I have a thing for California dials. This combination of Roman and Arabic numerals harkens back to certain pre-war Rolex and Panerai models, and was supposed to aid orientation when diving, but I just like the novelty of it and the fact that it eliminates the imbalance between the longer numerals VII and VIII on the left, an the shorter IV and V on the right. I also appreciate the look of wire lugs. These are styled after the first pocket watch to wrist watch conversions of World War One, where wire was literally fixed to the cases of pocket watches in order to fit wrist straps. It is a nice throwback that accentuates the shape of the case.
With these two preferences, I should really buy a Panerai Radiomir 1936, but two things hold me back. First, the 1936 has a 47mm case, which would look cartoonishly large on my wrist. Second, the Panerai costs about $15,000, and if I was dropping that kind of money on my watches, I would be The Time Boss, not The Time Bum. What I have really wanted was a 42mm, wire lug case with a California dial. Not a copy of a Panerai, but something that took those elements and ran with them to create something new.
It seems watch designer Nadim Elgarhy read my thoughts. Once he had put the Makara Octopus dive watch into production, he turned his attention to a new line of quartz watches inspired by vintage trench watches, but with a modern aesthetic. They launched under the Helgray brand, each sharing a common case but utilizing different movements and dials: the Field Officer, California, GMT, and Skyfighter Chronograph. MSRP ranges from $220 to $350. For this review, Nadim let me test drive a prototype of the $275 California ($250 for pre orders). I must insert my usual caveat that reviewing a prototype is not the same as reviewing a final product, as the level of fit and finish is generally lower, and elements may change before final production.
The movement is a Swiss made Ronda Mastertech 6004.B, a two hand, small seconds quartz. The Helgray series was originally intended to have movements assembled in China using Swiss parts, but the success of the Kickstarter campaign allowed an upgrade to Swiss made movements. In the California, this means a 5 jewel movement instead of the single jewel found in the "Swiss Parts" version. I know many watch nerds who will not even consider a quartz watch but The Time Bum is not among them. Don't get me wrong, mechanical movements are fantastic machines, but quartz does many things very well. They are accurate, reliable, thin, and best of all, inexpensive. To produce these watches at the desired price point, quartz was the right choice.
Like its siblings, the California has a 42mm stainless steel case with wire-styled lugs that hide standard 20mm spring bars. Lug to lug height is 45mm. The case is round and bowl shaped, which along with the tubular lugs, recalls the look of a converted pocket watch. The crystal is flat mineral glass on the prototype, but will be sapphire on the final. A domed crystal would have added to the vintage look, but also the cost. The flat crystal also keeps the thickness to a very reasonable 10.9mm, allowing it to fit under a shirt cuff without any fuss. The overall dimensions are about perfect for my 6.5" wrist. The prototype was made for only 30m water resistance, but thanks to another crowd funding milestone, production models will a far more useful 50m. Another Kickstarter-generated change will an engraved "Founders Edition" case back.
A push-pull crown sits at 3 o'clock. This is only aspect of the case that bothers me, and it is the only real design flaw on the watch. It is only 3mm and domed. It is tiny, but not so small that it disappears into the case. In my opinion, it is too small for the watch. I don't believe a larger crown would have been desirable, but a broader and flatter one might have maintained a better proportion. Similarly, a recessed crown might have worked. Despite its diminutive dimensions, I had no problem setting the time. The small crown is hardly a deal breaker, but it is something I might have done differently.
While not overly large, the watch has a strong wrist presence. The oversize hour markers with their unique layout is clearly the star of the show. In addition to the Roman and Arabic numerals, an inverted triangle marks 12 o'clock, and 3, 6, and 9 are represented by horizontal bars. It is an unorthodox, love it or hate it design. Once that has caught your attention, you can appreciate the other, more subtle aspects of the design. The expansive black dial seems to stretch the bounds of the case, right to the brushed rehault. A gold minute index rings the dial, a color repeated in the Helgray brand and the edging of the hour markers. The small seconds indicator is marked with only four red bars and a simple gold baton hand. The model name is also red. I find many watchmakers pay insufficient attention to typeface, and many go overboard with unnecessary verbiage that clutters the dial, so I appreciate Nadim's decision to limit text to just the brand and model, and his choice of a fine lined, sans serif font.
Gold cathedral hands are filled with the same white lume as the numerals. At night, the big numerals and hands glow bright green. The minute hand is just the right length to meet the minute markers on the index. A dial decorated in white, gold, and red could be an invitation to gaudy excess, but it is executed with tasteful restraint. The white pops the markers and hands for high visibility, while the red and gold accents merely warm the dial without overwhelming it.
The supplied strap is medium brown buffalo grain leather with matching stitching and an engraved stainless steel buckle. The color has a bit of orange to it, bringing it closer to tan than brown to my eye, and pairing nicely with the red and gold accents in the dial. It is approximately 3.5mm thick and does not taper, which fits its field watch inspiration. Unable to leave well enough alone, I tried it on a NATO strap. The usual olive/black/red regimental stripe looked great, but a Time Factors black/gold/red was perfect. I did note that the clearance between the spring bars and case was rather tight. A standard NATO slipped through just fine, but a heavier weave Zulu was a squeeze even after the bars were removed, and a thick leather pass-through was simply too much. Nadim says the lugs on the production version will be extended by 1mm, which should alleviate the problem.
I wore the watch to the office with olive and tan suits and while it did not seem out of place, its bold presence made it a bit of a risky choice. The watch is really best with business casual or "smart casual" attire. Of course, it would do very nicely with jeans on the weekend, but not for anything messy as it is far to nice to muck around as a tool watch.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Helgray California. For a watch that is inspired by antiques, it is surprisingly modern and brilliantly proportioned, despite the large numerals. In his second watch project, Nadim has proven that he has excellent taste, an eye for detail, and an appreciation for quality affordables. After reviewing this prototype, I am very happy I ordered a Helgray California of my own during the Kickstarter campaign. I look forward to seeing what Nadim has for us next.
Pro: California dial and lovely details.
Con: Undersized crown.
Sum: Cool and sexy Californication. The Time Bum approves.