15 April 2016

The art of camouflage – real military watches remain well hidden


Authenticity is a word which means different things to different people. To human beings it means “real”, “actual” or “what it says it is”. To people who work in marketing it means “close enough”.

So it is with watches. The psychology of how certain types of watches are sold, mostly to men, doesn’t flatter the male of the species very much.

Management consultants with dive watches approved by the US Navy Seals, IT managers with pilot’s watches used by fast jet jockeys, solicitors with chronographs like the one Steve McQueen wore in the film “Le Mans” and, of course, anything even remotely related to James Bond worn by anyone, even if they are actually in MI6.

You don’t need to have studied Freud professionally to work out what’s going on here. A glance at pretty much any watch-maker’s website will also tell you that this stuff sits at the absolute heart of marketing watches to men.

The saving grace for we watch fans is that watches designed to operate in extreme environments and difficult conditions are likely to be better watches. We also know that governments hold trials to decide which watches to issue, so whatever wins must be very good. That’s our excuse, anyway, and we’re sticking to it.

Which brings us to military watches and back to that word above, authenticity.

Hit a web browser looking for military watches and you’ll get thousands, literally, of nasty cheap pieces of rubbish with the badge of a regiment, squadron or unit stuck on it. Search a little smarter and you’ll find very high quality pieces which have links, or at least appear to have links, to real military units (Bremont for example) but aren’t actually military watches.

But you’ll need to search long and hard to find pieces actually issued to, or worn by soldiers, sailors and airmen, and which have been tested and chosen by the military. That’s what we’re going to have a look at today though; real military watches you can buy, and why you might want to.

Let’s get some housekeeping out of the way first. Military personnel need to know what time it is like anyone else, but often need other functionality depending on their role as well as greater performance thanks to where they’re doing it. So pretty much whatever you do in the service of your country, from F-16 pilot to joining your army’s Veterinary Corps, your employer will issue you with a watch.

Now that’s a lot of watches for the taxpayer to be forking out for, so most are simple, robust and un-flashy, except for those issued to pilots and divers where a bit more is required.

It’s also interesting to note than in this wholly digital age governments still issue mechanical watches to their militaries. In the air, at sea or on the ground the simple mechanical watch is an analogue back-up to the wonders of high-tech.

Tiny example: a British Astute-Class nuclear submarine costs about £1.1 billion. Its weapons systems would leave a 1980s science-fiction writer gibbering. And yet every one carries a number of purely mechanical stopwatches made by Hanhart. If all else fails, they will work when it comes to timing a torpedo. Redundancy, back-up and assured reliability from what is 400-year-old technology. Cool, isn’t it?

Given the number of countries, there are a lot of military watches, but we’re going to look at a handful here which are authentic, great watches and cost from under £70 to more than £4000.

Let’s start in Germany. Tutima is a brand not known far and wide outside watch-obsessive circles, but its “NATO Chronograph” is one of the most handsome and solid watches of the type you can buy.


A Tutima NATO Chronograph from Germany

Inside sits the legendary Lemania 5100 Swiss movement, a pug ugly thing which makes up for its lack of good looks by being one of the most reliable and robust automatic chronograph movements ever built. In the NATO it is linked to a clear, legible dial and sub-dials operated by flattened pushers (so as not to snag on things).

Tutima made watches for the German air force back in the day, and with the NATO won the contract to supply the wider German military, the Bundeswehr, in the 1980s and 90s. It may have been designed with function over form in mind, but it remains a very handsome piece. Prices are rising fast and today you’ll pay £1300-£3000 for an issue watch (identified by the “Bund” engraving on the case-back).

From Germany to the UK. In the early 1980s the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) required a new watch for Royal Air Force aircrew. It felt that quartz was the answer, given its reliability, accuracy and affordability and after extensive trials, and in a break from MoD tradition, Japanese watch giant Seiko got the gig with what is now known as the “Gen I” chronograph. Later this morphed in to the updated Gen II (partly through design requirements and partly thanks to concerns about the radioactivity of the original’s lume!) which was also issued to Royal Navy helicopter aircrew (and these are particularly valuable).


A UK military issue Seiko “Gen II” pilot’s watch

Both pieces are examples of brilliant, bullet-proof, accurate quartz chronos – simple yet beautifully designed. They’re much sought-after and depending on model a good one will cost between £300 and £600.

Our next military watch is a little more controversial in a number of ways. Its bona fides come from the fact that it was issued to the Italian Navy but its maker, more than any other military watch brand of modern times, has become a very prestigious name amongst the higher-end retail brands.


The Panerai “001”, from the Italian Navy to the wrists of the smart set

Most buyers of a Panerai probably have no idea the Florentine company made dive watches and “surface” watches for the Italian Navy from the late 1930s and that it has been selling to the public for barely 20 years. For a while in the early days they even sub-contracted Rolex to make the movements – unthinkable today.

One of the reasons this is a slightly odd choice is that when they decided to sell the things to the public in 1993 that had to make a few changes, most clearly sizing them down to something closer to normal. Does this make early “Pans” authentic military watches? I think so. The watches remain the same in all but size. Today of course the firm makes dozens of models, many of which have nothing but heritage in common with the military-derived early “Prototypes” and “001”s (like the one pictured here).

New ones are very expensive, but if you want to stick to the military pieces a good 001 will cost £3000-£4000, although prices are climbing hard.

Our final watch is the real oddity. It is, in my view, the most authentic military watch of the lot; and yet is it not a military watch at all.


Casio G-Shock 3229 – as bulletproof as that kevlar plate

The Casio G-Shock. Fun, funky, youth-oriented and marketed to surfers, snowboarders and climbers, not trained killers.

In my time in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq I saw more guys wearing G-Shocks than anything else. I’ve seen them on the wrists of Royal Military Police close protection teams, the British and Australian SAS, the US 10th Mountain Division, elements of the CIA, Dutch Commandos, the Royal Marines, the 82nd Airborne… basically everyone, everywhere, all the time. None of them were issued, all were bought privately.

Let’s be clear here that we’re not talking about the giant, multi-function G-Shocks most people think the military would buy either – the inch-high monsters packed with compasses and barometers.

What the military love are the slim, simple versions like the 3229 pictured here, which has what’s known as “tactical” display – in other words the display is ordinarily dark but lights up when you push a button. The reason this is a good idea in a combat zone is obvious.

That one’s mine, and it’s survived being blasted by micro-fine sand from Chinook rotors at Camp Bastion, flying around an armoured personnel carrier in Iraq, snow at Bamyan, scorching heat in Baghdad and getting dropped ten feet off a hotel balcony in Sicily (still counts).

It’s light, indestructible, accurate, waterproof, reliable, unobtrusive and it cost £64 if memory serves.

In the world of military watches, then, “authentic” isn’t quite what it might always appear.

James Clark is a communications consultant and journalist.