Even the best photos betray some watches, and the Hemel HFT20 didn’t work its charms on me until I had it in my hands. Once I did, its impeccable balance of elements and eye-catching legibility caught me off guard, but it was the HFT20’s commanding presence that knocked me out flat. An illusory quality, presence is a watch’s X-factor—its mojo, its vibe, its ability to seize our attention and draw us in—and the Hemel HFT20 has heaps of it. This isn’t to say the watch is flawless, of course. However, the few persnickety grievances I tender below seem to have had no impact on the HFT20’s ability to captivate me.
Vintage pilot chronographs from Stowa, Hanhart, Zenith, and many more could be said to have informed the HFT20’s design, but it was the 50s-era Type 20s that provided the overt inspiration. The diamond crown, the pump chronograph pushers, the black face with white markings, the lack of date complication, and the three bezel options (plain steel, engraved steel with 12-hour counter, or a black with 60-minute counter) are all derived from various Type 20 chronographs.
Hands-On with the Hemel HFT20 Meca-Quartz and Mechanical Chronographs
Seiko NE88; VK64 meca-quartz
42mm x 49mm
All three bezels are chamfered toward a cleanly machined coin-edge, and they click like an excited dolphin and feel expensive. It’s the kind of bezel I’ll twist for mere pleasure. The black 60-minute option creates a continuous surface, giving the watch a larger appearance, while the two steel bezel options make the black dial jump out and announce its 31mm diameter. In terms of presence, the silver bezels won me over because they simultaneously boost front-facing contrast, draw the eye toward center stage, and generally tidy things up. Because the 12-hour bezel can function as either a second time zone tracker or an hour totalizer, it stands out as the most useful mate for the dual-register chronograph.
The HFT20’s brushed 316L stainless steel case is handsome, well proportioned, and devoid of the cookie-cutter vibe common to so many startup offerings. The lug-span is just 49mm, which is fairly short for a 42mm watch. The lugs curve downward just enough to fit a diversity of wrist-shapes, and, importantly, they do so without hoisting the watch to an absurd height. These aren’t the sexily torqued and multi-faceted lugs of the Breguet Type 20s from the early 1960s (ooh la la), but they draw some attractive lines that remain faithful to earlier Type 20 references. While I’d have preferred drilled lugs for the vintage vibe and easy strap changes, I’m not convinced the spring-bar mounts are located in a spot that would be flattering if drilled. Further, I’d hate to see those spring bars relocated, as they’re perfectly placed to create a lovely contour between the lugs and any strap.Regarding straps, the only major clinker of the HFT20 is the strap rivets, which are merely decorative. Worse, they’re seated within full-perimeter stitching, which advertises their superfluousness like a billboard. The rivets are especially grating here because, otherwise, this strap may be the best in its class. They’re thick, stiff, beefy chunks of stitched leather that will take at least a month of constant wear to even start to break in. The edge finishing and tapers are exquisite. Maybe Hemel could offer a no-rivet version, but for now it’s a great strap for fans of the riveted look, and the rest of us can, of course, swap it out. The watch looks smart on all kinds of straps, and the burgundy Horween mil-strap I’ve been sporting is especially well suited to the HFT20’s retro military mojo.
Behind the solid, engraved case back are either the Seiko meca-quartz VK64 movement or the automatic mechanical Seiko NE88 column-wheel chronograph. Both movements have the ghost-position for changing the date (and I assume a full date wheel inside), which is—like the decorative rivets—one of those vexatious things you end up with at this price point. Even my no-date Sinn 556 Anniversary has the same drawback. I’m not aware of a meca-quartz or an off-the-shelf column-wheel movement without a date complication, so it is what it is. The Earth hasn’t stopped turning, and these movement choices turn out to be a brilliant formula for Hemel.
Worn & Wound contributor Mark McArthur-Christie has already expertly and extensively explained meca-quartz chronograph movements, so go there for more details. Mark notes that meca-quartz are hybrid movements, “powered by a battery, regulated by a quartz crystal and controlled with a set of precision levers, hammers and gears.” The results are crisp chronograph activation, a sweep seconds hand, and instant zero reset—all three features absent on a straight-up quartz chronograph. The VK64 eliminates running seconds in favor of a 24-hour tracker on the three o’clock sub-dial, but unfortunately you can’t decouple it from the main time setting—so, no second time zone there. The nine o’clock sub-dial is a 60-minute totalizer, which is an ideal timekeeper when coupled with the 12-hour bezel. Go for the meca-quartz with the 12-hour configuration and you’ll be rocking three registers for half a day’s worth of dead-accurate, easy-to-read elapsed time. Considering there’s neither a date window nor a running seconds hand, that’s a rather unique and useful configuration.
Interestingly, the VK64 meca-quartz allows one to instantly reset to zero and stop via the four o’clock pusher while the chronograph is still running. That would cause a “train wreck” in a standard mechanical chronograph. I think of this as a quasi-flyback function, the difference being that the meca-quartz chronograph stops back at zero rather than instantly starting another timing interval. There’s also no need to set the time on a meca-quartz until the battery dies, making them great grab-and-go pieces. Given that the Hemel HFT20 isn’t itself a historical reference, I’ve got zero gripes with the meca-quartz option, and actually find the functionality, novelty, and lower price enticing.
The HFT20s price leaps from $449 to $999 if you opt for the Seiko NE88 column-wheel movement. Widely regarded as superior to the ubiquitous cam-shifters (a.k.a. lever activated chronographs) like the Valjoux 7750, column-wheels are also more difficult and expensive to produce and maintain. The NE88’s action is solid and smooth, and the central seconds counter leaves station with nary a jerk or jump, a prized quality among column-wheel connoisseurs. The NE88 features running seconds on the three o’clock sub-dial, and a 30-minute totalizer at nine—standard chronograph stuff. Taken together, the meca-quartz and the column-wheel form an impressive and intelligent pair of options from Hemel, and either movement distinguishes the HFT20 from the horde of pilot chronograph in the sub $1,000 territory.
By coincidence, the week I received the Hemels for review, Zenith announced an unlimited run of their Chronometro Tipo CP2, a refresh of the storied Cairelli chronographs they produced for the Italian Air Force in the 1960s. Like the Hemel, Zenith was taking their design cues from pilot chronographs that came before. Opt for the HFT20 with the black 60-minute bezel, and you’ve got a seriously affordable alternative to the $7,700 Zenith. Curious readers might look at the Zenith and the Hemel side-by-side to find all sorts of similarities: size, hand styles, seconds track, text placement, and more. They’re strikingly similar.In all six possible configurations, the Hemel HFT20 is a lot of watch for the money. From the thoughtful take on legendary Type 20 designs to the super smart movement and bezel options, Hemel has surpassed my first-glance expectations by a hundred miles. In the end, it’s the HFT20’s presence in the metal that will bring this watch home. Hemel
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.