Wolbrook Skindiver “Douglas” Reissue: Considering A Brand’s History, Horological Mythology, and Timekeeping Tall Tales

One day, not too long ago, I posted a shot of my Douglas-branded skindiver on Instagram. I had written an article on department store branded and co-branded watches for the TBWS site in which I talk about how I have a soft spot for small, consumer and budget friendly watches (particularly vintage skindivers) made by and for chains like Macy’s, Sears, and Montgomery Ward.

Wolbrook watches (along with Douglas, its sister brand), while not made for a particular store, was definitely what I would consider a department store brand. I picked up the Douglas soon after writing the article, as I had always wanted one.


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On my IG account (@dials_and_vinyl) I usually pair, you guessed it, watches and record sleeves for photos/karma/a feeling of inner-fulfillment/whatever one wishes to call it. For this particular post, I decided to pose my Douglas skindiver on top of the sleeve for Brian Eno’s album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks which, if you’re not familiar, has pretty much an all-over print image of the moon’s surface as the cover illustration.

 

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I chose this particular album because I had recently been reading about a Douglas watch, nearly identical to mine, that was apparently worn by Neil Armstrong at some point during his pre-Apollo career, possibly while piloting the famous X-15 plane for NASA. The watch was auctioned off by Neil’s brother Dean in 2019, along with some of his other personal effects, for $5,500.

However, the connection seemed a bit thin. According to the auction website, “This was most likely given by Neil to his father or brother when he obtained a new watch.”

Not really much to go on, then, aside from Dean Armstrong’s word. No photos of Neil Armstrong wearing the watch. No signed authentication from Neil himself talking about owning the watch. Opinions on this were immediately split with one side finding Dean Armstrong, as Neil’s brother, credible enough to ensure genuine provenance and the other thinking that someone spend five and a half grand on a wing and a prayer.

I found this whole discussion fascinating, not so much because of this piece’s connection to Neil Armstrong and the possibility of me unintentionally purchasing a possible space watch, but rather the whole dialogue happening about watch brand mythology, provenance, and just how many and what type of credentials we in the #WatchFam really need to help us sleep at night.

 

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The same day I posted my photo, another TBWS contributor, Mike Razak (@mikesgotwatches on IG), posted a photo of his Douglas, one of the new ones that the newly-resurrected Wolbrook company had just released on Kickstarter.

Since I had my eye on Wolbrook/Douglas vintage divers, I was also aware that the brand had relaunched on Kickstarter and was doing a major re-release/modern update of both Wolbrook and Douglas branded skindiver world time watches. What I wasn’t prepared for was how heavily Wolbrook leaned into its connection to Neil Armstrong in both the marketing and redesign of this watch, but more on this in a bit.

Looking at the re-issued Douglas Worldtimer/Skindiver as a timepiece unto itself, it’s a pretty solid watch. It hits the sweet spot of a 40mm case with 20mm lugs. It’s 48mm lug to lug which is a reasonable size and wears well even though the straight lugs make it lay rather flat on the wrist and its 11mm thickness is comfortable enough to wear under a cuff and to not bang into things during your daily activities.

Overall, this is an attractive piece. It has the feel of a traditional skindiver, a tool watch through and through, with just enough small accents to give it a bit of flash: worldtime bezel, polished cherry-red seconds hand, roulette date window with cyclops (on the underside of the crystal). The bezel is an interesting facet that you don’t see on a ton of watches in general and definitely not on a lot of skindivers.

In fact, as with the original Douglas, it’s not really a proper worldtimer since you just rotate the bezel and there’s no dedicated extra hand, but it’s still cool.

Compared to the original Douglas, it hits the mark in all but a few ways. At a glance, the Douglas reissue looks like a totally scaled-up version of the OG. All the recognizable features are there but with some upgrades. I contend, however, that the upgrades, while certainly adding more updated and solid features, take away from the charm and, I have to say, the essence of the original Douglas.

The original watch is a skindiver. Skindivers are meant for shallow depths and, as such, are designed to be smaller, slimmer, and more streamlined in every way from a real depth diver. The original Douglas is 36mm, has a domed acrylic crystal, and some one-jewel hand-winding piece of shit under the hood. Of course, other skindivers from other more established brands (Universal Geneve, Longines, etc.) had some sweet movements.

Hell, even one of my department store-branded vintage skindivers has an A. Schild 1850/1 powering it. But that was not what Wolbrook was about. It wasn’t a precision instrument. It was an everyperson’s brand and, as such, thrived as a catalogue watch for decades. I like the acrylic. I like handwinding the cheap movement.

The reissue’s updates would, for most, be welcome. They’ve replaced the acrylic with sapphire. Instead of the aforementioned unknown 1-jewel POS, they’ve added a Miyota 8215 automatic movement (I believe the same one that was in the Maratac Pilot I had. I remember the whirring sound of the rotor spinning!). They even have a quartz version that uses a Seiko VH31 Mechaquartz movement with a sweeping seconds hand.

As I said, the watch feels solid and reliable on the wrist. But all of these additions make the watch heavier and clunkier than the original. This may not be a problem from someone just picking up this watch but, if you’re familiar with the original or already own any vintage skindivers, this thing feels quite large in comparison.

Therein lies the problem for me. I’m a traditionalist and a purist at heart (with watch collecting, anyway) and so anything that changes the original formula fundamentally seems to me to be a misstep. I think Wolbrook is trying to appeal to a modern market whose customers are looking for watches in this range. I mean, 40mm is not 44mm. This is still a very reasonable watch that wears well but, for me and others looking for a true reissue, it’s a bit disappointing.

This release, to me, seems akin to (what I perceive as) Hamilton’s missteps with their first attempts at reissuing their classic Khaki field watches. For instance, I didn’t buy a 42mm Khaki Field. I bought a Khaki King because it had just enough elements to make it something different from a traditional field watch and so, at the larger size, I was ok with it (also the DNA of the first Khaki Field was just a little too different from their classic watches for me to even go in for the 36mm version).

However, when they listened to their fans and came out with the 38mm Khaki Field Mechanical, now with a more traditional look (and parkerized case to boot), I was there, man.

So I’ve discussed the Wolbrook/Douglas reissue’s merit as a timepiece unto itself yet my disappointment at its diversion from the original’s design. But what about the other elephant in the room? What’s with all the space stuff? As mentioned earlier, a Douglas skindiver was auctioned off by Dean Armstrong who claimed that his brother, Neil, had owned it and likely passed it on to Dean or their father.


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We know that the watch associated most with Neil Armstrong during his most important years as a NASA astronaut is the Omega Speedmaster that he, along with the other members of the Apollo crew, were issued. Even if Neil really did own this watch (and there was photographic evidence) it is most likely that he would have worn this piece during his time as a test pilot before the famous moon mission.

No one can say for sure, and the auction did not specify just when Neil gifted this watch to his brother or father, but it seems likely that this watch would have, at best, been very tangentially related to the Apollo program (I mean, like a distant cousin, twice-removed, who married in to the family). That being said, Wolbrook has really gone all in on the space theme.

So much in fact that, not only did they commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on their case back, they did it in proper balls-to-the-wall fashion by engraving the Apollo 11 seal right in the middle surrounded by the phrase “The Eagle Has Landed.” Whoa.

To be fair, this actual watch that Mike Razak sent me was one of their earlier prototype pieces. However, in later versions on their website they have versions of the watch that commemorate the X-15 program with a laser-etched X-15 graphic and, again, the moon landing, this time with a laser-etched image of the lunar lander.

This makes me leery because, though the watch itself is a well-executed piece as I mentioned before, it seems like there was a lack of confidence about that on Wolbrook’s part. It seems like they’re leaning just too heavily on this connection. I’ll give them the X-15 reference, though that’s also a little dicey. But maybe, even though the original Wolbook/Douglas diver is a neat piece (and one which I own and enjoy), just maybe, it wasn’t worth a reissue?

Regardless of Wolbrook’s choice to reissue this watch, this release (and the auction of the original) certainly begs the question: How much reassurance do we actually need? I find it so interesting where we draw the line with a satisfying amount of history and provenance. Watch folk can call bullshit immediately on a brand when they confound their releases with some very questionable (and easily debunked) history or lineage (Daniel Wellington was a great man…).

But then there are those pieces that exist in some kind of limbo of our imagination where the history gets mixed up with the lore. It seems that, in those instances, it’s a matter of subjective judgment for how much one wants to believe and how much one is willing to spend based on those beliefs. At least one person hedged a $5,500 bet on Dean Armstrong’s auction and some people have lost their minds over it.

People fork over a pretty penny for the Benrus Bullitt which, itself, has a spotty provenance at best. Perhaps they’re willing to do so because the Bullitt version shares DNA with the cheaper and more common Benrus military-issue watches, but they’re still paying more for the rarity (which is, no doubt, bolstered by its connection to Steve McQueen).

With the logic of the Bullitt in mind, why couldn’t this watch have belonged to Neil Armstrong? Is it such a stretch to think that someone of high skill and high regard might just not care that much about watches and wear a beater? It seems likely that Neil Armstrong had a number of precision instruments at his disposal at NASA and that, perhaps, his wristwatch didn’t need to be one of them.

After all, we project our geekery about the Speedmaster on the Apollo crew, mostly. They were issued the watch. It doesn’t mean that they were watch nerds in and of themselves (Buzz Aldrin wore a Mickey Mouse watch in one of his official government portraits!). Maybe belief is stronger (or at least more fun) than documentary evidence proving otherwise.

Fantasy and escape are part and parcel with this hobby. How many of us are deep sea divers, astronauts, and race car drivers? Indulging in the tools of someone else’s trade makes us feel connected to excitement, innovation, and adventure. It seems that it’s up to each of us to decide how seriously we take the game.

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. 


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