Exploring the world of watches on a budget

Kosmos 24 Orion

Last year, I introduced you to Kosmos 24*, a Kickstarter project that created 24-hour, two hand watches inspired by vintage Russian pieces. I liked their faithfully retro designs, and apparently, I was not alone as the campaign easily exceeded its funding goals. The first deliveries were made in the fall, including this space-age Orion they kindly gave me to review.

Microbrand watchmaking tends to be an international affair. Generally, you have a brand owner/designer in one country who works with engineers and manufacturers in Switzerland or China to create a product sold worldwide. Kosmos 24 is a prime example. The three partners who founded Kosmos 24 were school friends from France who ended up settling abroad: Arthur went to London, François moved to Kazakhstan, and Léo worked in Moscow. According to the story on their website, Arthur and François were visiting Léo, and after a trip to a Russian avant-garde art museum, they browsed a flea market and discovered some Soviet 24-hour polar exploration watches. Soon after that, they hatched a plan to make their own. This process ultimately enlisted two Russians: watch guru Konstantin Chaykin, and artist Anna Karakozova. For more details, read Léo’s excellent guest post, “How to Start a Microbrand.”

24-hour watches were initially made to combat disorientation when living a setting that lacks a familiar day/night environment, such as a submarine, the poles, or outer space. That said, it is unlikely that you would use a Kosmos 24 in any of those environments. Like the flea-market finds that inspired them, these are tribute watches, not tool watches so they will not light you up with their spec sheets. They have no lume whatsoever. They are water resistant to only 30m, and the instruction manual wisely advises you not to get the watches wet. The movement is Swiss Ronda 515.24 quartz, which is a sound choice, although hardly sexy. So what makes these watches click? Well, with the result of their efforts in my hands, I can tell you that the Kosmos 24 team absolutely nailed their design brief. 

Measuring 37mm wide, 41mm long, and a scant 8.4mm thick, the case is small, just like that of a 1960’s Raketa. If you have an 8” or larger wrist, this might turn you off, but it was ideal on my 6.5”, providing the proper vintage proportions. It is a relatively simple and handsome polished stainless steel case. Straight, drilled lugs with rounded ends lend some character. The only brand identification is on the case back, where the rocket logo is flanked by “Orion” in English and Russian. The sapphire crystal is domed, but you must look carefully to appreciate it. Indeed, that is one thing I would have changed about this watch. I would have preferred it if they had gone full retro with a tall acrylic box crystal.

All three of the dial options are brilliant interpretations of Soviet-era graphic design, framed by brushed, angled rehauts. As cool as bold color bands of the Revolution and the crystalline abstract Arkitka dial may be, I fell for the Orion’s whimsical orbit/trajectory diagram with its pop of turquoise and white and the rocket’s delightful intersecting triangles. The mid-60’s influence is unmistakable. Even though it was based on the fictional NASA control center on the 2015 movie, The Martian, it’s an image that could have come straight off an old Soviet propaganda poster.

Now, I must confess that reading the time is a bit of a challenge. While the numbers are clear and the hands long enough to give you a precise indication, I found the 24-hour  layout disconcerting. The minute hand works like any other watch but the hour hand moves at half pace, so those hand positions we have learned to read intuitively are entirely wrong here. To make matters worse, I am unpracticed in military time so when I see “18:00” I don’t think 6:00 pm, I think, “Wait, what?” It took two or three days for me to get comfortable with it, but once I did, it made perfect sense. You just need to pay attention.

Buyers get two pass-through straps with their Kosmos 24. The Orion comes on a black leather NATO with blue stitching, and a blue and gray nylon NATO. Both are perfectly nice, but I think the leather is the better match for the dial, and its extra size gives the watch a touch more presence on the wrist, although I’d rather opt for a lower profile. Given the notoriously awful quality of old Russian watch straps, I could always swap the NATO for a two-piece made from unbearably shoddy black leather (I have more than a few that I have removed from Raketas and Vostocks), but my need for historical accuracy has its limits. I will likely fit a nice aftermarket leather or canvas instead.

For a no-frills watch, the Kosmos 24 offers much to enjoy. These watches are charming tributes to a very particular point in watch history, the 24-hour function is a worthy addition to your collection, and the dials are outstanding examples of constructivist graphic design. You can order one for €140 (about $170.50 USD) at kosmos-24.com. ⬩

Note: The initial version of this post said the watch had a mineral crystal. I have since confirmed that the crystal is sapphire. The change was made during the Kickstarter campaign, but the Kosmos 24 sales site does not yet reflect this upgrade. Thanks, WUS readers!

* Fun Fact: Kosmos 24 was a Soviet spy satellite launched in December 1963.
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