Book Review – Sea Time: Watches Inspired by Sailing, Yachting and Diving

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Sea Time is nothing like the luxury-oriented picture book I thought it would be. Though large and full of lush photographs, Sea Time’s strong suit is the bevy of long and short essays that co-authors Aaron Sigmond and Mark Bernardo have thoroughly researched and humbly written like pros. I suspect these essays will make Sea Time an essential resource for serious watch nerds. 

Sea Time has deepened my own knowledge of water-ready watches in surprising ways. Finally I have a clear picture of which watches Jacques Cousteau wore over the years (Blancpain, Rolex, Doxa, in that order). Finally I get the scoop on why James Bond switched to an Omega Seamaster in the 1990s (a studious wardrobe director’s choice). Finally I grasp that it was decidedly Blancpain (1952), and not Rolex (1953/4), who first issued a SCUBA-specific watch. And I can finally speak with some confidence about the rise, fall, and resurrection of Doxa over the past five decades. 

The bulk of the writing in Sea Time is fact-filled and refreshingly bereft opinion and needless curatorial authority. Alas, too many watch writers try to pass off their opinions as insight, though it’s often hard to catch that as a casual reader. This is such an important part of why I recommend Sea Time that I will digress just briefly. Consider these two hypothetical sentences:

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1. The Rolex Submariner was the essential icon of masculinity of the 20th Century.

2. The Rolex Submariner eventually became a symbol of masculinity at the end of the 20th Century.

Though grand and exciting, sentence #1 is ultimately false. Sentence #2 isn’t nearly as sticky, but it offers measured insight and is true. This seemingly subtle distinction separates lame writers who make noise vying for our unwitting attention and  great writers who too often fail to reap their due acclaim. I’m so glad to report that the authors of Sea Time fall into the latter category, and perhaps we can drop some acclaim on them right here and now.

Check out how much you can learn in two fact-filled and humble sentences from Sea Time:

The genesis of the Fifty Fathoms actually dates to 1952, when France’s Ministry of Defense charged a French Navy captain, Robert Maloubier, with assembling an elite team of combat divers. Determined to equip his naguers de combat—combat swimmers—with timepieces specifically engineered for the rigors of maritime military mission, Maloubier turned to one with a proven pedigree, Blancpain, the world’s oldest (registered) watchmaking brand.

That is about as good as watch writing gets; it’s clear, efficient, interesting, and chock-full of relevant facts that, once assembled as such, illuminate the subject. I’ve read entire articles on watches that have taught me less than the two sentences above.

However, the language in Sea Time isn’t always so dry:

Their go-go 1980s Moorish Art Deco marine motif Pasha notwithstanding, for many years the closest most Cartier watches got to being submerged was accidentally having Moet & Chandron spilled on them during a cocktail soiree.

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Bolstered by the countless fact-filled sentences before it, this bouncy and melodic sentence perfectly sets up the relative absurdity of Cartier making a serious dive watch — which the French brand did with the Calibre de Cartier Diver in 2013, decades late to the luxury dive watch game. Sigmond and Bernardo lace playful language like this throughout the book, providing readers with well timed breaks from the full-throttle factual histories that make up the bulk of the book.

Structurally, the authors have divided all water-oriented watches into useful (if not watertight) categories: The Icons are watches that started it all, like the Rolex Sub, the Fifty Fathoms, and so on. Sailing and Regatta covers watches that are, in my estimation, vastly overlooked, but this section of Sea Time may help readers come to know the complexity and compelling designs of regatta watches. Boating Watches covers time pieces that are, roughly, oriented to luxury power boating and such. Dive Watches should be self explanatory, and this section takes up a full 145 pages. By the Pool & At The Seashore consists largely of weirdo watches like the Bamford Rolex Sub Popeye or the Christiaan Van Der Klaauw Real Moon Tides — watches that are water-oriented but probably best paired with a cocktail that comes with an umbrella in it.

All of these sections are organized alphabetically by brand, making navigation a cinch. Alphabetizing also renders the authors’ curatorial decisions rather egalitarian, and every watch gets its due in equal measure: an Oris or an Inox feels as significant as a Franck Muller or an MB & F. Furthermore, the alphabetizing creates interesting pairings on opposing pages. You’ll find Breguet and Bremont together, Fortis and Franck Muller, Tempest and Tissot, and so on.

Indeed, the authors cover brands and models across all price-points, and this feels inclusive of me as much as of the watches themselves. I was genuinely excited to see watches I’ve owned sprawled across a glossy page with thoughtful insights below. Where many watch books feel like a consolation prize for not having achieved membership among the 1%, Sea Time stands out as part of what I hope will be a growing trend of watch books that celebrate timepieces for their ability to tell stories rather than their rarity, mechanical complexity, and/or monetary value. If we may call this a trend, it’s certainly a very recent one. Matthew Hranek’s A Man and His Watch (2017) seems to have set the tone for more inclusive watch books, and Sea Time follows that inclination nicely. Perhaps the broader watch writing community will pay attention.

Sea Time will be available on May 28, 2019, and it can pre-ordered here.

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At age 7 Allen fell in love with a Timex boy's dive watch his parents gave him, and he's taken comfort in wearing a watch ever since. Allen is especially curious about digital technology having inspired a revival of analog technology, long-lasting handmade goods, and classic fashion. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hudson Valley with his partner and two orange cats.
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