Some of the most beautiful things in our lives are invisible to us on a daily basis. Not invisible per se, and not even taken for granted by us for that matter, but so much a part of our daily grind, our routines, our habits, that they disappear from view.
We do this with most everything we’re used to or that serves a purpose so indispensable to us that its very utility becomes a reason to ignore it. How often do you look at your winter gloves or the insulated coffee mug you bring with you every morning? While I’m sure there are entire subcultures of winter glove wonks and insulated mug curators, most of us buy these things for a purpose; they fulfill that purpose, and we only think about replacing them when necessary. I want to buy a pair of gloves and as long as they keep my mitts warm I don’t want to think about them.
What’s so interesting is that, in our material junk culture of planned obsolescence, it is those simplest and most beautifully functional goods which rarely break down and don’t need to be constantly updated for a newer version which remain the most affordable, available, and necessary things of all. It’s a challenging thought experiment today to think about what we really need and what can really do the job. You need a phone. Do you need an Apple iPhone® 12? You need a pair of shoes. Do you need Adidas YEEZY sneakers? While there are likely many out there who would answer yes to both of the aforementioned questions, it’s my contention that those answers would be based heavily on the need for aesthetic sensations.
Indeed, iPhones and Yeezies are both aesthetically significant in their own ways. They’re both examples of industrial and product design that skew heavily on the design side. Both have legions of fans and customers. But do endless versions/generations/updates/etc. of each make our lives more complicated than they need to be?
Variations on a Theme
Rarest of all, I believe, are those things which function at a high level of reliability and consistency but which also fulfill our desire for aesthetic pleasure and user-friendliness. These are things that you can buy one of knowing that you’ll only ever really need that one and that it will likely never need to be replaced (though sporadic service is always kindly advised). I could list examples for days: the Fender Stratocaster guitar, Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, KitchenAid stand mixers, and, of course, the military field watch. Material objects such as these, which have a perfect marriage of form and function, never go out of style.
There has been so much written about the classic military field watch that it seemed past the point for me to write about history. If you’re interested in the story and heritage of American and British field watches, there are some great articles out there. If it’s references and rarity that drive you crazy, you can find all kinds of guides to field watches as collectible artifacts online. So what, you might ask, is there left to say about something as often seen, widely copied, and constantly reinvented as a field watch? Perhaps it would be productive to work in the opposite direction, to look not deeply into the history and heritage of field watches but, instead, to be shallow: to judge a book by its cover.
One thing that is worth mentioning, in terms of the history of field watches, is that soldiers were issued one and expected to take care of it. As with the aforementioned objects, field watches were built to function and, with reasonable wear and tear, to serve the wearer for an extended period. Aside from serving a particular function, objects such as the field watch (or the KitchenAid mixer, or the Wayfarers), which are intended to last, must be designed in a way that makes them timeless. What’s ironic is that a foolproof way to transcend time and space aesthetically is to have a clear purpose and functionality that is almost impossible to be improved upon. In other words, the necessity of the function often drives the timelessness of the look.
Keeping that in mind, it’s perhaps easier to understand why there are so many variations on the field watch theme but few, if any, major rethinks or redesigns. To drastically redesign something iconic and timeless is to attempt to strip away its function (and it rarely works). Civilian interpretations of original military-spec field watches (including homages as well as reissues by companies that originally produced watches for the government) keep the original concept and purpose intact. They don’t really mess with the formula.
So how then do watch companies make this iconic piece their own? How many ways are there to reinvent the wheel? And who’s buying a bunch of different incarnations of basically the same thing? I think it’s less about reinvention and more about remixing.
Remix vs. Redesign
Essential to remixing is the idea of keeping the integrity of the original intact. Think about how remixed versions of songs, for instance, never hide the original but in fact make it even more recognizable and pronounced by changing some of the most familiar elements. What I love about field watch design is that this change happens but in a beautifully subtle way. Some might contend that small changes are an argument against the need to collect more than one field watch. While it’s true that one of these watches is really all you need (and that’s what makes them, in large part, great), you may find that there is a lot of aesthetic satisfaction in the graceful, noticeable but not noticeable details that separate one watch from another. It’s an exercise in simplicity, in originality within a framework of consistency and tradition. And what’s perhaps most gratifying is that you can find this satisfaction at nearly any price point.
Take, for example, Timex. I could write an entire lengthy article just on Timex’s own company heritage in relation to field and outdoor tool watches. Indeed, while there are countless models in Timex’s current and back catalogue, most of us probably think about one watch more than any others: the Weekender. What is the Weekender but a field watch? Look at the dial language and you’ll find the hallmarks of field watches from the GG-W-113 era: legible, numerals; an internal 24-hour scale; clear, even minute indices. Of course, the GG-W-113 punctuates its five-minute indices with small inverted triangles, but the Weekender is a civilian weekend watch. The design ethos behind the dial might have taken that into consideration when choosing to remove those triangles for a softer, less urgent look. But, sure enough, the triangles can be seen on other, more traditionally military-inspired Timexes like the famous Camper or most offerings from their new heritage MK1 line (itself inspired by Timex’s original mechanical Campers and even a mil-spec watch they created for a government contract but never released to the public).
Timex, like Hamilton, is a company whose heritage is tied to field watches and so their reissues or remixes have one foot in tradition and one in modern inspiration. The design elements added to field watches that are uniquely Timex are rooted, many times, in two things: materials and scale. While earlier Timex field watches from the 60s through the early 90s were closer to traditional sizes (32mm in the 60s up to 34mm-36mm in the 80s/90s), more contemporary versions have grown to 40mm and even 42mm to keep with modern trends.
Starting with the rare mil-spec watches (few of which exist and which were never actually produced en masse for the government), Timex crafted cases from plastic (since these watches, and others like them that were produced were meant to be discarded). In more recent times, some of Timex’s MK1 field watches have aluminum cases. The company also plays with color and have introduced several versions of the aluminum case in everything from an almost brown, tarnished “metal” to blue. Each of these variations adds a little something or changes a little something but each maintains the integrity of the original mil-spec watches from which they took inspiration.
Negotiating Brand Heritage
Brands such as Hamilton, who has a history of having produced watches for the military from at least WWI to Vietnam, have a legitimate heritage to draw from. What’s interesting about Hamilton, for instance, is that even they have experimented with remixing a watch that was already theirs in the truest sense. While recent trends have inspired Hamilton to release slightly larger but otherwise faithful reissues of their field watches (the Khaki Mechanical, for instance), they had previously created pieces which subtly or not so subtly played with the formula.
While the brand created nearly identical mil-spec versions of their watches for outdoor companies like L.L. Bean and Orvis during the period when they were still making watches for the military (the same way Benrus created a subtle civilian variation of their GG-W-113 field watch by simply including branding on the dial and a red tipped second hand), they eventually redesigned their core field watches into the Khaki Field line. These watches had most of the hallmarks of the mil-spec watches Hamilton had made but made subtle changes in case shape, material (glass instead of acrylic crystals), dial markings (minute indices and a date window), size (these Khaki Field watches were offered in a traditional 36mm but also a contemporary 42mm), and movement (they were automatic rather than hand-wound).
Perhaps the most divisive of this line, a watch which I own and happen to love, seems, to some, to have stepped over the line of subtle changes. The Khaki King is, at its core, a field watch. However, two major changes (a day complication reminiscent of a Rolex Day-Date and crown guards which make the case asymmetrical) make the Khaki King its own thing. While these changes are by no means subtle, I can’t help but think that Hamilton was perhaps feeling boxed in by their own design language and wanted to do something different. Many people feel like this was a case of trying to fix something that wasn’t broken, but I like these types of designs where a company cares less about reproducing something accurately and more about the intrinsic nature of the watch itself.
Honest Design, No Baggage
This is precisely why I am a fan of many military homages and don’t really understand why other people have such hang-ups about them. I get that some brands create folklore in the form of some type of fake or unearned brand heritage (looking at you, DW). That, I can’t endorse. But there are other companies who take inspiration from history yet do something unique. This is kind of a gray area. I feel like many people would argue that any nod to military heritage or mil-spec design requires the maker to adhere to a faithful reproduction or carbon copy of a historical artifact. However, I see (many of) these efforts as the product of enthusiasts who are inspired by history but who don’t claim to or desire to create museum-quality replications.
One company that does this is Praesidus. They released an A-11 style homage watch inspired by the story of Tom Rice, a WWII paratrooper, and the A-11 he and other service members wore during the war. While the brand certainly ties itself to this particular veteran and his story in their marketing, if you look at the watch itself independent of that you’ll notice that no one has made an A-11 field watch that looks quite like this one. That’s the reason I bought it. As an accurate historical representation it misses the mark, but as a watch in and of itself, there’s something about the subtle design tweaks that make it at once familiar and totally unique.
On the extremely frugal side of the field watch spectrum I own perhaps the cheapest of the cheap iterations, a plastic Timex Camper-inspired (keep in mind that a Camper or similarly styled watch will probably run you about $50) watch from, of all places, a Japanese value store chain. A friend of mine (one of the premiere Timex knowledge bases on Instagram) sent me two “Daiso Campers” since, oddly enough, he lives close to a Daiso store near Chicago. The price tag for each? Five bucks.
This is perhaps the most inexpensive field watch I own but, for the price, it checks most of the aesthetic boxes. As a matter of fact, its originality, in my opinion, lies in the cheapness itself (and the fact that this cheapness encourages people who own them to mod them as I have the second hand of one of mine). As previously mentioned, some mil-spec field watches were made of plastic and meant to be disposed of after their duty was done. This little five dollar hero carries that mantle proudly. Is it sturdy? No. Will it last in the field? Hell no. Does it tell time? More or less. They nailed it.