First Impressions: Smiths Navigator

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There is often a point at which something once designed to do a job of work becomes fashionable. Wellington boots. Wax cotton coats. Leather motorcycle jackets. It’s followed by marketing departments taking the original and adding fripperies, variations and fuss. It happens regularly in Watchworld; watches designed for use as diving tools turn up in precious metal, racing chronographs become so complex as to be unusable. As computers and satellite navigation have taken over aircraft cockpits so the marketing people have done the same to aviation watches. It’s good to see a small UK company pushing back the tide with a return to function and form.

An original IWC Mk XI. Image credit: Analog Shift

Eddie Platts, owner of UK watchmaker Timefactors, isn’t one for glitzy marketing and PR. That’s because his watches often sell out within hours, if not minutes, of going on sale. In fact, the only way you’d know he’s been working on a new watch – the Smiths Navigator – is if you frequent the TZ-UK forum. There, Eddie’s gradually released pictures and an outline spec as the watch has evolved. But, despite the low-key launch (if it’s even a launch at all!) we’ve managed to get the two pre-production prototypes to pore over.

If you know your mid-twentieth century aviation watches, you may well look twice at the Navigator and wonder where someone’s found a drawer full of new old stock IWC Mk XI models.  It’s only close-up you spot the Smiths, rather than the IWC name on the dial and the circled T for ‘tritium’ replaced with an L for ‘luminova’.

Mr Ryvin has already told the Mk XI’s story in his splendid article here, so we’ll only add a little to the tale before looking at Smiths’ latest chapter of it.

The Navigator with black dial

The IWC MK XI is seventy one years old and was designed with a single, simple function in mind – astro-navigation in aircraft cockpits before silicon chips and radio beacons took over.  That meant its dial had to be clear with luminous plots (easy to see at night and in poor light conditions), the hands had to be likewise. The case needed to be able to take a knock or two. The movement had to be hackable (‘synchronise your watches, gentlemen’) and shielded from magnetic fields. That meant a watch that was simple, understated and eminently usable.

And use it pilots did until the ‘Consol’ system of military radio beacons replaced sighting the stars and doing your own calculations.  Because Consul came later to the southern hemisphere, the South African, New Zealand and Australian air forces kept their Mk XIs – as did the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) until much later. 

An original IWC Mk XI will cost you around £7,000-£8,000 ($9,000-$10,000) – and at that price, you might justifiably be concerned about wearing it every day.

The Navigator with white dial

The Smiths Navigator is, near as spit, a much more wearable reincarnation of the original. To be fair, it should be – Eddie Platts has bought himself a Mk XI to make sure. The design and operation are almost identical.  Three hands, no date, no fuss – just as they should be.  There are differences, but they’re either behind the caseback or small design variations.

Navigator with black dial

Start with the movement.  The Navigator is running a top-grade Swiss Sellita SW210 and Timefactors is having each watch regulated to COSC standards. Where the original IWC movement had 16 jewels, the Sellita has 19 and a 42 hour power reserve. The balance runs at 18,000 bph for the IWC against 28,800 for the Sellita.  Like the IWC, the Smiths also uses a Faraday cage to shield the movement against the rather more modern magnetic fields generated by laptops, tablets and phones.  Eddie reports “It’s actually been tested to 20,000A/m, not just theoretically.  It’s probably higher but the manufacturer’s equipment can only test up to 20,000.”

You’ll have a choice of dial (assuming you can nip in quickly enough to grab one of the initial production run of 300 currently being cased and finished) – matte cream or matte black over brass (the original was soft iron).  Both have X1-C3 luminova at 12, 3, 6 and 9.  There are different hands depending on your chosen dial colour – silver polished hands for the black and heat-blued, polished steel for the cream.  The crystal is a modern sapphire.

Smiths Navigator showing its lume.

The 36mm case is cut from 316L stainless steel and has a screw back. The sides are, just like the original, brushed with a polished bezel.  The whole plot is rated to 10ATM water-resistant. One sensible difference is Timefactors’ use of drilled holes and springbars over the original fixed bars and Bonklip bracelet. That’s allowed a pig leather strap with a deployant clasp – tan on the black dial variant and a khaki on the cream. 

Caseback of the Navigator

This is a properly solid watch and there’s a real heft to it, despite its 36mm diameter. It feels as though you could happily break your way out of a perspex cockpit with it.  At the same time, the movement winds with that Sellitaish smoothness and everything is well put-together. 

There are no prices as yet (the joy of the lag between ordering movements at one price and having them delivered at today’s higher cost) but Timefactors usually aim for a sub-£500  ($630) ticket.  The watches should be released in October/November this year on the Timefactors website.

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