And the award for the best watch commemorating a jazz legend in 2014 is… Well, okay, it’s not a particularly crowded field. Still, after wearing the new Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition model (Reference 01 733 7681 4084-Set LS) almost non-stop for a couple of weeks, I’d have to nominate it – not just for that award, but perhaps the most successfully wearable, wonderfully minimal, truly modern dress watch I’ve had on my wrist all year. As well, it may also be one of the true value-proposition timepieces of 2014 thanks to the subtle details it packs into its seemingly restrained design.
Now, when one thinks of Oris, dressier watches – let alone music-themed ones – rarely come to mind at first. Oris is best known, of course, as the independent Swiss brand beloved for guys’ mechanical tool watches – pilot watches, and especially its industry-standard-setting dive watches like the Aquis and ProDiver. These models, like much of Oris’ offerings, are famed for punching well above their weight (i.e. price point) in terms of compelling style and Swiss-made quality. However, Oris has maintained a more experimental collection know as “Culture” that is unexpected compared to its more sober offerings – it seems to be the brand’s test lab of sorts, where it can get its freak on to try out different looks, styles, and mechanics one simply wouldn’t expect (or crave) from Oris. And within the “Culture” offerings, there is a particularly developed subset known as the “Jazz Collection.”
So where does this fit into the overall Oris aesthetic? Well, when aBlogToWatch’s fearless leader Ariel Adams once asked Oris’ current chairman (and nearly four-decade employee of the brand) Ulrich Herzog why he pursued a jazz collection within the company, he simply replied, “Because I like jazz!” Oris has even organized a number of jazz festivals under its aegis, but its most visible commitment to the great, groundbreaking American music genre is its Jazz Collection timepieces.
In it, Oris has paid tribute to many of jazz’s greatest artists – from Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and even avant-garde fusion guitarist John McLaughlin. However, to be honest, despite my passion for this music, I haven’t always desired to acquire one of these models for my own collection. For one, I’ve sometimes found them a bit too illustrative and literal, more like a piece of memorabilia than something one might actually want to wear. Oris’ Miles Davis Limited Edition from 2001, for example, features a silhouette of Miles playing trumpet on its caseback along with his stylized signature; the tank-style case and rather garish deco-style hour numerals on the dial didn’t seem too great a fit for most contemporary tastes, either.
The current tribute model to West Coast jazz great Chet Baker – the aptly-named Chet Baker Limited Edition (Reference 01 733 7591 4084-Set LS) – seems to follow this precedent, with its busy dial overwhelmed with musical notes as hour/second markers and Baker’s flowing script signature, as well as a neither-here-nor-there 40mm case size that doesn’t point it in either a modern or retro direction. But with the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition, I feel Oris has finally cracked the code. They’ve created a model that, in its sublime execution, both pays tribute to the essence of jazz and its titular inspiration – all the while creating a beautiful timepiece that even a non-jazz aficionado would be proud to wear. At the same time, the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition shows just how jazz can be a fitting inspiration for a timepiece when done right.
Coltrane, of course, is arguably jazz’s greatest icon. In his tragically short career, he proved both a virtuoso saxophone player who pulled a lush, multidimensional, utterly distinctive tone out of his axe, and was an ace bandleader and improviser; at the same time, Coltrane also proved a fearless, groundbreaking innovator who pushed the genre into uncharted realms, with fearless, utterly experimental works like the 1960s Giant Steps, A Love Supreme and Ascension (the latter two both from 1965). More than anything, Coltrane was bold – so what does this titan known for the Herculean ribbons of shimmering, abstract sound have to do with his new, utterly subtle namesake wristwatch?
Intriguingly, when the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition debuted at Baselworld in 2013, it followed the baldly commemorative pattern of previous Jazz Collection releases, featuring an image of him playing saxophone etched onto its caseback. But with the watch’s actual release this past year, that caseback was replaced by a solid steel one dominated primarily by Oris’ shield-like logo. The only indication of the figure it’s paying tribute to is in the name of the watch etched above it in a plain, Helvetica-style font.
That change is the key to the genius of this watch: instead of literally depicting Coltrane, the watch captures his spirit and music through a series of subtle cues and details. The primary one is the vintage-style “train track” minute/seconds index at the outer edge of the dial. It is rendered in a deep luminescent blue that serves as a clever visual pun referencing Coltrane’s classic Blue Train album from 1957, replicating almost exactly the hue of light Coltrane is bathed in on the cover photograph. This is a multilayered reference point, actually. The color blue also evokes the blues – the African-American style of music from whence jazz (and rock and roll, and pretty much all popular music) sprang, as well as the “cool” suggested in the titles and sounds of masterpieces like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Trains as well prove a potent echo from the history of African-American culture, from slavery’s “Underground Railroad” to serving as the subject of many classic blues and jazz standards.
It’s a riff on a theme much as Coltrane himself might insert or mutate a phrase from a standard effortlessly into an improvisation, not drawing overt attention to it as he transformed it into something unique. As well, while I may be extrapolating a bit here, but even the custom font of Oris’ logo recalls the clean, modern typography that distinguished the art direction of the great jazz label ECM. But what’s great is this information remains a sort of lively secret to the wearer; it doesn’t announce one’s jazz/Coltrane fandom to the world, but instead acts as a more personal detail – a nuanced symbolism that enriches the wearing of the watch.
The layout of the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition is sober, hardly as wild and improvisational as one of its namesake’s great solos. But by swapping literal imagery for a kind of lyrical, symbolic abstraction, the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition grows greater than the sum of its parts. It’s simply incredibly wearable and readable, period. It just proves a great timepiece, regardless of its inspiration – a quality which I believe so-called “tribute watches” of this ilk should strive to achieve.
Ultimately, what makes this piece succeed is that it is less demonstrative of John Coltrane per se than something he might actually have worn! Jazz musicians, of course, were the first GQ dudes: they wore the finest suits and timepieces of their time (Miles certainly loved his Breitling, among others) that exuded what we now revere as Mad Men-style retro-hipster cool. As such, the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition embodies mid-century-modern elegance in its starkly minimal black dial and thin sticks of steel for hour markers. They’re broken up only by the minutes/seconds track: as seen through the curve of the wonderfully domed sapphire crystal, it adds a subtle cobalt shimmer to the dial’s midnight monochrome. It’s a surprisingly legible, yet interesting, presentation. By making a parallel between jazz references and vintage design cues, the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition conveys a sophisticated understanding that jazz is ultimately synonymous with modernism, a true expression of a distinctly 20th century revolutionary aesthetic.
Indeed, the many things this watch does right simply lifts it above its competition. For one, I love that the date window is the same color as the dial – a detail so many similar watches skip; this nuance both makes the watch slightly dressier, and creates a more unified design expression. The hands are perfectly proportioned; they’re also correctly curved slightly, so as to appear straight when looking at the domed crystal straight on. And where so often a timepiece uses its crystal as a mere transparent window to showcase the dial, the domed sapphire here is a statement: it fuses with the rounded geometry of its polished steel case and curved lugs to create a sculptural series of planes out of very minimal, basic formal elements. The thin, ridged bezel makes the case diameter’s 38mm wear slightly larger for a more contemporary feel, too, but the more vintage-style dress watch size also makes it ideal for fitting under a shirt’s cuff.
The movement powering the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition is Oris’ 733 caliber – essentially a Selitta SW-200. This is a basic, albeit (I believe) high-grade, ETA-style three-hander Swiss automatic movement; its only true complication is the date function at six o’ clock. Some have complained that the price of this model isn’t justified by its common mechanism; that said, I love that it hacks and is hand windable (many similar watches don’t have these options); it also keeps absolutely rock solid time, and will be easy to service for eternity. I would love a Calatrava or Reverso, say, with a unique, high-end, in-house manufacture movement (and ideally an exhibition caseback revealing a supremely jeweled and finished engine). What I ultimately require in a mechanical dress watch, however, is that it looks great and keeps immaculate time, both of which the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition watch handles with virtuoso ease. But where it truly ascends to the first chair is its superlative Jörg Bader strap.
Fans of Christopher Ward timepieces already know about the innovative “Bader buckle” – a deployant that innovatively tucks under like a traditional buckle, yet provides an even cleaner line and perfectly adjusted fit. It’s a little fiddly when you first try to set it up, but once you figure it out, you realize you are wearing a true advance in the deployant strap realm (in truth, it will be hard for me to go back to a regular deployant after experiencing the genius ergonomics of the “Bader buckle”). The strap is also made of the finest leather I’ve come upon on a watch in some time: just firm enough, but with a surprisingly supple feel on the outside and a comfy, padded suede on the inside. This awesome strap truly pushes the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition over into pure luxury. It also is but one of many details in the execution of this watch that justify the price.
Ah, yes – the price. Some have complained about the cost of the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition considering what you get – but I have a feeling those people will quiet down if/when they actually experience the Bader strap, as well as see how perfectly the dial sits on almost any-sized wrist (at least a healthy multitude of them). Yes, there are other offerings out there with a similar aesthetic. I think the Hamilton Intra-Matic (reviewed here) is one of the greatest retro-styled watches out there, for example, as well as an excellent value: it has a similar movement, and can be had for around half the price (with a sapphire exhibition casebook to boot). The Intra-Matic, however, doesn’t have the amazing Bader strap and other fine finishing aspects and details that set off the Oris John Coltrane; with no seconds hand, the Intra-Matic is also more aggressively vintage-styled, making it more of a novelty and less of an exact comparison.
Conversely, the similarly priced Junghans Max Bill model authentically exudes the same sort of ‘50s-‘60s Bauhaus vibe, but its Miyota movement is not as distinguished as the Selitta in my opinion, and the strap isn’t in the same league (although it does have a wonderful sapphire caseback). Another possibility, IWC’s entry-level Portofino, costs a few thousand more than the Oris Coltrane, but with similar self-winding three-hander guts and look. NOMOS offers an authentic, if sometimes divisive “International Style” design, along with innovative in-house movements – but at a couple big bills more than the Oris, and certainly without any jazz! Among the Oris John Coltrane’s small but distinguished cadre of jazz-themed peers, I absolutely adore the Vulcain Herbie Hancock special edition, with its staggeringly beautiful dial; but with its famous in-house “Cricket” movement and precious-material options, the Vulcain ends up (deservedly) at another whole price-point jump – or two – more. If I could, I’d simply have both and start a jazz-oriented micro-collection among my watches!
Basically, when a watch of a certain style is mechanically the same across a swath of brands, it’s what the individual brand does with the execution that makes it stand apart. The Oris John Coltrane doesn’t take giant steps, but it chooses the ones it does make carefully, and then refines them to their essence – so subtly that you don’t realize what’s special about it right off the bat until you actually wear it. There is so much narrative cleverly integrated into the watch’s conception and design: that, realized with a sophisticated palette of minimal abstraction, is what you’re paying for here. What’s luxurious about this is that there simply is nothing “extra” about this watch. That’s not to mention its versatility.
This works as a watch with or without knowing the Coltrane association is there, which is to my mind the best kind of tribute timepiece: timeless – like much of Coltrane’s music has proven. In total, the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition manages to effortlessly appear elegant, innovative, historically referential, and decidedly modern – but like its namesake, avoids falling into academic classicism to become its own unique expression. After taking it all in, above all, I just love the Oris John Coltrane Limited Edition supremely among its ilk. In its silent way, it just may be the rebirth of the cool… List price is $2,220, although it can, of course, be found significantly below that… oris.ch
>Model: John Coltrane Limited Edition reference 01 733 7681 4084-Set LS
>Price: $2,220 USD
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes. Constantly. A burly martial-arts expert will need to be sent to pry/karate chop it off my wrist…
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: A jazz fan, obviously; a watch enthusiast who prefers his/her Bauhaus influenced, “less-is-more,” retro-style timepieces powered with a little soul, too.
>Best characteristic of watch: Minimal yet sophisticated design. Cleverly, subtly references its titular inspiration. Case concept/finishing punches above its weight. Hacking movement! Date wheel that matches the dial! All that, plus perhaps the best, most innovative deployant strap I’ve ever worn. Did I mention the date wheel?
>Worst characteristic of watch: Some have noted they’d be more interested in the Oris John Coltrane if it offered an in-house movement.