In a bit of ironic timing, the Michelsen Arctic Explorer ($1,960) arrived on our doorstep on one of the hottest days of summer. Fresh off the plane from Iceland, the watch still seemed to bear the chill of its origins, lending a cooling effect to the dog days of August. Regrettably, we weren’t able to put the watch to the test of an Arctic (a.k.a. Minnesotan) winter. But the timepiece has passed muster in extreme environments on the wrist of Icelandic polar explorer Vilborg Arna Gissurardóttir, who wore one tied on the outside of her parka next to her compass while trekking solo to the South Pole — proving that it’s as capable exploring the Antarctic as it is living up to its boreal name. Having left the hard work to Ms. Gissurardóttir, we got to see how the Arctic Explorer stacked up on our not-so-frostbitten wrist.

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In name and target market, the Arctic Explorer immediately brings to mind a more famous watch built for intrepid adventurers, the Rolex Explorer II, which is as tough an act to follow as there could be. But the Michelsen is far from an homage timepiece; instead, it is a more affordable alternative for frugal watch buyers that want functionality and rugged panache without the $8,000 price tag of the Rollie. The Michelsen’s specifications are impressive: 100-meter water resistance, a sapphire crystal, a rotating 24-hour bezel and a nicely-finished ETA 2893-A2 Elaboré (upgraded) movement that is lubricated with special oils — ones safe to subzero temperatures far below those tolerated by tender human flesh.

Offerings from smaller brands often offer little in the way of individuality; the economics of running a small watch company necessitate using cases and components made and designed by third party suppliers that are often used by other brands. But while Michelsen is a small company, it’s well established — founded in 1909, it’s the oldest watch Company in Iceland — and prides itself on original design. While their movements are sourced from ETA, Michelsen’s watch designs are entirely original and assembly and quality control are all handled in Reykjavík. The result is a watch in the Arctic Explorer that doesn’t look like anything else on the market.

The timepiece has passed muster on the wrist of Icelandic polar explorer Vilborg Arna Gissurardóttir, who wore one tied on the outside of her parka while trekking solo to the South Pole.

These unique looks and impressive features are housed in a 42mm steel case that is a mere 11 millimeters tall, a size that’s refreshing in an era of overly thick sports watches. Its slim height and classic case shape are reminiscent of the sports watches of the 1960s, which proved their durability without being burly and oversized. The Arctic Explorer proved to be versatile enough for dressier wear, and its sane dimensions work on a variety of wrists. The mix of satin and polished finishes is nicely done, though we would have preferred an entirely matte-finished case.

Tick List
Calibre: ETA 2893-A2 Elaboré
Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
Jewels: 21
Power reserve: 42 hours

Hours, minutes, seconds, 24-hour time
External 24-hour rotating ring

Material: Stainless steel
Diameter: 42mm
Case Back: See-through display
Crystal: Sapphire
Water Resistance: 10 ATM (100 meters)

White textured with raised markers and numerals
Lumed hands and hour markers

Stitched leather with pin buckle
Nylon sports strap

Though our white-dialed test piece begged for comparison to the Rolex, the watch bears no similarities beyond color. Under the crystal, aesthetics are extremely well done: there’s a center disc of a delicate texture, and the outer ring is punctuated by chunky rectangular markers and Arabic numerals. The Michelsen logo is minimalist and tasteful, and the Icelandic origin proudly displayed at 6:00 is a singular, refreshing touch. The two main hands, skeletonized and oversized, are easy to read yet unobtrusive, but we wished for a lume flag on the slender black seconds hand. Dial and hand lume was adequate though not excellent — it could use some brightening up for those long winter nights.

The ability to display 24-hour time, important for orienting oneself in an environment that is dark (or light) 24 hours a day, is what sets the narrow field of polar exploration watches apart from other timepieces. The Michelsen make good use of the aforementioned ETA 2893-A2, adding a red-tipped 24-hour hand that points to the time on an inner scale on the dial and the outer bezel. While in the land of the midnight sun, telling a.m. and p.m. is most important; for the rest of us living at lower latitudes, the ability to track a second time zone is more useful. This is made possible by the ETA 2893 and the independently adjustable 24-hour hand, which can be un-linked from the regular hour hand and set to any other time on the 24-hour scale.

Thanks to the rotating bezel, the Arctic Explorer can actually track three time zones: one on the main dial, one on the inner 24-hour scale and one on the outer bezel. Unfortunately, we found the bezel ratchet to be rather loose, and the slightest bump caused accidental movement. The bezel also only rotates uni-directionally, an unnecessary function for what is not a dive watch. A 24-click bezel for easier time setting would be far more preferable. The bezel also felt a bit light and thin and lacked substantial outer teeth for sure grip. Given the weak ratchet, though, grip really wasn’t a problem.

The Arctic Explorer came mounted on a blue stitched leather strap — we immediately removed it in favor of a nylon NATO strap. While the leather strap is high quality, the color appearance was not fitting for the decidedly sportier vibe of the watch itself. While our own NATO was the simple $15 variety, Michelsen will provide a thicker nylon strap with beefy rectangular keepers if you so desire. The watch was a perfect fit for the NATO and wore well, staying low to the wrist and secure so as not to catch on a shirt — or parka — sleeve.

Michelsen is a small brand that seems to be doing things right, as evidenced not only by their century of history but also the high quality and originality of a timepiece like the Arctic Explorer. This is a scrappy, ambitious watch that actually lives up to its name, a rarity in today’s market. Though not perfect, it’s a solid choice for an affordable sports watch, whether you plan to wear it while digging a snow cave with your ice axe or just digging out your car after a blizzard.

METHODOLOGY: We wore the Arctic Explorer for two weeks, during which time the only ice we encountered was in a cocktail glass.