Chris Vail is really on to something with his new NTH line. The formula is not complicated: take a classic watch, stir in some new details, build it to modern specs, sell. He isn't the only one doing this (arguably, this is the formula for 95 percent of the watchmaking industry) but he is doing it exceedingly well, and proves it once again with NTH's sophomore effort, the Tropics. I previewed these back in October, but today I have prototypes of the new Azores and Antilles in hand.
Where the first NTH models drew upon Rolex and Tudor Submariners, the Tropics derive their design from 1950's and 60's vintage compressor case diving watches, generally recognized by their internal timing bezels and dual crowns. With rare exceptions, watches of that era were a good two sizes smaller than they are today. Recognizing this, Chris sensibly kept the case to a modest 40mm wide and 48mm long. This is by no means undersized, and the internal bezel tends to make the dial and therefore the watch, appear slightly larger in person. For my 6.5" wrist, its proportions are ideal and it should be an easy fit for most people.
He also went to great lengths to keep the watch as thin as possible. While the prototypes are 11.5mm thick, production models will be 12mm. This is because the samples have a Miyota 9015 inside, whereas the finals will run a Swiss Tech Production STP1-11. The new movement's specs are similar to both the Miyota 9015 and the ETA 2824: 24 jewels, a hacking second hand, a smooth 28.8k bph vibration rate, and a 44-hour power reserve. Now I do love a thin case, but given the rising cost of the Miyotas and the undeniable allure that Swiss movements hold for many buyers, I must admit the STP is a smart move, and likely well worth the 0.5mm difference, which will be accomplished with a deeper dish to the case back.
Typical of Chris's watches, the case is brilliantly executed. Polished surfaces on the bezel, crowns, and chamfered outer edges of the lugs contrast against the north-south brushing on the top surface and the vertical brushing on the sides. The 20mm lugs are angular and terminate in a flat "chopped off" tip.
Screw-down crowns at 2 and 4 o'clock (yes, both screw down) are coin-edged and decorated. The upper crown has a crosshatch pattern, and the lower one is signed. This lume-filled logo was one of my favorite features on the Subs, and I am pleased to see it return. The sapphire crystal is raised, double domed, and anti-reflective.
Around back, you will find a high relief stamping of a diving helmet. This is another nod to history, as the original ESPA Super Compressor cases were marked with a helmet logo. Please note that the NTH, like most contemporary diving watches, uses a threaded case back and modern materials to achieve its 200m water resistance, not a pressure-sensitive bayonet mount case back like the vintage pieces. To my eye, the case most resembles that of the handsome Hamilton Cape Horn, without actually mimicking it.
The watches ship with both a perforated "tropic" rubber strap and a stainless steel "beads of rice" bracelet. The black rubber strap is 20mm wide, tapering to a signed buckle. I found it to be quite comfortable, lint-free, and period-correct.
The bracelet is a nice piece, with solid end links and single-ended screw pins, which makes sizing a breeze. Brushed outer links and round, polished beads in the center offer fine articulation, allowing the bracelet to cascade smoothly over your wrist. It tapers from 20mm to 18mm at the first link, further slimming the watch. I love this style, and it suits the Tropics' tailored appearance. It would be the perfect companion to dress up the watch if it were not for one thing.
My only issue with the bracelet - and really, my only issue with the watch - is the clasp. It's a fine piece in and of itself. The brushed surface and polished center match the case and the links. It has a push-button lock and a wetsuit extension and both functions operate flawlessly. It looks and feels like an industrial-strength unit of professional diving equipment, but that's the problem. It is 42mm long, 8.6mm thick, and that is just too big. At first glance, it looks as if it is almost as large as the watch head. It isn't, of course, but the boxy shape contributes to the illusion. The finished products will have taller, wedge-shaped links to meet the clasp and ease the transition, but the height will be the same. I did not find it to be uncomfortable or intrusive, just inappropriate. It would be right at home on a chunky dive monster with a chiseled link bracelet, but on these svelte watches, it's like wearing Doc Martins with a Tom Ford suit. I hate to say it, but I'd swap the clasp for a lower profile aftermarket flip-lock.
The range features two distinct dials: the sporty Azores and the refined Antilles. The Azores features Arabic numbers inside large triangles at 12, 3, 6, and 9, not unlike the classic Eterna Kon Tiki and any number of similar watches of the era, like my Majestime. The other markers are oversized darts piercing the black dial's sand-textured center section. Similar to the Subs, the Tropics bear the NTH logo as well as the model name in a distinctive and attractively stylized typeface. It is available with or without a date.
The handset consists of polished, faceted arrows and a paddle-tipped second hand. The polished shaft of the hour hand occasionally disappears against the black surface, but its lumed head maintains readability. The Azores comes in two lume "flavors": aged radium Vanilla and Mint Green. Many vintage divers used a very bright green lume, but the Azores has far more white in it. I like its subtlety. Bezel markings are lumed as well, with numbers only at 15 and 45, and positive and negative triangles at 12 and 6. The aggressive angles and bold contrast make for an eye-catching dial in the daytime, but it delivers its best punch at night when all that green pops to life.
The Antilles is the dressier of the two watches, which is not to say it is a dress watch, but with applied and polished markers, coffin hands, and a sunray dial, it offers more dimension and refinement than it sporty stablemate. In place of the Azores's dive timer, the Antilles is marked for a second time zone. Tall numbers in a radial arrangement bring a bit of Bauhaus into the picture. Production models will have a heavier font on the bezel to maximize lume and improve night visibility, but not too heavy, I hope, as I rather like the way the numbers match the width of the markers.
Options include black, blue, and champagne sunray dials, or a full-lume white dial with gray lume in the markers. Black and white dials have a date option. I requested the champagne dial – not because I like champagne dials, mind you. I generally find the yellow tones in gold dials hard to take. Don't ask me why. I know they are a classic look and ideal for dressier watches, but I have yet to own one that I really love. Still, Chris was proud of the way this one turned out, and it looked more brown than yellow in the photos, so I gave it a shot, and I'm glad I did. This is one beautiful watch. Everyone who sees it, watch nerd or no, says the same. It is not champagne or at least no variant of sparkling wine I've ever seen. I tried my best to torture the metaphor and liken it to ale or whiskey, but it lacks the necessary red tones. It's really more of a bronze color that shifts from golden brown to smoky gold as it catches the light, setting off the tall, polished markers and black bezel. It's just gorgeous.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with both of these watches. Once again, NTH has captured the essence of a mid-century classic and turned it into something fresh. Given the availability of inexpensive aftermarket replacements, I wouldn't call the bracelet clasp a deal breaker, but it is something to consider.
The Tropics collection will be $700 after the pre-order period but are currently available for $500, which is a nice price for a watch this cool with a Swiss mechanical movement. Check them out at out janistrading.com. ◆