Rick Bell, American.
I first got wind of the Cincinnati Watch Company from TBWS contributor Mike Razak when he reviewed (and quickly thereafter purchased) a very attractive pilot watch. Though my collection has a few erratic pieces here and there, it consists mostly of divers and field watches. I’ve flirted with pilots in the past. My first “real” watch purchase was a Seiko SNK807 which, though the case size seems to suggest a field watch, has a pilot watch-inspired dial.
Traditionally, though, pilot watches (“fliegers” sometimes) are large. They were made to be worn by military flyers who needed immediately legible timepieces. After all, who wants to be decoding intricate dial text when being fired upon by enemy aircraft? To that end, pilot watches are simple affairs: large Arabic numerals, prominent hands and, often, an oversized crown (which, I assume, is to offer easy access while wearing gloves).
A watch that I had my eye on in my Watch Fam salad days was the Hamilton Khaki Pilot. I liked the bold, yet minimal, aesthetic and the feeling of having a real tool on your wrist (this was before I went into the depths of dive watches…yuk yuk yuk). At the time, the Khaki Pilot was above my pay grade and, after careful consideration, I ended up buying a Hamilton Khaki King day/date field watch (which I still have and wear often).
Recently, with all the new Hamilton releases coming out, I thought I’d search for the pilot again on eBay, assuming it would have dropped in price (since larger watches have also dropped in popularity). I found a few good examples for more than decent prices but I was held up by the memory of trying on that first 46mm version years ago. In the time in between that moment and now, I’ve also owned not one but two versions of the original Maratac Pilot watch.
The larger version, also 46mm, ended up feeling way too big and I didn’t really click with the smaller, 38mm version. I realized that, though pilot watches were historically oversized, it wasn’t practical for me to wear an ashtray-sized watch. This led me to the Hamilton Khaki Pilot “Interstellar” day/date. That watch seemed to have a much better modern size (40mm case, 20mm lugs) and, though the design is pleasing, the day/date complication was just too similar to my Khaki King.
I almost gave up the ghost, realizing that it might be a good time to just focus on what I’ve naturally been collecting already, field watches and divers. For the hell of it, I asked the TBWS crew on our Slack channel for their thoughts on pilot watch options. It was then that Mike flashed his newly purchased P-40 Mechanical pilot watch from Cincinnati Watch Co. The watch came in black but he had picked up a limited edition version with a gorgeous blue dial. It had a 40mm case and 20mm lugs and came with a well made-looking oyster style bracelet. He gave me the gentle (hard) sell.
Really talked up this brand and the owner, Rick Bell, who, he said, was a stand up guy. I didn’t end up purchasing a pilot watch at the time but I became interested in learning more about Rick and his company. As if the horological nerd gods were listening, Cincinnati Watch Company was just about to launch a new line of watches and, when Mike offered to introduce me to Rick so I could review one of his new watches, I jumped.
I first spoke to Rick on Instagram and realized soon afterward that he was the real deal. Cincinnati Watch Company was launching the Time Hill Collection, a series of quartz watches inspired by Cincinnati, classic American watch design, and historic architecture. Of the three pieces, a 36mm (yeah, you heard me) watch with a champagne dial and blued-steel hands called the “Captain” struck me. Rick sent the watch over soon after so I could have a look at it in person.
Let me say a few words about the Time Hill Collection. I don’t want to go into a full brand history of Cincinnati Watch Company (they do a good job of it on their website, which you should visit) but I feel like I can’t talk about the Captain without placing it in the context of the group (after all, watch nerds, isn’t always less about the watch and more about the collection?).
One of the things that really drew me into the Cincinnati Watch Company is the fact that, for each of their releases, they have partnered with a non-profit which has both inspired the design and benefitted from receiving a portion of each watch’s sales. The Time Hill Collection is perhaps the most Cincinnati-connected group of releases yet. Consisting of three watches (the Captain, the Union Terminal V2, and the Cincinnatian), each piece in the collection was inspired by Cincinnati Union Terminal, a historic Art Deco railway terminal built in 1933. The Terminal now houses the Cincinnati Museum Center which is where a portion of the watches’ proceeds are going.
The watches in the Time Hill Collection hearken back to the era when American companies produced well-crafted, affordable, and dependable timepieces. This was the era of brands such as Gruen, Waltham, Elgin. Hell, even Timex. Many of these companies are grossly overlooked these days and, while watches from these companies weren’t emblematic of luxury or fine Swiss watchmaking (blah, blah, blah), they represented the best of American industry in the twentieth century: functional design, affordability, and dependability.
The Union Terminal V2 (a slightly modified version of Cincinnati Watch Company’s first release, the V1) is an extremely unique looking watch, the dial of which was modeled after the Art Deco clock on the front of the Union Terminal building. The design is like nothing I’ve seen on a watch face before. The other two watches, however, are more directly connected to the design and lineage of the abovementioned American watchmakers. But let’s get to the Captain.
I got to chat with Rick on the phone after I’d had the Captain in hand for a few days. We talked for over an hour about his company, American watchmaking, microbrands, and a host of other watch-related geekery. One of the most interesting parts of our discussion is when Rick explained that the design of the Captain (which I immediately saw as inspired by a Rolex Bubbleback) was, in fact, influenced by a very specific Gruen model, the Pan-American, a postwar pilot’s watch produced for, you guessed it, Pan American Airways. One glance at the Gruen Pan-Am and I could see the connection immediately, particularly the inner 24-hour scale and the railroad track outer chapter ring.
To see a new release come in at 36mm is a rarity in itself. But to see a new release that has been inspired by a classic design that few people realize is so classic was on another level. Aside from perhaps the Vortic Watch Company, who actually use old American watch parts which they rebuild into new timepieces, I haven’t personally encountered another microbrand whose design cues and ethos came from the rich history of American watch manufacture. It’s a shame that we need reminders of the great horological history that happened right here (Gruen, itself, was based out of Cincinnati).
As a watch unto itself, though, the Captain has a lot to love. The champagne sunburst dial catches light in all the right places and is complimented in a completely unique, though somehow familiar/traditional, way with blued-steel hands, a red-tipped second hand, and green numerals that look a bit like the aged radium you’d see on a watch from the 1940’s or 50’s but which, here is actually C5 Superluminova (C3 on the hands).
The case is finished nicely with brushed steel on the sides and back and a polished bezel. It has just enough curves to give it shape but there’s a flatness to it that is quite satisfying and which makes the connection to those early-mid twentieth century pieces obvious. The watch is also, thin. Even with its domed acrylic crystal, the watch comes in at 7.6mm thick making it featherlight on the wrist. The Captain comes on a nicely finished five-link bracelet (similar to, but distinct from a Jubilee) and has a top grade Swiss Ronda 713 quartz movement.
Some people, myself included, might balk at a quartz movement in this type of watch, instead preferring at least a hand wound mechanical one. I am not, by any stretch, a quartz snob but, for a microbrand watch, I’m always looking for bang for buck and that usually means an automatic or mechanical movement. However, the Ronda 713 is not just another cheap, crappy quartz movement. It’s Swiss made, has five jewels, and is sturdy and dependable.
I asked Rick about the choice to use a quartz movement for the Time Hill watches and his answer made a lot of sense: thickness. In order to design the Captain (and the other Time Hill watches) with these desired dimensions and to keep the case so thin and wearable, quartz was really the only option (the Ronda 713 is only 2.5mm thick!). However, Rick was not willing to compromise on quality, hence the choice for a Swiss-produced quartz movement with a history of reliability.
There are a few other details about the Captain, et. al, which would, at first glance seem like measure to cut costs but are actually smart design moves. The first is the crystal. Many of Cincinnati Watch Company’s other watches have double-domed sapphire crystals with AR coating on the inside while these watches have a domed acrylic crystal. Some people complain about acrylic no matter what, but I’m a fan. I have a number of vintage (and a few new) watches with acrylic crystals and they really are hard to beat in terms of warmth, pleasant distortion, plus the ability to buff out scratches instead of having to replace them (which would be a nightmare with many vintage watches). The acrylic here seems organic to the watch and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
The other sticking point for me, initially, was that, while the bracelet feels very substantial (with solid end links, too), the clasp is stamped rather than milled (as are the clasps on some of the other Cincinnati Watch Company watch bracelets). However, how many vintage watches do I have with jangly, rattily bracelets (of way lower quality than this one) that have stamped steel clasps? Do you think the clasp on my 1969 Omega Seamaster’s beads of rice bracelet is milled? Push button? Hell, no. The stamped clasp was, according to Rick, another purposeful choice in order to keep the profile of the bracelet feeling slim and wearable on the wrist. Considering the affinity I have for those jangly old bracelets, I ultimately agree with his choice here, too. Ironically, I ended up throwing the Captain on a leather band and a nato, both of which added dimensions to an already deep watch.
As I said previously, there’s much to love about the Captain and I hope to someday handle the other members of the Time Hill Collection. The gripes that I
have had and that others may have are paltry. On top of all the other strong points this watch has to offer is one more faithful connection to the heritage of American watchmaking. Rick has recently partnered with Jordan Ficklin, a master watchmaker and former Executive Director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, who is now Cincinnati Watch Company’s in-house watchmaker and who is now assembling all the watches in the Time Hill Collection (and other releases going forward) in house in Cincinnati. That is a hallmark of dedication to quality and heritage that is seldom found among microbrands, even those with strong connections to American watchmaking tradition.
My experience with the Captain, with the Cincinnati Watch Company, and with Rick Bell have all been great. If you’re looking for your first microbrand piece, if you’re already hip to the microbrand scene, or if you’re just looking for a great timepiece, then visit Cincinnati Watch Company’s site. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and I ended up buying their pilot watch. Damn you, Mike Razak (also, thank you).
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Henry is a scholarly watch nerd based out of northern New Jersey. He works as a professor of composition and creative writing by day and a fiction writer by night. Both his academic and creative work have given him insight on design and rhetoric and his fiction writing background influences his humorous, narrative take on watch reviews. His watch collecting habits tend to lean toward vintage, but he never shies away from unique and interesting new pieces. Henry is also an avid musician, record collector, whiskey aficionado, serial hobbyist, and all-around enthusiast.