A few weeks ago we ran an opinion article about so-called “homage” watches — those that take their designs from existing or vintage timepieces but sell for less — and their place as affordable alternatives to what are often inaccessible watches for the average enthusiast. The article generated a lot of buzz on web forums and Twitter, some positive, some critical of both homage watches and of our viewpoint on them. The brand we featured in the article as a sort of case study was MkII (as in “Mark 2”), a one-man watch company out of suburban Philadelphia that produces high quality homages in small volumes. A day or two after the article ran, we got an e-mail from Bill Yao, the man behind MkII, who thanked us for the article, requested a correction and offered to send one of his watches for a hands-on review. The timepiece he sent was the Paradive ($1,495), perhaps MkII’s most recognizable and successful watch. We were eager to get a chance to try one out and came away with some interesting impressions.
HOMAGE WATCHES AND BEYOND: On Homage Watches | The Dive Watch, Deconstructed | Icon: Rolex Sea Dweller
Let’s get the homage business out of the way first. The Paradive is an update to an earlier watch that MkII sold called the Blackwater. Both were inspired by a rather obscure but legendary military timepiece built in the 1960s and ‘70s by the now-defunct American watch company Benrus; legend has it that Benrus’s watch was built to U.S. military specifications for covert operators — CIA and Special Forces — during the Vietnam War. The watch was so obscure, even in its time, that it was never given a name: the two varieties made were simply called “Type 1″ and “Type 2″. Neither watch had a logo or any text on its dial, and the “sterile” versions bore no markings anywhere on the watch other than a cryptic serial number stamped on the back. None of these Benrus watches were ever sold commercially, and vintage examples are rare, often damaged from hard use, and extremely expensive. If you’re going to build an homage watch, the Benrus Type 1 is a great inspiration for these reasons.
But to merely assess the MKII Paradive as an homage watch is an injustice. The watch will only be recognized as resembling a vintage Benrus by either the hardest of hardcore watch geek or by someone who wore the original watch (in which case, you’d do best to make friends with him, lest he effortlessly snap your neck). Wearing one in an effort to dupe the guy on the next barstool into thinking you’ve got something more expensive is largely moot.
Calibre: ETA 2836-2 (Elabore grade/rhodium plated), highly decorated (rotor features Côtes de Genève, decorated bridges), Incabloc shock protection
Power reserve: 42 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds
Elapsed time via rotating bezel
Material: Stainless steel, matte bead blasted
Case Back: Steel screw-in
Crystal: Domed anti-reflective sapphire
Water Resistance: 30 ATM (300 meters)
Helium release valve
Matte black with SuperLumiNova BGW9 markings
Maratac nylon NATO strap
Instead, the Paradive stands on its own as an excellent modern tool watch in every respect. In fact, the name “MkII” cleverly refers to Mr. Yao’s desire to imagine what a second iteration of a classic tool watch might become when made with technologies and materials available today. Instead of a fragile Bakelite bezel, the Paradive gets a matte-finished anodized aluminum one (sapphire is also available); rather than the obsolete bi-directional friction action bezel, there’s a one-way ratchet with enamel-painted numerals. The Benrus’s quirky top-loading, one-piece case is scrapped in favor of a conventional three-part matte-finished steel case that’s been fully bead blasted for durability. The high-domed crystal is now anti-reflective sapphire. Finally, the movement is a well-finished ETA 2836 automatic, available with day + date, date only or no date at all. We opted for no date for our review watch in keeping with the purest tool watch aesthetic.
The term “tool watch” is tossed around with reckless abandon, assigned to cheap Citizen divers and $20,000 ceramic Royal Oak Offshores. The Paradive, however, is so “tool” it might as well hang on a pegboard in the garage between your hammer and socket set. Everything about this watch has pure utility in mind. There is not one shiny component, nor is there a logo or name (other than in some subtle caseback markings). The crisply rotating bezel has deeply cut teeth and an insert that serves double duty as a dive timer or a second time zone aid. The matte dial is open and legible, with markers that follow distinctive dive watch protocol: a triangle for 12:00, hashes for 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00, and circles for the rest of the hours. The ladder-style hands are easy to read and well lumed for nighttime visibility. Everything you need, nothing you don’t.
The Paradive’s case shape isn’t particularly beautiful unless you’re the type who finds beauty in a perfectly split log or well-executed J-stroke (we are). It fits well, hugging a variety of wrist sizes, and an asymmetrical case completely protects the crown. Though MkII sells the watch with a steel linked bracelet, a rubber strap or a nylon Maratac NATO strap, a watch this minimalist belongs on a NATO. We’ll forgive the wearing of it on the rubber strap occasionally — but save your money and skip the bracelet.
To merely assess the MKII Paradive as an homage watch is an injustice.
Since MKII only sells about 1,000 watches per year, it is able to individually inspect every single timepiece, testing for rated water resistance (300 meters for the Paradive) and adjusting timing in six positions, as hand-marked on a card inserted into the watch box. (Speaking of which, the box looks like a pistol case and comes with extra straps, spring bars and a high-quality changing tool along with space for two more watches.)
Attention to detail is clearly paramount in this watch. In three areas where we’ve been disappointed by “affordable” small watch company offerings — case finish, bezel action and crown operation — the Paradive excels. Timekeeping was within chronometer specification, and not just during office wear. It was on our wrist during a five-day heli-hiking trip into the remote Bugaboo mountains of British Columbia where we subjected it to temperature extremes (glacier hiking to lodge hot tub) and many (many) miles and vertical feet of hiking. It proved to be the perfect companion for the trip and was right at home in less-than-rosy conditions.
So yes, the Paradive is an homage watch. But frankly, we forgot about that. It quickly became the timepiece we reached for again and again over more prestigious marques because of its simplicity, performance and low-key manner. If a watch can be said to have an ego (and some definitely do), the Paradive lacks one entirely. Rather, it’s confident in its role as a solid, purposeful, no-nonsense tool watch. That’s a timepiece to which we’ll happily pay homage.