Great beauty is often associated with high symmetry: a snowflake, the Taj Mahal or a single molecule of Buckminsterfullerene for example. However, nature seems also to recognize that broken symmetry can be used to very good effect. Our faces might appear to be symmetrically arranged either side of the line of reflective symmetry running down our noses, but our ability to recognize each other plays upon the small side-to-side differences in the arrangement of our features. Similarly in the history of wrist watch design, the asymmetric case can throw off the sense of aesthetic balance in a disturbing yet very appealing way. The approach taken in delivering this upsetting asymmetry varies enormously from the outright perverse to the subtle asymmetry resulting from the pragmatic inclusion of a set of crown guards.
For me, one of the most intriguing asymmetric case designs has been that used in a number of military wrist watches produced through the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. Companies such as Hamilton, Lemania, CWC and Precista produced two register chronographs in which the right hand side of the case had been deliberately extended to partially envelope the crown and pushers. This design feature was pragmatic rather than stylistic though, with the thicker case on the right providing an element of protection to the pushers and crown.
A similar case shape was also used in military divers watches, the most iconic of which was the Benrus Type I and II produced for the American military in the 1970’s.
The spiritual successor to these watches was the Precista 93 issued according to MOD and NATO standards from about 1989 until 1993.
The similarities between the Benrus and Precista watches derives most obviously from the same essential asymmetric case profile as viewed from the front and from their sandblasted case finish. However, in most other respects, their designs were quite different. The most obvious external differences were in the dial, bezel and crystal:
Where the Benrus featured a thick acrylic crystal with a very pronounced dome, the Precista used a flat mineral glass crystal; the Benrus used an acrylic inlay in its bezel whilst the Precista more conventionally used anodized aluminium.
The dial designs are quite different too, the Precista featuring an Omega Seamaster 300 layout with Precista branding whilst the Benrus Type I used a variation of the Rolex Submariner layout but eschewing any form of branding. In fact the first edition of the Benrus was entirely sterile, not only having no brand markings but also no military issue engravings on the case back.
The Benrus would originally have been fitted with an ETA 2620 automatic movement
A number of attempts have been made to produce homages to the Benrus watches, by far and away the most successful of which has been that produced by the American company, MkII, initially in the form of the Blackwater but more recently in the Paradive. Similarly, the Precista 93 has been reborn as the PRS-18, not so much as an homage but as a reissue: The British company Timefactors who produce this watch own the rights to the Precista brand. The PRS-18 comes in two flavours: the PRS-18Q, fitted with a Ronda quartz movement; and the PRS-18A, which comes with an automatic Miyota movement.
Although most of my watch collection is vintage, I do own four modern watches, although thinking about it, all four hark back to classic watch designs of the past. One of these is a MkII Paradive bought about five years ago. I wear it from time to time and like it enough not to have contemplated moving it on but if you sense a reticence in my heaping of praise, it is because for me it is just a tad too large and somehow just a bit too perfectly executed to the point that the warmth of the original seems to have been a bit lost.
I have also admired the Precista take on the asymmetric cased 300m military divers watch for some time. However, until recently, my admiration did not extend to the point that I actually tipped over into seeking ownership. Earlier this year however my resistance eroded and I managed to snag one of the last PRS-18A’s of the current production run. With both watches now in my possession, it occurred to me that a comparison was in order and so this is what I shall now do.
There are a number of good standalone reviews of both watches, and I don’t intend to expend a great deal of effort in reviewing each watch in detail. Instead I thought I’d construct an owner’s perspective on the two, bearing in mind the quite different price of entry for each. While we are on the subject of price, we might as well start there.
In the highly unlikely event you find MkII have stock, the Paradive currently retails at $1495 plus delivery for a configuration similar to mine. A buyer in Europe would have to add 20% VAT to that and so at the current rate of exchange, a brand new Paradive would set back a European buyer somewhere in the region of 1600 Euros or £1250.
I should add somewhat hastily, should my wife be reading this, that I paid nothing like this for mine. Whether this represents good value depends on your perspective. This is an extremely well-executed watch, fitted with an Elabore grade ETA 2836-2. MkII are cagey about where their cases are manufactured but regardless of where that might be, it is very difficult to criticise the quality of engineering of the case or the execution and evident quality of the dial and hands. This is a very nice watch and it feels expensive. However, MkII is a tiny cottage industry one-man band, one that simply cannot aspire to the value-added pricing associated with the establishment Swiss manufacturers. Its business model relies on the loyalty of its fan base and so one must assume therefore that the price reflects to a large extent the labour costs involved in the design, production and, in particular, the quality control stages of its manufacture.
The Precista offers an interesting counterweight. All of the Timefactors watches are priced at a level that appears designed to stick two fingers up at the Swiss approach to pricing. The Precista PRS-18A, which is powered by a Miyota 9015 automatic, is priced at about £235 including delivery or, should you prefer the quartz movement, about £195. To put it another way, the Paradive costs more than 5 times as much as the PRS-18A.
The Precista is made in Germany by Roland Kemmner, formerly of Fricker, and so one cannot account for its pricing by assuming it is another product of the Chinese-made boutique watch industry. We shall see to what extent the differences in the watches sit with their market position shortly but it is probably worth suggesting at this point that the Precista may not be subject to the same level of obsessive quality control as Bill Yao is famous for in the production of his watches.
Neither of these watches are exactly petite; the MkII website reports a bezel diameter of 41.25mm for the Paradive but the case width including the crown is a very substantial 45.8mm. As the crown protrudes only slightly beyond the point at which the natural taper of the case would be located I feel that this dimension better reflects the girth of the watch. However, the length of the case from lug to lug just about stays inside 50mm which means that on my skinny wrists, the watch is quite wearable.
The height of 15.5mm includes the significant dome of the sapphire crystal and together with the weight (112 g including strap) conspires to give the impression of a watch whose centre of mass lies significantly above the level of one’s wrist. As a result, the strap struggles to reign in the tendency of the watch head to swing around in an attempt to find the inner side of my wrist.
In terms of height, the PRS-18 is deceptively shallow at 12.5mm. This comes as a bit of a surprise given the cliff edge castellation of the bezel and the obvious height of the watch when laid flat on a surface but the this is due in no small part to the significant downwards curve of the lugs, all the better to follow the natural curve of one’s wrist. That 12.5mm represents the distance between the case back and the top of the bezel and so completely counter to expectations, the Precista is actually the lower profile of the two on the wrist. The Precista’s case in this respect is helped by the fact that the 3mm thick sapphire crystal sits just below the level of the bezel insert rather than standing very significantly proud in the case of the MkII. On the same strap as the Paradive, the weight comes in at 100g even, making for a more comfortable wear all round whilst retaining a significant heft.
Both watches have 20mm lugs widths which means that at least we are not having to content with the further potential discomfort of a 22mm strap. Awarding a win in this department to the Precista is a personal decision based largely on comfort. Someone with beefier wrists than mine may well prefer the Paradive but this is my review and so I’m giving this one to the Precista.
To my eyes, these are both unequivocally handsome watches. They are both clearly designed as tool watches, with in some ways the Paradive the more butch with its beefier dimensions but it counters that with the elegance of that domed sapphire crystal and matching slanted bezel.
The PRS-18 makes less of a design statement, preferring instead to offer a straightforward ‘this is me, I tell the time, deal with it’ sort of approach to how it presents itself to the world. Its design is driven more by the practicalities of how it might work in the field than how it might make you feel.
I can find no fault in the looks of either watch nor in their execution. Neither watch is saddled with over or under length hands; over or undersized bezel inserts; layout issues with their dials, lume colour inconsistencies or other evidence of an inattention to detail in their design or in the execution of that design. They are both ‘just right’. In the looks department then, an honorable draw.
I‘m not really a lume nut but in wearing the Precista quite a bit over the past couple of months, I have been struck by the considerable luminosity of its lume after even the most fleeting exposure to daylight. This is not an impression I recall having had when wearing the Paradive and so let’s see if we can arrive at some sort of assessment of their relative prowess in the lume stakes. The following is a fairly lazy attempt to document the relative brightness of the lume of each following a 10 second exposure to the downlighters in our upstairs bathroom and then to see how the intensity then fades in the few minutes following their exposure. It is worth noting up front that the Precista uses SuperLumiNova C3 that glows green whilst the Paradive uses SuperLumiNova BGW9 that glows blue.
In spite of the initial superiority of the PRS-18, the two fade at about the same rate and after 7 minutes or so have settled down to a gentle glow that ought to be more than adequate at night once one’s eyes have become accustomed to the dark.
A second blast from the downlighters and we can get a sense of their relative luminosities in the dark immediately following exposure:
The comparatively modest glow coming from the Paradive is due I think in part to the colour of the luminance but the MkII never really impresses to the extent that the Precista does and so I am going to give this round to the PRS-18A.
Both watches feel well-made. The tactile qualities are on a par. The bezels of each show little in the way of play and rotate with firm clicks but there is no pleasure to be had in idly rotating the bezel in either. They are very solid but the quality of the click in both is uninspiring. The crowns screw in and unscrew smoothly on both but the MkII occasionally requires care when screwing the crown back in to avoid catching the thread.
The bezel insert in the MkII is comfortably nicer than that of the Precista. The numerals are machined into a matt black insert and filled with white paint,
The machining of the case of the MkII seems sharper to me but the difference in this respect could be as much about design rather than quality. The execution of the case backs on both is very well done. However, I particularly like the efforts that MkII have made to duplicate the domed case back of the Benrus. I really like the design of the case back opener indentations on the MkII too.
If the vast gulf in price point is difficult to perceive in the cases, it is less so with the dial and hands. The Paradive’s dial is beautifully executed, with a lustrous black background and crisply printed markers and text. The hands too look like quality items – in particular I like the way the seconds hand post is so cleanly visible above the creamy white paint of the hand centre. The PRS-18 dial is more of a dark grey than black, with a matt finish. The text is nicely printed but noticeably coarser than the MkII when viewed up close. The finish of the paint on the hands looks less refined than on the Paradive but nothing at all to complain about in isolation.
One obvious source of the difference in pricing between the two is in the cost of the movement. The MkII is fitted with an Elabore grade ETA 2836-2 whilst the Precista comes with a Miyota 9015. Both movements hack, both are hand windable, both run at 28800 bph. I’ve just checked Cousins’ site and note that a bog standard 2836-2 will set you back £225 plus VAT and delivery. Even allowing for a bulk purchase, a considerable chunk of the Paradive asking price will be tied up with the cost of the movement. A bog Miyota 9015 costs £69.95 +VAT and delivery. Does that difference in price translate to noticeable differences in timekeeping? Well, the ETA will have been regulated in 6 positions whereas I suspect that less attention will have been devoted to regulating the Miyota and so we need to bear that in mind in making the comparison.
On a full wind, dial up, the two are neck and neck, both running at about +5 s/day, both with amplitude at about 265 degrees but the Miyota with a smidge less beat error (0.0ms plays 0.1ms). Dial down, the amplitude of the Miyota drops a bit and its rate increases to +9 s/day. Beat error remains at 0.0 ms. The ETA flattens markedly with the rate dropping to about +2 s/day, the amplitude jumps to 285 degrees and the beat error drops to 0.0ms. Neither watch shows significant timing variation at other positions (the Miyota slows to about -2s/day crown down, the MkII settles to about +3 s/day in the same orientation). I suspect that in day to day wear you might not notice a great deal of difference between the two and so it probably boils down to whether or not you value a Swiss movement over a Japanese one.
I am tempted to call this one a draw although have a suspicion that the ETA might run ever so slightly truer over longer periods of wear.
I’ve owned my Paradive for about 5 years and I still have it and so you may reasonably conclude that I rather like it. I do too. However, as I said earlier on, I am a bit uncomfortable with the size and as a result when I do wear it, it tends not to be for more than 2 or 3 days at a time. I’ve owned the Precista for less than 3 months and like it too. Its smaller size makes it a more wearable for me and when I do seek it out, I have found myself wearing it for a week or more at a time. But it is early days.
The quality differences between the two watches are small in practice but they are real. The MkII feels like a watch built not to a price but to conform to the vision of its creator. The Precista is a beautifully judged reissue of a classic military divers watch but it does feel as though some small compromises have been made in its construction. However, I remind you once again that the Paradive would cost you five times as much as the PRS-18A were you able to place an order tomorrow. It is also worth following that last statement up with the observation that it is easy to gain the impression that to aspire to a MkII purchase can only ever be a hypothetical concept because they are perpetually out of stock of everything. The PRS-18A is also currently out of stock but for more conventional reasons: Timefactors had a hundred or two made, as they do with most of the models in their range, and over the course of a couple of years they sold them all. This particular model is a popular one and I fully expect it to come back into stock at some point. Not so sure about the Paradive though.
I am tempted to leave it there because although we started with the premise that these are two peas in a pod, in practice they are so different in personality that it seems impossible to favour one over the other. The MkII is demonstrably the higher quality watch but not to the extent that the price differential would suggest. It is arguably also the slightly better resolved in terms of its looks. But the Precista is also a very good looking watch, it feels well put together, the timekeeping is great and for me it is a good deal more wearable. The fact that I’ve worn the Paradive so little in my 5 years of ownership probably seals its fate as the marginal loser in this contest; not because it is not the better watch – it probably is – but because I find myself liking the Precista more (at least in what still probably qualifies as a honeymoon period). It’s a simple as that.