A review of the Elliot Brown Holton NIVO
In Old English, the word næs means a promontory or headland. The linguistic descendent of this is “ness” and is aptly used in the name of the shingled spit of land that juts out into the North Sea from England’s Suffolk Coast at Orford Ness. In addition to its geographical and etymological origins, Orford Ness has some historical interest, specifically in its role as a World War II early warning radar station and, likely due to its remote location, its role in several of Britain’s secret weapons testing programs. It’s a place I’d love to visit one day, not only to see its lonely beaches, coastal vegetation and impressive bird populations, but also for the lighthouse that sits at its point, and for the remnants of the secret wartime activities that took place there. It’s a protected area though, accessible only with permission, and on a specific approved ferry. So I’m not sure I ever will get there.
One of the programs that was conducted at Orford Ness was the development of what could be described as an early form of stealth technology. “Night Invisible Varnish Orfordness,” or NIVO, was a type of paint finish applied to aircraft to hide them from enemy detection during night-time cross-Channel bombing raids. The color was a sort of matte grey-green meant to mimic the sheen of water on a moonlit night. Without its hint of bluish-green, it might be dismissed as drab, but I happen to think it would be a great color for an old Land Rover and indeed some old trucks have probably faded to the hue already. NIVO was eventually abandoned in 1939 by the Ministry of Defence because, though it was stealthy over water, it was actually fairly reflective when hit by searchlights from below, thus negating its effectiveness. This very specific color would have likely been lost to history had it not been for the watch company, Elliot Brown, which recreated it for a version of its Holton Professional dive watch.
This is my first experience with an Elliot Brown watch. I’ve known about the brand for a few years now. Before the Holton, their lineup consisted of some handsome but fairly pedestrian quartz, and a few entry level automatic, sports watches. Even the name, derived from those of its two founders, felt nondescript, lost in a growing roster of small online brands selling sub-$1,000 quartz watches. Then came the Holton. As the story goes, Elliot Brown’s offices are located near the harbor at Poole, in Dorset. One of their neighbors is none other than the Special Boat Service, the UK’s elite amphibious Special Forces unit. A conversation between these unlikely neighbors ensued, which led to the development of a new diving watch for use by the SBS operators. After some extensive design and prototyping, working from a specific brief, and torture testing by the SBS, the Holton Professional was given a military stock number and the right to wear the broad arrow “pheon” on its dial.
My interest in British military watches is well known. I own two CWC Royal Navy dive watches and, while I’d love an old military Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster 300, they’re well beyond my pay grade and not really suited (i.e., too valuable) for daily thrashing, an irony I can’t personally stomach. Watches in my collection have to earn their place on my wrist, not someone else’s. So the Holton interested me from afar, but never enough to pull the trigger. Something about the dial numerals felt too modern to me and I tend to prefer watches with either some brand provenance or a personal connection. But through some persuading by an Insta-friend, who happens to be an ex-military diver and currently runs a business diving for edible sea kelp (I thought my line of work was niche), I find myself with a Holton NIVO on my wrist.
First impressions, as we know, are important. The Holton arrived in a simple flip-open cardboard box, inside of which was a small zippered padded case holding the watch, a spare strap, a tool, and the paperwork. To some, this presentation might seem unbefitting for what, at £450, is still for some an extravagant purchase. To me, it was refreshing—a recyclable outer box and small, reusable inner storage pouch. No plastic or lacquered wood to discard or find room for in the closet.
The watch itself, has far more depth in person than is conveyed in photos. That all comes down to its details. Instead of design for design’s sake, or for a marketing hook, the Holton seems like a watch built for purpose, iterative not from decades of legacy, but from months of fiddling, tweaking, and refining based on use and feedback. Take, for example, the crown. It’s tiny, tucked away at 4:00 on the case. We tend to like big crowns, likely based on the chunky look of them on old dive watches. Case in point, the Tudor Black Bay, which harks back to the famous “Big Crown” Submariners of the late 1950s/early ‘60s. On a mechanical watch that needs frequent setting and perhaps winding, a bigger crown makes sense, but comes with its obvious snagging hazard and the bite into one’s wrist at certain angles. The Holton NIVO is a quartz watch. Set it and forget it. Change the date on a handful of shorter months, otherwise the crown is best forgotten, out of harm’s way.
Similarly well designed is the rotating bezel. It’s made of hardened steel, engraved with numerals and full hashmarks (all brilliantly lumed), and thinner in stack height than many dive watches, yet it’s incredibly grippy. The edge of the ring is a sort of knurled hobnail pattern, but then that textured surface creeps up just to the lip of the bezel so that it’s tactile from the top as well. Elliot Brown says it was designed that way so it could be twisted using the flat palm of a wet neoprene glove and I believe it. I can even lay my flat naked palm on top of the watch, pivot my hand and the bezel turns with a satisfying uni-directional ratchet.
The Holton is a slim watch, but not too slim, and lightweight, without feeling flimsy. Water resistance, which is marked very minimally in tiny text at the bottom of the dial, is 200 meters— adequate for the SBS and more than enough for me. The watch, at 43mm x 51mm (by my calipers), is no shrinking violet yet somehow hugs my wrist more like a 41mm watch. Maybe it’s the NIVO color scheme that makes it slimmer, almost… invisible? The case has absolutely no bevels or adornment and is fairly slab sided in appearance. Similarly the caseback is largely unremarkable but is smartly bolted down with six tiny hex screws. That not only keeps the EB shield and double cross logo oriented straight, but it eliminates the need for costly threading or potential gasket distortion as it’s torqued down.
I can’t help but feel that the fairly empty printed dial of the Holton NIVO is missing something. I am not a fan of a lot of text on a dial but the expanse in the lower half needs something else. And indeed, on the standard Holton Professional, that’s where the broad arrow symbol is printed in subtle black. Maybe the acronym “NIVO” in yellow or red would have suited it well. The angular numerals come close for me, but still seem a bit… 1980s in design? Like the speedometer on an American sports car from that era or something. Someone on Instagram commented that they reminded him of the numerals from a Chronosport Sea Quartz, which is about right, since that was a 1980s watch of similar ilk (Magnum PI’s original watch!).
The MOD-spec sword-shaped hands are almost a peachy parchment color while the markers are a lighter shade, a bit more yellow. This dissonance is odd at first but has grown on me. The dial itself is a lovely green/grey hue that changes depending on the angle at which you view it. The date window is possibly the tiniest one I’ve seen on a watch, which is both good and bad. Its diminutive size, almost a tiny dot from a distance, keeps it unobtrusive, almost making the watch seem like a no-date variety, especially with its 4:30 positioning. When telling the time is primary, this thoughtful minimalism is appreciated. On the other hand, to my aging eyes, it also makes reading the date an exercise in squinting.
The Holton NIVO, like the Professional, is powered by a Swiss Ronda quartz movement. I’ve gone on record many times as being a fan of battery-powered watches. And in the Holton, as in a CWC Royal Navy diver, and many Citizens and Seikos, it is by far the most fitting choice. The movement is even surrounded by a shock absorbing holder, not commonly bothered with on quartz movements which, by their nature are already more resistant to shock than a mechanical movement. Regardless of its Special Forces pedigree, this is a watch you buy in order to strap on and go do stuff. You wouldn’t buy a watch with this general vibe, function-first design, and $600 price, to sit and watch the sweep hand softly tick around the dial. EB does sell an automatic version of the Holton, for more money, but to me that’s the wrong choice. You set off for a weeklong overlanding trip, a surfing getaway, or some whitewater rafting, and want to take your watch but not have to think about it. You can’t do much better than a quartz dive watch on a rubber strap. You plow through a set of rapids, get tossed overboard on some rocks, get dragged on the reef, have to perform an emergency driveshaft repair, or swing an axe, and when it’s all over, you glance down to check the time and, yup, the watch is still there, possibly with a new ding, maybe even missing the bezel, but still faithfully ticking. That, to me, is an adventure watch.
Speaking of rubber straps, this one is, no joke, among the best I’ve worn. Fitted to the case with curved ends, it is a thick, soft and pliable rubber that follows the curves of the strap horns perfectly, terminating in a chunky PVD pin buckle at one end and a rounded tail at the other, which also has a thoughtful bulge to keep it tethered under the keeper loops. The inside of the strap has an irregular pattern of wavy lines and numerals, evoking a topographical, or perhaps hydrographic, map or chart. When I first put the Holton on, I was immediately reminded of the excellent rubber straps that are supplied with Sinn diving watches, except those you have to cut to fit with their fold-over deployant clasps. Overall, the package of a matte chunky dive watch with modern aesthetics and a smooth soft rubber strap reminds me very much of a Sinn U1, but of course for thousands less.
I have two observations about the strap system on the Holton. One, the smooth rubber, while exceedingly comfortable, might get tacky and chafing in hot, humid weather. To be determined, as summer is approaching here imminently. And then, the strap is held to the case, not with spring bars, but with a threaded stainless steel bar that pushes through one lug and nested in the other. The threads are on the “near side” hole, which is obviously drilled through, while the far side is not. The screw head is of a star or Torx pattern and, as mentioned, the Holton is packaged with a small screwdriver. There are pros and cons of this approach. On the one hand, it is an incredibly secure way to hold the strap. With the fitted, thick end of the rubber, chances of losing a watch to a broken bar are nearly zero. On the other hand, if you’re someone who likes to swap straps, the tool is finicky and very specific, so a field swap or quick change could be problematic. Heaven forbid you lose the tool. Also, I have to wonder how many cycles of strap changes those fine threads, or the star indent on the screw head, will tolerate before they get stripped or rounded off. That said, if you’re not someone who wants to change straps, you’d likely never have to on the Holton since I can’t see it wearing out that rubber anytime quickly.
The woven strap that came with the Holton NIVO is a one-piece textile with a patent pending buckle design, through which you thread the strap end and cinch down to your wrist. It’s soft and comfortable, a bit like those that Tudor sells with some of its sports watches, but I found it almost too thin and soft to match the burliness of the watch, and threading the buckle seemed more trouble than it was worth, so I quickly swapped back onto the rubber.
I haven’t written a proper watch “review” in a very long time. More recently, my articles about watches, mainly divers, have been thinly veiled travel adventure stories in which I wear a watch, often underwater or on a mountain. I’ve long felt that the true worth of a watch is how it makes you feel, what it inspires you to do, and the adventures you have with it. This rather long writeup is a bit of a departure. I didn’t take the watch diving, or backpacking, or overlanding, despite it being perfectly suited for any such activity. But maybe that’s the point. The Holton NIVO is all about potential. It’s a watch that, right out the box, inspires confidence in its durability, and its utter disdain for coddling and care. You’ll notice that the features of it that I wrote about are things like a uniquely grippy bezel, small crown, rubber strap design, and quartz movement shock protector. These are clearly things directly influenced by the watch’s intended use. Anything I could do with it, or to it, wouldn’t come close to its capabilities, whether that’s bagging a peak, a deep wreck dive, or, perhaps, sneaking into Orford Ness—at night, over moonlit water, naturally.
Thank you for that opinionated and in-depth review. Now that Hodinkee is like all the other watch blogs and basically runs press releases it is nice to read a real review.
Purchased one based on your keen insights, Jason. It’s one hell of a watch. Built like a tank, but disappears under my dressier shirt cuff. The rubber strap is very substantial and seems quite comfortable. Not sure how it will do with summer heat. I actually like their screwbars, it’s an attention to detail that completes the package. Thanks for uncovering this line. Cheers.