I always had a watch. I remember my first watch was a Swiss Army Luminox. I loved that thing, even though back then I didn't know the purpose of the bezel. I started collecting Swatches. I got into collecting rarer and rarer Swatches, and I still have some of them with me now. I even have one of the Keith Haring Blanc Sur Noirs. My first real watch was the Omega Speedmaster, the original Moonwatch. I purchased a 2001 model, which was the year my wife and I started dating. I wanted it to be very sentimental, like all my pieces, so I bought that watch.
From there, the second significant piece I bought was a Tudor 9401 Blue Snowflake. I bought it when my first child was born. There were so many little tie-ins with her birth. She was born in March, and it was snowing at the time. I loved that watch because of the connection it had to those moments. It was made by Tudor, which is associated with Rolex, but I didn't want a Rolex. I specifically wanted that piece. I have the original bezel, the original bill of sale, a new bezel that the previous owner purchased, the original bracelet, and the box. I get really nerdy about all those little details.
What prompted you to venture into the world of watches in the first place?
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, we adapted and expanded our business offerings, during this process, Event Architects transformed into Agency EA, and I was entrusted with the role of president, overseeing the company's operations on the Agency EA side. I have been with the organization throughout my career and this watch (Layer One) stemmed from that, actually. So for our 20th anniversary, we all were like we got to do something really different. And if it would have come out of my mouth, it would have gotten shut down, but it came out of our Head of Marketing, she was like, “why don't we do a watch? And we'll have Rick do it.”
What sets Sō Labs apart, and what innovative approaches do you plan to pursue?
I feel it's easy to recognize brands that lack soul. And I think that really comes from whether a brand has a founder and a face who has a personal affinity towards an idea. I respect that, even if it's not a style that I personally like. It's when you start getting into the stuff where they pump out eight different models that all look different but also clearly uniform. They feel very off-the-shelf, like you can pick things from a Chinese manufacturer's catalogue and mass-produce them. I have no desire to do that whatsoever. Not a single thing on this watch is taken from a catalogue. Even the bracelet was custom sketched based on a Girard-Perregaux bracelet from the ‘70s, which I retrofitted to fit on my ochs und junior. It was based on that, where I thought, "Alright, this needs to be 100% unique to my own preferences and what I think will look amazing on my wrist." But I also believe that other people will be attracted to it. I like clean lines, and even though the ochs und junior has crazy short lugs, it's still a very different watch. The Girard-Perregaux bracelet definitely inspired and influenced some of the things that are the better part of Layer 2. Looking into the future of this brand, my number one challenge with the designs is how to continue using complications in a new way that is hyper-focused on aesthetics.
“Watches with fun(k).” What was the inspiration behind that?
"Sō" has multiple translations in Japanese, with "layer" being one of them. The concept of layering resonates with the idea of creativity and serves as the foundation for my inspiration. My time in Japan further reinforced my love for minimalistic aesthetics and the attention to detail prevalent in their culture. Living there exposed me to the beauty of simplicity, even in the smallest aspects. In the United States, it's rare to see a wall perfectly meeting the floor without a visible gap or caulk line. But in Japan, it's a precise and seamless connection, creating a sense of perfection. This level of craftsmanship and attention to detail inspired me and influenced my vision for this project.
So many watch brands, it’s like you go on their website and it says we've designed this for climbing, exploring the outdoors and all the kids. And it's like, most people aren't doing that. Their desk diving, okay. They're wearing a watch to work, or they're wearing it on the weekend. In most cases, it's not a tool to flaunt, it's personal. It's something that you should, yes, you could look at so many things to tell time today. So why isn't something that you're wearing on your wrist more about the joy of seeing something interesting on your wrist and it being fun, and funky, and like that idea of like, “hey, loosen up a little bit.”
How do the Layer 1 and Layer 2 watches function to tell time?
I do think that the only way I enjoy showing people is by undoing the crown, moving the hands, and letting them see it in action. It's when they see the discs move that they usually find it super cool. And then I usually point out the seconds hand, which often goes unnoticed. So the progression is typically like, "Oh, I see how the hour and minute work." Then I explain the day-date feature and how it's replaced with gradients. And finally, there's that little seconds hand in the middle, not just sweeping around, but adding to the subtlety of the whole watch. It's that tiny point starting to move around. I would say that without unscrewing the crown, people don't get the full effect of it.
Are there any watchmaking legends or influential figures you admire or look up to?
I think Alain Silberstein is a f*cking badass. It's similar. It's like having a background in architecture and then going full throttle into watches in a very serious way. Our watches don’t touch how bizarre-ly different his stuff was when he was first making it. Talk about case thickness, some of his cases are like a f*cking stacked hamburger on your wrist, quite literally. And you know, the shapes and I think some of his influence is definitely ingrained in my brain.
Can you describe Sō Labs in three words that capture its essence?
Funky, colorful and quality.
What does the future hold for Sō Labs? What can we expect to see next?
Definitely clocks, tabletops, and maybe wall clocks. And hopefully, Chronos when I have time to design.