There’s a sub-set of watch manufacturing that actual deserves the more edgy-sounding label of “counterculture.” It’s been around for a few years, and it seems to be unaffected by the constant, overriding concern the industry has for the supply of raw movements. Even as the Swatch Group tightens its grip on ETA movements, so do these companies flourish, producing super-cool/super-macho watches sold online at embarrassingly low prices … and fitted with ETA movements, like the 2824.
Probably the first of these “below the radar” brands of which I was conscious was Mk II (mkiiwatches.com), who made a stunning lookalike of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. The range now includes a host of diving watches inspired by the Rolex Submariner and other military models. Because the watches aren’t pretending to be anything else, and because the prices are so low, AND because they were/are “customisable”, even snooty enthusiasts don’t get their panties in a bunch about such operations as Mk II.
All watch enthusiasts have moments of sheer impulse, during which we buy stuff that we know only we’ll wear once, if at all. I have a few of these embarrassments: I don’t know why, for example, I bought a bunch of current Russian watches this year, which I’ll reveal in an upcoming column. Conversely, as I’ll never be able to afford a genuine 1950s Fifty Fathoms, I was sorely tempted to buy the Mk II “homage” called the Stingray, but I left it too late, and, alas, it seems to have sold out.
Somehow, I learned about TNT, and I took the bait. The temptation was the TNT Challenger 1 (store.torsten-nagengast.de), which looks like what would happen if a Fifty Fathoms and a Bell & Ross “Vintage” had unprotected sex. It is the distillation of what I like about early diving watches, but with Torsten Nagengast’s personal touches. It took me all of, oh, two minutes before I was pre-ordering one.
Nagengast is an enthusiast who decided to found his own company, but with a twist – and a lot of good luck: his latest venture is predicated on him finding by sheer accident a supply of unused LACO movements from 1944 in a dumpster. These will now power a limited run of perfectly retro, military-styled watches.
From collector to buyer/seller, to manufacturer – it’s a path a number of us would follow if we had the initiative. In his case, it was finding both new and new-old-stock movements, his preference being those from the 1940s-1960s. He houses them in cases with dials that recall the classic military timepieces that are now the sole province of auctions or specialist dealers. He also has an anathema of obscene pricing: my kind of guy.
Which brings us to the TNT Challenger 1, ostensibly a “flieger”, or pilot’s watch, but it sure looks like a diving watch to these eyes: massive bezel, over-sized numerals. But we’ll get to that in a bit. Everything else about this screams “Buy me!” to those who love everything from IWC Big Pilots to the aforementioned Blancpains to, well, most current Bell & Ross models.
Looking at the images tells you that it’s quirky. Winder at 12 o’clock, fixed lugs that will only accept over/under straps (unless you’re lucky enough to have a source for open-ended leather straps, that is), a coin-edge bezel and stencil-type numerals are not common, but they certainly give the watch character, a bit like a Meridian from Simon Michlmayr.
More specifically, Torsten has developed a 43mm diameter, 13.5mm thick case using 316l stainless steel, fitted with a 23-jewel ETA 2842 automatic mechanism from “the ETA 2824 product family” (not a typing error!), powering three hands. The design reeks of luxury, as it features a ceramic bezel, the TNT badge is a separate metal piece, the hands are treated with soft brown Luminova, and the contrast with the matte back dial is truly handsome. The supplied strap is of superior quality, the glass is anti-glare, and the watch has a see-through caseback. The latter is held by six screws, with an engraved ring encircling the sapphire back.
On the wrist? Super-comfortable, and I think it looks utterly wonderful. But there are three complaints, which I’m sure TNT could answer, but I would ignore their reasons. The first is the lack of a screw-down crown. OK, this is, in their eyes, a flieger, but that’s no excuse in this day and age, for any watch with professional aspirations or merely a pro look. This deserves to have that added level of protection against moisture and dust.
Which leads to Grumble No 2: the stunningly massive, superbly-finished bezel is fixed! Huh? What *@?!?@? It begs to rotate, especially with big-ass coin edge suggesting a finger grip. This is a sorely-missed opportunity, like the non-screw-down crown.
Lastly, the third area of criticism is the strap, however nicely made it may be. Although I’m no fan of so-called “NATO straps”, which are miserably uncomfortable in hot weather, I do appreciate that they are the strap du jour and they do suit this watch. However, TNT went for the single-layer strap that weaves over and under, but which doesn’t have the second “sub-strap” that loops through to secure the watch. What happens when you take of the watch, if you’re not careful, is that the head will slide off with disconcerting ease and speed, and land on the floor.
Unlike the crown/bezel issues, this can be remedied. I went online and ordered a couple of 24mm straps, including the mustard-coloured one in the pics, to replace the standard strap. The very best quality NATO straps are only US $15-$20 from various suppliers; I use both StrapSmith (thestrapsmith.com) and MonkeySwag (monkeyswag.com) because they have terrific selections and superior service. The model shown here is MonkeySwag’s ZULU Military Watch Strap SBS Desert Sand 24mm, chosen because it really complements the colour of the numerals.
Grumbles aside, the watch is a blast. My buddies who form the Saturday Morning Sad Bastards Club – watch experts all – were mixed about it, although they were astonished by the price. I paid €353 including shipping because I was an “early bird”, but I’m not sure if there are many left from the 99-watch allocation. Retail is €750, but the site still shows it for €399, so you might get lucky. Even at €750, it’s a lot of watch for the dough.