I’ve written about the NTH Submariner homage watches by Chris “Doc” Vail before, and also talked about his Tropics compressor style watches again. Doc is back at it with a new set of Sub case watches.
The original run of NTH Subs paid homage to early Submariners and Tudor divers, picking out key elements of the originals to honor. They were largely 1954 to 1969 style watches, but with Doc’s twist of making them more water-resistant than the originals, and thinner (with the exception of a very rare Tudor hand-wound Sub, written about in that earlier article.)
These new Subs are, at their simplest, dial, hand, and bezel insert changes on the same excellent case and crown formula. But that’s not enough to say, really. This time, he’s shifted the time range being offered from late 60s, to include a watch from the 1980s. He’s shifted focus from Rolex and Tudor to Heuer / TAG Heuer, in a watch named the NTH Santa Fe.
Let’s go to the Wayback Machine (Or should it be a DeLorean? This is Doc we’re talking about, after all.): In the early 1980s, Heuer was fighting for its life to stay in business. The quartz crisis had rocked Switzerland to its core. Rolex was shipping ultra-accurate quartz models that shared parts with their mechanical movements (3035 and 5055 calibers, if you must know.) Nick Hayek consolidated a bunch of brands under one roof and started shipping colorful plastic quartz watches with artistic dials called “Swatch”. Zenith instructed their employees to destroy all the tooling and plans for their automatic chronograph movements. (One employee couldn’t bear to follow orders, and hid everything in an attic, bringing it out years later when Zenith came to their senses. Zenith changed hands several times, even being bought by Zenith-the-TV-company at one time. It was this weird of a time.) Omega was being considered for sale to Seiko. Heuer was forced to sell Heuer by bankers, and the purchasers in 1982 were effectively Nouvelle Lemania and Piaget.
Jack Heuer was still the head of the Heuer watch company. He didn’t want to be the Heuer to close the doors. Heuer had a plan. He’d release affordable quartz watches made of plastic, too. This was how the Formula 1 was born.
To go along with it, he’d also make the Professional line of diver watches. Made in three sizes, a small, mid, and large (40mm was large for the time) these were diver cased with Mercedes hands, and dials that didn’t completely ape the Rolex bars and circle lume plots. Frequently, they’d be inverted, using circles at the 3–6–9 and bar indices in-between, or using triangles for the whole thing. You got a lot of variation and dial originality at this time.
“ISPO is Europe’s leading international trade fair for sporting goods and sports fashions, and for several years Heuer had taken a stand at the fair in Munich where we often found ourselves next to manufacturers of skin-diving products. They were mostly American firms and while chatting with their representatives at the 1979 fair I heard about the difficulties that they had buying private-label watches for underwater sports. They had had some bad experiences with watches bought from an importer in New York – in next to no time the watches let in water and they had had to deal with many angry customers.
That gave me the idea of trying to enter this market with a range of sturdy, Rolex-style diving watches with quartz movements, which would avoid overusing the winding crown as was inevitable with mechanical movements. To our great surprise our new diving watches were very well received by the market. We could not imagine then that this model – we called them the 1000 Series would be the very watch that was to help the company recover and get back into the black following the takeover by Piaget in 1982.
The following year, we extended the series to four sizes: two large ones for gentlemen’s watches and two small sizes for ladies. We also added a special piece to the metal bracelet so it could be stretched to fit over the sleeve of a wetsuit. All four models had a rotating bezel and extra-luminous dials, both features that TAG was to include a few years later in the full TAG Heuer range of sports watches.”
- Jack Heuer, from his autobiography.
These days, we try and find ways to justify the high price some watch companies ask for steel automatic watches. One of the ways we do that is by talking about how they’re vertically integrated, doing all of the work in buildings they own. This is a relatively new concept. Before the 1990s, a watch brand would go to a case maker, a dial maker, a hand maker, and either build the movement in-house or buy an ebauche and do all the assembly themselves.
In the automotive world, there are parallels. One of the things that made an automatic watch valuable was its movement – hand crafted, with hand-shaped jewels and brass sleeve bearings, only the best ones could pass the Observatory or COSC accuracy tests. These days, such things are machine-made and practically interchangeable. In the early days of the automobile, parts were not interchangeable, but had to be hand-machined to fit each specific engine. It seems obvious to us today that if you buy a M10 bolt in the US and a M10 nut from China, that the two will fit. 232 years ago, this wasn’t the norm. Interchangeable parts began with Honoré Blanc in 1785 demonstrating muskets that could be disassembled, mixing up the parts, and reassembling them. It took a while for other industries to catch on to this idea. In early automotive history, a part would be made, and then filed, swaged, or worked to fit. Even parts that we take for granted, like the pistons fitting cylinders, had to be machined by hand. The mark of a good machinist was one who could see 0.1 differentiations and correct them by eyeballing. Think about the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. They made bicycles, and when it came to making their engine, they drew the parts and machinist Charles Taylor made them, using a drill, lathe, and hand tools. Each time they needed to repair an engine, they had replacement bronze and iron castings for the cylinders and pistons, and would hand fit them. The crankshafts were made by drilling blocks of steel until waste could be knocked out with a hammer and then turning on a lathe. It wasn’t until 1907 that Cadillac demonstrated driving up in three cars on a racetrack, disassembling them completely, mixing up the parts, reassembling them, and then completing a 500 mile test. We take interchangeability for granted. That interchangeability is what brought prices down and has made wristwatches even possible for the common person.
Some of the watch brands in existence today began life as one of these contract manufacturers making parts for an established watch brand. Others made their own watches, but also supplied parts to competing companies as a second source of income. In the 1960s, EPSA supplied the compressor case to many different companies. Squale provided their diver case to those who didn’t want to use a compressor case. When Jack Heuer needed a case for his affordable diver, some sources suggest he relied on Squale. He wasn’t alone: Blancplain, DOXA, also used it. ETA, one of Nick Hayek’s purchases, provided the quartz movements, Squale supplied the case. I’m not entirely certain.
Heuer wasn’t to remain in the hands of Lemania / Piaget for very long. Purchased in 1982, and sold to TAG, a Middle East investment group, in 1985. The Professional series, or really took off in 1982. It looks as though they were made by Roventa-Henex, a contract manufacturer in Switzerland. It wasn’t until 1984 that the collection was named the Heuer 1000 series. The range consisted of over 30 models, including stainless steel, two-tone, PVD black, gold-plated models, and PVD black and gold two-tone.
Every once in a rare while, a brand puts out a watch that captures the attention of people, and lives longer in memory than anyone at the company might expect. Heuer released such a watch. What made this watch different was the dial. Affectionally called the Night Diver by fans, the Heuer catalog describes it as having, “Optimal legibility even in complete darkness.” And, “These medium-sized models are suitable for using everywhere. Including night-time diving. Professional type, water-resistant to 200 meters (660 feet). Quartz, date, stainless steel case, screw-in crown, uni-directional turning bezel with ratchet. Certain models are available with leather or rubber strap.” This wasn’t the first appearance of the Night Diver concept. It was in similar form on a 5 link jubilee style bracelet in 1983 as the 980–115. This appears to be the earliest luminous Night Diver watch from Heuer–it does not appear in the 1982 catalogue.
It’s important to note that these watches originate in very different times. The original was from a period of great economic pressure on watch companies, where it was a wonder to survive at all, and Heuer / TAG Heuer shifted much of their watches to quartz production for cost and popularity reasons. In 2017, the wristwatch is several years into a small renaissance, with affordable movements like the Miyota 9015 and Seiko NH35 appearing in micro brands like NTH that wouldn’t have found their audience in 1982. Similarly, much of TAG Heuer’s modern production is automatic, smartwatch excepted. The NTH take on the original isn’t a faithful take. It isn’t a reproduction, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a reminder of the essential idea of a fully lume dial with black markers instead of lume plots. Paired with the Miyota 9015, the best Miyota offers in an automatic movement at this time, and you have a nice affordable wristwatch, offering the look of a watch that now sells for more than a shiny new NTH. They aren’t making 980.115 anymore, and this is a solid choice if you want that look.
NTH also offered us a chance to look at the excellent Näcken Modern Blue. I bought the Nickel Modern Black when it was first offered, in part because I liked the blue lume used on it, and I liked the smooth dial, where the Näcken Vintage Blue offered at the time had green lume and a rough textured dial to emulate the sort of thing that happens to dials when exposed to moisture. Had the Näcken Modern Blue been available in that first run when I ordered, I
might would have chosen it instead. The stainless steel bezel insert is a really nice shade of blue – not bright blue, not dark navy, and it’s pleasurable to look at. Here again, it references the Tudor with both the blue bezel and the snowflake hands and dial. Historically, the Tudor Snowflake hands and dial appeared in 1969 with the 7016 and 7021 models, (no-date and date models.) Some of them have been seen with early blue dials, but the 9401 is generally regarded as the model where blue dials and bezels started in earnest. The 9401 ended production in 1983.
The last year of square markers on a snowflake Tudor was 1979, until they returned for Pelagos in 2012. Tudor didn’t forget about Submariners after 1983, introducing the 79090 in 1989 which eliminated the no-date model we’ve been focusing on. In 1995, the 79190 came into being, retaining the date, changing acrylic crystal to sapphire, and using a bare stainless steel bezel insert instead of the traditional colored aluminum.
NTH holds up well in comparison. Stainless steel case, stainless steel bezel insert, sapphire crystal. Näcken Modern Blue uses a lot of the same recipe and arrives at a watch that pays homage to, without reproducing, any one model. It has the no-date model of the 9401. It has a blue bezel insert (9401, 79090) made of stainless steel (79190), sapphire crystal (79190, and yes, I’m stretching here – lots of watches are sapphire-equipped now.) and the bezel insert has no ‘pearl,’ instead using the faux pearl of the Tudor Pelagos. It does have a blue dial, Pantone 7547, which is a subtle, dark blue. It sometimes shows as a more gray color, but it’s decidedly in the blue family. (This review previously stated that the dial was black. This was incorrect, and was revealed through comparison with the Näcken Modern Black and conversation with Doc Vail. I apologize for the error.)
Getting color right is no easy task. First of all, many people don’t have their monitors regularly color-calibrated (the blue you see may not be the same blue I see.) If your factory’s calibration isn’t the same as your designer’s, you’re going to have a bad time. Third, factories use Pantone color books that aren’t replaced regularly. Ink fades, colors get sun-faded, and the colors in their old books aren’t the actual colors they’re meant to be. Fourth, the way ink, dye, and paint take to different materials can be a problem. It takes a lot of energy, samples sent back and forth from a factory, at least three days of shipping time lost waiting for them to arrive to qualify and comment on them, and then go around again to try and get it right. Making a product is hard work.
As always with NTH subs, the dial, the bezel insert, and crown are lumed, making for a good look when the lights go out. It’s so easy to like these two watches, especially since I’ve confessed to buying one of the first models released. I don’t say that out of post-purchase rationalization. The thing to know here is, this is a good recipe: Doc’s 11.5m thin, 300m water resistant case with medium coarse coin edge bezel is an excellent base to build a watch on, whether it’s the Night Diver above, the Näcken Modern Blue, or a deep burgundy-root beer colored dial and bezel (named Barracuda). You get a lot of watch for your money with an NTH. On specs alone and comfort on the wrist, it fits naturally. It’s the comfortable vintage 40mm size, and I have a hard time overemphasizing how 11.5m thin is an easier wear than a thicker 14mm watch. Pre-order pricing is currently at $500, with a regular price of $625. Doc has generously provided a discount for WWR readers: WWR readers can take an additional $25 off your order with code WWR. Check them out at janistrading.com on the pre-order page.
- Brand & Model: NTH Santa Fe and Näcken Modern Blue
- Price: Earlybird pricing starts at $500
- Who we think it might be for: The James Bond Night Diver look is for you, or you’re a man of refined tastes and want a blue bezel Tudor sub-alike.
- Would I buy one for myself based on what I’ve seen?: If it had been available last summer, I would already own it.
- If I could make one design suggestion, it would be: Don’t make design suggestions to Doc. He doesn’t want or need them.
- What spoke to me the most about this watch: Tastefully playing in the sandbox Tudor and Heuer have mostly abandoned.
Tech Specs from NTH
- Case size: 40mm
- Height: 11.5mm
- Case material: steel (brushed, with polished bevels)
- Crystal: flat, sapphire
- Strap: stainless steel bracelet, solid end links
- Movement: Miyota 9015