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.

  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.
  • 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.

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.

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.


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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Renaissance Man,

    I saw a nice 2nd hand S.U.G. watch for sale at PMWF, from which I'm a member, so I thought to try to find out, what the firm was. And indeed, something like Kronen & Söhne and more of these brands. BTW, the SUG website leaves information that the Le Bonheur group will nog longer sell the brand in the US eff. 01-01-2010 and the Always At Market website is for sale. ;-)


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