Ball Watches Engineer III King Review:
Railroads, Tritium, and Glued Macaroni
By: Mark Signorelli
A Brief History of Ball Watches
The Ball Watch Company of today represents an interesting brand with a somewhat murky pedigree. The original heritage of the brand dates back to the early days of the American Railroad industry and the need for timeliness and accuracy. Such need was tragically demonstrated in 1891 when two trains collided in Ohio due to a timing gaffe, which resulted in a massive wreck and nine fatalities. Subsequent to that event, Webster C. Ball, a Cleveland watchmaker, was appointed “Chief Time Inspector” to the federal railroads. He established strict timing standards that ultimately resulted in Ball’s logo appearing on numerous timepieces that met these criteria. These timepieces contained movements provided by Hamilton, Elgin, Waltham and others and were emblazoned with “Official RR Standard” on the dial.
By the mid and late 1900s, Ball Watch Company settled into irrelevance and was eventually sold. In recent years, Ball has reemerged as an Asian owned company manufacturing Swiss watches whose hallmarks include tritium illumination as well as direct offerings of watches that bypass the dealer network in favor of discounted, pre-release pricing. My understanding is that the great grandson of Webb Ball has some level of involvement in the company although to what degree is not clear. The railroad heritage is where things get a bit murky. When I visited the Ball Wathces website, I expected to see evidence of that heritage and, indeed, it’s there. Scratch the surface, however, and Ball bounces their brand off of every advertising cliché known to the watch world. Whether it’s their website, YouTube videos or Instagram page, they invoke explorers and daredevils aplenty. I’m talking rescue workers, aviators, climbers, divers, downhill skiers, oceanographers, land speed record holders and, yes, astronauts. Images of the Matterhorn, storm chasers and SR-71s abound. A little more marketing focus would simplify things and clear the decks for some of the real goodies that Ball Watch can legitimately brag about.
Ball Watches Engineer III King Review
I ordered my Ball Engineer III King at the end of March, 2017 when it was offered at a special pre-release price of $1,150. plus $20 for handling. This Ball Engineer model was offered in two sizes, 40mm and 43mm, on either a steel bracelet or leather strap as well as a choice of blue or black dial. Buyers also had the choice of a stainless steel case or a stainless steel case finished in black titanium carbide. I chose the 40mm Ball Engineer III King in stainless steel with blue dial and bracelet (Ref #NM2026C-S12A-BE). This is my first Ball watch and I ordered it because I was intrigued by the tritium illumination in addition to a number of features that I will address shortly (I was also intrigued by the preferred pricing offered to early adopters – currently, this specific watch retails for $1,870. or more depending on where you look).
The Case & Bracelet
I measure this watch at 40mm for the case, 14.4mm thick at the top of the crystal and 47mm long (lug to lug). The Ball Engineer case is mostly polished with the exception of the top of the lugs and the etched, matte finish of the case back. As I mentioned, this is my first Ball watch and when I first laid eyes on it, I found the depth of the tritium gas tubes to be rather eye-popping. They definitely make the dial come alive and, for me, create a three dimensional effect quite unlike any of my other watches. My only other tritium watch is a Traser Officer Pro and the Ball Watches Engineer III King is clearly in another league.
On wrist, this watch is a heavy little chunk but feels totally comfortable even on my smallish wrist. In spite of its thickness, I had no problem getting it to fit under several different dress shirt cuffs. The non-tapering bracelet is bling-y with large, polished center links that draw attention to the watch and contribute to an overall theme of, “Hey, check out what’s on my wrist!” The weight was never a bother and, after several days I can say that this is one of my most pleasant watches to wear. The bracelet was easy enough to size and while there are no micro adjustments there are two half-links (actually they are roughly one third the size of a full link) that allow for some fine-tuning.
The Ball Cliber RR1102
Some internet sleuthing reveals that the Ball Watches Engineer III King is powered by the Ball Caliber RR1102, which seems to be based off the ETA 2836-2. Functions include hour, minute, sweep seconds, day and date. Depending on what you read, the power reserve is advertised as either 38 or 42 hours. In terms of accuracy, I measured an average of +3.1 seconds per day over an eleven day period using the Watch Tracker app, which makes it more accurate than my Omega Seamaster AT Master Co-Axial Chronometer. During the final three days of the timing run, the Ball Engineer ran at under +2 seconds per day.
The dial is blue with a mild sunburst effect. The minute markers are small tritium tubes with larger ones positioned at five minute intervals. Those larger tubes also form the Arabic numerals at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions which, due to their size, block several minute markers. The large numerals are a dominant feature of the dial and I expect that people either like ‘em or hate ‘em. Personally, I like them and, while they give the Ball Engineer III a bold look, they are also wildly legible day or night.
If you didn’t know that Ball Watch had a railroad heritage, you would figure it out after examining the Engineer III King. The RR logo is everywhere. It’s on the dial just below the 12, it pivots with the second hand, it’s on the clasp, and it signs the crown. Oh, and if you flip to the case back, there’s a steam locomotive pulling what appears to be a coal car and a passenger car. Speaking of the crown, it’s great and is one of the best that I’ve encountered. As the main mechanical interface, I don’t understand why more watch companies don’t add some precision to this device. Ball brands this crown as DuraLOCK and there is a short animation on YouTube of the inner workings of the crown. Bottom line, it’s easy to use, precisely engages the threads and appears to offer a strong seal against the elements.
Another feature of this watch is something Ball calls the Amortiser. It’s mentioned on the case back and, from what I can gather, locks the rotor to protect against shock. On other Ball watches that have this feature, it appears to require manual activation by rotating the case back. On this watch, the Amortiser appears to engage automatically. The Engineer III King is anti-magnetic to 80,000 A/m and maybe somebody else can explain the nomenclature (Editor’s Sarcastic and Unhelpful Note: nomenclature straight outta Star Trek – “Rerouting auxiliary power the the forward-aft Amortiser… Warp Field stable, Captain”). From what I can tell, you are protected from exposure to most magnetic fields but you should probably leave it behind if you have a close encounter with an MRI. In terms of water resistance, the watch is rated at 100 meters.
Okay, let’s deal with the illumination. I count 64 tritium gas tubes including 11 for the numerals, 10 for the five-minute markers, 40 for the minute markers, and three for the hands. If you like tritium watches, you will love the Ball Watches Engineer III King. Sitting in a movie theater is an entirely new experience when you have this watch on your wrist.
Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, the multi-color glow is especially noticeable which makes this a highly readable watch in almost any condition. The large numerals have a cartoonish look that takes some getting used to but the functionality is undeniable. On watch forums, the initial reaction of first-timers to the blocky numeral construction is rather amusing and ranges from “distracting” to “truly hideous” as well as my favorite, “glued macaroni”.
A few parting thoughts. In the Engineer III King, Ball has created an interesting mix of technology, tool watch and fashion statement. For a change of pace, I tried this watch on a blue, leather Hadley-Roma in 20mm and it looks and feels just great. It de-blings the watch a bit and lends some versatility for a slightly different look.
The watch ships in a standard sort of box with an owner’s manual on disc and a two year warranty card (register online and get a third year). As a newcomer to Ball, I’ve grown very fond of this watch and appreciate the practicality of its readable dial and beefy construction. Questions or comments are welcomed.
Mark retired in 2018 after 37 years in the financial services industry. He “Discovered” watches in 2015 after seeing a photo of a Steinhart OVM1 in a car forum. Ever since then he’s filled two watch boxes (and is trying to decide between buying a third one or thinning the herd). His additional pastimes include hiking, working on cars, exploring and photographing abandoned military bases.