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Review: Helson Skindiver

Featured | Review | 01.11.2012

You can’t talk about the Helson Skindiver without talking about the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. This isn’t just because it is essentially a replica (aesthetically speaking) of the original Fifty Fathoms, it is because the Fifty Fathoms is amongst the most important watches of the 20th century. Heck, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the great pieces of product design of the 20th century.  Knowing the history the Skindiver is paying tribute to greatly increase ones appreciation for the watch since you will see it as more than a vintage styled diver, you will see it as an icon of watch making.

Case: 316L Surgical Stainless Steel
Movement: ETA 2824-2 25 Jewel Automatic w/ Date
Dial: Black w/ White indexes
Lume: C3 Lume
Lens: Double Domed Acrylic
Case Back: Screwdown
Strap: Rubber Tropical Strap + Nylon NATO
Water Res.: 200m
Dimensions: 41mm, 52.35mm lug-to-lug,
Thickness: 14.5mm
Lug Width: 20mm
Crown: 7mm screwdown
Warranty: 1 year

The Fifty Fathoms was designed based on the needs of Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud for the equipment set of the French combat divers, an elite team. They felt that current watches were not up to military standards, and were missing functions needed in a tactical situation. Eventually, they teamed up with Jean-Jacques Fiechter, CEO of Blancpain from 1950-1980, and designed what has become the cornerstone of dive watches ever since. As Jeffrey S. Kingston states in his “History of the Fifty Fathoms” (very recommended reading for a full history) article “It is remarkable that the set of characteristics which Blancpain and the French Navy jointly developed in 1953 have ever since defined the finest diving watches: high water resistance, robust protected crown systems, automatic winding, black dials with clear luminescent markings, uni-directional rotating bezels with timing markings, antimagnetic protection.” Other than features like helium escape valves and oil filled movements, most of the defining features of a “dive” watch began with the Fifty Fathoms.

As a designed object, the Fifty Fathoms sits in that unique place where a product that was fundamentally based on function not only shows incredible innovation, it managed to create a timeless aesthetic. It was adopted by militaries around the world in one form or another, had success in the civilian market and was even worn by Jacques Cousteau in his Oscar winning 1956 film “The Silent World”. For that reason, I can’t help but compare it to the Jeep, in that both came out of military contracts and became genre defining for function and looks. In terms of the aesthetic, the demand for high legibility forced the dial design to be simple with a focus on clarity and easy to read shapes. The case was designed to be substantially larger than norm of the day at 42mm and perhaps the most iconic feature for function and looks is the external bezel.

There were many models of the Fifty Fathoms, but the Helson Skindiver is clearly based on the military models from 1953. Focusing now on the Helson, it is a beautiful watch to behold that stays very true to its source. The success of the design is largely based on the subtle proportions of the case diameter to the thickness of the bezel to the diameter of the dial. Everything feels like it takes up the exact right amount of space in the composition as a whole and Helson captured these proportions perfectly.

The build quality of the Helson is outstanding; in fact, it has reset the bar for me for watches in this price range. The thing feels solid and nearly indestructible, which is partly due to the heft of the watch and partly due to very precise construction. Everything on this watch fits together perfectly, with very tight tolerances. The bezel mechanism is sturdy and provides a very satisfying click during rotation. It has more than enough resistance to not be turned accidentally and can be precisely set to any of the 120 positions. There is a crispness to the action of the bezel that I have not felt in other watches, which I will look for in bezels from here out.

The case of the Skindiver is made of 316L surgical stainless steel with a satin brushed finished. As far as I can tell from pics the Fifty Fathoms was polished, but I quite like what it does for the watch, and it feels appropriate. The 41mm body wears smaller than expected due to the large bezel and small dial diameter, making it a very comfortable size. Lug to lug, the watch is 52.35mm, which is surprisingly long, but what this achieves is a generous area for using single piece straps, which are my preferred style for this watch.  A cool feature of the case is that Helson mills into the side, between the lugs, the serial number of the watch, making each watch a little unique. They also put it on the caseback, along with various other info about the watch. The screw-down crown measures 7mm in diameter, but only 3 mm deep, giving it a flat profile that does not stick into your wrist. The threading of the crown is also exceptionally smooth and easy to re-engage.

The bezel is perhaps my favorite part of the watch and the look of all Fifty Fathoms inspired watches. I like the sheer size of it compared to the watch and generally minimal markings. Featuring little more than a diamond at 60/0, numerals every quarter hour and thin lines with round tips every 5 minutes, the bezel is sparse in comparison to most other diving bezels and is all the more elegant for it. The Skindiver’s bezel is made of black acrylic with a flat profile and the markings are all C3 lume that is set into 316L steel. The edge of the bezel is textured with small, but sharp, triangular teeth that provide great grip when turning the bezel. This is one of the manufacturing details of the Helson that really stands out to me.  You can tell the each tooth was cut in individually and with the utmost precision.

Moving in from the bezel, you have the gorgeous double domed acrylic crystal. At first, I was a bit concerned about the crystal being made of acrylic. Having scratched many flat acrylic crystals, I could only imagine the potential damage I could do to one with a dramatic dome. I felt like, at this price range, acrylic was a bit of a risk. I was very wrong. The acrylic has an optical and reflective quality that is different from sapphire and mineral crystal that really adds to the overall aesthetic success of the watch. The double domed shape is both beautiful and has surprisingly little distortion except for at very oblique angles and where the curve of the dome gets steeper as it approaches the bezel. Though I have accrued a couple of hairline scratches, overall it has not been an issue and I’ve been able to easily buff everything out with Polywatch.

The dial of the Skindiver is very faithful to the original as well. The hour index features large lumed numerical markers for 12, 3, 6, 9 and lumed rectangular makers for the other hours. The font that is used for the numerals strongly indicates the era the original watch was from, in that they are fairly gestural rather than geometric. A font like this would not be used on a contemporary military watch of any kind. On the perimeter of the dial is another index that is printed white and has markings for minutes at 5-minute intervals, skipping the quarter hours, and 1/5th sec tick marks. There are also 4 small lumed triangles at the quarter hour marks towards the edge of the dial. There is a surprisingly large amount of data crammed into this dial design, yet most of it is pushed to the perimeter making the center fairly tame and very easy to read. The dial itself is matte black, making all of the markings jump out clearly.

The legibility is further accentuated by the incredibly strong C3 lume that is used on the dial and bezel. Though I have seen plenty of watches with C3 lume, the Skindiver once again sets the bar for effectiveness and duration of lume. What I mean is that it takes very little to charge the lume to max and it takes a long time to fade away. This adds a lot of practical value to the watch, as any good diver needs to be visible in low light.

Instead of having spring bars, the 20mm wide lugs feature one sided screw bars. This is a bit of a double-edged sword however. On one hand they are very sturdy, being that they are solid rods, and inspire confidence that they will never break or accidentally come free. On the other hand, it is very easy to scratch the lug when removing/replacing the bars for strap change. The slightest slip of your screwdriver and you will put a mark on the lug without a doubt. The end result is that I tend to use NATO style straps with the Skindiver as they require less effort to change. They also happen to work perfectly with the aesthetic of the watch, and I have three different straps I rotate for different effect. There is an Olive Maratac that kicks up the military side of things and gives the watch a sportier feel. A 7-striped multi-color model from Crown & Buckle that makes the watch stand out and have more character. As well as heavyweight beige leather from Panatime that brings a rugged but muted vintage look to the watch. The Panatime has become my winter strap of choice.

That being said, the Helson comes with two straps, a rubber “Tropical” styled strap and a simple black nylon ZULU. The Tropical strap is of good quality and is more authentic to the original Fifty Fathoms look, but it doesn’t do anything great for the look of the watch, in my opinion. I also found that it is that kind of rubber that feels constrictive after a few hours of wear. I have not had the chance to try a metal bracelet on it, but I could imagine that a nice mesh would do the watch justice.

What it all boils down to is that Helson Skindiver is a great watch. At $650 it’s certainly something you shouldn’t just buy on a whim, but if the Fifty Fathoms style appeals to you, if the history appeals to you, if vintage divers, military divers or just elegant divers appeal to you, then I would seriously consider it. It has quickly become one of my favorite watches because the look is extremely well executed and the build quality is even better. With an ETA 2824-2 25 jewel automatic movement at its heart, you know you have a reliable watch, mechanically speaking, making the investment sound. And did

There are also 8 models/variations available now, based on 2 dial styles, 2 different lumes (C3 or and orange Lume) and with or without a date window. As I had mentioned in my initial impressions, I picked mine up second hand, as I had believed them to be discontinued, but if I were to have bought it new I probably would have gotten it without a date window. Date functions are great, but it just doesn’t add to the watch and wasn’t on the originals. If I were to get a second one (not unimaginable) I would go for the non-numeric dial version with orange lume and no date. I could also see Helson doing a version with a curved profile bezel, using the bezel insert from their Blackbeard line, to get even closer to the look of the 1953 Fifty Fathoms.

by Zach Weiss

  • http://www.pretenseofknowledge.com/ Speedmaster

    Beautiful, I really like that.

  • ilan

    Love the way you write about such a beautiful watch. Your ”if” choice is the same choice I had in mind and I find that both reasuring and encouraging as I will.
    definitly concider this Helson…thanks for your contribution.

  • http://onedocumentedobsession.com Ryan B.

    What leather strap is that, the NATO? Thanks.

    • http://www.zachstarrweiss.com Zach

      The leather NATO is from Panatime.com and I highly recommend it.

  • Bltprf502

    What leather NATO style band is that? Shell cordovan like the ones you featured before, or leather? Where do you get them? Thanks for the help.

  • Keith

    Great review – video and text. After watching the video, a few times, I placed have my order. The simple styling and your display of different band configurations sold me. One day a 50 fathoms, till then skindiver. Thanks!

  • David

    That is one nice dive watch.

  • http://URL wheaton26

    thanks for taking the time to review this watch zach. it pushed me over the edge and i just ordered the second to last orange numbers dial with no date. peter now offers 20mm mesh bracelets so i ordered one of those as well. my only concern is that it might be too small as i’m used to wearing 44mm watches. anyway, i should know by the end of this week! thanks again for the review and all the best from the bahamas.

  • http://URL Dave

    Nice looking case but how does the dial have “surprisingly little distortion”? Every picture ere but one shows (what I would call) an very noticeable degree of distortion. I have high dome and “super high” dome crystal watches and THEY show almost no distortion; by comparison, the distortion here is pretty bad.

    • http://www.zachstarrweiss.com w&w

      Hi Dave,

      What I meant is that the distortion is only noticeable at sharp angles. From the top down and most normal viewing angles the dial is clear and readable…the new skindiver actually has a sapphire crystal that mimics the shape of the acrylic…but I don’t know what that one is like as I have not seen it in person.

      -zach

  • http://URL Keith

    This is a great watch! It’s classic styling and quality build have made this watch a daily wear for me. The included rubber strap is great, but I personally like switching it up with a variety of nylon.

    One extra thing – I had an accident with the watch and messed up the crown. After an email exchange with Peter at Helson, I sent the watch in and it was fixed in a few weeks. It was super simple and I have to commend the service I recieved. The phrase the “absence makes the heart grows fonder” rings true and could not be happier the skindiver is back on regular rotation. This is a great watch and I dig the company. Thank you Helson!

  • http://URL Chris

    Great review Zach.
    I’m yet to buy my first Helson, may have to find a s/h skindiver.

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  • http://URL Cameron

    “optical quality different to Sapphire” – in other words it distorts. You are very good at making negatives (let’s be honest here, distortion is a negative) sound like attributes.

  • http://URL Christian Ehlers

    $749 for a Miyota 9015 driven replica – sorry, homage – watch!? And then there are import taxes and VAT. There are way better deals to be had out there. Although, I must admit that it looks good. Then again, that’s because they didn’t design the watch themselves. You should only consider this watch if you absolutely must have a fifty fathoms but are hesitant to splash the cash. Even then, you probably don’t want a replica…

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