December 16, 2022
by Mike Razak
In 1891, in Cleveland, Ohio, two trains slammed into each other, killing eight people. The watch carried by one of the conductors had stopped for four minutes, throwing the train off schedule. The crash made clear that the rapidly expanding American rail system was in desperate need of a coordinate timekeeping system and precision timekeeping pieces onboard all trains. It was the watch of one of the train’s conductors that stopped for four minutes, leading to what is now known as the Great Kipton Train Wreck. And it was Webb C. Ball who was appointed Chief Time Inspector in the aftermath, charged with determining the issues at hand and how such a tragedy could be prevented in the future. Ball established standards for timekeeping on America’s railroads, and three years later, Webb C. Ball Watch Company was founded to distribute railroad watches. In the intervening 128 years, substantial brand evolution has occurred, and the Ball Engineer M Skindiver III Beyond is a perfect representation of Ball Watches as it exists today.
As a quick aside: The current state of the Ball Watch Company is less clear than some might prefer. The brand still retains its substantial American heritage, but it’s now based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland and offers its watches as proudly Swiss-made. It’s not clear exactly when the move happened, but everything I could find indicated that the brand operated without interruption until the second half of the 20th century, at which point it experienced a dramatic reduction in production, to the point that it was producing only a handful of pocket watches in the late 1990s. Then, in 2001, the brand returned with its first tritium model, under apparent Hong Kong-based ownership. Lots of people nitpick these things (if you’ve spent any time on any forum, you know what I mean), but at the end of the day, Ball remains a brand with legitimate heritage and high-quality Swiss production—Webb C. Ball’s legacy, in my opinion, remains intact.
The case of the Ball Engineer M Skindiver III Beyond is all the proof one should need to know that this is a serious, well-made watch. The 41.5mm case is flawlessly finished with a blend of well-defined brushing and a beautiful chamfer that extends from lug to lug without tapering, adding dramatic separation between the other facets. True to the skin diver style, the watch features a square lug box and lacks crown guards. The screw-down crown features the brand’s signature double-R logo and operates easily. The watch sits at 13.8mm-thick, and a lot of this owes to the bezel; the bezel features a domed sapphire insert with tritium tubes but isn’t flush with the mid-case below. This means a taller watch but also allows for a better grip of the coin-edge bezel, which offers a satisfying click and is easy enough to operate when your hands or the watch are a little wet. The watch has drilled lugs, but not in the way you’d hope: the lugs feature screws on either side to hold the bracelet in place, making strap changes a chore. The bracelet itself, though, is quite beautiful: matching the finishing and chamfering of the bracelet, it continues the case’s aesthetic seamlessly. The one shortcoming is the butterfly clasp, which belies the robust 300m-water-resistant diver design and may cause sizing issues for those with in-between wrists. On a personal note, I wish Ball had used its overlapping closure with the double-R logo (as it has on other models) instead of a smooth branded link. On my 7-in wrist, the Skindiver III Beyond certainly made its presence known, but was always comfortable and never overwhelmed.
Under the domed sapphire crystal is a deep blue dial that is far more interesting than it appears at first glance. It’s not changing the world, but in my opinion, it’s one of the better executions of the tritium tubes. I’ve always found it clunky and unattractive when Ball—or any brand—uses tubes to form Arabic numerals, with the result being segmented pieces that look almost childish. Using straight tubes on the hands and indices allows the tritium to do its thing without cheapening the effect. The top-side cyclops magnifies the 3 o’clock date window with good effect, and I didn’t find the cyclops to be a design issue (though some may). The polished beveled hands offer excellent legibility with their pronounced form, with the double-R logo making another appearance as the seconds’ counterweight. I’ve heard people express dislike of this design, but I think it’s a great, subtle way to harken back to the brand’s roots as a manufacturer of railroad watches.
The dial isn’t cluttered by dial text, nor is it sterile. Six lines total lay out the brand, its history, the movement’s bona fides, and the water resistance. The chunkiness of both the case and the tritium tubes, coupled with the cyclops and the counterweight make the text manageable. Conversely, consider a watch like the original Tudor Pelagos, which has just as many lines but a decidedly more spartan design, creating discord and imbalance on the dial that isn’t present with the Engineer M III Beyond. Why is it called Beyond? I have no idea, as it’s almost identical to the black-dial Engineer M Skindiver III, omitting the applied markers at 12 and 6. In any case, one of my favorite elements of the dial is the sloped chapter ring, which features a flat top for the minute markings, then curves down to the main dial, with cutouts for the tritium tubes. It also features an almost-not-there brushing that contrasts with the main dial. With the pop of red from the “Chronometer” script, this dial is very pleasant to look at—whether you’re telling the time or just dial-gazing.
I want to talk a bit about the use of tritium, not as a design, but in its practical function as a lume source. The appeal of tritium, as stated, is that it’s always on and doesn’t need charging. The material itself is luminous, and as such, simply glows. But it’s important to note that the glow is qualitatively different from that of traditional lume. Tritium shines at a single level of brightness, constantly; I’d put its brightness at the upper-middle of traditional lume’s brightness. While lume-like Super-LumiNova gives off an immediate bright glow, even in well-lit areas, you won’t get that from tritium as it’s simply not bright enough to make itself known if there’s plenty of other light around. What you will get, though, is always-on lume that shines perfectly brightly when you actually need it.
The screw-down caseback has a diver embossed upon it, but that’s almost entirely unremarkable. While I’d rather have a sapphire caseback, I understand this may compromise depth rating and/or the case dimensions. The reason I want such a caseback is to put the in-house (though the brand also uses the term “manufacturer”) chronometer RRM7309-C on display. This is no joke of a movement. It boasts an 80-hour power reserve at 28,800 vph with 25 jewels. In addition to meeting the ISO 764 standard for anti-magnetism, the movement exceeds the ISO 1413 standard for shock resistance, with resistance of 5000g thanks to the brand’s proprietary Amortiser shock absorption ring that holds the caliber. While you can’t see it, the movement also features lovely finishing on the plates and rotor. Prior to the RRM7309-C’s introduction in 2018, Ball designed and assembled its own movements, but did not manufacture the components. Ball’s shift to fully producing its own pieces seems to demonstrate a brand that is checking all the watch enthusiast checkboxes, with a movement that’s specced to do the same.
I’ve said this before and I am bound to say it again, but some watches do exactly what they aim to and do it perfectly. That’s not to say that those watches are perfect or that they have universal appeal, but rather that they don’t fall short in meeting their goals. The Ball Engineer M Skindiver III Beyond is one such watch. It may not be as slim as traditional skin divers, but it has a rock-solid case, an engaging dial, and a powerhouse movement. Add to that the brand’s always-on tritium and its robust heritage, and you’ve got a watch that is sure to find a happy home on plenty of wrists. The Ball Engineer M Skindiver III Beyond is priced at $3,699 and is limited to 1,000 pieces. To find out more, please visit the brand’s website.
>Model: Engineer M Skindiver III Beyond
>Price: $3,699, limited to 1000 pieces
>Size: 41.5mm-wide, 13.8mm-thick, 52mm lug-to-lug
>When reviewer would personally wear it: Ice diving during polar night; with a chunky sweater to match its chunky wrist presence
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Large-wristed, adventure-minded friend looking for a robust watch for a variety of excursions
>Best characteristic of watch: Deep blue dial and sapphire bezel; always-on tritium; bezel action
>Worst characteristic of watch: Tritium doesn’t shine as brightly as regular lume; chunkiness