“I wouldn’t touch a Steinhart with a thousand-mile shit pole.”
– Reddit commenter on the thread “Steinhart or Hamilton?”
I don’t even know what a thousand-mile shit pole is, but I didn’t need one to get hands-on with the Ocean One Black that arrived on my doorstep recently. What started as a simmering infatuation with the Rolex Submariner boiled over and the online hunt was on for something to fill this particular gap in my collection. If you aren’t familiar with the Ocean series from Steinhart, except for their size and some other minor differences, they may be the most faithful (or derivative, depending on where you stand) Rolex homages on the market today. The Ocean Vintage Military has received the most attention from the press and within the watch-collecting community because it echoes the extremely rare and expensive Rolex 5517 MilSub – a grail watch amongst grail watches.
The Ocean One Black’s dial, hands, and cyclops date magnifier are more than just reminiscent of the Submariner, they are design cues that are intended to reproduce the look of the more famous Rolex diver. How you feel about the intentional double-take is something of a Rorschach test for watch lovers. Researching affordable alternatives to the Rolex Submariner, I also took an accidental crash course in homage watches and what they signify to the watch collecting community.
I should be clear that I’m not talking about straight-up fakes – watches that try to pass themselves off as the original – but about the Steinharts, Squales, and MkIIs of the world that faithfully reproduce the look or style of an iconic and much more expensive watch but put their own touches and logos on the finished product. There is no intention on the part of these manufacturers to deceive. People who buy homage watches, however, can still have these charges laid against them by some of the more doctrinaire members of the watch community. Even the usually accepting Jonny Casual on YouTube, when asked by a viewer for advice about which watch to purchase next, dismissed the Steinhart option as “just a copy,” and seemed puzzled by how the watch made the viewer’s short list.
What’s going on here? Why is there so much suspicion (and in some cases hostility) towards making and buying something that has the look but not the cost of a more famous or iconic piece? If you buy a print of a famous Chagall painting you like and hang it in your dorm room, nobody gets too upset at you or the company that made the print. Proudly announce that your Steinhart arrived today online and you could be dealing with some surprising feedback in the comments section. Reactions, I discovered, to these watches fall into three broad categories: hostility, backhanded acceptance, and fandom.
Outright hostility towards homage watches is easy to find in articles, reviews, and on discussion boards. It is based on accusations of deceit – on the part of the manufacturer and the wearer. The company who makes the watch is being dishonest by copying an iconic design they had nothing to do with creating and the wearer is being dishonest in trying to achieve or borrow the look (and status) of the iconic watch without having the authentic original in hand. Hostility towards homage watches is also, I think, more complex than a gatekeeper’s straightforward desire to keep the riff raff out of an exclusive club. Underneath the high-handed (and sometimes crude) dismissiveness is fear. Watch fans spend a great amount of energy celebrating and debating things like brand heritage, a watch’s provenance, and movement accuracy. We create categories of value out of extremely subtle qualitative differences. When something like the Steinhart comes along – at around 5% the cost of a new Submariner – the boundaries of these categories can seem under threat. How does one justify the Rolex without exposing the artificial foundations that underpin some of the higher-end brands? If you are a watch lover, brand, movement, and model history make a certain sense, but try using these arguments to justify this kind of extreme cost differential to someone who hasn’t caught the bug and you might just have your sanity questioned. Negative reactions to homage watches like the Steinhart O1B often tacitly invoke the very categories this kind of watch threatens in order to kick it off the list of legitimate watches you should be looking at instead: brand history (Steinhart is a young company, but borrows an old name in watchmaking…like many of the “established” brands scooped up by luxury conglomerates); movement quality (the O1B uses a common ETA 2824-2 movement, somehow a negative when dissing Steinhart but not with Hamilton or any of the many other more established brands that employ this movement); derivative design (which weirdly places uniqueness on a pedestal in the dive watch category where variation on a well-established theme is the norm). After 60 plus years of making the Submariner, Rolex itself could be accused of being derivative.
“If you must,” or, “I love my Submariner, but I encourage you to have fun and experiment with the Steinhart/Squale/(insert homage brand and model here) if you enjoy it.” There’s a kind of approval you’ll find on the interwebs that sounds like it’s endorsing your purchase of the homage watch but that carries with it a reminder that the approval is coming from on high, from the secure and informed position of owning the “real” thing. Tristano, on The Urban Gentry YouTube channel, proclaimed his open-mindedness and love for Squale divers but made sure to remind everyone he worked very hard to put a Submariner in his collection. These declarations of acceptance sound democratic and open but are faintly patronising with their qualifiers. Even when reviewers are loving watches like the Steinharts, there’s the inevitable “at this price point” phrase that surfaces, reminding you that even if you are getting a lot of value for your money, you are still playing in the farm leagues and should perhaps save up for the major brands. (Let’s see, if I put aside a modest $100 a month for that Rolex Submariner, I could be enjoying the watch in 2022 at current new prices. Or, I could liquidate half my collection if immediate gratification is my aim, getting rid of pieces I love and don’t necessarily want to part with right now.) Authenticity and the long shadow of the original is still frequently invoked and felt even in what’s effectively an endorsement of the homage watch as a reminder that the category of homage itself is by definition secondary.
Luckily, the most prevalent (by volume) response to homage watches is appreciation. Entire discussion threads on Watchuseek are given over to the celebration of divers that look like the Rolex Submariner. Acceptance reigns here, and brands like Steinhart, Squale, and MkII are enthusiastically embraced precisely because, in copying, they honour the spirit of divers like the Rolex Submariner, and at prices mortals can afford. Mods and microbrands show up frequently and the warm reception they get is as much about an enthusiast displaying technical virtuosity as it is about personal creativity being exercised in the direction of the idea of the diver watch. Amongst the bro-chatter and frequent high fives members give each other for sharing wrist shots, there’s an authentic, brand-neutral, dedication and love of the diver watch as a genre that, democratically, this community feels everyone should be able to access and enjoy.
If the sociology of homage watches was a fascinating if accidental lesson in a sometimes controversial subject, the real experience of wearing the Steinhart Ocean One Black for two weeks has been an education of a different sort. First, the (few) drawbacks: I ordered my O1B with the optional ceramic bezel hoping to avoid the unwelcome scratches aluminum bezels like to collect. It’s too early to tell if this strategy will eventually pay off, but the minute markers on the ceramic bezel are a pale grey and don’t really pop, muting the watch’s wrist presence somewhat. In certain lighting conditions, the markings can disappear entirely, defeating the high visibility requirements usually associated with divers. Similarly, the lume is a bit of a letdown, though this could be because I’m used to the lighthouse-bright markers on my Seiko Sumo, which also have outstanding stamina. The bracelet, while well-made, doesn’t have a wet-suit extension, which seems like an oversight given what this watch aspires to. The brushed-steel bracelet is also lacking in taper, adding visual weight to the piece, but no elegance. Many owners’ first step with the O1B is to remove the bracelet and swap it for a Nato or Zulu strap, opening a world of possibilities for many wearing contexts.
I found the O1B’s greatest strength was its versatility, the range of contexts it feels at home in. Jeans and a t-shirt, as well as office casual, or even a suit can take the O1B and the piece will not look forced or out of place. I found it was almost perfect as a daily wear watch. Many of the other specialty watches in my collection require some thought at the start of the day while the Steinhart was an easy default when indecisiveness struck. This kind of flexibility is rare and shouldn’t be underestimated when you are assessing the overall value of the piece. Additionally, the visibility of the dial is very good – dim lighting conditions notwithstanding. A quick glance is all you need for a time check. Finally, I will cite cost as a strength of the O1B, but not as a reminder that you are buying in a price point (~$500) that excludes you from being taken seriously by some watch aficionados. Many other reviewers have catalogued how much engineering that $500 actually buys you, which is a lot, but the biggest benefit of the cost of the O1B, for me, is speed. If you (occasionally) suffer from impatience or poor impulse control, or if you simply want to try a classic diver out in your collection, the cost and configuration of the O1B is one of the fastest means to that end.
Ultimately, it is you who will decide what price you want to pay for “authenticity” and the small, but noticeable, qualitative differences between something like the Steinhart and the Rolex. If status symbols are important (and they are), the question is how much? You have the option to save and wait. And wait. And wait.