Orion 1 Blue Review

The Orion 1 is the first watch from independent watchmaker Nick Harris, who has a long history in the Seiko modding community. Nick is a great guy who really cares about watchmaking and design. That's no small part of the appeal of Orion as a brand.

Specs

The Orion is no slouch, spec-wise. It has

  • Seiko NH35 movement (same as Seiko 4R36)
  • 100m WR
  • Thick, single domed sapphire with rear AR coating
  • 38mm diameter
  • 20mm lug width, 49mm lug to lug
  • Drilled lugs

It retails for US$450.

When I ordered the Orion 1 Blue, I had in mind that it would be something in the vein (though of course not in the ballpark) of an Explorer 1: sporty, yet understated enough to pass as a dress watch. In the metal, however, it's not the least bit understated, and it definitely wasn't love at first sight for me.

The Orion 1 has a design all of its own; you'd be hard pressed to pick any specific inspirations. I'd obsessively looked at photos before (and after) ording it, so I was prepared for the thickness (13mm), the long lugs (49mm) and the huge crown (9mm). Something the photos don't fully convey though is the crystal.

Unlike most watches, the thick, single domed sapphire is a huge part of the visual design, both with its size, distortion and the crazy way it interacts with its anti-refelective coating. The dial (which is matte black) can appear anything from deep black to bright blue, depending on the light.

At at steep enough angle, the dial is completely distorted, and in the wrong light (particularly multiple hard point light sources) the reflections on the surface of the crystal, the AR on the rear, and the hands can make it pretty hard to read.

After a couple of weeks I seem to have adapted to the crystal and have completely fallen for the watch as a whole. The design as a package works very, very well. Rather than the subtle nature of an Explorer 1, it has more the flashy personality of an Omega Aqua Terra.

Nemisis

The most obvious competition to the Orion 1 is the Seiko SARB033 - black dial, 100m WR, sapphire crystal, 38mm. The SARB is renowned for being incredible value at its price (retail is $450, but it can easily be found for $350).

The SARB is essentially that understated sports watch that I thought the Orion would be. It's visually 90% dress watch, in a case that is impecibly finished but still tough. The SARB also wins the movement battle: its 6R15 is a step above the Orion's NH35.

In terms of finishing, the Orion is at least as good as the SARB, although not as complex. Where the SARB has layered lugs with varying textures, the Orion keeps it simple with polished sides and brushed tops. But the execution of the surfaces is excellent, and the transition between brushed and polished is flawless.

Even the back of the case is finished well, transitioning from the polished sides back to brushed. This attention to detail is present in the dial and hands, too.

Especially on the bracelet, it's hard to beat the SARB as the consummate all-rounder. I've worn it on my morning run to work, showered with it on, then put on a business shirt, and it always felt completely at home.

In every dimension, the SARB is at least as good as the Orion. Except for uniqueness. I love the look of the SARB, but it's a very safe design, instantly recognisable as a Seiko. The Orion looks like nothing else I've come across. Whether that's worth $100 and forgoing the versatility of the SARB is up to you. I've just sold my SARB, which tells you where I stand.

Niggles

Now that I've adapted to the design, there are only a few niggles I have with the Orion. Firstly, the lume is useless. The dial lume is fine (barely), but the hands are unreadable even when fully charged.

The OEM leather strap is also isn't great. I love that Nick went to the effort to have a leather strap build that exactly fits the shape of the case, but that look just doesn't work for me. It's not bad quality, but not stunning, either. I think he'd do better offering a head-only option, a NATO option, or switching to any old traditionally shaped leather strap.

Update

After bagging the lume and the strap, I tested both again today. The lume on the hands is visible when fully charged, but only when fully charged, and not for long. I forgot to mention that the high polish hands mean that if there's even minimal light in the room, you can usually pick up enough of a reflection to tell the time.

The strap is better than I remember, partly I think because I spent some time softening it up so it hugs my wrist better. It's still not my preferred look, but as with the rest of the design, the more I look at it, the more I like it.

Final thoughts

Nick's execution of the Orion is really stunning for a microbrand at this price point. Here is a crop of a side-by-side photo I took with my Aquis - you can clearly read the text of the Oris crown in the mirror-like reflection of the Orion's bezel:

This quality extends to every aspect of the watch. Everything was considered and executed as well as possible.

Despite the massive lugs relative to the case, it wears very well, and the curve of the lugs helps the whole watch to sit down into the wrist. The huge crown feels wonderful to use, and I've never had an issue with it poking into my hand.

It's a cohesive, singular design that grows on you the more you wear it. In essense, it feels like Nick really cared about this watch. I'm glad I get to own one.


Seagull 1963 Review

The Seagull 1963 is a re-issue of a Chinese-made mechanical chronograph, originally developed for the Chinese military. As seems to be the case with a few Chinese brands, multiple manufactuers can make the "same" watch, with varying quality. The one I have is from WatchUnique, and is the 38mm variant with a domed acrylic crystal.

In photos the colourscheme can seem a bit busy: (painted) blue hands, red chronograph hand, gold applied indicies and the gold and red Chinese star. In person though, it works quite well. The printed seconds track and sub-dials are well executed, everything lines up well, and the gold indicies give the dial a sense of depth that it would have otherwise lacked. The domed acrylic adds an extra layer of warmth and 3-dimensionality.

Inside is the Seagull ST19, a column-wheel chronograph, which started life in 1957 as a licenced clone of the Venus 175. It is now a very common, and relatively well regarded movement. In terms of timekeeping, mine is running at about +10s/d, which is acceptable if not excellent.

The chronograph operates smoothly, although the start/stop button has a bit of a weird feel to it. One of my favourite features is that the minute subdial jumps between the markers as the running hand hits 0.

At 38mm, and with a substantial bezel, it wears perfectly as a dress(ish) watch for me. Despite being 14mm thick, it slides well under a cuff and doesn't feel anywhere near as thick as the measurements indicate. The long, curved lugs help it sit very nicely.

There are only really two downsides that I've come across. Using the crown can be fiddly, because of the proximity of the chrono pushers. The case finishing looks good, but there are some sharp points that could have done with a bit of smoothing out.

Overall, I'm impressed. This watch is part of a tour I'm running, so I'll only have it for about a week until it's shipped to the next person. For the price (approx AU$255 shipped) it's very well executed, and I think I'll miss having it in my collection.


Should I buy a Vostok Amphibia?

The Vostok Amphibia is an iconic watch with a cult following, but a lot of people who buy them end up disappointed.

To appreciate a Vostok, or really any Russian watch, you have to be prepared for something quite different to what you get from the Swiss, Germans and Japanese. Russian watchmaking, like the sterotype of most Russian engineering, is about simplicity in manufacture, simplicity in maintenance, and incorporating technology only where necessary. Refinement and technological excellence really don't come into it. Think of them like a Soviet tank or the AK-47.

A lot of people assume, because of the price and the cult following, that an Amphibia will be like a Seiko but with a quirky visual design. That's not really the case at all.

To begin with, the core physical design of the Amphibia hasn't changed much since it was first developed in 1967. The aim was to create a Soviet-produced 200m dive watch for the Soviet military. The Swiss were achieving 200m through manufacturing cases and casebacks to very tight tolerances; the existing Soviet watch factories could not match that precision, and could not afford to re-tool in order to. This constraint led to some innovative design choices that are at the core of the Amphibia.

The first is the caseback. A traditional screw-down caseback has an o-ring seated in the thread. When tightening the caseback, this o-ring is squashed into the thread, creating a watertight seal. The o-ring has to be fairly thin, and the tortional force of screwing in the caseback distorts it, meaning that it has to be replaced regularly.

The Amphibia's back, however, is held by a screw-in retaining ring, which pushes the back onto a thick gasket. The genius of this design is that under higher pressure, the caseback gets pushed harder into the gasket, creating a stronger seal. The gasket also has a much longer lifespan.

It's a similar story with the crystal. The engineers found an acrylic that has just the right properties under pressure that cause it to distort and push into the case, increasing water resistence, while being firm enough to provide protection under lower pressure.

The other noticably quirky design is the crown, which people often think is broken when they first use it. Unlike a traditional design where the crown is always coupled to the stem, the Amphibia has a clutch mechanism. This means that, when screwed in, any shocks to the crown are not directly transfered to the centre of the movement. This is why the more traditional case designs did not need to incorporate crown guards.

So that's some of what makes the Vostok cool. What may let you down is the simple case finishing, the bracelets (which are complete garbage) and the bi-directional friction bezel. The bezel in particular gets people's knickers in a knot, because we all "know" that a dive watch must have a uni-directional click bezel. Back in the 60s though, Blancpain held the patent to that technology, and almost all dive watches used a bi-directional friction bezel. And remember, the Amphibia design has not changed in 50 years.

While we're talking about bezels, you'll rarely see a Vostok in the wild with the bezel that came from the factory. That's because, for the most part, they're pretty ugly, and replacing them is a really simple and relatively cheap way to customise your watch.

Likewise, the movement is designed for robustness and servicability, not accuracy or looks. From the factory, it's likely that the watch will run 20-60s/d fast, but with some simple DIY regulating it's easy to get them to about +5.

So if you like quirky, practical, historically significant design that hasn't really changed in 50 years, an Amphibia might be for you. If you want something that's well finished, cheap and robust, get a Seiko or an Orient :)