A Civilian’s Guide to Military Watches, Part Two: The East

As it goes for just about anything “military”, issued timepieces are some of the most collectible in the watch world. Between enthusiasts looking for a rugged watch to go on adventures with, fashionable folks pulling off military-inspired looks, and history buffs bolstering their military regalia collection, the military watch market faces the perfect storm of demand.

As it goes for just about anything “military”, issued timepieces are some of the most collectible in the watch world. No surprise there. Watches made for military service need be purpose-built with the intent to survive tough climates, shock, water submersion, dirt and grime.

Those necessities doesn’t change based on place of origin. Other things do. In Part One of our guide to military watches, we covered more or less the low-hanging fruit — even casual watch enthusiasts know Germany’s Heuer Bundeswehr or the French Navy’s Tudor Sub. Stopping there would have done you a disservice, as there’s a lot more to be seen as one travels east beyond Europe. In fact, the vastly different cultures found in the Eastern world (except maybe Australia, which is basically the UK with nicer weather and deadlier animals) often make for richer stories, horologically, especially to us Westerners. Part of that interest stems from mystery and general murk when it comes to history and provenance, which is a two-way street for buyers. With reliable sources few and far between, it takes tremendous amounts of research to be confident when purchasing rare military watches.

Not to scare you away. The timepieces of Japan, China, Russia, Australia and India are just as packed with history, passion, beauty and hawkish intent as their western counterparts. Pique your interest, do your research, and maybe you’ll end up with something on your wrist from a different half of the world.

Japan


The Seikosha Big Pilot and the framework of modern-day Seiko


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Details on early Japanese military issued watches are hard to come by. In the WWII timeframe, however, Japanese military watches become a bit more recognizable and documented. The most desirable wristwatch from the WWII era was produced by Seikosha, the watchmaking arm of K. Hattori and precursor to Seiko. The Seikosha Big Pilot, an oversized flier’s watch, featured a 15-jewel pocket watch movement and an inner rotating bezel. In anything near good condition, one can field around $10,000. It’s not hard to imagine why such a watch would be rare and desirable; between two atomic bombs, the near wholescale destruction of the Japanese air force during the war, and foreign military occupation, it’s a wonder any are left at all. Fortunately, Seikosha survived the war and evolved into the Seiko we know and love today.

China


The Tianjin Watch Factory pilot chronograph and the Shanghai Watch Company model 114


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The market for Chinese military watches is stronger than the uninitiated would guess. Between Mao’s revolution, smaller-scale skirmishes, and roles in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, China’s military has been busy over the last 70 years. Armies need watches, and Chinese companies have issued scores of different timepieces over the years. While the majority of them appear to be simple, unassuming dress watches, a couple have really caught the eyes of collectors.

Tianjin Watch Factory’s pilot chronograph, which saw a fairly short production run starting in 1963, is an interesting piece with a movement that’s the direct sucessor to the famous Swiss-made Venus 175. (Tianjin Watch Factory acquired all of the necessary tooling from Venus to duplicate the 175 after the Swiss company decided to scale back their manufacturing.) Though the original chronograph is incredibly rare, Tianjin, which is now known as Sea-Gull, recently released an accurate and desirable homage. The re-issue utilizes a modified version of the original movement, dubbed the ST19 — and it’s worth the few hundred dollars for those who can’t get their hands on (or wrap their wallet around) an original.

Military dive watches are often the most sought after in the collector world, and the Shanghai Watch Company’s model 114, produced in the beginning of the ’70s, is no exception. The 114 has looks that could pass for the lovechild of a 1970s Seiko diver and an Omega SM300 — not a bad set of parents to take after. At the time of its production, the 114 was not actually issued as standard equipment; rather, it was up to the individual to purchase them with his own money. Still, many of these watches experienced combat action and carry the stories watch collectors love to tell.

Russia


Various Vostok timepieces, including the Komandirski, and the behemoth Zlatoust 191-ChS diver


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Russian watches have somewhat of a cult following; collectors love the interesting markings on the dial, the Russian lettering, and in many cases, the overall unique designs. Due to Russia’s interesting history over the last 100 years, adding in the military connection just makes the cult stronger.

You needn’t be an expert in Russian watchmakers to know the name Vostok. Since its inception, Vostok has produced some very well known examples, including the Komandirski, which became a standard issue USSR Ministry of Defense timepiece in 1965. But the more unique, nay, bizarre example of Russian military watches is the Zlatoust 191-ChS. As one of the largest and most bombproof divers ever conceived, the 191-ChS is truly the work of the Cold War arms race. And by “largest”, we mean 60 millimeters in diameter – eat your heart out, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Original examples are out there – beware of the abundant fakes – and they command a fair price, often around the $1,500 mark. If you’re looking for a military-issued diver that can double as a dinner plate, you’ve found your watch.

India


West End Watch Co. WWI trench and pocket watches, the HMT Jawan and HMT military pilot watch


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HMT pilot image courtesy of Aditya Sambhare

If anything is clear after researching Indian military-issued watches, it’s that their history is quite unclear. What can be determined, however, is that the Indian military did issue watches in limited capacities. As with many other militaries, personnel were often expected to procure their own timepieces.

Two watchmakers, HMT and West End Watch Company, were the main suppliers of the Indian military in modern times. HMT (Hindustan Machine Tools) is known for their cost-conscious, reliable watches, and their issued timepieces fall into the same spectrum. Despite a high percentage of fakes, genuine articles used by the Indian military can be found en masse. A truly issued 1960s/70s HMT Jawan (Hindu for “warrior”) usually goes for less than $100. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll come across a rare HMT watch issued to Indian pilots around the same time frame — but don’t hold your breath.

West End Watch Co. is a Swiss-owned company who focused distribution in the Indian market. With their perceived Swiss quality, West End Watch Co. pocket watches and trench watches were popular amongst colonial troops and Indian military officers. Issued watches likely came before WWII, as HMT took over the majority of the contracts post-war.

So yes, collecting Indian military timepieces is a bit of a crapshoot, but needles in the needle stack are out there, and make for an interesting hunt.

Australia


Pilot watches from IWC and JLC, field watches from Hamilton and Benrus, and rare divers from Droz


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It’s no surprise that the list of watches issued by the Australian military over the years looks similar to that of the UK MoD. You’ll find JLC and IWC Mark XIs from the 1950s, Lemania single pusher chronographs from the 1960s, and Hamilton field watches from the 1980s. Adding to the international watch sharing, the Aussies often found themselves wearing the infamous Benrus plastic watch in the jungles of Vietnam. Referring to them as “Mickey Mouse watches”, the Aussies weren’t exactly fond of the Benrus’ disposable nature.

Putting the more common issued watches aside, one of the interesting pieces Royal Australian Navy (RAN) clearance divers were issued was the Droz Super Compressor. Utilizing a case whose seal only tightens as water pressure increases, super compressors are unique and highly sought after by fans of vintage dive watches. Droz Super Compressors were issued in the 1960s and ’70s and would be a great score for someone getting into military watch collecting.

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