Monday, February 6, 2017

MEET THE WATCH: Swiss Army SeaPlane XL Mechanical Watch

Part 4 of a 4 part series about Swiss Army's SeaPlane watches... Read more. 

Swiss Army SeaPlane family of watches
The SeaPlane watches by Victorinox Swiss Army had individualistic details while sharing similar design cues. While I hinted that there were 4 models in the SeaPlane series, there were actually a total of 5 if we include the limited edition version made for a Yamaha motorcycle launch. Each one of them shared common family traits that I discussed in detail in the article WATCH DNA SERIES: Swiss Army SeaPlane Watches. This time, I'll be discussing the SeaPlane XL that had a mechanical movement instead of a quartz one found in the other SeaPlanes.

Swiss Army SeaPlane XL Mechanical Watch V.25076
Swiss Army's choice of movement had a significant effect on the design of the watch, starting with its size. While I could make an argument that the XL in the SeaPlane XL's name stood for EX-CELL-ENT, it's a safe bet to say that it really stood for EXTRA-LARGE. This is clear when all the watches are compared... not something most people are likely to see in person. So, how does XL translate into measurements on a ruler, and was it really that much larger?

The difference in size between the smaller quartz SeaPlane watches and the larger SeaPlane XL mechanical watch was noticeable at a glance and also while on your wrist. The SeaPlane XL made the quartz versions look a almost dainty. As watch sizes have ballooned with current trends, what was once considered an "average-size" watch might now be considered "small". That is a matter of taste, and many modern watch collectors lament that smaller watches are not being offered by major brands today.

Victorinox Swiss Army SeaPlane watches was available in 3 sizes.
Judging a watch "off-the-wrist" is not always as helpful as real-world observations so here is what I noticed wearing the different SeaPlane models:
  • The 40 mm 3-hand SeaPlanes felt small because I normally wear larger watches.
  • The 41 mm SeaPlane Chrono felt just right, partly because the added pushers added some visual bulk. 
  • The 45 mm SeaPlane XL felt large, but not oversized. There is a good reason for that, which was the unique lugless design. More on that later...
The SeaPlane XL Mechanical watch (center) was the largest model in the Swiss Army SeaPlane family
Different SeaPlane case sizes meant that the proprietary lugless watch bands were not interchangeable between the models. Perhaps a few SeaPlane owners purchased the wrong watch band thinking that they are all the same size. Notice how the rubber watch band is sandwiched between the bottom of the watch and a special locking ring behind it (below). The ring's measurement would equal the size of the case (40 mm, 41 mm or 45 mm).

The case size and plastic disk of the watchband had to be matched perfectly.
No tools were required to swap the rubber, leather and metal watchband options. This kind of quick change convenience was not that common in the watch world. Apple has made this standard with their easy-change wristbands for the Apple Watch, but the SeaPlane XL predated that by 11 years.

The engineering for attaching the watchband was ingenious. Users would align 3 tabs in the locking ring to the 3 cutouts in the back of the case (near the words OPEN and CLOSE). Then the owner would rotate the ring to lock the assembly. Friction caused by these parts pushing against each other held the watchband to the case. Over time, or after many strap changes, there could be some wear in the plastic watchband allowing the ring to rotate. Metal watchbands likely did not have this problem.

The locking ring and watchband were secure on my XL, but I added packing tape to ensure that I did not experience an accidental unlocking event. I figured why take a chance? You can see the tape in the photo below, but it was not seen when I wore it.

I used packing tape as a safeguard to prevent accidental unlocking
Fashion did not necessarily dictate the size of the SeaPlane XL Mechanical watch. Instead, the case was upsized to house the Unitas 6498-1, a mechanical movement with pocket watch DNA. Pocket watch movements are typically larger than wrist watch movements so all Unitas watches are on the larger size. The 6498-1 is a workhorse designed to be hand wound, have a 42-hour power reserve and have decent accuracy. My watch was loosing about 10 seconds a day. From all the arguments on watch forums, I feel like that is within the acceptable range for this movement and its age.

Unitas 6498-1 Mechanical Movement shown in the SeaPlane XL

Isopode watch. Photo: eBay
Height can also be a factor that contributes to the perception of a watch's size on the wrist. The SeaPlane XL Mechanical was almost 14 mm high. White this height is noticeable, it's not unwearable. Swiss Army used a thin, flush bezel at the top sapphire crystal that presents a narrow ring of metal to the wearer. The angled sides reduce the perceived bulk along the top half of the case, and is more visually interesting than if the watch had been just a simple hockey puck shape. Think of it as a poor man's angular version of an Ikepode Isopode.

While I did not bang it too often, SeaPlane owners should be cautious of this thin bezel because it can be susceptible to dents and metal rash. Used SeaPlanes watches are rarely perfect along the top. While I am on the subject of caution, great care should also be taken when manipulating the crown. That part would be hard to find because this watch is out of production. Rough handling can pop the crown off the stem and then you will be screwed, but your watch no longer will be.

I cannot think of another lugless watch with this tapering shape and thin bezel

Given that the SeaPlane XL was 45 mm wide, Swiss Army's lugless design hid the "above-average" size well. Remember that this watch's case has a proprietary integrated watchband that does not use traditional lug and spring bars to attach the watchband to the case. Without the lugs protruding beyond the case, the 45 mm size actually wears more comfortably than the number might suggest. Additionally, the screw-down crown gets pretty flush to the case meaning that there is not an extra 6 mm to 10 mm of crown to make the watch feel wider. It is often these overhanging protrusions of the crown, pushers and lugs that make a watch feel larger than the "on paper" dimensions.

SeaPlane watches have no lugs, or large protrusions that make a watch wear on the large size

The diagram above shows the same 45 mm case size in green, but the extra protrusions (shown in pink) make the traditional watch (on right) with lugs and pushers feel wider from lug-to-lug (55 mm) and side-to-side (51 mm). That is a noticeable difference on the wrist. The SeaPlane has no such protrusions except for the crown. Even when it is not screwed into the case, it does not stick out that much.

Lug-to-lug measurements that go beyond the width of the wrist makes a watch appear to overhang (left)
Lug-to-lug dimensions are something that I had to learn about for myself. Having tried on many watches, I realized that the distance from the tip of one lug to the tip of the other determined how the watch felt on my wrist. If the dimensions were too wine, then the lugs would hang over the wrist. There is nothing dumber looking, and it is not comfortable. Watches with smaller lug-to-lug dimensions magically feel custom-sized to my wrist and look proportional. Lugless watches forego lug-to-lug measurements and just use the case size for comparison. While some of my favorite watches have a lug-to-lug distance of 52 mm, the 45 mm SeaPlane XL is less and appears visually smaller. Because of this, you can get away with wearing a larger lugless watch than a traditional one of the same case size.

The mechanical Swiss Army SeaPlan XL with its round Swiss Airforce display box
I have covered the guillouche dial design in all of the earlier SeaPlane articles that I have written, so there is no need to cover that again. However, it should be noted that the "spider web" texture is easier to see on the SeaPlane XL because it is larger. The mechanical watch had a sweeping seconds subdial at the 6 o'clock position that was decorated with circular etching, a bevel edge and a bright yellow arrow hand. Having a moving seconds hand here is typical for Unitas-baseed watches and it brought some kinetic interest to the dial.

The guillouche dial of the Swiss Army SeaPlane XL Mechanical is magical.
It's easy to imagine that the SeaPlane XL was released as the last of the series that came out years after the quartz versions, but that is not the case. It was available at the same time as the smaller quartz 3-hand and chronograph watches with the guillouche dials. In a way, it is the pinnacle of the SeaPlane family given the expense, size and extra features like the Unitas movement and display window. Mechanical watches usually get top billing over quartz watches, but I think of each SeaPlane watch as a different flavor, not necessarily that one is better than the others.

Swiss Army SeaPlane XL on leather watchband. Photo: Ebay
Collecting the whole family of Swiss Army's SeaPlane watches was a quest that lasted a couple of years. After acquiring them all, I realized that the hunt can sometimes be more satisfying than achieving the goal. I'm okay with that. Sometimes, you have to experience something firsthand to see if it is right for you. You don't have to be married to every watch you ever buy so this is similar to dating.

My SeaPlane watches before I broke up the collection
SeaPlanes are a bit rare, visually satisfying and maybe a bit ahead of their time with tool-less strap changes. It's too bad that Swiss Army never updated this concept. Perhaps, the inherent fragility of the watch band material made them abandon the SeaPlane line or maybe the idea had run it's course. It seems that the SeaPlane family of watches will be remembered for "outside-of-the-box" thinking and Victorinox daring to build them.

Swiss Army's  SeaPlane XL was a beautiful watch with balanced design elements.
I will miss seeing all my SeaPlanes lined up in a row, but I am more practical than sentimental these days. If I am not going to wear a watch, then it must be set free. I hope my SeaPlanes find a happy home with their next owners. 

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