I want to tell you something you may not know: Not all U.S. Government intellectual property is created equal. You’ve probably seen NASA branding on everything from bean bag chairs to Hermès bags. To be sure, in the past few years, we’ve covered seven different NASA-branded watches, including three in the last 12 months. Here’s the rub, though: As long as you follow its somewhat simple guidelines, NASA gives its IP away for free to those who seek to merchandise it. Conversely, if you want to create a product with an icon like Smokey Bear—the U.S. Forest Service’s fire prevention spokesanimal—there are licensing fees and revenue agreements that go along with approval. In addition to being a less lucrative property than NASA, Smokey Bear’s merchandising process means that there’s less dreck and more thoughtful products, often from brands that see part of their identities in Smokey’s forest-saving mission. That’s exactly the case with the new Smokey Bear watches from Vero Watches, two classic field watch designs that reinforce the brand’s outdoorsy identity.
Vero has always been linked with the outdoors and nature. Based in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of the United States, the brand has watches like the Workhorse that are designed to be worn outdoors and an online journal with entries like “Our Picks for the Top U.S. Dirt Bike Trails” and “Vero in the Wild: Summer in Iceland.” Frankly, I struggle to think of a brand better suited to create a Smokey Bear watch, but it’s not the first. A quick search will turn up some novel vintage designs, as well as the more modern Filson Smokey Bear Watch from 2016, a 43mm quartz field watch priced at $1,000. Vero’s take on a Smokey Bear field watch, though, is quite different and, in my opinion, shows how a small brand can take an iconic property (in the U.S, at least) and successfully make it its own.
Vero is presenting two distinct Smokey Bear models, but they share the same overall case design. The 38mm stainless steel cases feature a satin finish but with two polished accents. The first is a thin, round bezel between the main case and another ring of satin-finished steel. I love the little ring of shininess this offers; it’s enough to break up the flatness of the case but not so much as to ruin the rugged aesthetic. That’s complemented by a dual-finished crown with a tree insignia embossed. The crown takes advantage of the case’s 12mm thickness, spanning most of that height to allow for an easy grip and operation. There’s something about the dual finish on the crown and the polished bezel ring that really pulled this watch together for me. As someone who leans towards clean, perhaps dressy watches, I felt these polished accents hint at a time when every watch was polished and even those meant for the outdoors were elegant.
With the aforementioned proportions and a modest 46mm lug-to-lug and curved lugs, the watches sit nicely on the wrist and come with two 20mm straps: a quick-release leather with a pin buckle and a canvas single-pass with “SMOKEY” printed on the back such that it sits between the lugs. Both straps had short break-in periods but were comfortable and seemed likely to last. The leather strap is almost perfectly matched to the orange minute track on the dial and its tail is embossed with the tree insignia used on the crown and both dials. Solely because I don’t like NATO or pass-through straps, my preference on the wrist was for the leather, which also lent the entire package a pleasing warmth. The watch offers a sapphire crystal and 120m water resistance, both of which should cover most people for all their outdoor adventuring.
I mentioned how I think the case design subtly recalls a different era of watch design when things were a bit fancier. It makes sense, then, that Vero took its inspiration from the past in crafting these two dials. The first dial, dubbed the Smokey ’44, has a retro-cool Smokey Bear at 12 o’clock and “Only You” right beneath, paying tribute to the year Smokey was born, 1944. Here’s an interesting tidbit: the now famous “Remember…Only YOU can prevent forest fires” wasn’t the original slogan; when Smokey hit the scene in 1944, he quipped, “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires,” which is far less catchy and involved scary fractions. This model also has a cathedral handset and big, bold numerals common on watches of the 1940s.
The Smokey ’64—chosen for the year Ol’ Smokes got his own zip code for fan mail—is a more modern execution of a field watch. Eschewing overt Smokey branding, it favors a simple tree insignia and the modern Smokey slogan, “Only you can prevent wildfires” (officially adopted in 2001). Where the ’44 has Smokey at 12, this watch has a long triangle marker, and the numerals are thinner and more contemporary, with sportier sword hands to match. This model will certainly have broader appeal than the ’44, though, for me, it’s the less exciting of the two.
The dial itself has a grained texture with a deep brown color that establishes a chromatic connection with nature. The dials have an orange railroad minute track with lume pips at the hour, lumed numerals, a 24-hour track in red, and share a brown seconds hand with a lumed shovel-shaped counterbalance and a lumed tip. All of the lume is executed in green C3 Super-LumiNova, which shone brightly and evenly in low light.
The dials aren’t the only place where the two models differ, though. On the Smokey ’44, you get mil-spec style text-based caseback design, with a tiny campfire in the middle, further admonishment to not set the woods on fire, and the classic slogan (nitpick: both “only” and “you” are underlined here, but the emphasis has always just been on the latter). On the Smokey ’64, a more graphic presentation of the slogan takes up the entire back, with Smokey playful made to be the O. If I had it my way, I’d do The Full Smokey: Smokey ’44 dial with the Smokey ’64 caseback.
The watches run on a movement as safe and reliable as Smokey Bear himself, the automatic Seiko NH38A. This is a proper no-date movement with 24 jewels and a 41-hour power reserve at 21,600 vph. Along with the Miyota 9039, this is one of the go-to no-date movements for small brands looking to make a dateless watch; both movements debuted following years of microbrand watches with crowns with useless date positions. You can expect about -20/+40 seconds per day from the movement, though my experience has always been better.
The Smokey Bear watches are affordable fun for those who love the outdoors, with a bit of ursine quirk if you want it, and a wisely offered bearless dial if you’re just looking for a well-made classic field watch. While Title 16, Section 580p-1 of the United States Code establishes Smokey Bear as the property of the United States, the same section similarly introduces Woodsy Owl, who perhaps less famously but no less importantly encourages nature lovers to “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute!” Since Woodsy got left out this round, I’m hopeful we’ll see another edition with him on the dial. The Smokey Bear Watches by Vero are priced at $450 USD (and include stickers and a pin), with 10% of profits going to the United States Forest Service. For more information, please visit the Vero Watches website.