Ancon Watches ¶
We here at Matt Baily like to think we have a knack for finding cool and up and coming brands. We like to stay ahead of the curve and seek out interesting marques before they hit it big, so that we can be on the ground floor to help them develop. We also pride ourselves on exclusivity. So when we were tipped off about an interesting Hong-Kong based brand called Ancon producing cool and affordable bronze and steel watches, we thought we’d check them out and see what was up.
Ancon Watches started about a year ago. Their watches are supposedly inspired by naval design, specifically referencing the USS Ancon AGC-4, an ocean liner converted into a mobile command platform by the US Navy during the Second World War. A fictional backstory about a 1943 design inspiring the line was initially presented, but dropped once people started pointing out that the watches were using modern styling cues from a variety of brands and clearly did not look like something from 1943. U-Boat didn’t get the same memo, apparently…
Regardless of the supposed origins of the marque, the products looked cool and were getting favourable reviews online so we took the plunge and ordered some samples to evaluate. We came away very impressed – Ancon is producing some seriously cool timepieces, and they are priced remarkably well considering the quality and style on offer. We signed on as the first dealer in Canada and one of the only dealers in North America.
The Ancon line is currently split into four collections, all models sharing the same 45mm diameter with some key differences. The Sea Shadow is their traditionally-styled diver, available in bronze, stainless steel, and PVD coated steel. The Sea Shadow California mirrors the Sea Shadow models but uses a Panerai-style California dial with a mix of Roman and Arabic numerals. The Magnus is a re-imagining of vintage Rolex Milgauss models with bronze cases. Finally there is the new M26 Tank collection, which is only available in bronze and has a design that is distinct from the other three collections.
All models use automatic Japanese-made Miyota movements – 8215 calibres in the Sea Shadow and Magnus collections, and a newer 9015 calibre in the M26. The M26 also adds an exhibition back not available on the other models. Despite being a simple workhorse movement, Miyotas have an excellent reputation for quality and reliability. They are impressively smooth and quiet – winding and setting the watches you notice that they don’t feel like sub-1000$ watches. In fact they feel and sound better than most ETA movements found in far, far more expensive watches. The only downside I noticed is that the 8215 doesn’t have hacking seconds (the 9015 does).
The quality feel extends to all the components. The bezels ratchet really nicely without any slack, with satisfying and distinct clicks between each notch. The crowns screw down smoothly and feel tight, not wobbling and flexing on their stems like some other brands. The finishing of the cases and buckles is very good. They use sapphire crystals and solid-looking strap pins and screws. The M26’s exhibition back reveals a nicely finished movement that wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-range Swiss watch. The hands are beautiful, particularly on the Sea Shadow California.
The packaging is also a real highlight of the marque – you get a nicely made cherry-coloured wood box with a laser engraved Ancon logo on the front. Inside you’ll find a nice fitted felt liner, and a nice bonus – a spare strap and the tools to change the straps. On Magnus and Sea Shadow models you get a Maratac-style nylon NATO strap, while the M26 comes with a two-piece sailcloth item. Even the strap tools are impressively good quality – not 300$ Swiss screwdrivers mind you, but nothing to scoff at regardless.
The only criticism I have is that the dials are relatively simple and have flat printing, they lack the depth of more expensive watches. The Magnus has applied quarter markers that improve the look slightly, but the whole line would definitely benefit from some more detailed dials. The lume is also weak despite Ancon claiming they use Superluminova compound (very little of it, apparently). But I can’t fault the design of the dials, they take elements from vintage Rolexes and Panerais and apply them in a way that looks great without looking like an outright knockoff (of which there are already plenty on the market). The inspiration is clearly taken from gilt dials, those lovely old sport dials printed in reverse via a galvanic process that revealed the brass plate below. Think of a Rolex Submariner from the late 50s or early 60s, with their rich golden chapter rings and text surrounded by the contrasting inky black dial surface.
All models are available with three different colour dials – black, brown, and dark green. Black is the winner in my mind, but surprisingly the green is quite attractive too – it’s a very subtle charcoal-green that avoids the Hulk or Kermit look. The brown is disappointing – I expected a rich, “Tropical”-style chocolate brown but instead it’s more a of a light earth colour. Looks like something you’d see on a European military vehicle, a dark khaki that lacks pop. It’s not ugly but it is just not what I expected based on the Ancon website photos.
The big selling point of the Ancons in general is their use of solid bronze cases at a hitherto unseen price point. The last five years has seen a trend towards bronze sport watches - often carrying obscene price tags that rival gold models. But bronze isn’t a very expensive material, and there is no real reason to pay a massive premium to get it. You can blame Panerai for that one – their PAM382 “Bronzo” sold out almost immediately and promptly began trading hands for over 30,000$, nearly three times the original retail price. Regardless of the image, bronze is a cool material – it’s dense and heavy, and it ages and develops a rich patina in short order. You’ll get a green-brown finish in the crevices as the metal oxidizes. The high points will get buffed bright by rubbing against clothing and daily wear and tear (or the application of a polishing cloth). Check out the Ancon website for some good examples of the resulting finish. If you obsess over scuffs and scratches and maintain your watches in immaculate condition, you might want to look elsewhere or stick to the stainless steel Ancons.
Ancon uses two different formulas of bronze. The Sea Shadow and Magnus use al bronze (an aluminum-copper alloy), while the M26 uses CuSn8 phosphor bronze (made of a mix of copper, tin and phosphorous). The results are slightly different – al bronze has a lighter colour and is more resistant to oxidation (but will still oxidize eventually) while CuSn8 looks brassy and begins tarnishing almost immediately. I suspect Ancon introduced the new composition on the M26 to accelerate the patina process that everyone looks forward to when they nab a bronze watch.
While the bronze models are the big draw, Ancon also makes a series of stainless steel Sea Shadows that are equally attractive but priced below their bronze counterparts. There are three versions – all steel with a bare steel bezel insert, steel with a black PVD finish, and steel case with a black PVD bezel insert. The steel with black insert is the most traditional looking of the three and would be my pick of the bunch, though the all steel is nice too. I’m not a fan of the all black, I find it looks plasticky due to the matte bead-blasted finish. This style of case looks better with a brushed finish.
On the wrist, these watches are massive. No getting around it, no excuses – they are big, bulky and heavy. Even though 45mm is a relatively normal size for a sport watch nowadays, the proportions and thickness of the Ancons are such that they wear big. It’s a wee bit much on a small wrist like mine (ok, they look downright ridiculous on me), but if you want a hefty hunk of metal with a lot of visual presence the Ancons are ace. Especially the bronze models – you’d think they were made of gold given their impressive weight. It takes getting used to, having a good half-pound of metal strapped to your wrist. Funny enough the M26, which is the biggest of the bunch (the bezel is 47mm across), is the most comfortable and wears “smaller” than the Sea Shadow and Magnus models. Chalk that up to the short lugs and extra-wide 26mm strap that alter the proportions.
The straps are Panerai-style items - minimal taper, flat leather, and clean stitching. Anyone who has bought aftermarket straps from Panatime or The Watch Boys will recognize them immediately, odds are they come from the same far-East factory. The material is soft and pliable. They aren’t fancy but they look good and are comfortable. Bronze models use attractive oiled Nubuck that shows creases and scuffs immediately, like an old bomber jacket with the wear and tear in set to fast forward – they will look great with a well aged bronze case. The buckles are Pre-Vendome style tang items. The included NATO straps are soft and comfortable with heavy-duty hardware. The NATOs that come with bronze models have a finish that mimics aged bronze, but they aren’t solid bronze unfortunately. They are shorter than typical NATO straps though – you won’t have any excess length to double over into the keepers like you normally would.
Overall the M26 is the clear winner in the lineup. It’s a seriously cool looking watch with some details that put it a step above the Sea Shadow and Magnus. The bezel is beautiful, with applied minute markers that jut out slightly, similar to a Panerai Submersible. The sapphire crystal is domed. The dials pay homage to the rare “Explorer” dial Rolex Submariner, with another more traditional gilt-style dial available as well. You get the higher-spec Miyota movement and an exhibition back to show it off. It wears better, and overall it looks more distinctive than the other models. Of course it is more expensive than the older designs, but not by much – the retail is still under 1000$.
There will certainly be a stigma associated with the Chinese origin of these watches, but I am impressed with the quality and finishing offered for the price. The Japanese Miyota movements may not be fancy or respected by typical Swiss watch snobs but they are seriously stout movements that are very well regarded in the industry. There is also the little issue of the Swatch group torpedoing anyone that isn’t part of their pyramid – this past year we have witnessed the first fallout of the Swiss court decision to allow Swatch to cut the supply of ETA movements and parts the industry outside of their personal fiefdom. Servicing is becoming more difficult and more expensive, and independent technicians are feeling the pinch as companies consolidate service and parts into central service centres, refusing to sell parts to autonomous watchmakers. The writing is on the wall, and the future is in Asia.
While I’m not saying the Swiss will go down the tubes and the Chinese will take over, a lot of us in the industry have been witnessing some seriously uncool shenanigans and believe the market is ripe for a new player to take up the slack. It will take some time to overcome the stigma of “cheap” Chinese watches and knockoffs, but there is already a growing grass-roots market for cool but inexpensive Asian-made watches. Ancon is part of this, but has the distinction of being one of the first brands to start opening brick and mortar dealers rather than only selling directly to the public online. The Chinese will likely continue to make inroads into the midrange market and steal more and more share from the Swiss brands, and Ancon is a good example of what we can expect – cool designs, great quality, attractive price tags. This is the future - and really, it’s not bad at all.