I have always been a value-focused watch collector. That might be your first comment if you peer into my watch box. I’m usually on the prowl to get my hard-earned and admittedly limited watch funds stretched as far as I reasonably can. The ‘value prop’ corner of the watch sphere has changed drastically in the last ten or so years, led at various times by watches like the 37mm Seiko 5s armed with 7S26 movements, affordable dive watches like the Orient Ray and Mako, and then micro brands such as Lorier, Nodus, and Halios. I love those watches and have been fortunate enough to have had many of them grace my watch roll at one point; however, in my opinion, there is a new and perhaps unexpected front-runner: San Martin.

San Martin SN004 Specifications

Case Size 38mm (diameter) x 13mm (thickness) x 46mm (lug-to-lug)
Water Resistance 200m
Movement NH35 Seiko Automatic
Power Reserve ~40 Hours
Crystal Sapphire
Bracelet Stainless Steel
Lug Width 20mm
Price $167 – $200

I am not surprised if you haven’t heard of San Martin before. Relatively young for a watch brand, San Martin was founded in 2016 in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, China. While I have a not-so-sneaking suspicion that most micro brands quietly source most of their components from China and ‘assemble’ them in Switzerland to meet the loose standards of the ‘Swiss Made’ moniker, San Martin has never been shy about their origin. A small handful of online retailers notwithstanding, San Martin does the majority of their business on Ali Express.

They are perhaps known best for their super homage style watches, shamelessly ripping off nearly every hot watch on the market with 1:1 clones, and sometimes shockingly even doing it better than the luxury source of their templates. As you can probably tell, I am not a fan of what homage watches have come to be in recent years, with the word ‘homage’ used to justify what I think are essentially counterfeit watches in all ways but with the small change of another brand name on the dial, but San Martin does this better than any other brand. Their Black Bay Pro styled GMT, for example, is in some ways better than the Tudor source watch, with finishing that’s genuinely comparable but boasting a much thinner, better-wearing case and a bracelet that has a better quick adjust than the T-fit clasp, in my opinion. I set the stage by elaborating on my loathing for homage watches intentionally because I dove into this brand expecting to scoff and sneer. However, I’ve had to do an about-face; San Martin is the real deal.

I wanted to try a watch from San Martin that represented the brand and what they do well while avoiding what I think are the sleazy 1:1 clones that make up the mainstay of their product offering. I settled on purchasing the SN004 MilSub during an Ali sale for a mere $167, an homage to the 5513 MilSubmariner with some unique twists that make it more than a 1:1 copycat. While this watch usually hovers around the $220 mark, if you’re patient and catch it on one of Ali Express’s many sales, you can reliably get it under $200. About 10 seconds into the unboxing experience, I knew there would be more to this brand than I had previously thought. The watch came in a pretty nice zippered pocket, with a hand-signed and dated warranty card, and nicely wrapped in plastic. This was not the cardboard and plastic affair typical of other Chinese watches like Seagull or Sugess that I have experienced before.

Balanced and well-finished case

Starting with the watch head, this is very well done. The brushing is acceptable even on the flanks of the case and the top of the lugs, with an exquisite polish bevel running the length of the 38mm case. There is no display case back showcasing the NH35 movement here; instead, we treat it with a beautiful, circularly brushed case back with a coin edge reminiscent of a particular Swiss juggernaut. I found only one small fault: the brushwork may look terrific, but it’s relatively shallow and picks up scratches a bit easier than the best watch cases out there. But if you compare this to a Seiko 5KX, SRP-series, or an SKX watch that, when new five whole years ago, cost 25% more than this SN004, there is no comparison; the San Martin is 2 or 3 leagues better above the Seiko offering.

Not only does the watch case look excellent, but it wears very well. I like smaller watches, but the smallest diver I have owned previously was of the standard 40mm affair, so I was unsure how I would like the smaller-scaled diver. The 200M water-resistant 38mm case size is well-proportioned; it is easily one of the most comfortable divers in my collection, and it makes me wish Rolex had made a 38mm Submariner. A watch’s size and wearing experience can make or break a watch for me, and this San Martin MilSub is as close as it gets. The stated 13mm thickness is not an issue, as it is a slightly inflated number stemming from the proud, doomed sapphire crystal.

The 140g weight on the full bracelet is more than watches of this size profile typically weigh, however for a tooltastic dive watch this slight heft feels right. That sapphire crystal is clear and legible while causing a fun distortion towards the edge of the dial. It does have an anti-reflective coating that does an adequate job of minimizing glare and reflections. However, it has a strong blue hue in certain lights. While sapphire is becoming more and more standard in watches regardless of price, it is worth noting that Seiko and even Orient have few, if any, offerings close to this price point that are appointed with sapphire.

Running the circumference of that domed crystal is a gear tooth bezel with a ceramic insert. The bezel is very well done, with polished outer teeth and brushed inner valleys. While the MilSub had a coin-edge bezel, this SN004’s gear tooth bezel makes the watch feel more rugged, and its straight sides make it easy to operate. While there is some confusion about the bezel click count in the reviews and San Martin’s product listing, mine is a smooth 120 clicks.

The action is again shockingly good, with less play and a smoother, more consistent feel than most watches I have handled. The insert is also well done, with the hash marks and Arabic numerals all engraved and filled. The dial of the SN004 Milsub is a deep, glossy black that shimmers through the crystal. Its lacquered finish gives an otherwise plain watch a rich finish.

Mil-spec inspired dial

The applied indices rise above the dial and are deeply filled with BGW9 blue lume, and the polished surrounds complement the gloss dial well. The hands and printing of the logo and accompanying text are the only weak points of this dial, but they are still done exceptionally well for a watch under $170. The hands are polished well but lack dimensionality as they are flat, making them harder to see in some lighting. The text is straightforward but uninspired and looks like an afterthought; from the size to the font and the color, it just exists on the dial. However, with the hands and text, I am perhaps splitting hairs too finely; this is a sub-$ $200 watch, and even the most lacking elements of this dial far exceed all other peers at this price point.

Reliable Seiko movement

Underneath the dial is the microbrand special, the Seiko NH35 hacking and hand winding automatic movement. Accuracy specs are intentionally nonexistent for most San Martins, but most stated specs for the NH35 are between -20 and +40 seconds. My watch was within +7 to +9 seconds a day, which I found acceptable. This is one of the most proven, no-nonsense movements in a watch of any price point, and what the NH35 lacks in style it makes up for in function. San Martin watches come with a 2-year warranty, and while I have heard some horror stories about their customer service, I am not worried. NH35s are $28 on AliExpress and can be easily replaced by you or any competent watchmaker in about 10 minutes in the worst-case scenario. The winding of the NH35 is nothing special, although the crown is finished excellently, and threading it in and out of the case is a pleasure.

Matching stainless steel bracelet

Lastly, I’ll talk about the bracelet. This bracelet is excellent after surface-level examination and light use but loses some of its luster. The clasp is milled beautifully, and the edges are chamfered similarly to the case. The links are nicely brushed and feature screws as the connecting pins, which make sizing this watch a breeze. The brushing of the case and the end links match perfectly, which is something even Omega or Glashutte cannot say for some of their dive watches. The bracelet has some serious heft, feels high quality, and adds to the impressive unboxing experience.

I will say that while I have an average 7.25-inch wrist, I only needed to remove one link, which may make the bracelet a bit small for the iron-pumping watch geeks out there. While wearing the bracelet, I found that it occasionally pulled some hairs, and some edges on the clasp and links were a little too crisp for comfort. It still vastly outperforms expectations for a sub $200 watch, but I ditched it in favor of some single-pass NATOs to accentuate the Milspec nature of the case.

Final thoughts

The under $500 space may be one of the watch world’s most competitive segments, with titans like Seiko, Orient, Citizen, and Tissot, along with newcomers like Scurfa, Lorier, and Dryden all battling for your dollars. These brands are pushing the envelope and increasing expectations. I have owned and experienced many of these, but this San Martin is in another league regarding value for money. This SN004 Milsub watch drowns the SKX/5KXs and makes the Orient Kamasu feel like a tin toy from the 1950s. Everything from the tolerances between the case and bracelet, the silky but assured bezel action, the chamfered edges on the case, and even the solid albeit ever so slightly uncomfortable bracelet is some of the best I have ever experienced for around $200.

I have owned nicer Submariner homage watches like the Squale 1545 and the Steinhart Ocean series, and this San Martin is better than even those $450-600 watches in many ways, except when comparing the ETA/Sellitas in those options. This watch packs an absolute wallop and is the type of watch that seriously makes you question spending more on watches. The glaring downside in San Martin for me is the homage nature of the brand and the sheer gluttony of 1:1 super homage watches they pump out, but I know that not everyone has the same opinions on homage watches as I.

This is starting to be less of an issue as San Martin is pushing their original designs more and more. Some of their newer original GMTs and dive watches look incredible, but I have not pulled the trigger on one yet. If you can put aside the same prejudices I had on homage watches and look at this San Martin for the watch it is, you will be impressed.

San Martin

1 thought on “San Martin SN004 MilSub Review | Is It Better Than The Average Homage?”

  1. I bought San Martin’s original design GMT, SN0116g, on a whim and I’m incredibly impressed by it. I was hesitant due to the homage nature of San Martin as you note in your article but it’s hard to beat for the money.

    Thanks for the review!


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