T.S. Eliot once said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
HELM Watches are designed for those who are determined to live out this maxim. In a world of Wearable Tech, the Vanuatu is instead a wearable reminder to make use of the time while it abides, to live your life through exploration and experience, rather than watch life pass you by.
After one week with my Vanuatu, I’m convinced.
THE MOTIVATION BEHIND HELM WATCHES
HELM Watches launched in 2014. Founder Matt Cross was motivated by the desire to create watches that feature the attention to detail he found lacking in so many others, without the shock-inducing price tags. Here’s what Matt had to say:
As a watch enthusiast and budding watch collector on a budget, I was disappointed with the lack of affordable choices. There were plenty of cool watches out there, but most cost more than I was willing to spend, and I noticed that nearly every watch I liked included some small detail that I wanted to change.
After 14 years of product development and sourcing work in the bike industry, I was ready for something different, and found myself in China looking for that something. As it turns out, I wasn’t just anywhere in China, but smack in the middle of the largest watch manufacturing hub in the world. I jumped at the chance to create the affordable tool watches I always felt were missing.
~ Matt Cross, HELM Watches
THE INSPIRATION BEHIND VANUATU
Vanuatu (pronounced van-wah-too) is a Pacific island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean. Matt Cross explained the reasoning behind his choice of this moniker for HELM Watches’ debut offering:
Our watches are inspired by the spirit of adventure and exploration, and it’s our genuine hope that they in turn will inspire that same spirit in the individuals who choose to wear them. With that in mind, the dive watches in our assortment are named for notable dive destinations around the world—places with names that might make you ask, “Where exactly is that?” and may even spur someone to pull out a map and start planning their next adventure. We look forward to seeing if any HELM Vanuatus make it to Vanuatu!
~ Matt Cross, HELM Watches
Let’s start with some of the key specs (full specifications can be found on the HELM Watches website).
In the Box
- Vanuatu 300m Automatic Watch
- Stainless Steel Bracelet
- NS1 Nylon Strap (your choice of 4 colors)
- Brushed 316L Stainless Steel
- Screw Down Caseback
- Diameter (12H to 6H): 42 mm
- Diameter (9H to 3H, with crown): 45.75 mm
- Height: 14 mm
- Seiko Instruments NH35 (Automatic Mechanical)
- Hacking and Manual Winding Functions
- Flat Sapphire with Internal Anti-Reflective Coating
- Stainless Steel Bracelet and Folding Clasp with Brushed Finish (22 mm Bracelet Tapers to 20 mm at Clasp)
- NS1 Nylon Strap with Stainless Steel Buckle and Keeper Rings
- 300 m / 30 atm / 990 ft
- Tested in accordance with ISO 6425:1996
- With Stainless Bracelet (full length): 225 grams
- With NS1 Nylon Strap: 120 grams
For the serious diver or watch aficionado, these specifications are of vital importance. For the fashion-conscious consumer who just wants a watch that looks great and offers stellar performance, here’s what you need to know:
High Quality Materials
- 316L Stainless Steel. You can learn more about how it is the “preferred steel for use in marine environments” (source), or how it’s “austenitic structure” provides “excellent toughness, even down to cryogenic temperatures” (source), but the bottom line is that this steel is very strong, and it’s the material of choice for a professional dive watch.
- Sapphire Crystal. Synthetically produced sapphire is generally recognized as the material of choice for watch crystals due to it’s hardness (9 on the Moh’s scale—just below diamonds, which score a 10) and thus it’s extreme scratch resistance. You may recognize this as the type of glass used on the Apple Watch. AskMen describes sapphire crystal as “the cover of choice for premium watches . . . the most expensive type of crystal and . . . three times harder than mineral crystal.” (source). All that to say, once again the Vanuatu offers the best material for the component. And as you may have noticed in the specifications listed above, it contains an internal anti-reflective coating.
The watch is an automatic mechanical, which means it does not take a battery but you don’t have to wind it (as long as you wear it often enough for your arm and wrist movement to keep the watch fully wound). The movement is controlled by a Seiko Instruments NH35. For all the geek speak, check out this link. Here’s what you need to know—this is a very popular and very reliable automatic movement. Here is some additional information from HELM Watches on why they chose this particular part:
- Seiko Instruments Incorporated (SII) is the movement manufacturing arm of the Seiko corporation.Accordingly, the SII movements are very similar (and in some cases nearly identical) to the movements found in Seiko watches and have earned a solid reputation for their trouble free durability.
- Unlike many Swiss made movements, which can require servicing as frequently as every year, Seiko movements can continue ticking away for 15 or 20 years with no service at all.
- The rotor in the NH35 movement winds the mainspring when spinning clockwise or counterclockwise (thanks to a one way clutch that SII calls the “magic lever”), making it that much easier for the wearer’s arm and wrist movement to keep the watch fully wound.
This watch also won’t let you down in the water, where—as a dive watch—it is designed to thrive. Unlike many other dive watches, the Vanuatu has been tested in accordance with the ISO 6425 standard for dive watches. The HELM Watches website goes into detail on the standard, but here are the key facts to understand:
- Back in the early 1980s, ISO created a test standard to help differentiate between watches that are suitable for diving and other watches that are merely styled to look like dive watches.
- The test standard includes a number of specific features that dive watches must include, and a number of tests that they must pass. Most of the tests are applied to just a portion of every production run, such as those to ensure resistance to corrosion, thermal shock, physical shock, magnetic field interference and external force (which is applied to the strap/bracelet and attachment points). However, the water resistance test is applied to every single watch.
- The water resistance test requires submerging every watch in water at a pressure equivalent to 125% of the watch’s rated depth. In the case of the Vanuatu, that’s 37.5 bar, which is equivalent to 375 meters. This is fundamentally different than the testing most dive watches are subjected to, which involves dry testing in a vacuum chamber (under less pressure and for a shorter period of time) with no water involved—and therefore no risk of damage if the watch “leaks.”
- Watches that are tested in accordance with the standard can include the “Diver’s” designation on the dial.
Matt Cross had this to say about HELM Watches’ testing protocols and their reason for making sure every watch is ready for the water:
Few micro/boutique brands (maybe none) test in accordance with the ISO standard, and even among the best known watch brands, relatively few test complete dive watches in water at pressure (exceptions would be Seiko and Citizen whose assortments include ISO rated divers and some high end Swiss and German brands). Our hope with the Vanuatu, and with every dive watch we add to the line, is that they’ll spend significant time in the water. If they do, we want to know they’ll perform as intended. If they don’t…well, it’s just added peace of mind.
~ Matt Cross, HELM Watches
Great Aesthetics and Versatility
Confession: I’ve done some snorkeling in Hawaii but the only diving I’ve done is down to the bottom of the swimming pool. While I’m now a bit more motivated to find a reason to give the Vanuatu a thorough underwater test, there are plenty of other reasons to buy and wear a Vanuatu. First and foremost, its aesthetics are outstanding. I’ve gotten numerous compliments on the watch; here are a few reasons I love the look:
- The brushed steel and black is a classic look that works with a suit and tie, or a (swim)suit and towel.
- The black/white/orange is a great color combination and, as you can tell from my logo, a personal favorite.
- Easy readability: the stark contrast of the white markers and hands against the uncluttered black dial makes it extremely legible, enabling one to read the time at a glance.
- Using bars instead of numbers gives the Vanuatu a sleek modern look and also prevents the design from conflicting with the numbers on the bezel.
The watch is also extremely versatile. The stainless steel bracelet gives the watch a more refined look that will suffice for the office or a night out. The optional leather strap is well made and will also be a perfect compliment for your business attire or evening wear. The NS1 nylon strap, aside from being the ideal choice for your water activities, is a great choice for the gym, the golf links, or any other outdoor or casual indoor destination.
I’ve owned multiple watches with a stainless steel bracelet…but obviously the wrong watches. The 5-piece construction looks great—rugged without being overdone. The movement and feel of the bracelet is very comfortable against my skin and the clasp does a great job of preventing the bracelet from popping open (an issue I’ve had with other bracelet clasps that lack a safety clasp). I read other reviews that mentioned some binding with the bracelet when first worn, but I did not have that issue.
Regarding the use of screw pins for the bracelet rather than traditional link pins. While it is not uncommon for screw pins to work loose, a dab of thread locking compound (e.g., Loctite) can help you avoid this unpleasant surprise. (I still prefer this over the link pins, as link pins tend to be used on lesser quality watches).
THIS WATCH TELLS TIME, IT DOESN’T TAKE TIME
I’m a big fan of technology, and I own a great fitness tracker watch (the Wellograph) and have considered adding a smartwatch to my collection, but there is something incredibly refreshing about wearing a watch that is designed simply to tell time, rather than to take your time. When I’m wearing the Vanuatu, I use it as a reference for my “adventures,” rather than using it as my adventure. In other words, I look at my Vanuatu when I need to know what time it is; I’m not wasting time texting on it, or sending my heartbeat to a friend (Apple Watch, anyone), or any other technologically impressive but ultimately distracting feature.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
I have two minor complaints, and one wish, about the Vanuatu.
- The luminous pigment is not as bright as I expected or hope for (but good news on this below).
- The safety clasp (the small, secondary clasp that must be opened before the folding clasp can be opened) opens just a bit too easy for my taste. This hasn’t caused any problems since the folding clasp itself does not open too easily, so I have no concern about it falling open, but I’d prefer a safety clasp with slightly tighter engagement.
- The orange HELM picked is a great color and looks great with the black and stainless steel. I’d be curious to see an alternate option with an orange face.
In regards to these complaints, I was happy to hear that HELM Watches already has at least one of them on its radar, as well as a couple other issues (that I personally did not find troublesome). I’m told that within the next 2-3 months, they will be releasing a second production run of the Vanuatu, simply because they felt there were a few good components that could be great. Specifically, the second production will:
- Provide brighter luminous pigment, particularly on the hands.
- Improve the bezel by providing smoother, firmer ratcheting action and eliminating the slight backward play.
- Tweak the caseback engraving to make it more finely finished.
- Offer an additional date wheel color option (white).
WHY THIS MICRO BRAND
I asked Matt Cross what separated the Vanuatu from other dive watches. Here is an excerpt from his response:
If you want to buy a watch these days, you can choose from a multitude of ‘micro’ or ‘boutique’ brands, many with excellent designs and most with excellent quality. But what sets the Vanuatu apart—aside from its unique aesthetics—are two features that are central to the HELM Watches brand: Testing and Value. The ISO 6425 testing we perform is rare in this category and demonstrates our commitment to quality. And our reasonable pricing—with no sacrifice in quality—makes the Vanuatu more accessible than options from many other brands.
~ Matt Cross, HELM Watches
The Vanuatu is a high quality offering from a company that—from all appearances—is committed to excellence and willing to make the necessary investments to prove it. I’m confident that HELM Watches will make a splash in the dive watch space, as well as for fashion conscious watch fans who want a watch that performs well, looks great, and is reasonably priced.