Hands-On with the Helm Vanuatu

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It’s really hard to argue against a good deal. When you find something that is nicely designed and well-made, then you find out it’s also very affordable, it becomes sort of irresistible. Sure, the degree of which is it “affordable” can vary and is subjective, but when something is say, under $300, it’s pretty universal (as far as watches go). Watches that qualify under this set of requirements don’t come around all too often, and when they do, they tend to achieve cult status. I’m thinking watches like the Maratac Pilot/mid-Pilot and Seiko 5 SNK’s. Well, today we’re going to be taking a look at watch that I think very much falls into this category and certainly left me impressed, the Helm Vanuatu.

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To start, this isn’t a brand new watch or brand. The Vanuatu is actually in its second iteration after the first totally sold out, so people know about this watch/value. So, what is the Vanuatu? Well, it’s a tool dive watch with an aggressive, modern, dare-I-say Sinn-esque design and solid specs. It features a flat sapphire with internal AR, 300m WR tested in accordance with ISO 6425:1996, Seiko NH35 automatic movement, a hefty steel bracelet, a nylon pass-through strap and a very palatable price tag of $275 plus shipping. Yeah, it’s a lot of watch for $275, but that wouldn’t matter if one had to compromise on design and build, which luckily isn’t the case.

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$275

Hands-On with the Helm Vanuatu

Case
Stainless Steel
Movement
Seiko NH35
Dial
Matte Black
Lume
BGW9
Lens
Sapphire w/ AR
Strap
Bracelet and Nylon
Water Resistance
300m
Dimensions
42 x 50mm
Thickness
14mm
Lug Width
22mm
Crown
8mm screw down
Warranty
yes
Price
$275

The Vanuatu isn’t a dainty watch, but it’s not one of those oversized for-the-sake of bravado divers either. The case measures 42 (43 at bezel) x 50 x 14mm with 22mm lugs, making it medium/large, and a bit chunky, but within reason for a dive watch. The design is blunt and geometric with slab sides and wide, drilled-through lugs. You really get a sense of this thing being cut from a solid block of metal. It’s entirely brushed and has crisp lines all around, indicating quality machining.

On the right side of the case you’ll find a big, 8mm screw-down crown that is flanked by guards on both sides. It has wide teeth for good grip, a beveled edge to help prevent wrist-bite and a deeply etched Helm “H” logo on it’s outer face. It’s an example of a moment on the Vanuatu that is simply very well executed with nice detailing that belies the low price tag.

The bezel steals the show, however. Overhanging the mid-case by a millimeter and featuring deep, wide-set teeth, it’s exceptionally easy to grasp and corresponds with the design of the crown. The mechanism is then very well tuned, which I believe is an improvement over the first series, to be stiff enough to not budge when you touch it, but easy enough to turn when needed. It’s a 120-click uni-directional mechanism and has little to no back play.

The bezel insert is nicely designed as well, with a bold and highly legible index. The insert material is steel, which is PVD coated over a light radial brushing, for a subtle, but attractive texture. The index is then a series of bold white lines with numerals at intervals of ten. Unlike most divers, they don’t specifically emphasize the first 15 minutes of the index, rather the whole bezel has minute markers giving it a more intense look.

The last detail about the case worth noting is the case back, which is solid steel and screwdown. What’s cool is the deeply stamped Helm logo in the center, which once again feels like a higher end detail. While it’s entirely possible that it’s not an expensive addition, it still speaks to Helm’s commitment to make a well-rounded design.

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Moving on to the dial, the Vanuatu has a matte black surface with a simple, but bold set of markers. The primary index consists of big lume rectangles, getting long at 3 and 9, and having a point at 12. It’s a bit “snowflake” feeling, though the proportions and overall design keep it from feeling homage-y. I quite like the marker at twelve, which points down toward the center of the dial, bringing the eye to the Helm logo. While were on it, I also appreciate the execution of logos and text on the dial, which are done in a medium/dark gray rather than a typical white. The result is more subtle and less distracting.

The outer perimeter of the dial the features an index of white lines with small orange dots at intervals of 5. This is perhaps the most original detail, and one that gives the Vanuatu some unique character. The orange is a dark, burnt tone, a bit more towards red than yellow, that at once is eye-catching, but not distracting. It adds some color and a modern, almost tactical edge to the design.

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At 6, you’ll find the Vanuatu’s date window positioned just above a slightly wider, but thin, lumed marker. The watch is actually available with your choice of black or white date wheels, which is great to see. The sample is clearly featuring the white date, which actually works with the design. Because it takes the place of the marker that would be at 6, the white actually fills in what could feel like a hole with a black date.

The hour and minute hands are a bold block-style that brings the Sinn U1 “lego” hands to mind. Both are wide rectangles with thin black edges and a lot of lume. The hour is stubby while the minute is longer and has an extra pointer projecting out. I think they look great, corresponding well with the markers below and keeping a modern feel for the design. The seconds hand is then an orange stick with a lume filled black circle towards its tip. This also looks good and brings the orange from the dial into the handset, tying it together.

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The Vanuatu comes with a steel bracelet and a nylon pass-through. The nylon is what you’d expect and while not fancy, a nice addition. You actually get to choose which you want from a menu of seven styles. The bracelet, however, is far more unique and compelling. It’s a thick bracelet with a 5-link design with beveled edges and a brushed finish. It also tapers slightly, coming down to 20mm at the clasp, which makes it a bit less severe. I’m generally not a huge fan of thick, heavy bracelets as I find them cumbersome and generally uncomfortable, but this one wasn’t too bad. The 5-link design is much more flexible than say an oyster-style, which helps a lot. The clasp is fairly basic, but very solid, though I was surprised that it lacked a dive extension. This isn’t going effect most people, myself included, it just seemed like the kind of detail this watch would include.

On the wrist, the Vanuatu wears well, though it’s obviously a sizable watch. At 42/3 x 50mm, it still sits properly on top of my 7” wrist, and doesn’t look too big. The height is also less offensive than one would imagine, thanks to the side being broken up by the bezel. Aesthetically, it really works. The design is well thought out and attractive. No unnecessary details or embellishments, a highly legible dial and bezel and just good finishing and detailing all around. It’s definitely an aggressive, sporty design, but it’s not trying to masquerade as anything but. Looks aside, it’s really the solid build quality and finishing that impresses with this watch. It’s $275 but easily compares to something closer to $1000.

helm_vanuatu_wrist_1

As I said, it’s really hard to deny a good value, and the Helm Vanuatu really is one. But what truly matters is that beyond the price, it’s a good watch with nice looks and solid specs. Generally speaking, I don’t condone brands using razor margins to make their watches cheaper than everyone else, but it’s a business model that works for some. My problem is that it sets a precedent that any watch with similar stats shouldn’t cost more, which just isn’t realistic, and prices eventually will have to go up, which can be hard for a brand to explain. In this case, I don’t think it’s possible for Helm to be making traditional margins on this watch, but I also don’t think their motives are suspect. I think Helm just wanted to make a really good watch that was accessible to as many people as possible. By creating such a high value piece, they also create a buzz and cult following that they hopefully can hold onto through subsequent releases. No matter how you look at it, the Vanuatu is a seriously cool watch that’s worth your consideration if you’re in the market for a tool diver with modern looks.


For more info or to pick one up, head to HelmWatches.com

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Zach is the co-founder and Executive Editor of worn&wound. Before diving head first into the world of watches, he spent his days as a product and graphic designer. Zach views watches as the perfect synergy of 2D and 3D design: the place where form, function, fashion and mechanical wonderment come together.
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  • Love the review! Are the bezel markers indented (not sure what the term is) or printed on?

    • egznyc

      Great question. It looks to me like they are “indented” (etched out) and then lume-filled. At least that’s how it looks to my untrained eye – and the fact that there’s a lume shot …

  • Jauni Bigoudi

    “On the wrist, the Vanuatu wears well, though it’s obviously a sizable watch. At 42/3 x 50mm, it still sits properly on top of my 7” wrist, and doesn’t look too big.”

    It does. You just don’t see it.
    One day you’ll look at all those watches you review as properly wearable like we are now looking at some laughable 90’s clothes cut. Ridiculously oversized.

    • Terrance Steiner

      I consider 42mm to be nearly the perfect size. Of course that does take account that my wrist is nearly 8″ so a traditionally sized watch looks like a child’s toy on my wrist. The great thing is there is a watch for every taste and wrist size. I do agree that most watches over 42 mm are a bit ridiculous. This is a tool watch and many (not all but many) tool watches tend to be chunkier even back in the vintage watch days.

      • Jauni Bigoudi

        There is a pool on a french watch forum (~2000 votes) and it appears than most people (~1000) have a wristsize between 16,5 and 17,5 cm. If we extrapolate a little, we could maybe say that most europeans have a wristsize between 6.5 and 6.9 inches. I guess it’s less pertinent for tall europeans like northerm europeans. And the average wristsize of americans must be slightly bigger too.
        I know that the one size of the watch is not the only parameter to see how it fits on a wrist, Color of the dial, thickness of the bezel or dial opening, thickness of the watch, lug to lug size, etc… but basically 40 mm is already a top limit size for an average european wrist (40 mm watch would fit your 8” wrist perfectly, even if i agree that this 42 mm diver would fit on it too but it’s a top limit for your size i think).
        Back in the days a tool watch like the tudor ranger was… 34 mm. The divers like aquastar 63, triton spirotechnique were 37 mm.

        • Caleb Kay

          I think case width is not as critical as lug-to-lug dimensions, especially since we’re seeing so many manufacturers get creative with large cases but contoured/wire/hooded lugs. It’s encouraging for us as users, as much as it is for the industry moving forward.

    • Никита

      Seems like 90% of watches are meant for 9+” wrists

  • Yojimbo

    with a seiko movement that will go years without needing service this is a great deal