There’s something about a watch you could actually buy with your current bank account, right now, that gets the heart thumping and the synapses firing. These watches — specifically, the ones that cost less than $1,000, many of them less than $500 — are the subject of our new series “Time Is Money“.
When Tom Anstead created the Oceanis, which he debuted on Kickstarter in September of 2012 for $250 (two for $450!) to huge success, his goal was to make a watch that reflected his time spent as a Navy Officer aboard an aircraft carrier, a submarine, several aircraft and while “SCUBA diving in Hawaii”. His backers gave their blessing to the tune of $46,000 more in funding than he originally asked for ($6,000). This was a big beast of a watch, 44mm, with a wide, prickly bezel that looked a little like the metal skeleton of a prehistoric creature plucked from the seafloor, its crown a very toothed, very unabashed stub. Stick hands were fully lumed and dial markings looked like dots and dashes from a morse code translator’s key. Viewed in the dark, the bottom of its trick seconds hand disappeared, leaving the lumed dot and bright orange tip to magically levitate around the dial. Depth rating was 300 meters. This was mostly a diver’s watch for the man who meant to use it — except that it came on a leather strap.
This surprising nod to landlubber life in the midst of a hardcore seaman’s and diver’s tool — know when your midship watch is done, navigate by the stars and the like — was enough to pique my interest as a amateur admirer of watches. Oddities (small diameter, semi-gimmick features, and prices defying a style) were particularly appealing in what appeared to me a sea of new mechanical timepieces. Just as important was the Oceanis’s low price, which eventually settled around $399.
How well would a full-on sport watch — one with a cool wrinkle or two that separated it from the norm — perform outside of its comfort zone, in a world of coffee shops and workplace doldrums rather than no-deco times and wetsuits?
Anstead’s second watch, sold now on his very own site rather than on Kickstarter, is an update to the Oceanis rather than a sea change. I’d decided before I even saw it that my review should focus on that little hint of urban life that the first Oceanis kept tucked away close to the vest: how well would a full-on sport watch — one with a cool wrinkle or two that separated it from the norm — perform outside of its comfort zone, in a world of coffee shops and workplace doldrums rather than no-deco times and wetsuits?
Unfortunately for my nascent article’s premise, Tom Anstead seemed to have moved the opposite direction with the Oceanis 001 ($649). While the matte-black dial, stick minute and hour hands, orange-tipped seconds hand and date window remained nearly identical to the older model, the razor-toothed bezel had gone extinct, superseded by a less ostentatious gear-toothed one; a crown guard and a calmer crown replaced the previous bigger stub; price had leapt from $399 to $649 (though it’s currently on sale for $499); and gone was my favorite wink, the leather strap, replaced by a wide metal bracelet with hardy links with screws rather than pins. The weird sport watch with a secret penchant for dry activities had taken a turn for the hardcore tool of Cousteau.
Of course, this doomed it to fail in my dry testing, based in that yuppie capital of Park Slope, Brooklyn, where the only divers are tots paddling away their parents’ money at swim classes. An enormous 44mm hunk of metal strapped on by a heavy metal bracelet — the whole thing weighs about 7 ounces, or nearly half a pound — is not particularly comfortable out of the water, especially when it’s hot out. The crown and crown guard dug into the back of my hand every time I swung my backpack over my shoulder. It looked too much like something Stallone would wear in The Expendables 7 to fit in with jeans and a sweater; sliding its 14.3mm under a cuff isn’t going to happen.
Anstead continues to prove that a sporty diver doesn’t have to look vaguely like a Rolex Submariner.
Like I said, none of this was particularly fair to a watch that, when judged by a real potential user rather than a dreamer of older models, is actually an improvement on its forebearer. Anstead originally set out to build a watch that could compete with $800 watches; the 001 is an obvious move in that direction, and while any shift away from the bargain bin is a downside for us penny-pinching thrifts, the improvements mostly vindicate the price hitch. (As Anstead told Worn & Wound in a recent interview, “The costs are in it. You can see and feel the quality.”) For all its unwieldy heft the watch gains an air of indestructibility. That beastly bracelet has an excellent clasp with a ratchet adjustment that can be opened or closed up to half an inch for comfort, or as it was meant to be used, for fitting over a wetsuit. The crystal is double-domed sapphire, and the movement has been upgraded to a Miyota 9015 with hacking seconds. The lume on the hands, markers, numerals and the arrow on the bezel is strong and clear (and the seconds hand still looks really neat). The geared uni-directional bezel, though I still mourn its predecessor, made clicking noises like a miniature version of an A-10 warthog on a strafing run and was extremely grippy.
Just as important as its new build quality, the Oceanis 001 continues to move along its own just-so-weird path in design and aesthetic — however astray that may be from my own days-of-yore ideal. Anstead continues to prove that a sporty diver doesn’t have to look vaguely like a Rolex Submariner. Rather, it can look like a spiny prehistoric creature (or that creature’s improved children) and be heavy as sin, too.