Interview with Steve Laughlin of Benarus Watches

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It’s no secret that the Worn&Wound staff has enjoyed the watches created by Raven and Benarus, as well as their accessories division Suppa Parts. The affiliated companies (by partners Steve Laughlin and Ralf Schreiner) are known for watches that draw from past designs as well as looks that are very original. In the past, we’ve reviewed the Raven Deep, Raven Vintage, Raven Deep Tech, and Benarus Megaladon and have been generally impressed with the looks, finishes and technical achievements.

We had the opportunity to ask co-owner Steve Laughlin, who is based in Overland Park, Kansas, about the past of Raven/Benarus/Suppa and where the companies are heading. As always, keep on the lookout on the Raven and Benarus websites for the latest news on their releases, as certain models tend to sell out quickly with a devoted fan base.

How do you and Ralf come up with your designs, which are inspired by the past yet possess unique facets that make it distinctly yours?

Ralf and I will discuss our future projects for weeks or even months before we create the first digital design. We do not rush our work and we design what we want to wear. If we are the end customers, we want it to be the best quality possible that we know how to achieve.

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Ralf and I have daily discussions on Skype that can last for hours at a time. Many times we are just looking at other brands from the leading Swiss companies to the other micro brands and we discuss what we like and do not like about various watches. Over time and many discussions, our future watches will form into ideas, drawings, production, and then a finished piece.

What’s the difference in philosophy between Raven and Benarus?

Raven was something I was a part of before I met Ralf. There were three of us working on the Raven brand back around 2008. I designed the logo and website and we were going to produce small quantities of military styled watches for special clubs and units.

A significant life tragedy happened and our group of three quickly went different directions. One of the original three, Jeff Duschane, continued with the Raven brand for a few years. Jeff created one watch at a time from various parts that he was sourcing. When Jeff started building the vintage style sub with the high acrylic dome, the demand increased for this watch. With the Vintage Raven, the need for more quantity and better quality was there, so Jeff came back to us to see if we were able to help.

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We came to a business agreement and Ralf and I took ownership of Raven. Raven started with the vintage sub style and has kept to its roots, expanding with modern designs like the Deep Tech. Raven is something special to me because I was there in the beginning and designed the logo.

What’s your personal favorite watch that you’ve designed and why?

I have been wearing the Raven Deep Tech almost daily. I also wear a sand blasted Benarus Sea Snake V2 on the bracelet and a Benarus Moray 44 on a gator strap.

With the Deep Tech it is the size and strength of this watch that I like, a 42mm with 2500 meters of water resistance is a compact super watch. The sapphire is 4.5mm thick. It is also the first watch we have produced with a single dome sapphire, which creates interesting distortions that I like.

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All of our other domed sapphire watches feature a double domed sapphire, which is the most expensive type of crystal to produce and does not produce dial distortions.

What inspires your design process?

I love to travel and my other hobby is photography. When I am traveling I am constantly taking in my surroundings. I am noticing the people around me and if they are wearing a watch I will notice that as well. I notice and appreciate a wide variety of watches from plastic digital to high-end brands with exotic materials.

When I travel to Hong Kong I find inspiration everywhere. In 2011 I saw a black Lamborghini with orange accents. This car led me to design the black Moray watch with the orange marks.

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In Hong Kong there are watch and camera stores on every block and I could walk into every shop and it never gets old. This year I purchased a range finder camera called the Voigtlander Bessa R3A. This camera has inspired me to add some design elements to the 2014 Moray 42mm.

Inspiration can be found everywhere if you look at designs, colors, and shapes, and how they work together. I studied art in college and graduated with a BFA. Producing a watch is creating art and takes inspiration, planning, and execution.

What is your biggest challenge as a business? Is it hard to gauge demand versus production numbers?

For me, I had to learn customer service. It was not in my background experience. The more watches we created, the more emails we began to receive. I had to learn a lot of patience also.

Over the years we have continued to produce and sell out of every model. Now we have a lot of owners out there and sometimes they will have an issue or damage the watches. Solving repair issues was also a challenge and something that we are constantly working on.

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Occasionally someone who wants to get into this business will contact me. They want to start a new brand because they love watches and that is all they know. I will tell them that the business side is mainly about people, email management, customer service, and repairs. Design and production is important but without the support the design will not matter. I think this has been the downfall of a few of the micro brands I have seen rise up and fall over the years.

What led to the decision to put the 30 marker right side up on the Sea Snake? This has been a contentious design decision that has been discussed on the watch forums. 

Most of the time a diver’s bezel is set and left at 12 o’ clock until it needs to be used. When a bezel has many numbers in the design they need to be oriented the same direction to make it easy to read when the pip is moved to any position around the watch. Most bezel designs choose to orient the numbers with the base of the numbers facing the center of the watch.

The Sea Snake only has 1 number mark on the bezel, the 30. Since there is only one number, and the bezel is mainly kept at 12, it makes design sense to orient the number in the right side up direction. It is also easy to read and calculate the passage of time when the pip is turned anywhere on the watch. I am a SCUBA diver, and the Sea Snake is the watch I have been using on recent dives. It is easy to read and use, and the adjustable dive clasp works great over a wetsuit.

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Tell me about Suppa parts. Why design a product for universal strap choices for the Ecozilla or G-Shock Zulu adapters?

Originally SuppaParts was something Ralf explored and developed. The Zilla (nickname for the Citizen BJ8051-05E) adapters have remained in demand over the years. This year we introduced the titanium Zilla bracelet and the Suppa-G adapters.

Ralf and I both have a small collection of G-Shock watches. Ralf had an older model that he was having trouble sourcing a new strap for. This got us talking about producing adapters for G-Shocks. The other issue we had with some of the rubber straps on certain models was they would protrude from the wrist more than desired. We now offer the Suppa-G adapters in steel with DLC coating, brushed, or polished finish. We also added 24mm Zulu straps in a few color choices to the Suppa parts website.

When creating a homage watch such as the Raven Vintage what is your approach? What aspects do you leave alone and which parts do you reinvent?

For the first Raven Vintage we had to consider a few things, the first was the size. We know there is a demand for smaller watches, 40mm and under, but our customers still prefer to wear a larger watch. We also preferred the larger size at the time so we created the first Vintage in a 42mm case. For the second vintage we brought the case down to 40mm, but this is still a larger case from the original vintage sub watches of the past. This might be a good time to mention that we are going to create a new 42mm vintage this year. It will be similar to the first 42mm but will feature gold military hands, a refined vintage style bracelet, and an optional dark blue bezel insert. We will post more details about this project on our website, but wanted to mention it here first.

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How did you and Ralf meet?

Ralf created Benarus and the Barracuda watch back around 2008. I contacted him during that time to place an order for the upcoming Sea Devil model. I began to produce graphics for his website and eventually designed and rebuilt the Benarus website.

We began to Skype and I began to help him with future watch designs. We worked very well together and Ralf asked me to join him.

The first time we met face to face was in Hong Kong in 2011. This was exciting because I didn’t know what to expect and travelled alone. We met at the hotel and had a great time during my stay. We have continued to plan face time together every year. Ralf is more than a business partner. He is my closest friend. Which is an interesting relationship because we have to communicate with Skype and travel 8,000 miles to see each other.

What’s next for your company? 

This year we are producing a new Benarus bronze Moray in 42mm as well as a new steel Moray in 42mm. We are also planning the return of the Raven Vintage in 42mm. We’re discussing a new design for Benarus but these ideas are in the early stages and not something that I can define in words yet.

The new drawings of the new models will be posted on our websites when we have the information ready to share. We also post all of our news on a blog I run which you can sign up for with your email. The blog is www.stevral.com. STEVRAL is Steve and Ralf.

by Li Wang

Images from this post:
Li's first watch was a $105 Seiko 5 dress watch. That purchase started his obsession, though he has since moved a bit more upmarket. Today, Li is a fanatic for Seiko divers, both vintage and new, with a special appreciation for the Seiko Marinemaster 300m.
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