Interview: Eduardo Umaña of Classic Engineering

How the recent college graduate designed the affordable, luxurious and simple watch he wanted

This weekend’s Baselworld will include the latest innovations in luxury watchmaking—and with some of the price tags equivalent to wearing a mansion on the wrist, it’s always nice to remember there are awesome options for those of us with average paychecks. Enter Eduardo Umaña, the one-man team behind Classic Engineering and its first product, the clean yet robust VARIO watch. Umaña designed prototypes while at Swarthmore College (graduating with a B.S in mechanical and electrical engineering in 2015), but VARIO has become something far more than a student project. It’s a $249 watch assembled in Switzerland and complemented by a vegetable tanned, full grain leather NATO strap—and it’s slowly infiltrating retailers like SF MoMA beyond his own web shop.

“I wanted something very special to go on my wrist, and at the price point I could afford at the time, there was nothing I would personally strap to my wrist,” Umaña tells CH. “As the designer, but also the engineer of the object, I was able to take a holistic approach to materializing the watch. I wanted to create something simple and elegant, an understatedly luxurious piece.”

“I faced hurdles on all three fronts: engineering, design, and business,” he continues. “I was expecting it to be easy to find satisfactory leather for making the strap I had in mind. To my dismay, all the samples I was getting did not really convince me. Some were too rough and would be uncomfortable, but if I got to softer leather then it wouldn’t hold up over time and would stretch too much. Other leather I tested would discolor over time and stain. The whole design was based on a single pass or NATO style strap, so I was getting worried I had spent too much time and had not gotten anywhere finding the right leather.” One thing he knew was that some of the best tanneries in the world are in Tuscany, where vegetable tanning is a craft passed down through generations of artisans—and that they were the difficult to contact over the internet. “So I hopped on a plane hoping to find a partner,” he says, resulting in what he thinks “is the best leather in the world.” Umaña then tapped Andrea Monti (of Amsterdam-based atelier Guild of Holland) to make each and every NATO strap.

“On the engineering front I came up with some characteristics a good watch must have: scratch-resistance, comfort and weight. All those considerations came together into what the watch is today: the classic VARIO is actually one of the lightest watches out there due to the aluminum and leather construction, yet also one of the most scratch resistant due to the abrasion resistant ceramic coating they have,” he says. “One of the comments I get from people is that the watch is very comfortable to wear. All in all, I believe that having the dialogue that typically a designer and engineer would have, but all within myself, is a very useful creative process.” We still can’t get over the fact that he oversees his own sales, too.

In an age when smartwatches are the rage, Umaña sees the different accessories as compatible, rather than one extinguishing the other. “I have an Apple watch! And I also have customers who own an Apple Watch and have bought the classic VARIO. I think there is a time and place for each,” he notes. “The Apple Watch is great for a run for example, but on a date or meeting when one needs to give full attention in order to connect with a person, not so much.” Interestingly, Classic Engineering’s next product won’t be a watch; it’s already in the making, seen here in their Instagram video.

Product images courtesy of Arturo Oliva Pedroza; all others courtesy of the designer