Watch collecting should be fun. A lot of times, it isn’t. Sometimes we burn out after sinking in too deep and sometimes waves of back-to-back overpriced hype watches leave us jaded and cynical. Then there’s the social media FOMO. And hell, even trying to make some kind of career out of your hobby can leave you regrettably callous to the industry … trust me. But there are still small moments here and there that can rejuvenate the excitement. For me it’s witnessing community, meeting good people behind great brands, and seeing someone try something for the fun of it. I got that sense when I saw the release of the Imperial Royalguard 200 from afar. One of the newest and more charming affordable dive watches available today, it immediately pulled me in, and I knew I just had to spend some time with it.
Like so many cool micro-brand startups, Imperial Watch Co. emerged from the modding space. It’s a real one-man show and the owner Ben admits to getting his start by building out mods with parts from Seiko, Invicta, and anything he could find on eBay and AliExpress. Eventually the time came for him to put something out there and the goal moving forward was to create something inspired by classic skin divers and of course, watches like the Eberhard Scafograf 300. Before even handling the watch, I thought the end result looked great. And all for under $500? I really did need to find out more for myself, and it seems like the watch quickly drew out one heck of a crowd—considering these are all sold out at this point.
While the Imperial Royalguard 200 doesn’t have the same twisted lug case shape as the Scafograf 300, it does have a universally wearable, classic case I think many will enjoy. It’s 38mm in diameter, 47mm lug-to-lug, and 14mm thick if you count the domed sapphire crystal with AR-coating. Two things instantly stand out when looking down at the watch. One is that big 7.5mm screw-down crown that’ll offer both satisfying interaction with the watch and 200m of water resistance. Then comes the 120-click dive bezel and its insert, which is hard to describe and not like something I’ve seen from many smaller brands before. The color shifts between something reminiscent of faded blue denim and those old bezel inserts you see on highly collectible Marine nationale Tudor divers.
It all makes for a very comfortable package and I like that the finishing on the case itself isn’t overly-done. Really, you just get some polished bevels along the top edges of the case+lugs with brushing everywhere else. The press sample I had also featured a simple screw-down caseback with nothing more than the Imperial Watch Co. logo and “AUTOMATIC” printed on there. That’s all good with me. I’ve been liking display backs on divers less and less these days.
If you ask me, I think this is the real star of the show. I don’t know why but it just seems like there haven’t been many small boutique brands interested in emulating this Eberhard-style dial. The combination of the gilt circles and triangles is incredibly legible and I love the way the individual minute hashes converge so deeply into the center of the dial. There’s also a bit of a twist when it comes to the handset. Unlike the Scafograf 300, the large triangle was shifted from the hour hand to the minute hand. In the case of the Imperial Royalguard 200, this results in the oddly satisfying effect of having the minute hand triangle passing over and aligning with the triangle markers on the dial perfectly.
And while I didn’t manage to get a lume shot, all of the markers and the hands are fully-lumed with what Imperial calls “Swiss vintage lume.” Except the minute markings … that would be a little nuts in the dark. Dial text is also well-balanced with nothing more than the Imperial Watch Co. wordmark up top and “Royalguard 200” just above 6 o’clock.
The solid 316L stainless steel bracelet tapers from 20mm wide all the way down to 16mm near the clasp. And although bracelet polishing usually gets a hard pass from me, I like the way it was done here. Almost like what we got with some of the newer Omega bracelets, the polished surfaces are found on the outer links, not the center. This just looks more interesting to me and I think the polishing ends up being less visually intrusive. Things get a little wider at the clasp, which is a very basic flip-lock type with dual push buttons.
You still get the solid milled steel though so that’s nice. Also, while the bracelet is comfortable, articulates well, and looks good, at 20mm you’ll have a ton of fun putting the Royalguard 200 on a bunch of different straps. The drilled lugs make switching things out straightforward and I’d bet you can get a cool vintage look by pairing this with a vented rubber or Tropic strap. But overall, it’s a solid bracelet and definitely more capable than I was expecting, considering the watch’s price.
Inside the Imperial Royalguard 200 is a generic Seiko (SII) NH35 automatic movement. There is still a “ghost” date position but that’s never really bothered me and I think that’s honestly fine at this price. This one was running at about -25 seconds/day but I think I can forgive that considering this specific watch was a prototype making some seriously heavy rounds with reviewers. Most NH35 movements I’ve had are usually +/-15 seconds/day or better. And there’s no way around it. It’s a solid, serviceable movement with hacking, hand-winding, and a power reserve of about 42 hours. You can also tune these movements up to the point where they far exceed the performance SII advertises.
So by the time my brief period with the Imperial Royalguard 200 was wrapping up, it was a little hard to put it in a box and ship it out. I think each unit was sold out by then, so that got me stoked on the idea that enough people out there found this watch to be a neat collection addition, or just a great daily-wear piece. It’s a watch that in many ways highlights the purity and fun of the hobby without taking itself too seriously. Yeah, it’s some kind of homage. Yep, it totally looks like a modder put it together. Sure, the movement is cheap, but very reliable. And it’s all still beautiful and fun, at a price that I think many folks just couldn’t resist. My hope is that this little operation realizes its potential in 2023 and continues to tap into the spark of curiosity that brought us the Royalguard 200. And while they’re all sold out (for now, maybe?), I’d totally recommend this as a great sub-$500 dive watch if you can get your hands on one.
Michael Peñate is an American writer, photographer, and podcaster based in Seattle, Washington. His work typically focuses on the passage of time and the tools we use to connect with that very journey. From aviation to music and travel, his interests span a multitude of disciplines that often intersect with the world of watches – and the obsessive culture behind collecting them.