Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: S.U.G. Nova


Nova: A Sports Watch Wannabe, It's More A "Casual Attire" Watch



This S.U.G. Nova was loaned to me specifically for review by Ricky, an acquaintance on PMWF, the "Poor Man's Watch Forum" which is dedicated to sub-$1,000 watches.


Summary:
  1. Aesthetically attractive and decently made (with a couple exceptions).
  2. Looks like a sports watch, but isn't; it's a "casual attire" watch.
    The Nova lacks significant features one expects of true sports watches.
  3. Decent, Chinese-made, "export quality" Sea-Gull movement.
  4. Dial ergonomics is lacking in a couple aspects, but doesn't kill the deal.
  5. Hand lume is passable, but dial lume is weak.
  6. Don't look at it using a 10x loupe; you'll be a lot happier. Ignorance is bliss.
  7. Provided the buyer knows it only looks like a sports watch, the Nova is worth the price, if it's under $100.
Specifications:
  • 41mm diameter (excluding crown)
  • 14mm thick
  • 50mm lug to lug length
  • 20mm lug width
  • Weight is over 100 grams (incl. strap; my scale only goes to 100 gm; it "pegged the meter")
  • 5 ATM water resistance
  • Decorated 28 j, 21.6k bph, non-hacking, Chinese Tianjin Sea-Gull ST-17N caliber 1780 automatic with blued screws (export caliber TY-2714)
  • Date sub-dial at 2:15 (set using a flush, dimpled pusher on the case side)
  • Seconds sub-dial at 6:00
  • 40-hour Power Reserve partial sub-dial at 10:30
  • Stainless steel case, crown and back (with display window)
  • Thick and wide castellated non-rotating bezel
  • Crown is not screw-down
  • Flat mineral glass crystals top and bottom (display back)
  • Eggshell white dial checkered with small (U.S.) "football" indentations
  • Rectangular lume dots at the hour indices
  • Silver skeleton arrow style main hands with lumed arrowhead pointers
  • Silver arabic hour indices and brand logo
The S.U.G. Brand Name:
S.U.G. is one of over a dozen brand names marketed in the U.S. by Always at Market in Carrollton, Texas. They're sold exclusively through auction sites, primarily eBay now, and are advertised with absurdly high suggested retail prices. Invariably, most are sold for what they're actually worth in the $50 to $100 range (for those without real precious gems on the dial or case), although there are anomalous auctions. Bidder behavior is utterly inexplicable at times. One exception is their "Balmer" brand which is a little more up-market from the rest (Balmer uses Swiss movements, but they're not ETA and less expensive). In the industry they're referred to as "Myth Brands" (with elaborate tales about the company name originating from an obscure, centuries-old, Swiss watch or clock-making family) or "Mushroom Brands" (pop up overnight and disappear shortly thereafter). They're typically "Private Label" made in China regardless of where the company headquarters is located. One of the firms that makes many of them is MillionSmart Enterprise at a factory in Shenzhen. Most have Chinese Tianjin Sea-Gull (one of the better Chinese movement makers), Dixmont Guangzhou, or Hangzhou movements. Dixmont Guangzhou makes movements similar to Tianjin Sea-Gull. I don't know much about the Hangzhou except they make some of the ETA 2824, 6497 and 6498 "clones." I couldn't determine where this one was assembled, but I'm certain it was made in China, by MillionSmart or one of its "cousin" firms.

A visit to the S.U.G. website is similar to visiting any of the Always At Market brandings. They're all laid out the same way and once you've navigated one, you can navigate them all blindfolded. Its history tells a long and winding tale about the founding of the Schweizerische-Uherenmacher[sp]-Genossenschaft by Gottilieb[sp] Hauser in the late 19th Century, with nothing about what ultimately happened to the organization or became of Gottlieb. It's tragic that Always At Market cannot use proper German and correctly spell what should be simple words. Litterally translated, S.U.G. should be "Swiss Clockmakers Cooperative." "Uherenmacher" is misspelled; it should be spelled "Uhrenmacher." Long German words are little ones pushed together. It's a building-block language. Furthermore, they couldn't get Hauser's first name (vorname) correct either. It's "Gottlieb," not "Gottilieb." I recognized these spelling errors immediately, and I'm not fluent in German. Mein Deutsch ist sehr schlecht, aber Always At Market Deutscher ist viel schlechter!

But wait, there's more. Alpina, a true Swiss brand, very directly traces its lineage to Gottlieb Häuser (the name roughly translates to God-loving houses), not this pretender near Dallas, Texas. "Alpina" is a trademark Gottlieb Häuser registered in 1901, and it has been used nearly continuously thereafter. The name of the firm he founded in 1883 should also be in French, not German: Corporation d'Horlogers Suisse. Nearly all Swiss watchmaking is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. This was no exception. At the beginning of World War I, the Alpina firm had holdings in both Switzerland (Genève, Bienne and Besançon), and in Glashütte, Germany. In 1917, near the end of World War I, the Swiss and German organization fractured (politics of war with Swiss neutrality) and a German named organization, Alpina Deutsche Uhrmacher-Genossenschaft G.m.b.H. was created for the German half of Alpina. The Swiss half formed under a similar name in French: Alpina Association des Horlogers Suisses. If inability to use proper German spelling, including getting the alleged founder's name correct wasn't bad enough, Always At Market tries to rewrite Swiss watchmaking history too. So much for Swiss lineage and heritage. There isn't any; it's a myth, living up to its characterization as a "Myth Brand." Furthermore, all of the Swiss lineage S.U.G. implies it has, complete with marvelous photographs of para-sailing in the Alps, unquestionably belongs to Alpina. Enough about the brand name; on to the watch itself.

Case, Crown, Bezel, Back and Crystals:
The solid stainless steel case and bezel are a "sports" style: large, thick and heavy with a brushed finish that won't show fine hairline scratches as easily as a highly polished case does. Bezel is castellated with the inset parts enameled jet black, and has numerals marking the minutes at each quarter-hour. In checking the number of bezel detents (60 or 120), the feel of its click when rotated . . . whether it's loose and grinds or tight and smooth . . . what??? . . . it doesn't turn . . . oooooommmph . . . nope . . . doesn't turn. Counted the indentations. They don't line up with 5-minute increments either (four instead of three between the quarter-hour marks). It's purely decorative [sigh]. Crown is likewise made of stainless, is a nice size with good fluting, and unlike the bezel it readily turns . . . what??? . . . it readily turns. It's not a screw-down crown, but it does feel like there's some gasketing around the stem. The wind also feels decent, as does time setting (not loose, sloppy or excessive gear lash). The lugs have knurled Allen screws that at first glance appear to be part of the strap attachment scheme, but they're purely decorative. A closer look reveals the position of strap attachment does not line up with the Allen screw centers; it's a little outside of them. The strap attaches with standard springbars (no problem mechanically; it is what it is). The decorative nature of the knurled Allen screws adds to the "Sports Watch" style. Top crystal is heavy mineral glass which should take a few knocks OK and is reasonably scratch resistant.


The back is stainless with a flat mineral glass display window. Etched printing around the back is well done, even depth, and crisp. It's better than the recently reviewed Rousseau. Top crystal is also heavy, dead-flat mineral glass.

Strap:
The blue textured leather strap is good quality, well-made and nicely padded. Its stitching looks good and isn't gaudy; it doesn't distract from the watch head. The excellent signed buckle is made of heavy guage stainless steel with rounded edges on all its parts. Etching of the "SUG" signature is deep, even and crisp. It's well executed with a weight, heft, style and color appropriate for the watch style.


WARNING
If you are prone to disillusionment, and are obsessively bothered by the slightest flaws found in consumer products, to the point that you lose sleep over it, or cannot bring yourself to look at it any more, proceed no further and skip to my comments at the very end. What you are about to see past this point are details that can only be seen through 10x loupe. While they contribute to overall visual effects when looking at the watch with an unaided eye, the root causes for those effects are not revealed until they're magnified. They also demonstrate some of the reasons this watch belongs in a sub-$100 price class.


Dial and Hands:
The dial is heavily textured with a checkered pattern of small (U.S.) football shaped indentations. It has an overall pleasing effect. The raised silver arabic hour indices are bold and nicely applied to the dial, as is the raised, silver U.S.G. logo. Rectangular lume dots are placed just outside the hour indices in the chapter ring with minutes black tick marks that are bold enough to be seen easily. The central hour and minute hands are silver, arrow skeletons with white lume in the arrowheads. The minute hand could have been made a tad longer so that its tip reaches the chapter ring. Subdial hands are red and easy to read. I believe it would have been better to used blued hands throughout on this dial. At some lighting angles, the central hour and minute hands, as wide as they are, nearly disappear completely, forcing the wearer to turn or twist the wrist to change the lighting angle and make the more visible. That they're skeleton hands doesn't help any. Lume on the hour and minute hand is OK. Lume on the dial is quite weak.

All seemed good until I looked at the dial with a 10x loupe. That's when I discovered why something had been nagging at me about the dial's appearance when looking at the photos I'd done of the entire watch. I had expected to find the subdial markings inked onto the dial itself. They're not. These markings are plastic or vinyl appliques glued to the dial face, and they're not exactly the same shape or completely aligned with the spaces inset for them in the dial. I was disappointed by this. There's no reason these markings could not have been inked onto the dial using pad printing. It's not that difficult to do. Although the "root cause" reason cannot be seen without a loupe, the misalignment of these appliques does impact the overall visual effect of the dial, making it seem just a bit rough around the subdials.

Movement:

The movement is a 28 jewel, 21,600 bph, Chinese made Tianjin Sea-Gull Series ST-17N caliber 1780 non-hacking automatic, also known by its export caliber number TY-2714. Features include hand-wind, central hour and minute hands, with a seconds subdial, and power reserve and date complications on subdials. Date is incremented for setting it using a separate pusher located at 2:00.
Movement dimensions are ~12.5''' (28mm) diameter and 6.48mm thick. Hour and minute pinions are 134/83.5 nominal (H/M in 1/100ths millimeter). Found this unusual as its neither the "standard" Miyota or ETA diameters. Subdial pinions are a more standard 25.5 (also in 1/100ths millimeter). The pinion diameters define the hole diameters required for the hands. As with nearly all watches in this class, it is held inside the much larger case using a nylon spacer ring.

Then I pulled out the 10x loupe and looked at the movement in detail. This photo, and the one of the dial, were made using the loupe and a technique called "eyepiece projection" by putting the loupe directly on the front of the camera lens. It's a "quick and dirty" method I've used with microscopes and telescopes. With many movements, the pallet fork interaction with the escape wheel is extremely difficult to see, if it can be seen at all. One of the two pallet jewels can be clearly seen engaged in an escape wheel tooth in this photo. Both pallet jewels looked to be well shaped with nicely beveled ends, and cleanly attached to the pallet fork. The Geneva Stripes on both the rotor and bridges are clean, crisp and straight, with even depth. The stripes also line up across the bridges nicely. The blued screws have even bluing, and the outside edge of the heads are beveled. The etched logo on the rotor also looks quite clean (much better done than the Rousseau rotor logo).

However, this movement, while cleaner than the one in the Rousseau Cantata, still showed some lack of control and cleanliness during movement and watch assembly. I found a few small tool scratches on the movement bridge, a chip in the striping on the rotor, and a strand of lint on the rotor as well. At first I thought it was some lint on the outside of the display crystal. Then I thought it might be on the inside surface of the crystal. Finally, I moved the rotor, and that showed it was on the rotor. It's a shame considering the clean striping. A couple miniscule particles of dust were also found; much fewer than was expected after seeing the strand of lint. It's fortunate the movement is decorated, as the striping (and pearlage, if there is any inside the case) will tend to grab onto tiny debris particles and hold them. It serves functionally much like the magnetized drain plug in gearboxes.


Although I don't care much for leather bands (preference is for steel bracelet), it is a well made strap with a nice quality buckle. The rest of the watch is fairly attractive in the sub-$100 class. I could live with the movement and overall workmanship by invoking the same rule regarding watches in this class: Don't look at it using a 10x loupe and remain blissfully ignorant. One additional rule for the Nova: It looks like a sports watch, but it's not, so don't treat it like one, especially around water. It's a "casual attire" watch. Lack of a screw-down crown was the first of my disappointments; the second was a non-hacking movement. Rotating bezel for timing would be a nicety, and blued hands throughout would make the central hands more visible against the dial.

Bottom Line:
  • One can spend a lot more than $100 and get substantially less watch.
  • Don't spend more than $100 for a S.U.G. Nova and you get your money's worth.


Note: I have no affiliation, association or financial interest in S.U.G. or Always At Market. I do have an association with Ricky, who owns this watch, and was kind enough to send it to me for review.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Review: Rousseau Cantata

A Lesson Repeated:
Do Not Use a 10x Loupe to Examine *VPMWs
*VPMW: Very Poor Man's Watch; sub-$100 street price

This Rousseau Cantata was loaned to me specifically for review by Ricky, an acquaintance on PMWF, the "Poor Man's Watch Forum" which is dedicated to sub-$1,000 watches.


Summary:
  1. Aesthetically attractive piece, fairly well made except for one major defect (see if you can spot it in the photo above before I get to it).
  2. This is a "Dress Watch." Don't expect "Sports" or "Military" watch features.
  3. Decent Chinese-made "export quality" movement.
  4. Could have done a little better with dial ergonomics, but it's not a deal-breaker.
  5. Be prepared to do a thorough Quality Control inspection immediately on receiving it (related to major defect alluded to above).
  6. Worth the price as long as you win the auction under $100.
Specifications:
  • 40mm diameter (excluding crown)
  • 13mm thick
  • 48mm lug to lug length
  • 20mm lug width
  • 72.5 grams (with strap)
  • 5 ATM water resistance
  • Decorated 21j, 21.6k bph, hacking, Chinese Tianjin Sea-Gull ST-16N caliber 1680 automatic with blued screws (aka caliber TY-2856)
  • 24-hour jump hour subdial at "6" (independent of central hour hand)
  • 40-hour power reserve partial subdial at "12"
  • Stainless steel case, crown and back (with display window)
  • Crown is not screw-down (not expected of a dress watch)
  • Flat mineral glass crystals top and bottom (display back)
  • Two-tone black and white dial with inner checkerboard pattern and cyclops over date window
  • No lume on dial or hands (also not expected of a dress watch)
  • Black dauphin hands (no lume)
  • "All Dial" no bezel design
  • "Cantata" model no longer in production for Rousseau (as a private label)
Rousseau is one of over a dozen brand names marketed in the U.S. by Always at Market in Carrollton, Texas. They're sold exclusively through auction sites, primarily eBay now, and are advertised with absurdly high suggested retail prices. Invariably, most are sold for what they're actually worth in the $50 to $100 range (for those without real precious gems on the dial or case), although there are anomalous auctions. Bidder behavior is utterly inexplicable at times. One exception is their "Balmer" brand which is a little more up-market from the rest (Balmer uses Swiss movements, but they're not ETA and less expensive). In the industry they're referred to as "Myth Brands" (with elaborate tales about the company name originating from an obscure, centuries-old, Swiss watch or clock-making family) or "Mushroom Brands" (pop up overnight and disappear shortly thereafter). They're typically "Private Label" made in China regardless of where the company headquarters is located. One of the firms that makes many of them is MillionSmart Enterprise at a factory in Shenzhen. Most have Chinese Tianjin Sea-Gull (one of the better Chinese movement makers) or Hangzhou movements. I don't know much about the Hangzhou except they make some of the ETA 2824, 6497 and 6498 "clones."

A visit to the Rousseau web site is no different than other "Myth Brands." Its "history" tells a quite lengthy tale about an exceptionally obscure 17th Century European watch-maker named Jean Rousseau and his sons, the eldest of which lived into the mid-18th Century. It ends its verbose meanderings there, as if the family suddenly vaporized with Jean's sons. Absolutely zero connection is drawn between that family and the current brand name, or the age of the current Rousseau brand. So much for European lineage and heritage. There isn't any.

It has the MillionSmart "private label" heritage common of many "Myth Brands." The evidence is quite compelling after visiting the Chinese web site for MillionSmart Enterprise, perusing their extensive on-line catalog, and finding this MillionSmart brand MS70020 that looks nearly identical. Change the dial slightly, put on different hands, and add a Rousseau logo. The movement inside the MillionSmart MS70020 is identical: Tianjin caliber TY-2856 made by Sea-Gull.

Case, crown and crystals:
The case is highly polished solid stainless steel in a clean "All Dial" style with no bezel which makes its 40mm diameter appear visually larger. Very well made with clean lines. One sees the dial, not the case. Crown is also stainless steel with good fluting and decent size to grab hold of and operate. It's not a screw-down crown, a feature that should not be expected of a Dress Watch. The crystals top and bottom are mineral glass, clean, and appear dead flat. Execution of all this gets an excellent mark.
The rim around the see-through case back is etched with markings one expects to find on the back of a watch. Close examination shows that these markings are not etched into the steel using "bead" or sand blasting, or by a chemical photo-mask process. They're made by either mechanically needle peening or, more likely, by pulsing LASER. It requires using a loupe to see the tell-tale "plowed field" rows that multiple passes make using these kinds of etching processes to attain the font width. Nevertheless, lettering edges on the back are sharp and it's very legible. More about the rotor when the movement itself is discussed.

Dial and Hands:
Dial is well sculpted with flat, wide outer ring in black surrounding a white checkerboard inner circle. 24-hour subdial at "6" has fine concentric circle pattern, and 40-hour power reserve partial subdial has a fan pattern. Hour indices are roman, not uncommon for a Dress Watch. An outer chaptering has hour dots with minute indices. An inner chapter ring around the white circle has minutes marked in arabic numerals every five minutes. An unusual convex cyclops magnifier is over the date window on the dial itself. Usually these magnifiers are on the crystal, not the dial! The silver hour indices and "Rousseau" script logo are very cleanly applied and straight. All other markings are inked (appear to be pad printed) with very clean edges. The central dauphin Hour, minute, and second hands are all black, as is the stick 24-hour hand. The power reserve hand is red, matching its sub-dial markings. Neither the dial nor the hands have any lume, which is not expected on a true Dress Watch.

While the dial has an overall aesthetic appearance, some ergonomics are lacking. The tips of the black minute and second hands are lost over the flat black wide outer ring making precise minutes and seconds more difficult to read. The date complication is nearly worthless in practical use as its window and numbers on the date ring are so tiny. The cyclops magnifier on the dial does nothing to improve this. Indeed, it may impede reading the date.

Dial workmanship overall is excellent with two exceptions. The first is relatively minor. Look at the photo above at the black/white edge between the "35" and "40" minute markings on the inner chapter ring. The dial was first painted black, and then the white inner portion painted over it. The boundary edge between has a few places where the white paint bled slightly down into a groove that surrounds the checkerboard pattern. It wouldn't be noticeable if it weren't for the stark contrast of white and black. The second problem is a major quality spill that escaped all the Quality Controls (what there may be of them) from dial fabrication through watch assembly. Have you spotted it yet? Very carefully count the roman hour indices around the dial and examine each one. When you get to the "VI" the next should be a "VII" but it's not. There are two "VI" indices. The missing "I" didn't fall off or it would be floating around inside the watch and the glue dots that had held it would be visible. I'm left wondering how many of these dials got out the door!

Strap:
The black strap is very good quality crocodile grain leather and is padded on the inside. Stitching looks good, and it has an excellent signed buckle made of heavy guage stainless steel with rounded edges on all its parts. Well executed and an appropriate color for the watch style.

Movement:

The movement is an inexpensive, ~13''', 21 jewel, 21,600 bph Chinese made Tianjin Sea-Gull Series ST-16N caliber 6180 automatic, also known as a caliber TY-2856. Features include hand-winding and hacking, with date, 24-hour subdial, and power reserve complications. The photos above show a bare 6180 without any decoration. The Rousseau's bridges and rotor are decorated with "Geneva Stripes" and the screws visible from the back are blued. As should be expected, the stripes line up properly across bridges.
The Tianjin Sea-Gull ST16N 1680 is based on the Miyota simplified bridge movement, but slightly larger. Basic dimensions are ~13''' (29mm) diameter and 6.52mm height. It is held inside the case with a nylon spacer ring. The central minute, hour and second hands pinions are 100/152/17 (m/h/s in 1/100ths millimeter; defines hand mounting hole diameters). Both subdial hands appear to have 25.5 pinions (in 1/100ths millimeter).

I looked at the movement using a 10x loupe to examine its workmanship as the decorations are particularly pleasing to the unaided eye. The first thing I noticed was ability to see the pallet stones on the pallet lever being driven back and forth by the escape wheel. The ruby pallet stones, from the side I could see, looked clean and well mounted to the pallet lever without any lint or other debris. Likewise, the balance wheel and hairspring and regulating lever also looked very clean and well made. As of today, and with my crude accuracy measurement methods, it's gaining ~13-14 seconds per day which is something a watchmaker could easily tweak and improve to about half that.

Next came an examination of the extensive decoration on the bridges and rotor. See the photo of the watch back above. Even without a loupe a smudged fingerprint can be seen on the rotor. A look at the engraved Rousseau signature on the rotor revealed it could have been done better as it needed to be deeper to overcome the Geneva striping already present. As a result, it looks rough compared to the etched printing on the case back performed using the same process. The bluing on the screws is decently done and they are beveled around their rim, but not inside the slot edges. The Geneva stripes are likewise done fairly well and they're even width and straight. This type of decoration is performed with a horizontal cylinder and should form a concave surface with curved grooves. I found the stripes very slightly lifted on one edge compared to the other (this is very difficult to see; requires looking at a bridge edge). In addition, the corners on the bridge edges are slightly radiused, but are not finished off after the striping as would be done by hand with extremely expensive luxury watch movements (and wouldn't expect this either). For all the nice decoration though, I could see small nicks, scratches and scrapes in the striping through the loupe, along with a few bits of exceptionally fine dust scattered about (about the diameter of powdered sugar). While none of this affects movement operation one iota, it's evidence that parts and tool handling during movement assembly is sloppy. In addition, parts, movement assembly and storage isn't in a dust-free environment. While the Chinese have made progress, they have some distance to go with controlling their manufacturing. I had to continuously remind myself that this is a very inexpensive movement compared to Swiss ETA and Sellita, or the Japanese Seiko and Orient movements.

Movement operation is smooth. Winding feels much like a Miyota 82xx series movement with an extremely fine "click" (this is a toothed wheel and spring that acts as a ratchet). Detents are positive with setting date and time, and the second hand does not have the "jump" that some Chinese movements suffer when the crown is pushed back in following time setting (the "jump" is usually caused by the hack stopping the 3rd wheel instead of the balance wheel). The 24-hour hand is incremented by using a flush pusher located on the side of the case at the "4." It has a dimple in the middle of the pusher and it's intuitively obvious one should use a pen or pencil to increment the 24-hour time. It's an interesting feature that reminds me flush pushers found on quartz digital watches for setting time and calendar date.

Although it's not particuarly my kind of watch style in terms of colors, Roman hour indices and leather band (my preference is steel bracelet), I could live with the movement and overall workmanship, with a simple rule . . . don't look at it using a 10x loupe . . . as a sub-$100 watch . . . except for one thing . . . the twice each day hour of Daylight Savings Time that occurs at 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM (the "missing" Roman "I" at the "7" hour) . . . a major gaffe in Quality Control starting with the dial fabrication and continuing through sending a completed watch out the door. It's something I would expect Rousseau to fix (aka Always At Market in Carrollton, TX), without question or cost, regardless of how little I paid for the watch.


Note: I have no affiliation, association or financial interest in Rousseau or Always At Market. I do have an association with Ricky, who owns this watch, and was kind enough to send it to me for review.

Bauhaus Watch Design

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