January 9, 2023
Bronze watches can be a bit of a divisive topic within the collecting community. Some people love them for their ability to acquire a patina and age over time, while others dislike them for the exact same reasons, as they prefer their watches to look fresh and new for as long as possible. While I objectively enjoy the novelty and aesthetic of bronze, I also understand those who aren’t fans of the metal, as once the price of the watch gets too far above a couple thousand dollars, I start wondering if I might have preferred something a bit more traditional that will be able to better showcase the more premium levels of finishing that typically exist on watches at higher price points. Like many Americans, I spent a fair amount of time drinking at home and shopping online during the early days of the pandemic, and one of the rabbit holes I went down was the topic of bottom-dollar bronze watches. At the time, I didn’t own any timepieces with bronze cases, and I ultimately wasn’t sure if I was even going to enjoy the metal once I got past the honeymoon phase of the new purchase, so I set out to buy myself a bronze watch with a reliable mechanical movement for as little money as possible. The goal was simple: I wanted to see if I actually liked the metal or if I was just intrigued by the novelty of it and the fact that it represented something different from the other watches I already owned. I ultimately discovered that I do enjoy bronze, and while no watch is ever perfect (especially when “lowest possible price” is also part of the criteria), what I ultimately picked up for myself has ended up being surprisingly decent.
I started my search on Amazon because I figured that if whatever I found was so bad that it didn’t even function, Amazon would at least let me return the non-working item for a refund or replacement. Approximately one bottle of wine and several dozen pages of searching later (largely because this item didn’t show up when I searched by price), I found a watch that was ultimately rather unobjectionable from an aesthetic standpoint and checked a lot of appealing boxes for what worked out to about $150 with free shipping. At least on paper, the watch looked quite promising, as it offered a 39mm bronze case fitted with a matte green Type B Flieger dial, a sapphire crystal, a Seiko automatic movement, and a screw-down crown with a 200-meter depth rating. That said, with only a few lackluster photos, no name or logo on the dial, a generic vendor name selling the item, and no real useful information listed anywhere beyond an SEO-optimized product title that contained almost as many keywords as the product description itself, there wasn’t much more other than the promising list of specs to inspire confidence in my purchase. Even still, I figured that I would take my chance on the random bronze watch and I placed my order, knowing there was a good chance that I would be taking Amazon up on its free return policy when the watch either didn’t match the description or failed to function entirely.
Since the watch wasn’t available on Amazon Prime, it took a long time to be delivered, although once it did show up, I finally got to see the name of the brand that had actually produced it. Just like in the photos on Amazon, no words or logos appear anywhere on the watch, whatsoever, although the packaging has the name San Martin printed upon it, which I recognize as one of those forum-favorite AliExpress brands that produces highly affordable homage watches. Up until this point in time, I had completely written off San Martin, simply because the vast majority of its designs are blatant rip-offs of famous models from well-known companies like Rolex, Tudor, and Seiko. With that in mind, a completely sterile Type B Flieger dial is such a common design produced by so many different companies that I can’t personally think of one particular watch this one might be trying to emulate, or even if it is a homage watch at all. Given that I didn’t know the name of the brand when I purchased the watch, I had no choice but to go into this one with a completely open mind, and I decided to put my prejudices aside and see what the watch actually delivers, rather than automatically turning my nose up at it because it comes from a company that has made a name for itself by more-or-less knocking off famous designs from big-name manufacturers.
The case of the watch is crafted from CuSn8 bronze, and it measures 39mm in diameter by 12mm-thick, with 20mm lugs and an overall lug-to-lug profile that spans 49mm. The case features an entirely brushed finish, and sitting within the thin smooth bezel is a flat sapphire crystal with an anti-reflective coating. At 3 o’clock is an unsigned screw-down crown that offers access to the movement, while the reverse side of the case is fitted with a solid stainless steel caseback that features a circular brushed finish and is entirely devoid of any markings or engravings whatsoever. The overall design of the case is about as generic and unobjectionable as possible, and despite being intended to have somewhat of a pilot’s watch appearance, it offers a rather generous 200 meters of water resistance. While the finish on the case is hardly anything to boast about, it is ultimately quite a bit better than what I had expected at this price point, and the entire watch feels quite solid and decently put together (even if it is more than likely put together entirely by machines). My one quibble with the case is that the internal corners of the lugs on the example that I received were quite sharp, and while you can’t feel them when wearing the watch on your wrist, it ended up bugging me enough after several months that I took a nail file to the corners in order to smooth down their sharpest points. The amount of metal I removed is virtually imperceptible, yet the difference in feel is significant, and these small considerations are ultimately the difference between a highly affordable watch and something that sells for a higher price point. Sharp corners aside, the case of the watch still exceeded my expectations, and the simple fact that you can even get a real bronze watch for less than a couple hundred dollars is encouraging, let alone one with a sapphire crystal and a 200-meter depth rating.
Green is my favorite color, which is why I picked the green version of this San Martin bronze watch, although immediately upon seeing it in person, I instantly wished I had gone with the classic black dial model. While I have no objections to either the shade of matte green or the finish and execution of the dial itself, all of the markings on the dial are luminous, and the C3 Super-LumiNova used for them appears somewhat of a pale green color in most lighting conditions. While contrast isn’t a problem at all, I just wasn’t expecting a tone-on-tone green dial, and I would have personally preferred to have crisp white markings used here instead. That said, the main reason I think I would have preferred the normal black dial version is due to the fact that the hands feature back outlines with green C3 Super-LumiNova centers for the hour and minute hand, along with a white-finished shaft for the seconds hand. Had bright white lume been used instead, and if the handset had been finished white rather than black, this dial would have been right on the money, but even getting past the color of the lume itself, the black-finished hands simply look out of place against an otherwise entirely green-on-green display. On the black dial version of this watch, the color of the handset wouldn’t have been an issue at all, and getting past the tint of the lume itself is much easier when the dial color that it pairs with is just a classic matte black.
Fitted to the lugs is a brown leather strap that offers a fairly traditional pilot-style appearance that quickly tapers down from 20mm at the lugs to 18mm at the buckle. Integrated quick-release springbars make removing the strap a simple and tool-free process, and while it doesn’t feature the rivets on each side that you frequently see on this style of pilot’s watch strap, the contrasting color of the stitching does add some additional visual intrigue. While the material for the strap is quite soft and flexible right out of the box, it has sealed ends and ultimately feels a bit cheap and rubbery. Objectively speaking, the strap is quite comfortable, and the synthetic nature of the material itself means that it does a decent job of handling moisture contact compared to most other inexpensive leather straps. Even still, the overall tactile experience leaves a bit to be desired, although given that the case has standard 20mm lugs, compatible replacement options are readily available. With that in mind, one nice touch is that the strap is fitted with a matching bronze buckle. Just like the rest of the watch, the buckle is also entirely devoid of any signature or markings, although since it offers a completely conventional design, it could easily be transplanted to another compatible replacement strap that uses a standard 18mm buckle, as finding decent aftermarket straps with bronze buckles isn’t always the easiest task.
Powering this budget-friendly San Martin bronze watch is the venerable Seiko NH35A automatic movement. When it comes to affordable automatic watches, the Seiko NH35 is about as much of a known quantity as exists within the industry, and this is ultimately a big part of the reason I chose to take a chance on this watch in the first place. Running at a frequency of 21,600vph (3 Hz) with a power reserve of approximately 41 hours, the Seiko NH35A offers entirely middle-of-the-road performance; however, this movement is known for its reliability, and that is precisely why it is used in so many budget-friendly automatic watches. Seiko’s entry-level movements aren’t going to win any awards when it comes to finishing or performance specs, although they almost always tend to function properly. I figured that having a Seiko movement at the heart of this watch would at least guarantee a certain acceptable level of performance, which would be more than okay in this instance, considering that I was also getting a bronze case and sapphire crystal for less than the price of an entry-level Seiko 5. That said, the NH35A is a date-displaying movement and this is a time-only watch, meaning that the crown has a “phantom position” that exists when you pull it out between the winding and time-setting notches. While this is certainly a minor annoyance, this same oversight exists on watches that cost multiple times the price of this budget-friendly bronze timepiece, and I would much prefer to have a reliable known-quantity movement with a phantom setting position than a proper time-only movement from some manufacturer with an entirely unproven track record and potentially variable levels of quality control.
Despite this watch’s classic Type B Flieger dial and a strap that more-or-less screams vintage pilot vibes, I really have a hard time actually calling this bronze model a true pilot’s watch. The fairly compact cylindrical screw-down winding crown is a far cry from the oversized onion-style crowns that typically come to mind when I think of traditional pilot’s watches, and the compact 39mm case profile and comparatively chunky 12mm thickness ultimately give it more of a field watch feel when strapped to the wrist. Additionally, I struggled with whether or not I even wanted to write about this watch at all, considering that the San Martin brand itself seems to be largely dedicated to homage pieces, and while I completely recognize the number of people who are interested in that side of the watch industry, I also tend to shy away from brands that do not produce their own original designs and simply piggyback on those produced by the true pioneering manufacturers. But we are ultimately talking about the firmly budget-friendly end of the price spectrum, and when it comes to ultra-affordable bronze watches, it’s undeniable that San Martin offers just as strong a value as any other brand out there — and that even includes the dark corners of AliExpress and the various offerings that seem to solely exist on that website.
When I originally purchased this bronze watch in 2020, I paid about $150 for it, and more recently, this exact model appears to have been replaced by another, virtually identical version that features a signed crown and powered by the Seiko Epson YN55A movement. The movement used in the new version of this watch is essentially the same thing as the Orient F6922, although it is the unbranded equivalent that is sold to third parties for use inside non-Orient watches. The new movement offers very similar overall performance metrics, and since it is also the same caliber that is trusted to power countless modern Orient timepieces, you can largely guarantee that it will be similarly problem-free and reliable. One other interesting update to the collection is that at the time of writing, the green dial variant no longer appears to be available as an option, and the black version is now the only one currently listed on the brand’s website, although it is still offered with the choice of either a Type A or Type B Flieger dial. While the green version may just be sold out for the time being, I wouldn’t be surprised if San Martin had dropped it as an option entirely or is giving it an aesthetic overhaul in order to sort out the issue with its mismatched handset.
The new version of this watch has an official retail price of $220 USD, although it is currently listed for $179 on the official San Martin website and for just $154 on San Martin’s own AliExpress store, so I imagine that this is one of those watches for which you will never actually have to pay full retail price, regardless of where you purchase it. San Martin produces a wide assortment of other bronze watches, although many of them have cases that categorize them as bronze homages or, at the very least, place them within a homage-adjacent territory. That said, while the rather simple and neutral aesthetic of a Flieger dial in a 39mm case is something that is hardly original from a design standpoint, it is also not something that I feel needs to have another brand’s name on it in order not to feel like it is a blatant homage watch. This particular model happens to be the least expensive bronze watch with an automatic movement currently listed on San Martin’s website, meaning that any bronze watch from the brand will likely offer a similar (or better) overall level of build quality should you want something with a significantly different overall aesthetic. All things considered, this watch is far from perfect, but for less than a couple hundred dollars, it allows you to get a taste of bronze in an overall package that checks a lot of the right boxes to make any spec-focused watch nerd happy. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.