Something that is fundamental to my watch fandom is the simple principle that watches should be fun. As with any other enthusiast driven pursuit, there are corners of this hobby that are taken very seriously. You know what I’m talking about. Internet forums where brands are mocked. Instagram takedowns of potentially sketchy vintage resellers. A culture of constant acquisition and the preening and peacocking that goes along with it. All of these things, in a high enough dosage, can sap the fun right out of watch collecting.
That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be watches to aspire to as a collector, or that we shouldn’t look at vintage watches with some healthy skepticism. Sometimes, though, it’s just nice to be reminded of the joy of discovery, to look at your wrist and smile. And at a time when there seems to be a premium placed on watches as tools within a specific niche, it’s refreshing to see interesting designs that are colorful and show the hand of an artist. How many of us need a helium escape valve, or a watch made to fighter pilot specs?
Hands On with the Sō Labs Layer 1
Sō Labs is a new Chicago based brand making design-forward watches that you absolutely should not take diving. You also probably shouldn’t wear them with a nice suit unless you’re prepared to be labeled as the guy with a deep sense of irony for a good long while. What you probably should do, however, is consider a watch in their Layer 1 series if you’re after something that’s distinctive and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Most importantly, they should be considered by those of us who are unafraid of color, and perhaps getting a little bored with endless black dials. These watches have a pastel shaded, 1990s vibe to them that watch enthusiasts of a certain age are going to gravitate to in a major way.
I first encountered Sō Labs at the Windup Watch Fair in New York just over a year ago. When I posted an image of the clock they displayed at the fair (which shares roughly the same design as the watches seen here) on my Instagram account, one of my friends remarked that it appeared as if Saved by the Bell and Full House had met and produced a desk clock. Another commented that it reminded her of Swatch. Both observations, I think, are spot on, and I’d like to imagine they’d be well received by the Sō Labs team. As a child of the 90s, who reveres Swatch and has fond nostalgic memories of Saved by the Bell (I won’t editorialize on Full House right now) I find this connection completely appealing and feel that in a very real way these Sō Labs watches are every bit as “vintage inspired” as a Black Bay.
The Layer 1 is a quartz watch measuring 38mm in diameter. It has a pleasing, easy wearing wrist presence, thanks mostly, in my opinion, to its feather-light weight. The Layer 1 has a translucent plastic case, and combined with a lightweight quartz movement and sub 40mm diameter, it truly does disappear on the wrist, to borrow a phrase that is used too often in reviews like this when it doesn’t really apply. It also wears a bit smaller than its dimensions would indicate because, thanks to their transparency, the lugs are nearly invisible, and don’t appear to take up as much real estate on the wrist. The included suede straps are well matched to each dial variant, and comfortable, thin, and tastefully signed with the Sō Labs logo. The case, besides being translucent, is unadventurous in design, and serves to keep focus on the colorful, far more visually interesting dials.
Before we get too deep into the dials themselves, I think it’s worth talking about the clever names that Sō Labs has given to each colorway. Brands do this a lot – they turn a normal colored dial into something far more serious by giving it a strange name that was almost certainly created by an entire professional marketing team to lend the watch a sophistication that they apparently feel that it lacks. There’s no need to cite examples, we’ve all seen them many, many times.
The names of the Layer 1 colorways come from the color charts themselves, and Sō Labs has helpfully included reference numbers for each color on their website. What appear to be creative naming conventions are actually, quite simply, just the colors that the designers have chosen for each dial option. Still, because the colors are somewhat unusual, the resulting names are too, and it adds to the fun of the Layer 1. So, the colorways: Olympic Sky, Emerald Rhino, Salmon Fandango, Abalone Steel, and Turkish Coral. Some of these are stranger than others, but I defy anyone to say the words “Salmon Fandango” aloud without cracking a smile. This has to be the watch name of the year – if you have a stronger candidate, I encourage you to drop it in the comments section immediately.
Time telling on the Layer 1 might look unconventional at first, but quickly becomes routine. Basically, the hands are a series of rotating, colored (and transparent) plastic discs. The hour disc is at the bottom, and hours are read by observing where the rotating triangle is pointed. The minutes disc sits above the hours, and is mostly transparent, but has what appears as a normal minutes hand grafted on to it. The most subtle and easy to miss detail on the dial is likely the very small running seconds disc at the dial’s center. See the little dot on the innermost ring? That’s your seconds indicator.
The Layer 1’s dial has a skeletonized construction that is visually appealing, in my opinion, and allows Sō Labs to experiment fully with color. On each watch, the outer minutes ring (consisting of simple hash marks at five minute intervals) and lower level of the dial share a common color, with the hours disc offering a contrast, and the minutes hand in another complementing color. The central section of the dial is cut away at the top, exposing the inner plates and a hint of the movement.
The Layer 1’s multi-layer dial
The way the dial plays with shape and color is really well executed. Some combinations work better than others, in my estimation, but this will largely come down to personal taste, and how daring or playful you want your Layer 1 to be. Personally, I’m a fan of the colors that are less frequently seen, and have been spending most of my time with the Turkish Coral, which has a light green main dial, and the Salmon Fandango, and not just because I continue to find the name hilarious. The salmon, mango-like main dial and the purple “fandango” hour disc just work really well together. The Olympic Sky and Emerald Rhino are more conventional blue and green dials, respectively, and the Abalone Steel is the Sō Labs version of white.
The Sō Labs Layer 1 watches have a lot of style and a unique, 90s inspired look, but they perhaps don’t have mass appeal – this feels like a niche product to me, and production for each variant is limited to 500 pieces. They have a definite spring and summer vibe to them, and I think they’d make great casual weekend watches, as these can be dressed way, way down, and feel most appropriate paired with similarly colorful graphic t-shirts and the like. As I write this, from New Hampshire, it’s near freezing, I’ve brought out the winter coats, and there’s a trace of snow on the ground. This is a hard watch to get in the mood for when you’re in hibernation mode, and even though I try to reject the idea of seasonal watches on principle (if a watch is good, it should be good any time of year), I know that I would be far more inclined to wear these when the weather is a bit sunnier.
The Layer 1 is priced at $175 (they are currently on sale for $149 on the Sō Labs website). It’s impossible not to compare these with Swatch watches, which sit at a range of price points up to around the $200 mark for many mechanical Sistem51 variants. Quartz Swatches are less expensive, and can be had in an enormous array of colors and styles, though admittedly nothing precisely like the Layer 1. Ultimately, a buying recommendation comes down to how much you like the design and its implementation. I’m a big believer in paying for stuff that’s well thought out and distinctive, and the Layer 1 certainly meets that standard for me, but it’s important to note that you’re paying chiefly for that design, as opposed to the raw materials, which, again, consist of a plastic case and a quartz movement.
After having a chance to briefly interact with these watches a year ago, it’s been great to catch up with the completed, final versions now that they’re shipping to customers. The Layer 1 is a worthy first effort from Sō Labs, and I’m curious to see where this brand goes from here. They have teased an automatic watch as a future release, and they did produce a clock, which I alluded to at the top of this piece. The design language here really works, and I could see it being utilized in other watches with more hard wearing materials, and even in other product categories that are watch adjacent. There’s a refreshing, almost palette cleansing quality to the Layer 1, and it will be exciting to see how Sō Labs continues to hone in on this design language in the future. Sō Labs