The Perfect Alternative 3 Watch Collection
So we’re all getting a little sick of hearing about Rolex and Patek Philippe all the time. Sure, they’re popular, but there’s a wealth of watches beyond those two best-sellers that we’d be missing out on if we didn’t go looking elsewhere. So how about this, then: the perfect three-watch collection without a Rolex or a Patek Philippe in sight!
Nomos Ahoi Date 551
If you aren’t familiar with Nomos, perhaps you are Glashütte. That’s a little place in Germany that’s akin to Geneva in Switzerland, home to the German watch industry and the great German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne. Nomos is a brand that’s been working hard to live up to the extremely high reputation of the region and is the first choice for our alternative three-watch collection.
If you think this Ahoi Date 551 looks a bit Bauhaus, that’s because it is. It—and indeed much of the Nomos collection—is actually modelled on a 1940s watch from the manufacturer up the road, the source of inspiration that drove founder Roland Schwertner to start the business just two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Schwertner’s goal wasn’t to deliver the best of German watchmaking—A. Lange & Söhne was already all over that—but to deliver the best of German watchmaking at a reasonable, affordable price. It took time and it took investment—a lot of investment, over £15 million—and it’s to the Ahoi Date we turn our attention to see if he actually managed it.
What you get is a 40.3mm watch that’s 10.6mm thick, has a nice, big date, is water-resistant to two hundred metres and is driven by an in-house, automatic calibre, the DUW 5101. You can see the movement through the optional sapphire case back, striped and polished, screws blued and winding rotor open-worked. It sounds like the perfect everyday watch, well-sized, nice and slim, easy to read, pleasant to look at, not averse to a bit of water—and you get all that for the sum of £3,500.
By combining legendary German efficiency with modern manufacturing techniques—whilst still maintaining tradition where it counts—Schwertner and Nomos have managed to achieve the dream of becoming Germany’s best sensible, realistic watchmaker—and that’s why the Ahoi Date is the first watch in the collection.
Grand Seiko SBGJ213
From Germany to Japan, we take a trip to Grand Seiko to get a lesson in how watchmaking is supposed to be done. Of course, most people would think of Switzerland when it comes to the best miniature tickers, but despite being the epicentre of the quartz watch boom, the Japanese know a thing or two about making an exceptional mechanical movement.
Before we get to that, a little about the watch that houses it first, the SBGJ213. We’ve steered away from steel and into titanium, an exotic material known for both its light weight and its strength. Because it feels so light, it’s not always popular, but for a unique experience, a chunky, solid sports watch that feels like it’s barely there is perfect for an alternative collection.
The SBGJ213’s 44GS case is angled and polished true to Grand Seiko’s house style, giving a bright mirror-finish to the darker grey of the titanium, an execution that’s unusual to see on this material, making the appearance distinct and unique. You’ll be pleased to know then that as it’s actually an alloy of titanium, niobium and iron, it’s substantially harder than steel, keeping those lovely mirror finishes scratch-free for longer.
As reassuring as that is, it’s in the business end of this watch, the calibre 9S86, that the real draw lies. It’s what’s known as a high-beat movement, a watch that ticks more times per second for higher precision and a smoother sweep. Your average movement gives you eight ticks per second, 28,800 per hour, but the 9S86 bangs out another two per second for 36,000 beats per hour. Although you’d need a chronograph function to take advantage of that tenth-of-a-second accuracy versus the usual eighth-of-a-second, the way the second hand glides around the dial makes it more than worth its position as the second watch in our collection.
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Classic Cars 03.2046.400/25.C802
High-beat movements must be a lot like buses, because here’s another one right after the first. These beats belong to Zenith’s El Primero, a movement that’s become famous for doing its duty in the 1988 Rolex Daytona. It’s quite a story, with Rolex seeking to move to an automatic chronograph from the previous manually wound Valjoux 72, choosing the El Primero and subsequently stripping it of many of its best features, including the elusive ten beats per second.
But the Rolex story is not why this watch ends up as the third in our alternative collection, no—it in itself is a hugely impressive piece of engineering, even if Rolex didn’t quite see it that way. Remember, the Daytona ran with it from ’88 all the way through to the new millennium—a movement that first saw action over thirty years prior. And there’s a good reason for that.
It’s a movement built to such high standards that, despite its success, it actually bankrupted Zenith. It was designed and built by outright buying the best companies and the best minds in the business and bringing them all under one roof. Where products are manufactured with built-in obsolescence today, the El Primero was designed to last for centuries. There aren’t many movements this old still in active production today—and it’s showing no signs of stopping any time soon.
If the contemporary calibre 4130 that resides in the Rolex Daytona today is like a fast road car, the El Primero is a single-seat racer. There’s 20% more parts in there, with some manufactured from tungsten carbide for additional robustness. It’s also 25% faster thanks to that high-beat movement. And this is in comparison to a movement developed over thirty years later!
In all, there have been over twenty-three variants of the El Primero, with the addition of a calendar, flyback mechanism and even one-hundredth-of-a-second capability, and has featured not just in the Rolex, but in watches from Ebel, Dunhill, Dubois et Fils, TAG Heuer, Panerai and Daniel Roth, too. It’s a mainstay of the industry and has been for over half a century. To be honest, it’s a watch that belongs in every collection.
There are watches and there are watches, and these three that might not have otherwise got a look-in are some of the very best. They may not all hail from Switzerland, may not wear the pointed crown or the Calatrava Cross, but their significance and contribution to watchmaking as a whole is every bit as important. A collection doesn’t need to be mainstream to be special—in fact it’s probably exactly the opposite.
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