Baltic Watches has been getting quite a lot of attention from the watch community lately, and that’s even before its Kickstarter campaign officially launched today. Indeed, there is a lot to love at first sight: the nod to vintage watches with the return of the step case and a very reasonable price (well below $500) for a chronograph are just two things that come to mind. While it sounds great on paper, there is no better test than some proper hands-on time with the watches. And this is exactly what we got when the young French brand came to New York recently. Let’s take a closer look at the much-talked-about Baltic Watches.
Starting out as a young watch brand is definitely not easy, and so far Baltic Watches seems to have done a pretty great job of it. And this was only with a couple of prototypes, which show the interesting angle that the French startup chose (don’t be fooled by the Baltic name – it is not geographically relevant, but related to the design purity of the brand). These are definitely vintage-inspired, from the angular 38mm case to the two-register configuration. The pricing is also extremely compelling, announced at less than $300 for the time-only and less than $500 for the chronograph.
Yet, there was one thing truly innovative about Baltic Watches in comparison to the countless Kickstarter projects dedicated to watches: the way the word spread, even before the campaign was launched – especially in collectors’ circles, whether on Instagram, on forums or at watch get-togethers. This was actually how I first discovered the brand last year, during a dinner with vintage collectors in Paris. This novel strategy is not so surprising given the profile of the founder, who fell for watches when he discovered the collection of his father, documented in old notebooks with pictures and faint annotations.
This interest in vintage was admittedly the driving force behind the creation of Baltic Watches, and the development of the first prototypes in October 2015. This explains the case design, the step case (from the angle that the bezel makes with the case) that we can find in many chronographs of the 1940s, such as some Longines 13-ZN. Also in line with the standards of the time, the 38mm size underscores how groundbreaking those chronographs with sharp lines must have looked at a time when most wristwatches had diameters below 34mm.
The dial itself follows the same vintage codes, with minimal text and a neat minute track. The registers of the chronograph also display the cross-hair configuration and the sun-ray finishing that were the rage at the time. This vintage vibe did not only impact the design, as it also played a key role in choosing the movements – manual-winding for the chronograph, of course. Respectively, the automatic Miyota 821A and the manual-wound Seagull ST1901 were chosen for the time-only and the chronograph versions since they boasted the desired reliability and availability for such a project – and, to be blunt, the necessary price requirements.
While the vintage-inspiration is hardly a differentiating move (it seems every established brand is playing this card in 2017), the targeted price from Baltic is definitely a key factor in its initial popularity. The first examples offered on Kickstarter are priced at 259 euro for the time-only (around $275) and 399 euro for the chronograph (around $423), and will eventually reach 299 euro and 479 euro after the "early birds," as the first pieces are called. The planned delivery for all ordered watches is October 2017. Eventually, you will be able to find Baltic pieces outside of Kickstarter, as a handful of sale in Paris have already signed distribution agreements; in total, the brand is currently targeting 10 t0 15 retail points in France.
The initial success of Baltic is not surprising, given its vintage inspiration and affordable pricing (at least if you compare with an original step case). Another thing I really like about this project is its transparency: the calibers chosen were clearly mentioned, as was the Asian provenance of the case. And as a Frenchman, I am also pleased that these watches are assembled in Besançon, which used to be the center of the once-thriving French horological industry. Finally, the packaging is pretty sweet too, with a cork material reminiscent of the original box of the Patek Philippe Nautilus (there are worse comparisons).
The two models – a time-only and a chronograph – will be available at launch, both with the same 38mm step case (with one gold-plated example available for each, which comes with a gold-toned dial). As each model comes with six dial options, there are ultimately 12 watches to choose from, although packages of several pieces will also be offered during the campaign. They all come with a solid caseback – but a transparent caseback was quoted as a stretch goal (an incentive for the campaign to keep growing).
My favorite of the watches is the chronograph with cream dial and silver sub-registers. While I enjoy the classical 38mm diameter and 20mm lug size, it is the thickness (my caliper says just above 12mm) that truly makes a difference on the wrist. This ties back to the choice of the Seagull ST1901, a reproduction of the Venus 175, which offers a much more slender profile than the Seiko NE88 also considered in the beginning.
Overall the watch feels sturdy – much more so than I would have expected at this price point. And since the dial has everything I love about vintage watches – especially contrasting sub-registers – there is no complaint there. The branding is not overdone, and the red Bicompax/Manuel lines bring some excitement to the cream dial – if we want to be really nitty-gritty here, the Baltic chronograph is more a Compax than a Bi-Compax since its sub-registers offer only one complication but this distinction has now faded away.
Wearing this watch for just a few hours really illustrates why they were, and are, so popular on Instagram, and why the Kickstarter campaign will undoubtedly be successful. It is an exciting release, and not only if you are into vintage watches; to me, any of these represents a compelling value proposition with great looks.