By Amos Kwon
on 8.15.11
Photo by Benarus

The watchmaking business is not for the faint of heart. We’ve showcased a number of niche watches on Gear Patrol, and we’re proud to say that Benarus has been one of them. From their groundbreaking Barracuda, which sold out in a matter of weeks, to their latest creations, the Moray 2 and the Remora 3, Benarus continues to introduce high-quality diving watches with unique and beautiful designs. Behind their continued success is Steve Laughlin, designer and head of U.S. marketing for Benarus. Recently, we had the opportunity to sit him down and pick his brain about what it takes to be where Benarus is today. More after the jump.

Gear Patrol: What inspires you on a day to day basis to do what you do? Where do you go for inspiration?

Steve Laughlin: Working at a computer it is easy to go online and look for inspiration, I do it everyday, but I find that I get more inspiration when I am away from my office and out in public, at the shops, the airport, the gym… and see real people wearing different watches that reflect their personality. I like to people watch, big cities and crowds give me energy. I am planning to visit Hong Kong this September for the watch and clock show and this will be a great place for inspiration and motivation.

GP: Are there any brands out there you have a strong respect for when it comes to design?

SL: Ralf and I are designers, we focus on the look and feel of a watch, the case, crystal, dial, hands, lume, weight, height, lug to lug distances. We try different sizes and metals to see how it changes the feel. Because this is our focus I also look to and respect other brands that are more outer design focused, rather than watches that focus on the complications. I have a lot of respect for the real watchmakers creating movements from the ground up, but that is not what we do. Because we are designers of the outer appearance, I also like to look at watches focused on outer appearance such as Panerai, Bell & Ross, Rolex, U-Boat, Sinn. These watches all share classic, easy to read design components, and are very recognizable and well branded. For watches that are focused more on the movements I like to look at F.P. Journe, MB&F and Thomas Prescher.

GP: How did you and Ralf Schreiner get started in the burgeoning niche watchmaking business?

SL: Ralf had already started on his own with the Barracuda. He had been collecting watches for a number of years and was moved to explore how it would be possible to create his own watch. The Barracuda was a hit and he was sold out very quickly. I met Ralf when he introduced the Sea Devil in 2008. I began working on his website needs, then as we kept working together I took over the management and maintenance of the website. When we introduced the basic drawing for the Megalodon, I spent weeks refining the drawing and designs as we posted them on the forum for feedback. Ralf and I work very well together from start to finish on a project, we soon moved all daily operations of Benarus to the US and Ralf has been able to focus on what he does best which is manufacturing.

GP: Describe some of the hurdles Benarus had to overcome in order to become a full-fledged watch brand.

SL: This business is about people, relating to people with the designs, and serving them by creating the highest quality watch we can at the lowest possible price that we can. It also means being available to answer every email with a detailed and clear response. I think this is where other start up brands fail, It takes a lot of effort and a full time commitment to ensure that we deliver the best product with the best customer service that we can offer.

GP:Why watches? Why not something that’s less labor intensive?

SL: Like many who will read this, Ralf and I both developed a love for watches at an early age. I still own my first Seiko that I bought when I was 17. I have also been creating art since I was very young. I have a BFA in design from the Kansas State University Art Department. I studied graphic design, drawing, painting, metals and sculpture, and I have always had a desire to make things. In the past I have made sculptures and paintings just to decorate my house, with watches I am able to work from a drawing to a computer rendering, to machined case, to finished product. It is absolutely satisfying for an artist to see this type of outcome.

GP: What is the inspiration behind some of your very original designs, especially in light of the many cookie-cutter niche watches flooding the market today?

SL: When we design a watch we always consider function or readability like the classic tool watches. But we can break from the classic designs and keep the watch highly readable and functional, like the Megalodon. That watch has an original style but still maintains easy readability and function in any environmental condition. Ralf and I will introduce a new watch design this year and we work from the ground up on the case, dial designs, hands, and other parts that go into creating a unique watch that stands apart from other companies designs. We take our designs to the factory for production, we don’t go to the factory and ask them what they can make for us.

We have a passion for watches, making money is not our objective. We have original designs and great customer service. Our customers know this and continue to support us. I think others have tried this business thinking it is easy to sell out and make good money. The reality is that this business takes a lot of time, this is my full time job.

GP: What watches do you personally own in your collection?

SL: I have 1 or 2 of each Benarus watch that we have produced. I also have a small collection of other watches such as Seikos, Marathons, Casios, U-Boats, a few vintage style pilot watches. I have bought and sold a lot of watches just to try them out and see if I like the fit, feel and size, but I do not collect those, I usually sell them off after some time and buy something else.

GP: If you could choose one grail watch, what would it be?

SL: I don’t really have a grail idea, I have never thought like that because I know when I spend more on a watch it only raises the bar and opens up a new level of prices. At this time I am still not a big spender on high end watches, so the watches that I would see in my future might be a Seiko Ananta, or Spring Drive Marine Master, Rolex Deep Sea, Panerai 47mm submersible, BR01-92.

GP: What designs are forthcoming? Do you see Benarus breaking into other watch styles other than divers?

SL: Ralf and I have a lot of ideas for the near future and the next few years. We are working on a few things that have not been released to the public yet. We post our news, designs, and reservation opportunities on our website, news blog, forum, and facebook page. The best way to get our news is to sign up on our news blog with your email address.

GP: You produce very limited runs of your watches, and they typically all sell out quickly. To what do you credit this success, where other watchmakers have failed?

SL: We have a passion for watches, making money is not our objective. We have original designs and great customer service. Our customers know this and continue to support us. I think others have tried this business thinking it is easy to sell out and make good money. The reality is that this business takes a lot of time, this is my full time job.

GP: What movie star or celebrity would you like to see donning your brand?

SL: Arnold and Sly of course! ok they have been taken by Audemars Piguet and Panerai, so I need a new star. We have recently sponsored David Ireland in Australia. He does a show called The Wildlife Man and I really like what he is doing. He is a seasoned outdoorsman and I like his frame of mind. He has a Benarus Remora to wear on his upcoming shows and we will continue to sponsor and support him.

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