Submariner homages, am I right? They're everywhere. Perhaps no other watch has been duplicated, imitated, faked, borrowed, and downright ripped off as the iconic and ubiquitous Rolex Submariner. And why not? The real thing has achieved iconic status and is the standard bearer for the entire industry. Even non-watch lovers (or especially non-watch lovers) know it and want it. If you are in the business of selling watches, you'd be a fool not to offer something like it. The trick is to make one that does not elicit a collective yawn from your potential customers.
Enter Chris Vail of Janis Trading Company. As the brain behind Lew & Huey he has spun traditional watch designs (Flieger, Zenith El Primero, Omega Aqua Terra) with innovative twists (bold colors, layered dials, rich textures, a dog). I happen to know that Chris resisted the siren call of the Sub homage for a long time for exactly the reasons I stated above, but when he finally relented, he did it right. There are eight models in the range: Amphion Modern, Amphion Vintage, Oberon, Näcken Modern, Näcken Vintage Black, Näcken Vintage Blue, Santa Cruz, and Scorpéne. All are named for submarines (see what he did there) and share the same platform, but different dials, bezels, and handsets give each a unique personality. As Chris describes them, the watches are intended "to either emulate the weathered good looks of a well-traveled vintage piece or ... to be a modern interpretation of what those vintage pieces might look like if they were still being produced today." He succeeded admirably, delivering several fresh takes on the old classic, all highly desirable, and at the decidedly Bum-friendly price of $650-675, depending on the model, currently discounted as low as $450 for the pre-order.
I had two opportunities to sample these watches. The first was at the Philidelphia Watch Get Together in April, where Chris brought the initial prototypes of the eight model entire range: These first watches were 90 percent there. A couple of them were subject to further tweaking for color and detail, but the key elements were in place and already the watches looked outstanding. For this review, Chris sent second generation prototypes of the Näcken Vintage Black, Scorpéne, and Amphion Vintage that are nearly identical to what will be in final production. The only difference is that the color of the lume pip on the Näcken Vintage Black will change to match that on the rest of the watch.
First, let's explore the similarities across the range. NTHs use the reliable Miyota 9015 automatic, the 24 jewel, 28.8k bph, hacking, hand winding movement that has become the darling of the micro brand world. It sits behind a solid, screw down case back, unlike some of Chris's previous offerings, the case back is simple and solid, engraved only with the NTH logo and some basic specifications. The typical Miyota rotor noise seemed muted on these samples. I have no idea why this would be, but it's a good thing. Cases are brushed stainless steel, with screw down crowns, threaded case backs, and double-domed anti-reflective sapphire crystals. The 120-click unidirectional bezels are sloped with engraved steel inserts. Of course, the watches earn their names with an impressive 300m water resistance rating.
You might expect a diver's watch of this caliber to be big or bulky, but you would be wrong, and this is where the NTH really shines. The case is 40mm wide, 48mm long, and 11.5mm thick. This places it in the mid-size range of modern men's watches, and I for one, could not be happier. The proportions are ideal, especially for my smallish 6.5" wrist. One of the best features of the original Rolex and Tudor Submariners was their modest size, allowing true beach to boardroom versatility. NTH bests the modern Rolex Submariner in this department by shaving a couple of millimeters off the profile, resulting in a sleek profile that underscores the vintage look and easily tucks under a buttoned shirt cuff. Even though the watches are nearly dress watch thin, they give up nothing in sportiness. Toothy timing bezels and long, tapered lugs maintain an unmistakable dive watch presence.
Like the iconic James Bond watch, the NTH has a big crown and no guards. "Big" is a term open to much interpretation when it comes to crowns. To my eye, most sport watches surpass "big" and move right on through to "gigantic" and I'll grant that oversize crowns have their place. They can be easier to operate, can balance a bulky case, and the best of them are works of art in and of themselves. They can also be disproportionate eyesores - particularly on smaller, leaner cases. NTH gets it right by going wide and flat, offering an easy grip on its coin edge without ruining the balance. It has another trick too. The head isn't just signed, it's lumed. I know there is no logical reason to this and I don't care. That glowing logo just makes me smile.
The level of finish is spot-on. Fine grain brushing runs north-south along the case, highlighted by polished, chamfered edge running from lug-to-lug. It looks fantastic and there are no rattles, raw edges, or unpleasantly sharp points to surprise you. Bezel action is precise with defined detents and no back play. The lugs are drilled for easy spring bar removal and the perches allow sufficient space for aftermarket straps without leaving an unsightly gap.
The watches come standard on a 20mm oyster style bracelet with screwed, solid links. It is a quality unit all around. The screw pins are single-ended so there is no need for the dreaded dual screwdriver maneuver that always puts my dexterity to the test. My favorite feature is the removable half size link near the clasp. Have you have ever struggled to find the right fit and wished for just that one tiny extra fraction of an inch of adjustment? Well, this half-link was the piece you were missing. Why doesn't everyone do this? Combine that with the clasp's micro adjustments and you are sure to find the perfect fit. The bracelet terminates in a signed, flip-lock, push-button clasp. A natural rubber strap is a $35 option.
Now we get to the fun part: the dials. It's not that the cases aren't important, (seriously, I love this case), but the faces are where NTH models get their unique personalities. All have the NTH logo at the top, and the model name and depth rating at the bottom in a clean, modern typeface with a bit of a flourish like the elongated tail on the "k" in Näcken, or the filled "o" in Amphion. Regular readers know how I hate generic fonts, so this detail scores big points in my book. You can order any dial with or without a date window. The samples were all date-free, just the way I like them.
The Näcken series has printed square markers and snowflake hands for more than a hint of Tudor Pelagos. The vintage model shown here is distinguished by a textured black surface like that of the Manchester Watch Works Tatoskok. I've seen it referred to as a sand finish. Others have likened it to the pebbled patina that affects some dials. Whatever you call it, it is a distinctive look, just enough to catch the light - and your attention - without going over the top. The gray bezel insert is engraved and the markers filled with the same slightly yellowed vintage lume that graces the hands and dial. As mentioned above, the pip color on the sample is slightly off but will be corrected in production.
The Scorpéne is more pilot than diver. Its familiar sword hands, white-on-black four-numeral layout, and timing bezel recall the Sinn 857 or it's affordable dopplegänger, the Seiko SRP043 "Spork" pilot-diver. It is smaller than either of those watches but does not want for wrist presence as the flat black dial and engraved black bezel insert create the illusion of size. The Scorpéne's white lume minute markers are long in comparison to the hour markers, extending to half the length of the hour markers on both the dial and bezel. I like the way the aggressive index sets the watch apart, but the spidery effect compresses the dial and is likely to polarize opinion. Fun detail: the bezel's top center marker is a traditional pilot's orientation triangle.
Finally, we come to the Amphion Vintage. The watch evokes an aged Rolex 5517 MilSub with creamy "old radium" color lume, polished sword and pencil hands, and spear-tipped second hand. I was most interested in getting my mitts on in this particular prototype because it is the model bought for myself. The first prototype had a flat gray dial that did not make the final cut, so I made my choice on the strength of illustrations and Chris's word that the revised dial was better. He was right. The black sandpaper dial looks beautiful with the tan hands and markers, and the red text for the model name. The bezel is filled with a yellower shade of lume than the dial, which seems like an odd choice until you consider that bezels and dials are not usually printed the same way and consequently, they age differently. In my opinion, many a Mil-Sub clone has been ruined by an embarrassingly new looking white-on-black insert. The natural color of the Amphion's bezel mellows the watch, giving the piece a warm, lived-in look. This was definitely the one for me.
Since I had these watches hanging around for a couple weeks, I had to play strap dress up and try some new looks. A rugged canvas Phalanx from Crown & Buckle played off the gray brought out the green tone in the Näcken Vintage black. Black leather would have been an obvious choice for the Scorpéne - too obvious. Polished sand Horween leather from Choice Cuts with simple black stitches was less expected and far more handsome. The Amphion was begging for vintage leather and a Choice Cuts Horween olive with beige stitching was just the thing.
It would have been a travesty to give these back without trying NATOs. My well-loved Victor and Wells suede went on the Näcken, proving that the watches have adequate space behind the spring bars for a heavy leather strap. I chose weathered espresso brown leather from Cheapest NATO Straps for the Scorpéne. The Amphion Vintage got a Bond stripe, of course.
When the lights went down the lume sprang to life: green for the Näcken Vintage Black and Amphion Vintage, a less vibrant but still potent blue for the Scorpéne. They are all impressive and the lumed crown is an extra treat. It's by no means garish, just a little something special that enhance the overall experience.
Indeed, that crown description neatly sums up the entire NTH range. They represent a traditional design that is meticulously executed, but with the addition of novel and exceedingly clever details. It's those thoughtful extras that turn a watch you might really like into a watch you will love, and that is precisely what Chris has done with his Submariner watches.
Head over to the Janis Trading Company web store to browse the rest of the line and take advantage of the pre-order prices. With eight models, there is truly something for everyone. Maybe the Rolex 6538-inspired Oberon, or the blue bezel Santa Cruz with its summery white dial and vintage markers? Have a look. You won't be disappointed,
Pro: Details. Brilliant, thoughtful details.
Con: Explaining to the uninitiated that it is not just another Sub homage.
Sum: Seriously, what are you waiting for?