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Instrmnt’s first mechanical offering is a legitimately compelling adventure into brutalist tool watch design, hinting at enormous potential for the Scottish brand’s future.
I recently dragged everyone’s least-favourite fashion watch cabal Vincero through the dirt for being, well, rubbish, and I feel like there’s now something of an onus on me to represent the world of “fashion watches” with some nuance, lest people get the wrong idea entirely. In that sense, this review could not be better timed; to me, Glasgow-based design house Instrmnt represents something totally antithetical to the tacky and obnoxious bluster of the Vinceros and MVMTs of the world, and even irrespective of my own Scottish biases I believe this is something to be celebrated. With the release of the D-Series, the very first mechanical watch from the brand, we’ve got an opportunity to put aside our preconceptions and prejudices, and evaluate Instrmnt from a totally new angle- and believe me, there’s a lot to evaluate.
Instrmnt first landed in 2014 and have successfully carved out a very successful corner in the “minimalist fashion watches” area of the market, whilst also dabbling in furniture design, umbrellas and…a bike, because why not. For a while, I’d say they were easily the most pre-eminent Scottish watch brand, and they’re certainly still up there; their particular take on the form was always uniquely suited for Instagram, and the design seems to have done a great job of translating internationally. They’re a perfect example of what happens when a fashion watch microbrand is founded by graphic and product designers, rather than business graduates; you get legitimately in-house designs, and a quietly dignified marketing aesthetic that respects the genre and isn’t reliant on overbearing “shake up the industry” vapidity and truth-stretching.
At the end of my Vincero piece, I made the point that “affordable luxuries” shouldn’t need to explicitly advertise themselves as such, and this is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. You don’t have to love the products, if minimalist white-dialled quartz watches are simply never going to be your thing, but in my opinion there is simply no contest between an Instrmnt 01-Series and the likes of a Daniel Wellington; quite aside from overall build quality and the cracking industrial-chic case design of the 01, the way its fundamental dial layout and handset work together to make use of space, contrast and proportion is legitimately satisfying to look at, and should really blow away anyone’s belief that all fashion watches are equally ill-conceived and deserving of dismissal.
The idea of paying for design, and the intangible “value” of aesthetics, is uncomfortable for a lot of spec-focused watch folk, but the fact is that people evidently love these minimalist designs, so we need to be able to have nuanced conversations about them. I’m totally unashamed to say that I’ve pointed friends of mine towards Instrmnt, who were otherwise going to pick up a MVMT- call me a shill if you want, but not everybody wants a Hamilton or an Orient Bambino. Some people want the look– and I honestly think that’s valid.
If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time simply making some kind of case for Instrmnt’s right to exist, that’s because the D-Series itself seems to be doing much the same. Its design is absolutely loaded with messaging, and reads as some kind of new manifesto, an assertion that the brand have design chops and ambitions that transcend the short-term landfill stuffing of their other vowel-deficient peers. Whether it’s because the Scottish watches landscape has changed a great deal since anOrdain exploded onto the scene, or simply because Instrmnt themselves were feeling constrained by their own established design language, the end result is a radical left-turn that is full of surprises. Let’s talk about it.
All Instrmnt really had to do was stick a Miyota in their tried-and-true 01-Series case, add a display back, and simply market it as a premium version. Instead, they’ve jumped into a higher price point, torn up their own design rulebook, and delivered a hefty Sellita-powered dive watch that riffs on the Rolex Submariner format. It’s, frankly, all a bit mental, and there’s a lot of interesting things to interpret from the design decisions being made here, which is really what makes watches such an intriguing sub-genre of product design for me in the first place. For one thing, the decision to violently inflict the minimalist aesthetic language of Instrmnt onto the most iconic tool watch design is pretty…audacious.
To quote Omar Little, “you come at the king, you best not miss”.
This could have gone a few different ways: for instance, the D-Series could have been a cheeky, almost satirical take on “luxury dive watches” that nobody buys for actual diving, had it come with a fixed bezel and no lume or water resistance. But no; in actuality, it’s legitimately well-spec’d and loaded with “tool-y” clout. With 200m water resistance and Luminova-filled hands, markers and bezel, a truly committed hipster could, in theory, actually dive with this. So, if not some kind of porn parody of a Submariner, the decision to reference such an icon seems to instead be something of a secret handshake, a coded message from Instrmnt to skeptical “real watch dudes”, making it clear that they love the same designs as you. Whatever the intention, does this bold design gambit pay off? Is it, like, actually good?
The short answer is: yes, it’s really good, and better than I’d ever expected it to be. Having the D-Series on my wrist for the last couple of weeks has been genuinely fun, and the initial cautious skepticism I had when I strapped it on has given way to genuine affection. Much like my experience with the Batavi Kosmopoliet, I found that contextual cues really enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of the piece, but from a totally different angle to that particular watch’s summery hedonism. The D-Series is stern, angular, and surprisingly architectural: it’s like German brutalism in watch form, hitting aesthetic territory that’s evocative of the likes of Sinn (more on that later). While a few days of blisteringly hot summer weather spent in Princes Street Gardens made me appreciate the blue-sky abandon of the Kosmopoliet, rushing around my day-to-day in the more typical cold glare of Edinburgh’s rainy urban landscape made the faceted, cylindrical D-Series design, its aggression balanced perfectly by the sandblasted finish of its 316L steel case and the subtle distortion of its double-domed sapphire, “click” in a very particular way.
Much of Instrmnt’s visual marketing of the D-Series hinges around its various strap options. There are three NATOs, two leathers and one rubber, all of which look pretty neat. On the brown leather strap in particular, I found that the watch wore surprisingly understated and retained a lot of the unisex appeal that minimalist “fashion watches” like Instrmnt’s 01-Series tend to be particularly good at, even despite the larger size and implied masculinity of the more rugged “tool-y” design. It was on the comparatively unsung sandblasted steel oyster bracelet, however, that everything truly “clicked” for me, in a big way. For the price point, this is an excellent and truly well-considered bracelet that packs serious heft. With solid end links, screwed lugs, a robust safety clasp and smooth micro-adjustment, it’s a damn good bracelet and, irrespective of whether it was designed entirely in-house or was simply a premium OEM add-on that Instrmnt selected, they had absolutely no obligation to include it. I see substantially worse, Seiko 5-tier bracelets on higher priced microbrand watches all the time. In keeping with the broader overall design of the watch, I genuinely feel like this is there because Instrmnt want you, the wearer, to know that they’re deliberately doing their homework and making the kinds of decisions that matter to enthusiasts. On wrist, in all its stoic glory, the watch ended up making me think of something like a Sinn EZM3 (an all-time favourite of mine) rather than the Rolex Submariner we began with. Of course, there’s no comparison to the sheer over-engineered brilliance of the Sinn – I haven’t lost my mind quite yet – but the D-Series nonetheless feels like a legitimately serious shot at capturing “real” tool watch character, despite ostensibly being a “fashion watch”, which has kind of blindsided me; I wasn’t expecting to be evaluating it on these kinds of merits at all, if I’m honest, and yet here we are. Serious props to Instrmnt for going the extra mile here.
Furthermore, Instrmnt didn’t have to choose to run the D-Series on workhorse Sellita SW200 movements, but they did it anyway. I’m a fan of these movements (essentially ETA 2824s); they are, in my opinion, the platonic ideal for any microbrand trying to make serious daily wear pieces in this price range. Sinn, and countless others, would certainly agree. A crucial consideration here is that, given the popularity of Instrmnt’s quartz-powered products, it’s entirely possible that this watch will be many people’s first mechanical piece. In such a case, you really couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the genre without breaking the bank- hacking, hand-winding, day-to-day reliability, ease of service, everything you really need. This would be a legitimately cracking first watch purchase for someone who is very attached to minimalist aesthetics.
The D-Series is not without its flaws, and I can see clear opportunity for improvement in its design. The dial layout doesn’t make use of space quite as effectively as the 01 Series, and there’s an overall feeling of sparseness. The decision to push all numerals to the outskirts of the dial – presumably influenced by necessities of date window placement, and not a move made without due consideration – is interesting in theory, but given that all that otherwise remains are the skinny printed stick indices and two lines of modest Helvetica type (so modest, in fact, that Instrmnt themselves are not referenced, either by name or any kind of logo, which I actually kind of love), the net result is over-understated, which is not a combination of words I’ve ever used before. It reminds me of the text layout of a Unimatic U1, but combined with the pervasive implied decadence of the very design archetype the D-Series is riffing on, it does kind of leave me wanting something more, although I can only speculate as to what that could possibly be. The implementation of some subtle textural variation or something to add depth (applied markers? Worked for Nomos…) could be the key, but I definitely think there’s more that could be done without sacrificing the fundamentally dignified minimalism Instrmnt clearly aspire to. The good thing about starting with such a stripped-back dial is that the only way is up, and they’re in a great position to continue developing the concept moving forward.
Furthermore, the pronounced and robust-looking second hand dominates the overall read of the dial, which can lead to it overtaking, and being outright mistaken for, the minute hand when quickly glancing at the time. I frequently found myself double-taking when I was in a hurry. Skinny handsets are tricky, particularly when accounting for lume filling, which further affects their appearance and implied visual weight. One suggestion could be using colour, although something like a red second hand would be getting very close to Sinn territory, I guess. Alternatively, maybe a seconds subdial could solve a few of the above issues simultaneously. Either way, the dial is unfortunately the weakest aspect of the D-Series, although this is when weighing it up to a seriously strong case design; it’s by no means a failure, and attracted quite a few compliments from male and female friends when I was out and about with it on. The minimalist appeal is clearly there on a basic level, I just think it needs a little refinement in future iterations.
In conclusion, I was genuinely taken aback by the Instrmnt D-Series. Whilst I think it has several aspects that need some refinement and rethinking, it excites me to no end that there is now a Scottish watch brand putting their industrial design talents to use in the tool watch sector. As far as reinventions go, I think this is really quite amazing, successfully communicating not only that Instrmnt actually give a s***t about watches and watch design, but that they’re here for the long game and are capable of evolving within their own niche, which I appreciate a great deal. Will it win over people who are inherently averse to anything resembling a “fashion watch”? Possibly not, but I’d still urge anyone who would otherwise have dismissed Instrmnt entirely to keep a close eye on where they go from here. With anOrdain and Instrmnt offering compelling and unique products in such differing price ranges and subgenres, the future of Scottish watches has never looked sweeter to me.
Instrmnt D-Series features: 40mm case, sanblasted 316L steel, sapphire front and back, Sellita SW200 movement with date functionality (appears to be the “premium”, i.e. top, grade of this particular movement), screw-down crown, 200M water resistance. RRP: £595, black and silver bezel variants available. I highly recommend the black bezel variant with steel oyster bracelet.
Edwin McLachlan is a musician and audio engineer based in Edinburgh’s bustling city centre, with a particular fondness for Soviet, Chinese and Japanese watchmakers. You can Instagram him at @edwin_mclachlan, and work with him at www.edwinmclachlan.com.