Review: Baltic HMS & Bicompax

Share this story:

I’m sometimes put in a funny position when I’m asked to write these reviews. Lately, I’ve had the pleasure of writing reviews for a handful of watches that fall squarely in the “vintage inspired” or “vintage reissue” category. If you’ve heard me on the Worn & Wound podcast, read some of my posts, or know me in real life (lucky you!), you’re likely aware that this isn’t my favorite genre of watch in the larger landscape of horology that we cover here on the site. It’s a credit to Zach W. and Blake that they keep sending me these watches that I’m pre-programmed not to like, asking me to give them a fair hearing. 

And I do, I really do. Just as frequently as I lament the lack of creativity in constantly dredging up designs from the past, you can hear me saying that all of us must keep an open mind. For some, that means dismissing the idea that your wrist is too big for a 36mm watch. Trust me, folks, it isn’t – that vintage Datejust looks great on everyone. For others, it means being open to the utility of a date window. Come on guys, they’re very useful! For me, it means constantly re-evaluating how it is that I feel about the concept of vintage inspired watches. 

Advertisement

While I don’t think I’d ever want to have a watch box full of “new” watches that draw so explicitly on the past, I think that Baltic is going about this business in the right way. These watches, in a lot of ways, serve as a defense to the whole prospect of vintage reissues, and from a skeptic’s perspective they make an awful lot of sense. And if you’re not a skeptic and already fully on board with this particular trend, you likely don’t need to be convinced beyond glancing at our photos – the aesthetic appeal here speaks for itself. But if you happen to be like me, and not entirely confident that you can enjoy a watch like this, I think keeping an open mind might be rewarding. 

$640

Review: Baltic HMS & Bicompax

Case
Stainless Steel
Movement
Miyota 821A/Seagull ST1901
Dial
Various
Lume
None
Lens
Hesalite (Acrylic)
Strap
Leather
Water Resistance
5 ATM
Dimensions
38 x 47mm
Thickness
12mm
Lug Width
20mm
Crown
Push/pull
Warranty
Yes
Price
$640

Background 

For most readers Baltic’s HMS and Bicompax, and the brand itself, need little introduction. We’ve covered them from the start, released limited editions of these very watches, and have been pretty avid supporters of what they’re trying to do. But for the uninitiated the thesis is this: Baltic exists to create fundamentally simple watches that are unapologetically and inextricably linked to vintage styles of the past. 

Unlike a lot of watches in this genre, Baltic doesn’t try to walk the line between vintage and modern. We see lots of new releases from upstarts and big brands alike that have old fashioned vintage elements mixed with the conveniences of modern watches. Sapphire crystals, for example, or contemporary movements with extended power reserves and antimagnetic capabilities are paired with old fashioned design traits, radium colored lume, and the like. Baltic’s approach, for better or worse, is different. These watches have acrylic crystals and, more than almost any vintage inspired watch I can think of, really feel like vintage watches in the hand and on the wrist. 

The Baltic HMS and Bicompax, including limited editions made for the Windup Watch Shop
Advertisement

That’s both a positive and a negative. The positive is that these watches have a ton of that hard to capture charm, and because these Baltics don’t use the latest and greatest movements, they can exist at a price point that makes them tough to argue with. They’re nearly in impulse buy territory for some of us who might just be unrelentingly curious, and that’s a good thing for Baltic as a brand. 

It’s a negative, because, well, have you ever owned a vintage watch? They’re finicky, sometimes a bit unreliable, and not well suited to the everyday grind if your everyday is, indeed, a grind. And that’s coming from someone who owns and loves vintage watches made many decades before I was born – I’ve fully embraced the quirks. We’ll get into this in more detail when we talk about the movement, but these watches come with a caveat that if you’re going to wear them daily, you should do so carefully. 

Baltic’s niche, then, is a new watch that feels like a vintage watch at a price point that laughs at often inflated vintage prices. They have original designs that are in debt to history,  and have built a reputation for overall quality and execution that’s tough to argue with.

Dial 

I was fortunate to be sent three watches from Baltic’s new HMS and Bicompax collections: black and silver versions of the HMS, and the blue Bicompax with gilt accents. All of the watches in this new package of releases share the same sector dial theme. On the HMS watches, it’s quite traditional and straightforward, with an outer minutes ring, an hours sector right inside of it, and a larger central section bearing a crosshair and the simple Baltic and “Automatic” signatures. The Bicompax is naturally a bit more complex by its very nature, but it’s clear that it’s still part of the same design language, just with the additions of a subsidiary seconds register at 9:00 and a minutes totalizer at 3:00. The subsidiary seconds register throws the symmetry off just a bit, but in a pleasing way, by bisecting the subdial with a crosshair that mimics that of the main dial. It’s almost a throwaway detail that you might only notice upon close inspection, but it has turned out to be one of my favorite touches on the Bicompax. 

Gilt accents on the blue Bicompax

While the design and color options here can be easily understood through the photos that accompany this review, the real highlight when it comes to these dials is the use of texture and contrast, which is always going to be a little harder to capture and comes alive immediately when you have the watch on wrist. To put it simply, what Baltic has done is to give the interior circular section of each watch a pronounced grained finish, with the “middle” sector being brushed, and the outer sector a grain that matches the interior. On the Bicompax, each subdial has been given a radial snailing treatment that is barely perceptible with the naked eye, but comes into clear focus under a loupe, and adds a good deal of subtle complexity to the whole package. 

This is all somewhat familiar terrain, of course. I reviewed the Longines “Sector” earlier this year, and that dial has a similar look and feel to the Baltic HMS. The silver colorway is nearly identical, but if pushed I actually might give a small edge to the Baltic’s dial for that graining in the dial’s inner section. The Longines, though cleaner, with numerals at only the cardinal positions, comes off a bit plain in comparison to the Baltic.

I’m a sucker for a silver sector dial, and of the three watches I sampled, the simple time only silver HMS was my favorite from a dial perspective. But the others will be equally rewarding to anyone with slightly different preferences. The blue Bicompax in particular is helped tremendously by its gilt accents, giving the watch an heir of formality in addition to its old time vintage charm. The blue, too, is an appropriately dark and immersive shade. This watch wouldn’t be nearly as impactful in a lighter blue tone – I don’t think we would have believed it as a watch that essentially could have time-traveled from the 1940s. But as is, it’s pretty convincing. 

We’ve seen a number of silver sector dials – this is as good as any of them

The black dialed HMS is effectively the inverse of the silver. We have the same dial arrangement, but instead of silver with cool blue hands and black numerals, we have a black backdrop with silver toned sectors and Arabics, and polished leaf hands. The result is considerably more sober than either the blue or silver variants I tested. It’s nicely pulled together, but the darker colorway mutes the contrast in finishing techniques used on the dial, so it doesn’t have the same dramatic impact. Legibility, in my experience, is also a little trickier on the black HMS, as the silver numerals don’t have the flash and pop you’d expect or want to set them off against the dark background (something that’s far less of a problem with the gilt accents against the similarly dark blue dial of the Bicompax).

None of these watches have a hint of lume, and the dials themselves are printed and have had nothing applied to them. This was smart on Baltic’s part as it further enhances the vintage feel of the watches, while also, we assume, keeping costs down. The printing is crisp and clean on all three dials, but is particularly noticeable and effective on the silver HMS, as it allows for the greatest contrasts simply by nature of the color choices. 

Advertisement

These dials, I think, are a massive improvement on the original HMS and Bicompax designs, which Zach W. reviewed right here. Those original watches were plain and spare by comparison to the sector dialed releases. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place in a watch collection for a dial that doesn’t have a lot going on, but in terms of Baltic’s ability to evoke and mimic styles of the past, I don’t think there’s any question that the sector designs come out on top. That’s because this particular look is rooted in vintage watch lore in a way that the simple, basic layouts of the original aren’t. Those kinds of watches have essentially always been made throughout the history of wristwatch manufacturing, so while they’re nice looking, it becomes apparent with hindsight that they lack a certain intangible quality that makes a dial special, which I’d argue the new designs have in spades. 

Case

The HMS and Bicompax cases have exactly the same dimensions in every direction, and save for the chronograph pushers on the Bicompax they appear to be identical, both visually and in terms of how they feel on the wrist. At 38mm in diameter, 47mm lug to lug, and 12mm thick, these watches exist in a sweet spot that can be easily enjoyed by almost anyone. As I said up top, they feel and wear like vintage timepieces in ways that go beyond their measurements. These watches have a lightness to them thanks to the acrylic crystal and movement choices that gives them an airy, barely there quality that is really enjoyable if you wear them daily. While 38mm is slightly larger than a typical watch that you might have purchased in the 1940s or 50s, it’s not dramatically larger, and the thin lug design and overall slimness of the case make the watches wear true to size, or perhaps a bit small. 

The case flanks and lugs have a brushed finish, while the bezel is highly polished. The stepped bezel design is another design detail that is directly lifted from watches from the past, and it’s a small thing that few brands make the effort to do with the style that Baltic has with the HMS and Bicompax. It gives the case a decorative element that feels appropriate, and viewed from the side you can plainly see the “steps” leading up to the acrylic crystal. It’s the type of design flourish that doesn’t really serve a purpose besides looking good, but it serves that purpose extremely well. 

Each watch has the option of a solid caseback or display back, through which you can observe the movement in action. On my test units, the silver HMS had a solid caseback, while the black HMS and blue Bicompax each had display casebacks. I didn’t find the wearing experience to change substantially between these options – thickness appears the same according to my measurements in each circumstance, and the feel on the wrist is identical. Ultimately it’s a judgment call for each owner as to which caseback to choose, but my own preference would be for the closed option. It’s quite simply more in line with the vintage idea behind these watches, and in my opinion enables you to get lost in the idea that you’re wearing a modern watch made to vintage standards a little more effectively. 

Movement 

The HMS is powered by the Miyota 821A automatic movement. This is an inexpensive automatic caliber with 42 hours of power reserve and only the most basic (machined) Geneva striping as decoration. If you’ve been playing in the sub $1,000 independent brand market for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered this movement already and have your own preconceived notions about it. You might even have multiple preconceived notions, as you may have experienced it to be surprisingly accurate and reliable, or highly temperamental. In my experience with these Baltics, I found the Miyota to be perfectly adequate. This movement is not going to win any chronometry awards (unless it’s by accident), and it’s fairly robust and easy to fix should something go wrong. You shouldn’t expect something to go wrong, but it’s a bit more likely something will break on the Miyota 821A than, for example, an ETA 2824. 

The Bicompax runs on the Seagull ST1901 manually wound chronograph movement. Seagull is a Chinese movement maker and by some accounts produces more watch movements than any other company in the world. Seagull acquired Venus, a Swiss movement manufacturer, in the 1960s, and has been producing calibers that are essentially clones of old Venus movements (made on Venus’s original machinery, in many cases) ever since.

Advertisement

There are benefits and drawbacks here. The main benefit, as I see it, is that Seagull is able to produce a chronograph movement (with a column wheel!) at a price that allows a brand like Baltic to fit it into their watch at a sub $1,000 price point. Certainly, other brands have taken advantage of Seagull’s economies of scale as well, and it’s allowed a lot of watch lovers to get a taste of an old school hand wound chronograph, which is as addicting a genre of watches as there is. It’s also an attractive looking movement, and fairly well decorated, and could be a reason to pay the small extra fee to Baltic for a see through caseback. 

The drawback is that the Seagull ST1901 really needs to be treated like a vintage movement that was made in the 60s. This is not a robust and durable chronograph caliber – a quick search on ST1901 reliability will reveal that they simply have a tendency to break in ways that modern Swiss and Japanese equivalents don’t.

That should absolutely not be a reason to hold off on buying a Bicompax, or any other watch using this caliber that you happen to like. But you should handle the Bicompax appropriately – in spite of the chronograph functionality, this is not a sports watch that should be pushed to its limits. If your normal wear pattern is on the careful side, it’s unlikely that you’ll experience anything other than solid timekeeping and reliable functionality. But I’d take this one off before you head to the gym, or change your oil, or move heavy furniture through narrow doorways. 

Straps

I don’t often look forward to going over the factory strap options on watches that I review at this price point but I’m pleased to report that Baltic’s straps are of an impressive quality, and certainly wouldn’t be immediately removed for something else in my strap collection if I were to purchase one of these for myself. Furthermore, Baltic offers plenty of options, in a variety of colors and materials. 

Of the pairings I sampled, the silver HMS paired with blue French calf leather was my favorite. The color combos work well here, and the leather itself feels great and is of a higher than average quality. The brown calf leather on the Bicompax was similar. 

The black HMS was paired with a black “Saffiano” style leather strap that I also enjoyed. It’s made of the same calf leather as the other straps, but has a fine embossed weave pattern on the top side of the strap that adds some welcome texture and a slightly exotic look. Saffiano leather’s origins can be traced back to Prada handbags, and was originally designed to be water repellent. While I can’t comment as to the straps ability to withstand moisture (I wouldn’t risk it, personally) it certainly retains a bit of the Italian flair that most would associate with Prada. I’m not sure it’s thematically in line with these sector dialed watches derived from designs of the 1940s, but it’s a fun pairing nonetheless.

Conclusion

I really enjoy these watches, and as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, they represent a challenge to my ideas around “vintage inspired” watches in general. As someone who has a deep appreciation for vintage watches and is quite used to their quirks and unique ownership challenges, I find the rudimentary movements used in the HMS and Bicompax to be more charming than problematic. As with anything else, you have to know what you’re getting into. Ultimately, Baltic’s watches feel more authentically like the vintage watches I’m used to wearing than the watches from almost any other brand. The previously mentioned Longines Sector is a good example – that watch looks like a vintage watch from 10 feet away (or even closer, to be honest), but once you start really evaluating it, it’s clearly modern in every sense of the word, it’s just wearing a vintage costume. The Baltic’s are too, I suppose, but the humble specs and overall simplicity of the timepieces themselves make them more convincing and appealing.

A large part of that appeal is the retail pricing and accessibility of Baltic’s product. After currency conversion, the Bicompax comes in at about $640, and the HMS is less than $400. With the HMS in particular, that’s an insanely great value for a watch with this much style and character. These watches are produced by people who really pay attention to the details, and strive to get everything right, and that’s hard to come by at 2-3 times the price of the HMS. 

While I wouldn’t consider myself a convert to vintage inspired watches on a large scale, I have to admit that I’m softening as I get a chance to experience more watches like the HMS and Bicompax. I’m often left with a cold feeling when I evaluate watches that take inspiration from popular (or not so popular) watches from prior generations, but Baltic’s watches are evidence of real design inspiration, and are not simply photocopies of a thing that someone else made years before. From a vintage inspired skeptic, these Baltics have my highest recommendation. Baltic

Images from this post:
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.
Categories: