Barry Cohen didn't start out his journey looking to build some of the toughest watches in the world, but that's exactly what happened.
In the mid-1980s, he discovered Swiss company mb-Microtech AG, makers of tritium gas tubes used in safety equipment, signage, and more. What this tech was not yet used in was watches, and Cohen saw an opportunity. After obtaining a loan, he launched Luminox — from "light" and "night" in Latin — with a partner, and began manufacturing carbon-reinforced, quartz-powered watches illuminated with miniature tritium tubes. After a meeting with a Navy SEAL Chief in the early '90s, Luminox obtained a contract to make specialized watches for the elite American special operations community, and the brand's military association catapulted them into fame through retail partners such as The Sharper Image and Cabela's. The rest, as they say, is history.
Cohen has since left Luminox, though he hasn't left the watch world behind: He's done OEM manufacturing for over 25 companies that didn't have watchmaking arms, including firms in the clothing, motoring, and manufacturing spaces. Most recently, he launched Time Concepts, an umbrella company that houses several brands specializing in different types of tough-as-nails, quartz-powered watches.
Quality, needless to say, is important to Cohen — all the more so when he was making watches for Navy SEALs. When he moved into private label manufacturing, Cohen began searching for a factory in Asia that would produce to his standards. It would be over 35 factories before he found what he was looking for: a quality Asian manufacturer that operated to Swiss standards, and whose facilities are for all intents and purposes "clean" rooms.
The defect rate amongst Cohen's products is now an incredibly low 0.5%, and each watch is individually tested. He's had only 15-18 watches fail due to water incursion during a five-year period, and this, admittedly, is often due to user error, such as someone forgetting to screw down a crown. (A master watchmaker in the U.S. couldn't find a single spec of dust in one of his watches.)
Time Concepts now spans four companies: Szanto, Hawaiian Life Guards, Bia Watches and 420Waldos Watches. Szanto specializes in vintage-inspired designs done in modern quartz versions, while the Hawaiian Life Guards Association watches are the official timepieces of that lifesaving group. Bia Watches isn't even necessarily a commercial enterprise — some of the profits from the sale of their watches are donated to causes furthering women's empowerment. 420Waldos similarly donates up to 20% of their proceeds to organizations that support the legalization of marijuana. (Medical marijuana provides a great source of relief to injured military veterans, whose needs resonate with Cohen.)
We'd been hoping to speak with Cohen for quite a while now, given our interest in Luminox, but with that chapter of his horological journey behind him, he was eager to discuss the future, which was fine by me. We try to maintain a fair discussion of the watch industry as a whole at GP, touching upon everything from the behemoth luxury brands down to the upstart independents, and everything in between. The truth in 2021, after all, is that most people who need a tough, reliable watch for a dirty job are going to choose a relatively inexpensive quartz number, and not a Rolex. So Cohen's emphasis on quality, from design to manufacturing to customer service, intrigued me in particular as someone who once truly depended on $80 and $250 watches for military service.
Though Cohen was kind enough to send through a large box of watches, we can only highlight a few here that I think are most relevant to you, the GP reader — two from Szanto, the vintage-inspired brand, and two super cool numbers from the Hawaiian Life Guard Association line. These are well built, affordable, handsome watches that would likely serve you well for many years.
Szanto Heritage Aviator Small Seconds 2752
It's easy to discern the inspiration behind this watch — it screams "flieger," though the case is a manageable 41mm and its push-pull onion crown won't dig a hole into your hand. SuperLumiNova on the hands provides legibility, while the typical flieger triangle and five-minute demarcations give the dial a classic military feel. The watch is powered by a Miyota 1L45 small seconds quartz movement — between this engine and a hardened mineral crystal, Szanto manages to keep the price down. But a nice leather strap and 100m of water resistance — as well as a surprisingly well finished case with differing surface treatments — make for a watch that punches well above its $225 price point.
Movement: Miyota 1L45 quartz
Water Resistance: 100m
Szanto Desert Sands Chrongraph 4552
Another military-inspired homage, the Desert Sands nevertheless doesn't fit exactly into the mold of any particular model, but rather approximates a vintage aesthetic. 41mm in diameter, its case features a PVD plating in an antique gold color, which sort of recalls the look of bronze. (Good luck finding a real bronze case for under $300!) It's powered by the Miyota 6S21 quartz chronograph movement, which includes a date window and two sub-registers. A push-pull crown ensures 100m of water resistance — not bad for a chronograph without a screw-down crown — and the watch is again accompanied by a 20mm genuine leather strap.
Movement: Miyota 6S21 quartz
Water Resistance: 100m
Hawaiian Lifeguard Association HLA5408/HLA5402
The Hawaiian Life Guards Association approached Cohen to make a watch for their group, and the result is a tough-as-nails beater that any water-loving wearer can appreciate. Available in several colors — including the yellow and black PVD options shown here — the watches are 42mm in diameter and feature unidirectional dive bezels, screw-down crowns to ensure 200m of water resistance, thick lume on the hands and dials, Japanese quartz movements with date, and hardened minteral crystal. Paired to 22mm rubber straps with quick-change systems and equipped with brightly colored minutes hands for ease of legibility when diving, the HLA watches provide incredible value at a price point of just $250.
Movement: Japanese quartz
Water Resistance: 200m