December 29, 2022
by Mike Razak
When was the last time you handled or even saw a watch that made you feel happy? What about one you thought was actually fun and looked good? Watches and watch enthusiasts often take things too seriously, which inevitably leads to what others have termed blanding: the copy-pasting of product design that leads to a flattened market segment saturated with sameness (How many white/black/orange GMTs have you seen?). Aren’t you tired of the seeing the same three or four diver designs over and over? The same chronograph design to the point where you have to wonder if the brands are using the same designer? Call me cynical, but when was the last time you saw a watch that wowed you because of how unique it was. That’s the reaction I had when I first saw the Sō Labs Layer Two watches. A bit of whimsy, a bit of joy, a bit of happiness at what I saw as an almost entirely novel watch.
Sō Labs is the sister brand of the Chicago-based microbrand Astor + Banks, which makes arguably more traditional watches. For Sō Labs, though, the founders sought to “put the fun(k) back in time.” The brand’s debut Layer One was a quartz-powered watch with an acrylic case and the same novel display as the Layer Two, but it had a generic form that left it feeling somehow incomplete. The Layer Two is an evolution, fulfilling the promise of the Layer One with a case as quirky as the dial and a few easter eggs to boot. Available in five different dial colors, each with its own case finish, the Layer Two offers different types of 80s/90s weird for every kind of watch lover (except the kind that doesn’t like fun).
The case of the Layer Two is almost as enticing as the dials. Depending on the dial you choose (or perhaps you’ll just choose your favorite case finish), the case is entirely brushed, blasted, black DLC-coated, or fully polished. The 40mm stainless steel case might be described as a blobby scarab (though certainly not by the brand): it’s got soft edges that create some light play, a big round bezel that surrounds the domed sapphire crystal, and short rounded 20mm lugs. The lugs create a shallow lug box to fit the straps; the watches all come with a matching wide-link bracelet and a suede Veblenist strap, both of which are quick-release. The bracelet is exceptionally comfortable, especially if you’re lucky enough to get a perfect fit (there are no micro-adjustments). The included straps are of high quality, though you’ll need curved spring bars if you plan to use any others. At just under 13mm-thick and 42mm lug to lug, plus a bit of lug turndown, this will sit well on most wrists (come to think of it, how many of the rare truly fun watches are proportioned for actual enjoyment?). The only issue I took was with the crown, which is stylish but lacks the grip it needs to easily unscrew—though this is a relatively minor inconvenience. The watch certainly doesn’t need a screw-down crown; with its styling and 100m of water resistance, some clever gasket work could’ve achieved the same robustness without the fuss.
While this watch certainly delivers top-to-bottom with its design, the dial is surely what will pull people in. The watch lives up to the name, providing layer upon layer of matte-finish goodness. Looking above, the time is around 10:14:40. The large triangle counterbalanced with the hollowed semicircle displays the hours, the more traditional skeleton hand shows the minutes, and the tiny disc with a nubbin in the center tracks the seconds. The hours are marked out by small white markers (though two models feature markers in a gradient of colors), which are unfortunately not lumed (though this is likely because evenly luming handsets of different colors would pose quite the challenge). The display here is not the most obvious way to show the time and while it is just a three-hand approach, the fun had here means a bit of adjustment when it comes to reading at a glance. Plus, the size of the seconds “hand” really limits it to a running indicator. Another factor that’s prone to confuse the wearer is the fixed triangle of the base dial (purple, above), which is identical in size to the hour hand. The astute reader with a keen eye will have noticed that I’ve yet to discuss the two discs below the main dial. Not one to allow a day/date function to go to waste, Sō Labs decided to couple two gradient discs to the functions. This means a panoply of 217 different combinations of glorious color.
The brand has even had a bit of fun with the rotor. Typically, brands at this level will simply have the rotor engraved and call it a day. Maybe you’ll get a fun-shaped rotor with some skeletonization. Less common is a colorful rotor like the one on the Layer 2, each coordinated to the dial on its reverse side. Cut out of the rotor is the Sō Labs logo. The movement itself is the Sellita SW-220, the Swiss movement manufacturer’s automatic day-date movement, with about 41 hours of power reserve at 28,800 vph. The SW220 has 26 jewels and as mentioned, its day and date functions have been cleverly linked to two gradient wheels on the dial. This movement isn’t what one might call common—simply because day-date watches are less common than their date-only counterparts—and in this watch, it’s made even more common with the novel utilization of its complications. For a watch lover who abhors when brands leave complications unused and leave me with a phantom position on the crown, the way Sō Labs uses this Sellita is extremely welcome.
After getting the hang of telling the time at a glance, this watch was purely a pleasure to wear. Even the more subdued colorway I had for review was a treat, simply because it was so unusual to look down at my wrist and see such a rainbow of color. The Sō Labs Layer Two offers a lighthearted, exciting alternative to the stuffy designs that seem to dominate our conversations, where watches are distinguished by singular minutiae like whether the font is red, or the bezel is ceramic. Instead, Sō Labs has given us a watch where we can say “This stands out because of everything that it is.” The Sō Labs Layer Two is available now for pre-order until January 15 at $965 and will retail for $1,295. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.
>Brand: Sō Labs
>Model: Layer Two
>Price: $965 pre-order until January 15, $1,265 retail
>Size: 40mm-wide, 12.95mm-thick, 42mm lug-to-lug distance, 20mm lugs
>When reviewer would personally wear it: To a rave, to a block party, to an 80s theme party, to a Miami Vice party, or just to feel happy
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: An eccentric youth born well after the 1980s that has developed an obsession with the 1980s
>Best characteristic of watch: Unique handset, novel use of day and date functions, color palettes
>Worst characteristic of watch: Reading the time can take some getting used to; lug box is shallow, which necessitates curved spring bars