Yema Speedgraf, $1,499
Watches don't get much hipper than sporty 1960s chronographs, and there's hardly a better example than the Yema Speedgraf. What we're discussing here is a near one-to-one remake of a vintage watch, but in its modern reissue it's simpler and more approachable than just about any comparable chronograph available today. With an uncommon Seiko automatic movement and the French brand's history, there are some talking points for watch nerds, too — but the Speedgraf stands out most for its affordable price and being incredibly fun to wear.
Case Diameter: 39mm
Case Depth: 15.5mm
Water Resistance: 100m
Movement: Seiko NE86 automatic
The Speedgraf is based on a model Yema made starting in 1966, and its modern reincarnation is faithful to the original right down to its 39mm sizing and even its 19mm lug width. Its wearable diameter combined with an utterly captivating style reminiscent of, say Heuer chronographs from the era will be a huge draw for many watch fans. Further boosting its appeal is its competitive price for an automatic chronograph at well under $2,000. That price is in part due to an uncommon movement from Seiko that only gives the Speedgraf more interest and character.
Who It's For
Collectors who typically find themselves priced out of mechanical chronographs altogether have a great option in the Speedgraf. Those accustomed to higher price tiers, however, will not find the same level of details and finishing as on reissues from prestigious brands costing several times the price Yema is charging, nor should they expect it.
The Yema Speedgraf shares certain qualities with many other reissue watches: it offers something like the experience of a vintage watch but with all the benefits of a modern one (sapphire crystal, automatic movement, 100m water resistance, etc.). Vintage and racing enthusiasts will have more levels on which to appreciate the Speedgraf — but it doesn't take an education in watch history to look down at it on your wrist and say, "damn, that's cool."
In some sense, any mechanical chronograph under $2k could be considered competition for the Speedgraf — and, while these are relatively rare, there are some pretty cool options. For even less money, the Maen Skymaster is around the same size and offers solid specs — including a Swiss movement — for around $1,100. That's a strong value, but it might not quite match the Speedgraf's charm.
Just a couple hundred dollars more will get you a Nivada Chronomaster (~$1,700+) reissue, which wears even smaller and features a Swiss movement and a lot of details. Perhaps the next closest to the Speedgraf's aesthetics and motorsport character in a modern watch, however, is the Tudor Black Bay Chrono in the new "panda" and "reverse panda" dial versions released for 2021. (Yema also made a "panda" version of the Speedgraf.) Of course, you get near Rolex-like construction and finishing as well as an in-house movement with Tudor, but it'll cost you $4,900+.
The Yema watch that the Speedgraf is based on isn't particularly well-known. Introduced in 1966, it represents a now-legendary era of watchmaking with a handsome mix of flair and practicality. The vintage version seems to have been called (or nicknamed) the "Daytona" — the name of a famous raceway but, yes, also of a famous Rolex chronograph.
The Speedgraf feels very much in the vein of more famous Sixties chronographs like the Heuer Autavia. Those are some fantastic watches, but a vintage one or comparable modern remakes from big brands will cost a bundle more, and that leaves the Speedgraf almost in a class of its own. Even a vintage Yema Daytona might cost more than its Speedgraf reissue.
Filling the niche for a reasonably affordable, retro-styled, automatic racing chronograph is exactly what the brand was aiming for, and part of how they accomplished it is with a Seiko movement rather than a (presumably) more expensive Swiss one from the likes of ETA. The Seiko NE86 doesn't exactly feel like a compromise or simply an inexpensive alternative as it offers features like a column wheel and vertical clutch, which collectors tend to value. (You won't find these features on Swiss chronograph movements anywhere near this price.)
The prospect of affordable alternatives to the common Swiss mechanical chronograph movements like the ETA 7750 is exciting, and this is what the Seiko NE86 (and the NE88 it's based on) seem to offer. Oddly, however, this is a movement that hasn't been widely adopted even by Seiko itself. (Fun fact: Seiko owned the Yema brand from 1988 to 2004). As is the case with Seiko's other watches and movements, it's robust and reliable. In testing, it's proven accurate and it feels smooth and solid when interacting with it via the crown and pushers — though not on the luxe level of higher-end movements, of course.
The NE86 is a modification of Seiko's NE88 movement announced in 2014, but omitting the chronograph's hours. That means you can only easily measure up to 30 minutes on the Speedgraf, but that's probably not a deal-breaker for many. The movement also offers a date function, which Yema has chosen not to display in keeping with the vintage original and conforming to the tastes of many collectors. Inside this watch, however, the movement is still tracking the date — the crown has a position for it and you can hear it click over at midnight (this is what enthusiasts call a "ghost date"). The NE 86 also offers a power reserve of 45 hours when the chronograph isn't in use.
You can do all kinds of things with a chronograph, even though most people don't need to, and won't. The Speedgraf offers tachymeter and telemeter scales on the periphery of the dial — but like on some other such watches, they're very small and not so easy to read. That's mostly ok, though, because they lend some historical interest and a generally technical feel without which a chronograph just wouldn't feel right. More useful is the bidirectionally rotating bezel: note that it counts down, so you can time seconds on the chrono or use it in conjunction with the minute hand.
Despite these scales and subdials, the Speedgraf has a remarkably clean look for a chronograph, and this simplicity is at the heart of its character. The dial is light on text, and the case is simply polished like most watches from back in the day — so without too many fussy details the watch's overall look is able to take center stage. The "reverse panda" (white subdials on black) dial isn't absolutely ideal for legibility, but it's hard to knock when the look is so cool.
There are quirks and quibbles to be found with the Speedgraf, but for its price and personality it's hard to really register any of them as a complaint — but there is one of note: the 19mm lugs are proportionally right on and historically accurate but they make swapping in modern straps a lot more challenging, since 18mm and 20mm widths are far more common. (Would 0.5mm on either side of the lugs have really made a huge difference?)
Strap changing might be inconvenient but, as with many vintage watches, little touches and idiosyncrasies can add up to a lot of charm. You've got to love that every bit of text on the watch is in French except for "automatic" on the dial (which would be automatique). The unusual movement, the unbeatable looks, the design simplicity, the French-ness... it all makes the Speedgraf feel a bit special. The style and price make it all the more so.
A grand and a half is still enough money to make a lot of watch buyers think carefully before pulling the trigger. If you're drawn to that retro panache (how can you not be?), the Yema Speedmaster offers a highly wearable, interesting and enticing proposition. Yema did this watch right, quirks and all. The undeniable cool factor of chronograph watches quite possibly reached its pinnacle in the 1960s and '70s, and the Yema Speedgraf captures that spirit in about as approachable and affordable way as you can reasonably hope for.