Hemel Watches Review:
The HFT20 Chronograph
By: Kaz Mirza
Hemel watches first caught my attention when Marc from Long Island watch featured them in a video about watch brands from Long Island. I spent my most formative years on Long Island (Hempstead, Stony Brook, and Amityville) and the locale will always hold a revered place in my heart. So the prospect of becoming more acquainted with a brand from my beloved LI was intriguing. As fateful happenstance would have it – I received the opportunity to conduct a Hemel watch review by spending time with the HFT20 Chronograph.
The ethos of many Hemel designs is that of looking back on historical timepieces for an update design impetus. You can definitely see that in previous designs and the HFT20 Chronograph is no different. Taking the whole watch in gives you a sense of something designed with an eye towards the past.
But does that really matter? Are you like me and just super jaded to all these types of design claims? What’s at the actual heart of the Hemel Watches HT20 Chronograph and does the brand really merit your attention? I’m just as curious as you – let’s start the review!
The first thing that’s very apparent about the Hemel HFT20 is that it’s thick – like, no joke. It’s a pretty substantial watch at approx. 15.2mm in thickness (with 42mm in diameter and 49mm lug to lug). However it’ll usually feel larger more often than it’ll look larger. I only really became aware of the watch’s thickness at certain angles on my wrist. While I was wearing it the heft was pretty apparent, but it’s something you get used to and begins to become part of the watch’s appeal.
I mean, it’s not like the Hemel HFT20 is hefty while also feeling flimsy. It’s just the opposite – it’s hefty and the fit and finish on the overall construction is outstanding. The quality is most certainly there and I was pretty impressed during the time I spent with the watch. The actual case profile is pretty classic but to accommodate the larger size (due mostly to the NE88 movement – more on that later) the lugs curve down slightly past the case back to contour the wearer’s wrist. The case sides feature no embellishments save for a slight bevel detail on the back of the case to accommodate the screw down case back. This lack of case side embellishment doesn’t help the thickness of the watch.
The entire watch is brushed which honestly feels very appropriate since in conjunction with the hefty nature of the piece the overall ethos is that of a functional, tool piece. Based on these features alone I imagine the Hemel HFT20 will dress itself in wear, tear, and time quite well. The case back detailing is also very simple but just as bold as the rest of the watch. This isn’t of of those case backs where you’ll be squinting to read the tiny text on the back.
There’s two x-factor features of the case that I’m head over heels horologically in love with – the crown and the bezel. The crown is a very vintage-style diamond/onion crown like you’d see on classic pilot-style pieces. Credit to “Peter” down in the comments for clarifying that the Hemel HFT20 is more congruent with French Pilot Type 20 watches as opposed to German-style fliegers. With that in mind, I did some researching and I can say that the Hemel HFT20 pays a really fine tribute to those French Type 20 designs, which to me is a lot of fun because usually “pilot-style” watches are modeled after the stark dialed fliegers. So seeing something in a different flavor is very welcome.
What’s really noteworthy about the crown though is how well it’s executed. They could have just made that sucker out of potato chips in the shape of a diamond and called it a day. But the detailing is pretty damn flawless. It’s incredibly easy to grip and very fun to manipulate. There are bonus points here with the crown because it’s flanked on either end with it’s two chronograph pushers featuring a very cool waffle texture on their surfaces.
The other x-factor is the bezel. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun turning a bezel. It’s tight and there’s a fair bit of resistance to the mechanism. But the actual grippable area that’s offered to you is so ergonomic and easy to grab that the extra resistance is welcomed since it feels like you’re taking full advantage of the bezel grip. The mechanism is also very solid and there’s not really any bezel play or wobble that I could detect.
You have the choice of two bezel inserts with the Hemel HFT20 – stainless steel GMT bezel and a 60-minute black ceramic bezel. Make the smart call and go with the stainless steel. The steel GMT bezel on looks alone will bring such a welcomed and refreshing design note to that watch. The black ceramic will potentially nudge the design into obscurity with all the other black bezel watches.
The outer perimeter of the dial features seconds and minute ticks. As we work further towards the center of the watch we find bold Arabic numerals made with C3 Superluminova (the lume charges and glows pretty well). The “3” and “9” are missing since the subdials have encroached on their space. Usually I’m cutthroat with denouncing this type of design choice, but in the case of the Hemel HFT20, I think it works well – everything else feels balanced enough to where I don’t feel like something is missing from the dial.
Speaking of subdials, the text and marks are pretty straightforward – as are the baton chronograph hands lumed with C3. Your subdial readouts will vary contingent upon the type of HFT20 you’ve acquired. More details on this below but those HFT20 models with a VK64 meca-quartz movement will feature a 24-hour subdial at “3” and a 60-minute chronograph register at “9”. Those models with the automatic NE88 movement will feature running seconds at “3” and a 30-minute chronograph register at “9”.
So if you’re keeping score – that means the VK64 version of the watch has no running seconds, and the NE88 version doesn’t display the hour register subdial at “6” that I’ve seen on other NE88 models. I’m honestly unclear as to whether this is an option that manufacturers offer brands or that brands have to have sourced 3rd party, but if I learn any more details I’ll update this piece.
Let’s talk about watch hands, everyone – more specifically, let’s talk about excellently executed watch hands. I get swells of irrational anger when I see watch hands not being the appropriate length (which is ironic given my steamy love affair with the Raketa Big Zero). The rule of thumb for appropriate watch hand length is that the hand needs to extend from the center of the watch and just be reaching the element that it corresponds to. That means the hour hand should just be reaching the hour markers – the minute hand should just be reaching the minute markers, ect.
Beautifully enough – that’s exactly what’s happening here. This isn’t some innocuous rule like “don’t wear white after labor day” – the length of the hands should support strong legibility, which the Hemel HFT20 does.
A lot of attention has been paid to the strap, which means it’s something that you should take into strong consideration for this piece. The included strap is a very well treated cognac leather strap that complements the dark dial very well by creating timeless contrast. Double steel rivets on either end help make the entire presentation of the Hemel HFT20 feel like a historically inspired piece.
The stitching slightly off-white so it really pairs well with both the strap and the piece’s overall ethos. The attention to detail is pretty strong here – the buckle in particular is really wild. It’s appropriately wide and features some excellent machine contouring that matches the finish and some of the design angles of the case. Plus there’s the “Hemel” branding on the sides of the buckle which is actually a really nice touch. The branding is also on the back of the strap.
If I have any “complaints” about the strap it’s that at approx. 4.2mm it’s objectively a little too thick. I’m not a fan of straps that are too thick because sometimes they can over power the watch. However, here with a 15mm thick watch featuring a hefty case, the strap thickness totally makes sense to me. But I have to remind myself sometimes of this because my first inclination when handling the watch is that “the strap’s tooooo thick” – but this sounds more like a “Kaz Problem” than an issue with the watch. A strap of different thickness wouldn’t feel right.
As I’ve alluded to earlier, the Hemel HFT20 is available with either the VK64 meca-quartz movement or the NE88 automatic chronograph movement. Both movements have their pros and cons and both also impact the final price of the watch. What I’ll do is list the specifications of both below.
NE88 Automatic Chronograph Specifications:
- -15/+25 seconds per day
- Manual wind/automatic
- 45 power reserve
VK64 Meca-Quartz Specifications
- -20/+20 seconds per month
- Avg. 3 year battery life
- meca-quartz chronograph seconds hand
- -20/+20 seconds per month
- Avg. 3 year battery life
- meca-quartz chronograph seconds hand
The Hemel HFT20 version that I have is the meca-quartz. Overall I’m happy with it. I think some folks aren’t really into the idea of meca-quartz, but I personally enjoy it. All the accuracy benefits of a quartz watch with all the satisfaction of a snapping chronograph seconds hand – what’s not to love? The only thing worth mentioning is that Hemel seems to use the same case for the NE88 and the VK64, despite the fact that the VK64 is significantly thinner than the NE88 and the VK requires no extra room for the automatic rotor. So it you’re used to meca-quartz timepieces and their smaller cases, you won’t have that experience here.
So what I find interesting about the Hemel HFT20 is that for me personally I’m not quite enamored with the design as I should be. However what I am totally smitten with is the quality of the construction. For me there are some fit and finish elements here that set the piece above many others.
So even though the HFT20 may not have caught me in thrall, I think it’s safe to say that Hemel as a brand certainly has. It seems to be a microbrand that’s prepared to offer something constructed very well and plus they’re from Long Island (pronounced Long-Guy-Land by locals and previously self-inflicted subjugates like myself). But if you’re in the market for a microbrand chronograph that will accomodate a larger wrist size and a pretty timeless design, the Hemel HFT20 needs to be on your radar.
That said, please note that the choice between the VK64 meca-quartz movement and the NE88 Automatic Chronograph is the difference between approx. $550 USD. The VK64 Meca-Quartz HFT20 is available for $450 USD while the NE88 Automatic version can be had at $999 USD. While the price of the Automatic version may seem high, it’s actually the best price I’ve ever seen for an automatic microbrand chronograph. Plus, it’s one of the few pieces to use this relatively underutilized Seiko NE88 movement. Like I said, given the quality of work I’ve seen here and their access to parts, I’m keeping an eye on future Hemel releases.
Let me know your thoughts on the Hemel HFT20 and my assessment in the comments below!
Co-Founder and Senior Editor
Kaz has been collecting watches since 2015, but he’s been fascinated by product design, the Collector’s psychology, and brand marketing his whole life. While sharing the same strong fondness for all things horologically-affordable as Mike (his TBWS partner in crime), Kaz’s collection niche is also focused on vintage Soviet watches as well as watches that feature a unique, but well-designed quirk or visual hook.