We like some watches because they are icons, others because they are exquisite, and still others because they represent horological milestones. First and foremost, though, we like watches that are utilitarian, tough and unpretentious. In other words, because they’re gear: dive watches, chronographs and pilot’s watches still built with the belief that men should be out doing things and doing them with watches on their wrists. That’s why Victorinox Swiss Army has always been one our favorite watch brands.
Since their early days, the company better known for its versatile pocketknives has produced watches that, while standing up to the “Swiss Made” on their dials, haven’t been afraid to get dirty. You’d be hard pressed to find a serious watch collector who doesn’t have a Swiss Army watch in his box, or at least a fond memory of one around his wrist. The Night Vision watch ($695) is the latest handsome, sturdy and exceedingly useful piece of kit from the revered brand. And its most innovative feature has nothing to do with telling time.
Swiss Ronda quartz
Hour/minute/second, date, LED light and emergency strobe
Stainless steel, PVD-coated
Stainless steel screw-in
Scratch resistant sapphire crystal
Water resistant to 5 ATM, 50 meters
Rubber strap (as tested) or stainless steel bracelet
At first glance, the Night Vision is a simple watch: three hands and a date driven by a Ronda quartz movement, the same as countless other Swiss Army watches over the years. But there’s a button on the left side of the gunmetal gray steel case. Push it once and the dial is illuminated, not in some wimpy green Indiglo, but a bright cool blue light at 12 o’clock. Push it twice and an LED at the top of the watch casts a piercing white beam out in front, enough to light a trail, a driveway or a dark closet. The light stays on for two minutes, or until you press the button one more time. Press and hold the button and you get a flashing strobe, perfect for signaling a friend in a dark forest or across a lake. And the final trick up your sleeve (literally) is the pulsating super-bright strobe, which you’ll want to reserve for signaling the rescue helicopter that has come to scoop you off the north face of the Eiger.
The Night Vision would seem gimmicky if it wasn’t done so damn well. Victorinox obviously knows a thing or two about cramming multiple functions into one tool with elegance. Within the first day of strapping it on, the light came in handy as I fished around behind the TV to plug in an HDMI cable, where a flashlight between the teeth would normally have been used, and while I fumbled for keys on a cold night. Obviously, this is a watch-cum-flashlight that just makes sense.
It doesn’t look half bad either. Victorinox has always struck a certain “glamping” (“glam camping”) aesthetic, not Timex, but not quite Rolex either. The PVD steel is a mix of polished and brushed surfaces that contrasts well with the drab olive dial and matching textured rubber strap. The Night Vision is available with a black dial and also on a steel bracelet, but for something this tool-like, a rubber strap just works. A NATO strap would be even better but sadly, the lug design only accepts proprietary straps.
We’re partial to mechanical movements in our watches, but it would seem a little incongruous to have high-tech lighting sandwiched on top of a mechanical calibre. The Night Vision makes use of two batteries — one for the watch movement and the other for the lighting. A small red “locator” light at the bottom of the dial flashes once every ten seconds so you can find it on the nightstand in a dark hotel room. If the LED battery is dying, that red light will flash three times in the row, telling you it’s time to swap it out. The movement battery has its own end-of-life indicator: the familiar slow stutter tick of the seconds hand.
The Night Vision has a sapphire crystal and a case rated to 50 meters of water resistance, more than enough for day-to-day adventures. In fact, it’s just about the perfect camping watch, supreme for midnight calls of nature or to quickly see what’s rustling outside the tent. It doesn’t yet have the laser beam for slicing through metal or a bomb detonation pin, but Q Branch could do far worse than adding a Night Vision to Bond’s toolkit.