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Review: Is an Aluminum Field Watch Sensible?

It may be based on a watch made for pilots, but the Hamilton Khaki Pioneer Aluminum worked just fine as a tough field watch in Lowcountry South Carolina.

Sung Han

If you want a lesson in lightness, take a peek inside Gulfstream’s sunny Savannah headquarters, where CNC machines big as cars slice space-age lightweight composite materials into jigsaw-puzzle pieces that will become familiar household items: desks, tables, toilets. As these are for $65 million jets, though, their only aim — superseded not even by luxury — is weight. Not even a Rolls-Royce engine with 16,900 pounds of thrust can get a solid oak boudoir off the ground.

My bank account’s about $64.999 million short of Gulfstream money, but I still got a whiff of what they were after. I had on the Hamilton Khaki Pioneer Aluminum, the lightest watch not made of plastic I’ve ever used.

Hamilton released the Pioneer in steel in 2013 as an homage to RAF pilot’s chronographs from the 1970s. Its asymmetrical case and dual chrono pushers were a hit, but with a Valjoux movement it cost nearly $2,000 and never made it out of special-edition form. When Hamilton remade it out of aluminum as a three-hand watch in 2015, it wasn’t just an oddity for Hamilton, but for the entire watch industry.

Though the biggest difference between the two materials is weight — Worn & Wound said the steel watch “feels like a metal stone,” making the aluminum the kickball to the steel’s medicine ball — using anodized aluminum provides an entirely different look. Anodized aluminum has a brushed matte finish and can be colored, unlike steel. Hamilton went for cohesive and conservative looks rather than funky: sand, navy, black and green colorways simply carry across the watch, from case to dial to hands, without much flash (black is the coolest-looking of the bunch). On my sand-colored watch, a black 24-hour ring and black-lined minute and hour hands, along with the excessive timing markers ubiquitous among pilot’s watches, kept things busy toward the exterior of the dial but also spacious and clean (and legible) around the hour markers. The 60-second countdown interior bezel that’s controlled by the second crown adds a final concentric layer and bleeds seamlessly into the colored case.

But the most obvious selling point remains its weight. It feels lighter than a plastic-strapped Swatch. It actually takes some getting used to, especially for someone whose daily wear is chunky steel. The word “heft” gets thrown around a lot in mechanical watch reviews, often with a masculine braggart association, but there’s none of that with the Pioneer Aluminum.

Truth is, a watch, just like a pricey Gulfstream continent-hopper, is improved by lightness. On slogs through the gnat-ridden salt marshes and shady small towns of Lowcountry South Carolina, the Pioneer Aluminum proved itself, surprisingly, as a travel watch that works in the field. The aluminum never dented or scratched, even when I wore it through thick, scratchy brush on a lonely Sea Island in search of wild hogs; the only downside of the slight bulkiness of the asymmetrical case was an asymmetrical tan line on my wrist. Its Hamilton H-10 movement has an 80-hour power reserve, so I could put it down for a few days and not need to reset the time as I rushed out the door. It fell short of a true field watch due to its dull lume and illegibility at night — but wearing light and ultimately cool in the heat was nice for a change.

And even though its leather-detailed strap is Walmart-ugly, the aluminum, just like a G6, proved not just lightweight and round-the-world durable, but damn impressive-looking. A quick wipe to rid it of sea-salt residue and it was ready for dinner duty at Charleston’s finest seafood joints. Unfortunately, most people won’t pay over $1,000 for a neat, versatile watch that also feels like a field-use beater; they probably shouldn’t. A Gulfstream jet knows what it wants to be from the second it’s born — I’m not convinced of the same for the Pioneer Aluminum.

Buy Now: $1,145

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