Playing Army

A review of the new Synchron Military

Despite never serving in the military or owning a gun, and being more dove than hawk, I have long been drawn to all things military. As a teenager, I remember visiting the rather dark and creepy Army-Navy surplus shop in downtown Milwaukee, combing through the piles of overstock fatigue pants and flight jackets. I find twentieth-century military history fascinating, lust over fighter jets, wear aviator sunglasses, and drive a decidedly military vehicle with the name, “Defender.” If I lean too far into this territory, I feel like a bit of a poser, disrespecting those who have had the courage and ambition to serve. But there’s no denying the appeal of all things “milspec.” I know I’m not alone in this. Camouflage remains as popular as ever, as do jacked-up Jeeps and muddy obstacle course races. Maybe it’s the sign of uncertain and turbulent times when we unconsciously want to prepare and protect ourselves. 

As evidence of this, I look no further than watches, both those in my own collection and the way watches are marketed in general by brands both big and small. Omega’s latest James Bond themed Seamaster sports the “king’s mark” broad arrow of issued military watches on its dial. Blancpain and Tudor regularly play up their histories on combat divers’ wrists. My own collection includes a Bremont chronograph from their Armed Forces collection and I have a CWC that was originally issued to, and worn by, a Special Boat Service diver for activities about which I’d probably rather not know. This is all a roundabout way of getting to the latest watch to cross my wrist: the Synchron Military. 

First off, over my years in the watch world, I’ve gotten to know the owner of Synchron, Rick Marei and I’d go so far as to say we’re friends. Rick sent me a prototype of the Military way back in November, to try out: no strings attached, no expectations on his part. With that disclaimer out of the way, I thought I’d share my thoughts about this new watch, which has caused a bit of a kerfuffle on the forums and social media this week.

First off, it’s ironic that the watch is called the “Military,” or that the vintage cult favorite on which it’s based was called the “Army,” since the watch itself seems fairly unsuitable for military use (to my untrained eye, at least). Though I’ve read that the original was an issued watch to soldiers in the early 1970s, the bright colorful dial, full of intersecting geometric shapes, seems like such a departure from the sober white on black contrasting dials of milspec watches of the previous two decades. If instant legibility and low profile understatement are goals of a military timepieces, this dial seems more like one that’d have been worn by a peacenik hippie in the ‘70s than a soldier, especially when compared to its contemporaries, with their sword hands and dot-hash dial markings. And then there’s the crosshairs and “Military” branding on the lower right quadrant. Would a combat diver need that label on his watch?

That aside, the watch itself is eminently capable, in an obsolete 1970s dive watch sort of way: 300 meters of water resistance, a high grade Swiss ETA movement, a great rubber strap, and what, for me, is the pièce de résistance, the countdown bezel with lumed numerals. Though that unmistakable dial and incredible handset are what people first notice, and what will likely be the polarizing factor, to me, the bezel seals the deal. I’m a sucker for this style of bezel, most recognizable from its use on the 1960s Omega Seamaster 300. In those days, it would have been made from Bakelite, a sort of early plastic that proved to be fragile. But more recently, CWC used a poured resin bezel that mimics Bakelite for their 1983 Royal Navy diver reissue. The one on the Synchron is sapphire, with the numerals in a sort of faded tan and the hashes in white. The numerals glow green in the dark. And I love that it’s a countdown scale instead of the far more commonly seen elapsed time markings.

The 42-millimeter case (45mm lug to lug) is comfortable, and will be familiar to anyone who’s worn a Doxa in the past, oh, say… 50 years. It’s chunky and tall, but hugs the wrist and doesn’t hang over like a watch with more traditional strap horns. This style case has always been a strap monster, working well on rubber, NATO, or even leather. It also wears well on a variety of wrists. Gishani has commandeered the Synchron, on a Bund leather strap no less, for her own wear and I must say, it looks great.

I’ve always found it hard to assign value or worth to a watch. It’s so subjective and most watches in each price range are largely of equal quality. The Synchron Military is selling for a pre-order price of $990, placing it in the “affordable” realm for most seasoned collectors. It’s a crowded space, with some watches from Seiko to many from the smallest of “micro-brands” on the offer. That said, to me, the Military swings above its price point, even if only on paper: the elaboré grade movement, sapphire bezel and premium rubber strap. In hand, the grippy bezel clicks with the right amount of resistance and no slop. The crown is smooth with minimal wobble and screws down cleanly. Case finishing, hands, and dial are all on par with most “tool” watches at this level and anyway, this isn’t a watch you buy to examine the polishing under a loupe. Timekeeping has been accurate according to my unscientific observations.

All the objective details aside, what then is the “essence” of the Synchron Military? It’s hard to ascribe a specific vibe to this watch. What it isn’t, to my mind, is a military watch. OK, maybe the black DLC cased version leans a bit more that way. But to me, it feels like a fun and nostalgic watch that stands apart from the crowd and is rugged enough to wear for pretty much any adventure. It also doesn’t look like anything else out there. Just try to find another current watch with those hands or dial configuration.

It’s also difficult, without a specific historical hook, to slot this watch into its own story. That can be both good and bad. I realize how much we are influenced by the stories watch brands tell us and how it informs our feelings about their products. Given my earlier cited penchant for militaria, when a brand says that Watch X was inspired by a little known prototype designed for a clandestine group of combat divers, it’s like catnip for me. Take my money. These backstories give the watch a depth it might not have otherwise had, and make us (OK, me) want to “play army” while wearing the watch, even just a little. Strap it on and any snorkel outing feels like a beach insertion in enemy territory under cover of night. It’s why I admire brands that don’t have those hooks or those historical archives to lean on. They have to work a little harder to evoke emotion in potential customers. For Synchron, that’s even more complicated.

As I mentioned, Synchron is owned by Rick Marei, who revived the SUB line of dive watches for Doxa in the late 1990s. Doxa had axed its divers, favoring largely quartz fashion pieces for sale in Eastern Europe and Asia. Rick, a passionate collector and aficionado of vintage dive watches, got approval from the family who owned Doxa, to start up the dive watches again and sell them online. When Rick left Doxa a couple of years ago, he turned his focus to his own Synchron brand, a company whose name he also revived from a defunct one, and one that, oddly, owned Doxa back in the late 1960s. Synchron was an umbrella brand for Rick to make watches under the Aquadive and Aquastar names, and Tropic and Isofrane rubber straps. But he always wanted to make the Doxa Army, the inspiration for the watch you see here. He decided to do it under the Synchron name. The Army was a very rare prototype of which Doxa made only a handful. Whether or not it was issued, or worn by, anyone in the army, Swiss or otherwise, I’ll leave to more dedicated watch historians. Regardless, we are left with a superbly recreated slice of ‘70s funk. 

I can’t leave the discussion of this watch without addressing the bit of controversy the release of the Synchron Military created on web forums and on social media. Shortly after the promo email went out to Synchron subscribers, announcing the Military, Doxa posted a rather poor photo of a similar watch on Instagram, with a caption to the effect of, “Ours is coming soon. Only trust the original.” It was a rather petty direct shot across the bow of Synchron. Now, to me, Rick beat Doxa to the release of a watch he wanted to build for years, even while at Doxa. I long ago learned not to hitch my hopes, allegiance, or affections to any one brand, but to just enjoy the watches I like personally. Focus instead on the people rather than the hype or the politics. I suspect those who like what Rick did with Doxa in his days there, and what he has done with Aquastar and others, will find the Synchron Military appealing and rewarding. Those who don’t, or for whom the design doesn’t resonate, no harm done. There are plenty of other watches out there on which to spend disposable income. And by the way, with only 250 of each color being made, these watches will likely be long gone by the time Doxa releases their version, or perhaps even before you’ve gotten to the end of this article. So all the controversy will be irrelevant. But the moral of the story is, all is fair in love and in war. And in watches, it seems.