Hands-on with the Spinnaker Spence SP-5039

As we previewed a few weeks back, pioneering underwater archaeologist Edward Lee Spence inspired Spinnaker’s latest Vintage Diver. Spence discovered many Civil War-era shipwrecks, rewrote the literary history of Gone With the Wind (a few shipwrecks revealed more fact than fiction in Margaret Mitchell’s classic), and founded the International Diving Institute to train and certify commercial deep-sea divers. Spence, in other words, is a serious diver. After a week on the wrist, I think the Spinnaker Spence SP-5039, however, is better suited to the desk than the dock. That’s not to say the Spence SP-5039 isn’t a legitimate dive watch—it is—but it emphasizes style over substance in a couple of key places.

Water resistance is not where the Spence SP-5039 falls short. At 200 m water resistance, with an exhibition caseback, I tip my diving helmet to Spinnaker. Many dive watches in this depth and price range have a solid caseback for obvious reasons—it is easier to make something waterproof if you get rid of a seam.

It’s a Seiko, but Spinnaker doesn’t say which one. Probably a 4R35, which hacks and hand winds.

The Seiko movement visible through the clear caseback wears a signed rotor. The screw-down crown lets you hack and hand wind, although the rotor is amazingly efficient so you might not have much need for the latter feature. The crystals are mineral, and the clarity and feel impressed me. Durability is the downfall of mineral crystal, but I didn’t have any coral handy so we’ll have to wait for your field reports on scratch resistance. The case on my tester was perfectly PVD’d (it’s brushed stainless on other models). The downturned lugs are sharp and they help it wear smaller than its 42 mm. I loved the leather strap—thick, comfy, rugged. The striped NATO was a little much for my style and it bit into my wrist at the welds, so I left the leather in place for most of my testing.

The swooping lugs help the 42 mm Spinnaker Spence SP-5039 sit perfectly on the author’s 7″ wrist.
Both leather and nylon straps are included, but the author much preferred the leather.

Lume is where things start to sink, but that seems to be partly conscious design trade-off and partly technical failure. The hour markers are applied metal batons, ramped on either end, and inset into the minute register. The strip of lume that runs down the center of each is too small and too dim to be practical. On the handset, the bowtie hour hand has enough real estate to shine at night, but the slender minute hand and lollipop seconds are still usable. The lume pip on the bezel is really just decorative. But all of this is for the better in the daylight. Even in goldtone (the blue SP-5039-01 is still my favorite) the watch looks strong and balanced. I just don’t think Dr. Spence would take it down on his next salvage dive.

Lume battle: Seiko SKX007 vs. Spinnaker Spence SP-5039. Both charged via UV light. Note how the 007 minute register shines. The Seiko lume is much brighter.

Nor would the bezel suit a deep-sea archeologist—and here the shortcomings are harder to rationalize. It has a 120-click unidirectional bezel with all the right markings, the lume pimp is nicely elevated (but dim), and the goldtone finishing on my test model was perfect. From there, things plunge fast. The clicks are sloppy and sound hollow, thanks to a whole click of play between positions. To set the lume pip at 12:00 I had to turn it one click past 12:00 and then nudge it back to make up for the waggle. The mushy clicks matched the bezel’s faint knurling. Smooth on the sides, the bezel’s only help for wet hands is a shallow ring of machined divots around the top edge, just shy of the aluminum bezel insert. Again, great looking but not that functional.

The heart of a dive watch is its unidirectional bezel, for dive timing (or for steak timing, as is usually the case for me). A dive watch is also waterproof, but not every waterproof watch is a dive watch. A dive watch also needs adequate lume, but not every lumed watch is a dive watch. But every mechanical dive watch has a unidirectional bezel. The International Organization for Standardization has its ISO 6425 “Divers’ watches” certification, but strip it down to its unique feature and you’re left with one thing: a unidirectional timing bezel.

ISO 6425 (in brief)

100 m Water resistance
Unidirectional bezel
Dial minute markings
Readable in total darkness
Indication that the watch is running in total darkness
Magnetic resistance
Shock resistance
Chemical resistance
Springbar strength

It’s disappointing that the Spence SP-5039 skimps on this essential feature because the rest of the package is really well done. The Spence SP-5039 doesn’t claim ISO 6425 certification, but it hits all of the visible benchmarks, although some only just. Pump up the lume and fix the bezel and this could be a great dive watch. For now, it’s a very decent desk diver, at the very least. spinnaker-watches.com

Spinnaker Spence SP-5039

  • Price: $280USD (stainless); $300USD (black PVD)
  • Who it’s for: A stylish diver who won’t get hung up on a couple key features.
  • Would I buy one?: Fix the bezel and we’ll talk.
  • Design suggestion: Pump up the lume and, more important, tighten up the bezel.
  • Standout feature: I’m a sucker for a lollipop.

Tech Specs

  • Case size: 42 mm x 14.25 mm; 46.8 mm lug-to-lug
  • Lug width: 22 mm
  • Dial diameter: 30 mm
  • Crown: 8 mm, screw-down, engraved with Spinnaker sail logo
  • Case material: 316L stainless steel
  • Crystal: flat, mineral
  • Strap: leather with contrast stitching and pin buckle; nylon NATO
  • Claimed water resistance: 20 ATM (200 m)
  • Claimed weight: 125 g
  • Warranty: 2 Years International
  • Movement: Seiko automatic; hacking and hand winding
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