More than Meets the Eye: A Guide to Sleeper Watches

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When I spoke with Erik Strickland for our “Ask the Collectors” series, one of the topics we discussed was the idea of a sleeper watch. Erik’s a great collector of watches that fit into this category, and to get a sense of some of the most interesting and esoteric sleepers out there, definitely head over to his Instagram feed, and prepare to learn a lot about watches that are equally impressive and important as they are under the radar. We wanted to put together a guide in the same spirit, because there’s something undeniably appealing about a watch that does a lot, but does it in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. And while Erik’s collection focuses mostly on sleepers of the vintage variety (and you’ll a lot more about this in an upcoming podcast episode), we think the term can also be applied to modern watches, which is what you’ll see in this guide.

The Tissot Gentleman Powermatic 80 Silicium, an affordable modern sleeper

Sleepers exist in areas other than watches. In car culture, a sleeper is a vehicle that appears to be generic or unassuming, but has been modded to achieve incredible performance in a racing environment (in other words, a hustler’s dream). When it comes to watches, it might be instructive to think of some pieces that are decidedly not sleepers, either because their greatness is readily apparent, they simply draw your attention immediately from across a room, or their attributes are generally well known to most. A Patek Philippe Nautilus, for example, is not a sleeper, nor are waitlisted steel sports Rolex pieces. At the more affordable end of the spectrum, something like a Seiko in the SRP series, or the various Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanicals can be classified as most certainly not sleepers (wakers?) for their widely well understood status as excellent all-around mechanical watches in their price range – there just aren’t a lot of secrets to discover with watches like these, but it takes nothing away from their overall quality and appeal. 

In this guide, you’ll find watches that are, as the subtitle says, more than meets the eye. They might be technically interesting in a way that isn’t the obvious selling point of the watch, or they could be underappreciated or misunderstood in a variety of ways. In one way or another, they’re all something other than what they first seem to be. 

Tissot Gentleman Powermatic 80 Silicium

We reviewed the Tissot Gentleman Powermatic 80 Silicium back in February, and this watch’s sleeper status is relatively easy to understand, and it has everything to do with the last word in the watch’s somewhat ungainly name. This watch, on the surface, is, to be honest, fairly generic. It looks like a watch that many who aren’t deep into watches would conjure in their mind when they hear the word (this is a theme that holds true for many watches in this guide). But the movement is pretty special for a watch that sells for less than $1,000, and it’s in no way obvious from the Gentleman’s outside appearance. 

Powering this Gentleman is the Powermatic 80.811, which is a modified ETA 2824. It’s those modifications though that really tick this one up a notch. The power reserve has been extended to a full 80 hours, making this piece an incredibly versatile and easy choice if you have a collection of more than a few watches that you rotate through, and the hairspring has been replaced with one of the silicon variety, giving the Gentleman some additional anti-magnetic qualities that other watches in this price range are lacking. This is a great example of tech that was at one point extremely exotic in watchmaking making its way into something at the value oriented end of the spectrum, with only the smallest bit of fanfare. Definitely a sleeper.


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Baume & Mercier Clifton Baumatic

Along the same lines as the Tissot, we have the Baume & Mercier Baumatic, the entrypoint into some of the movement tech most closely associated with the Richemont Group. The Baumatic is a pretty traditional watch that veers toward the dressy end of the spectrum, but is packed with technical features that rival many genuine tool watches. 

Silicon is used again, but here it’s put to work in the escapement rather than the hairspring. It still adds a modicum of anti-magnetism to the movement overall, as well as better durability to a part of the watch that is constantly in motion. The latest Baumatics have a five-day power reserve, and use lubricants that bring their expected service intervals out to seven years. They’re also available with movements that have been COSC certified for accurate timekeeping. Check out the review here.


Citizen Chronomaster

High accuracy quartz is fertile ground for sleeper watches. We’ve covered Grand Seiko’s 9F powered quartz watches at length on Worn & Wound, and will continue to do so, but I don’t think it’s right to really call these “sleepers” at this point. The ingenuity of the 9F movement and the gorgeous finishing of even the most basic Grand Seiko cases is well understood by most. But Grand Seiko isn’t the only Japanese brand making high end quartz watches with accuracy that will blow your mind. Citizen, with their Chronomaster, is easily in the same ballpark as Grand Seiko technically, and does it in a way that is well under the radar, at least here in the US.

There are a variety of different Chronomasters available, but they’re tough to get in the US. You have to either visit the Citizen boutique in New York City, or order it from a Japanese reseller. But if you’re able to acquire one, you’ll be the owner of one of the most accurate watches in production, rated to +/- 5 seconds per year. While the standard Chronomaster is a handsome watch, it doesn’t offer a ton of frills when it comes to design. If you’re after something a little more luxurious, limited edition Chronomasters with green or red “Washi” paper dials were released last year, and offer some of the traditional Japanese craftsmanship we associate with Grand Seiko, but with a slightly different twist.


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Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight

So this might not be an obvious choice as a sleeper watch, but hear me out. The Black Bay Fifty-Eight is undeniably popular, and with the watch now available in two variants, it seems likely that it’s about to break out of the cult of watch enthusiasts and cross over as a true, mainstream sensation. And it’s worthy of that type of admiration from the general public – it’s a great looking, all purpose watch that’s impeccably well made, and could be considered heirloom quality for a guy searching for one watch to simply wear everyday without any fuss. 

The reason I think this watch can make a claim to sleeper status is the nature of the movement. Caliber MT5402 is an in-house movement made by Tudor that is certainly competitive technically with comparable movements from Rolex, Omega, and other luxury brands. But what makes it special is that Tudor, who up until a few years ago didn’t have a single in-house movement at all, made this one especially for the Black Bay Fifty-Eight, in order to build a watch with the more compact dimensions that they wanted to deliver. It would have been easy to slap the in-house movement found in other Black Bays into a new product (something the brand has certainly done many times in other scenarios), but Tudor went another route, and until the recent release of the Fifty-Eight in navy blue, the original gilt dial Fifty-Eight was the only watch in Tudor’s large catalog to house the MT5402. That represents a level of technical proficiency and dedication that few other brands can claim. Reviewed here, and in blue


Nomos Minimatik 

Nomos is a brand that we often think of as being extremely design focused. Their watches, often inspired by the Bauhaus movement, are very obviously of a specific time and place, with a focus on minimalism and emphasizing only the most functional design elements. And it’s for this very reason that the wonderful movements Nomos uses, particularly in their automatic watches, that they can be correctly categorized as sleepers.

The DUW3001 caliber and its derivatives are all about being incredibly thin. The core collection of Nomos watches were all designed with traditional, old-fashioned, dress watch proportions, and putting a robust and modern automatic movement in those cases would require them to become thicker than what the design could reasonably stand. The autos, then, were designed from the ground up by Nomos specifically to be thin, and to make the most out of Nomos’s house design. That’s especially apparent in the Minimatik line, which at 35.5mm in diameter (a form factor which has not been upsized by Nomos since the watch’s introduction) is clearly meant to recall the discretion of watches from a previous generation. Without knowing about the movement ahead of time (and, I suppose, ignoring the name of the watch itself) you’d never guess that an automatic caliber with a full rotor was ticking away inside the 8.9mm thick case. Reviewed here.


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Anordain & Seiko Presage 

One of the great pleasures of watches is the idea that old world craft techniques, honed over centuries, are still being used in modern watchmaking. While there are many types of hand craft that are cost prohibitive and truly grail worthy, it’s surprisingly affordable to get a taste of very fine dial work.

We’ve discussed Anordain on these pages many times, and their enamel dials – often in colors that lean toward the contemporary – are such a great value and so well executed that they simply couldn’t be left off our sleepers list. Enameling is a time intensive process that requires a ton of skill, and the result is a dial with a depth and sheen that is hard to capture in photos or words, but when seen in person makes a dramatic impression that is very different than that of a more common dial made from brass or another metal. 

Similarly, Seiko offers watches with dials made using traditional craft techniques through their Presage line, but these have a very different, somewhat more classical aesthetic than the youthful watches made by Anordain. In addition to enamel, Seiko also produces a line of watches using Arita porcelain, which are hand glazed and fired multiple times. Porcelain is inherently delicate, but Seiko’s manufacturing process for the newest porcelain Presage pieces is said to produce a more robust end product. It’s this mix of traditional craftsmanship and modern manufacturing that makes Seikos in this line so interesting, and much more than a surface pleasure.


Christopher Ward Caliber SH21

Christopher Ward has come a long way. When I first became aware of the brand a number of years ago, they were primarily thought of as a better than average maker of inexpensive vintage inspired divers, considered by some to be homages to well known classics. In a relatively short amount of the time, the brand has grown considerably and has not only established a unique design language of their own, but is making their own movements with some pretty innovative features. 

The SH21 caliber, introduced in 2014, is in many ways the pinnacle of the reinvented Christopher Ward. The movement is used in a limited version of the brand’s signature C65 Trident Diver, C1 Grand Malvern (reviewed here), as well as a handful of other watches, and serves as a base for subsequent movements with various complications. But on the Trident Diver, it doesn’t look too different from the standard execution of the Trident that we’re all pretty familiar with, and the Grand Malvern is almost the definition of unassuming with a rigorously simple dial layout. But there’s a lot going on. The SH21 has twin barrel construction that allows for 120 hours of power reserve (visualized with a power reserve indicator on the dial), and is chronometer certified. It also has the distinction, according to Christopher Ward, of being the first commercially viable mechanical caliber from a British watch brand in over 50 years, making it a legitimate piece of watchmaking history in the UK. Developing a new caliber is no small feat, and neither is designing a watch that makes the most of the movement beating away inside, and Christopher Ward has done it by making a special watch that is only obviously special to people who are deeply involved with watch culture. It’s one of the key insider’s watches of the microbrand scene. 


Grand Seiko SBGY003

The Grand Seiko SBGY003 is a limited release from the brand’s Elegance collection, a dress watch with a dynamic radiant pattern on the dial and a case with highly polished facets. It’s very much the type of watch that many think of when they think of Grand Seiko – elegant and simple in many ways, but never boring. What makes the SBGY003 a sleeper is its hand wound Spring Drive movement, a relatively new caliber that is unique to this watch and the SBGY002, a yellow gold version of the same basic design, and makes it unlike any other Spring Drive watch in the Grand Seiko lineup.

First and foremost, the 9R31 caliber is wound by hand, which is very uncommon for a Spring Drive movement. This enables the watch case to be built with a thin profile, a feature that Grand Seiko owners often request from the brand. Secondly, a component common to almost every Spring Drive watch is missing from the dial: the power reserve indicator. While certainly functional, the power reserve scale on Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive dials throws off the symmetry, which is perhaps not the effect you’re looking for in a finely made dress watch. But Grand Seiko hasn’t simply done away with the power reserve gauge – you’ll find it, but on the movement side. This is a special touch, and gives the impression that the watch is keeping a secret of sorts, that only the owner is really aware of.


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S.U.F Helsinki 180

The S.U.F Helsinki 180 is a pretty simple watch on its surface. It has a field watch style layout with a railway minutes track and is supremely legible, classic, and at 39mm in diameter and only about 9mm thick, it’s sized to be compact and easy to wear on the wrist. What makes the 180 something of a sleeper is the brand’s unique heritage, being the brainchild of one of the most world renowned independent watchmakers, Stepan Sarpaneva. 

Sarpaneva makes watches under his own name that are fashioned in a virtually bespoke manner, often priced well into the five figures. S.U.F Helsinki watches, however, are far more affordable (the 180 sells for around $2,500) and in many important ways are the product of the same principles that Sarpaneva brings to his self-named brand, namely a spirit of bringing a uniquely Finnish sensibility to watches. S.U.F watches are a great under the radar way to support the art and craft of a very serious watchmaker without shelling out what might be prohibitively high price. They’re also wonderful as conversation pieces, opening up a portal to a discussion on fine independent watchmaking, aesthetics, and the role of a brand’s home country in the culture of watches.


Laurent Ferrier Tourbillon Grand Sport 

When we wrote about the new tourbillon released by Zelos earlier this summer, we hinted at the idea of a tourbillon as the ultimate watch collecting flex. In most modern watches, it’s a highly visible complication in addition to being wildly expensive. It makes a statement, pure and simple. 

It’s a whole different kind of flex, then, when the tourbillon isn’t exposed on the dial, as with the Laurent Ferrier Tourbillon Grand Sport seen here. At a glance, the Grand Sport looks an awful lot like a Nautilus, but flip it over and you see something that on most watches in this category, you see on the front. For a watch that approaches the $200,000 mark to hide the very feature that makes that price defensible is something of a statement, and owning such a watch would seem to indicate that the wearer is as unconcerned with making his status known as the typical tourbillon owner is preoccupied with making sure others know that he does, in fact, own a tourbillon. 

The tourbillon as a sleeper is a fascinating concept, particularly when it comes to a brand like LF, which has become synonymous with tourbillons to a certain extent. It’s certainly not a compilation that is underappreciated or not well known – but when it’s hidden from view on the dial it communicates something very intentional about watchmaking, the owner, and the idea of a watch as a status symbol.

Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.
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