The Ball Engineer HydroCarbon Chronograph: A WIS-Full review after one week of ownership.
I have always had a certain fondness for the self lighting technology better known as "tubes". Wikipedia defines it nicely: Tritium lighting is made using glass tubes with a phosphor layer in them and tritium (a hydrogen isotope) gas inside the tube. Such a tube is known as a "gaseous tritium light source" (GTLS).
As WIS ( Watch Idiot Savant), our grail list for the most part tends, to be dynamic as opposed to static; well for me at least. It seems to be in a state of constant flux, as I read reviews and see new arrivals of fellow WIS, some are within reach, others the acquisition means extra discipline during the time spent saving to fund the next Grail.
My latest Grail acquisition a Ball hydrocarbon Chronograph, the seed of my desire for my latest grail, was planted two years ago. After I read a review by Jim S. (Shopping Channel Watch Host) of the upcoming 2nd generation of the Invicta Sub Aqua Noma II. The watch in the review and slated for manufacture had tritum vials on the dial, to boot it was an automatic and a Chronograph with a Valjoux 7750. I started to save. When it was launched, I was disappointed; it was manufactured with Trinite paint (an Invicta luminous paint blend). I ordered and canceled several times, ultimately the watch was pushed way down my Grail list. While the reason for the change, was never disclosed. I suspect that it had to do with licensing by the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in the USA. The NRC has stringent requirements for manufacture and distribution of watches with Tritium in the United States. Which is really overkill, when our ports of entry are wide open; it is like the ATF regulating slingshots. I digress.
The Invicta "Tubed" Prototype LE# 02/03 in the world. Final Manufacturing run was 1000 watches.
Well, late last year, I acquired one of the three Invicta prototypes made with Tubes, it was the blue dial as well, Eureka! I thought until I sized it, then slipped it over my hand, my excitement waned as I gazed at the massive chunk of steel that engulfed the landscape of my 7" wrist. The 20mm of depth was almost half as wide as it was deep.
I placed it on my winder, procrastinating placing it up for sale, it was one of three made. The only one in private ownership. Well another collector contacted me; he was interested, and had much larger wrists. So I sold it to Him. With the funds being freed up, I had a Tutima FX 3 time-zone Chronograph in my sights it was on the top rung of my grail list for about six months. Then, BAM! I saw a Ball HydroCarbon Chronograph. I was finished before I began.
While I have never been a huge fan of Titanium watches, I was reluctant at first because of this fact with the Hydrocarbon. I have always liked the heft of all Stainless Steel. Yet Stainless steel does tend to have a cold heartless like nature, even on a hot day, SS tends to be cool to touch compared to the warm ambient air temperature. Ball thankful uses both metals in this watch. The lower weight does reduce the amount of extra movement that an all stainless steel watch has on the wrist. Another plus in my eyes, because of the lower mass of Titanium, the7750 transmits the classic wrist rocket buzz through the Ti case well. Some of the all Stainless steel "behemoths" cases dampen the 7750's engine to much for my taste. My experience with the SA II prototype was the massive 10 Oz of steel kept the watch in a perpetual side to side motion on my wrist, so perhaps that I why I didn't notice the Valjoux buzz.
The HydroCarbon uses a tasteful blend of both. For the anti-magnetic properties, it has to have a certain amount of steel. ( On the ball website you can read more about the 7,500 G's, the 12k of magnetic field resistance, the -40 Celsius oils, the 300m+ of water resistance, that makes this a extreme tool watch. http://www.ballwatchusa.com/technology.htm )
The ball has a normal if not ultra-thin chapter ring, one of things that has bothered me with many of the "tubed" watches, is the propensity for a cavernous area below the crystal on some "tubed" watches almost 1/4" chapter ring on some watches. I previously thought that it was necessary for clearance of the hands, now I know better, it was done for efficiency and cost cutting in the manufacturing. The vials on the hands on the ball watches are set in the hands neither above nor below but inside. The clearance around the vials is done to exact tolerances perhaps to as small as 1/1000th of an inch.
This attention to detail allows 7-dimensions or 6 total different heights/levels or separate planes, that have vials. This is an industry first, all set within the confines of a standard sized watch chapter ring. The 7th level is a vial set into the bezel (on the version I own).
This attention to detail, in low light situations gives the watch a unique look that vials are floating free in three-dimensional space. It is a hard visual effect to capture on camera.
Ball has specialized in majoring on the minors (details) many of the "tubed" watches are expensive simply because of the tritium vials. I know that the fresh vial in small quantities run about $5 each, at least this is what I paid for some last year. This cost and the additional labor of hand setting on the entry level watch. This means that adding a "tubed" watch requires the average $100 admission price to ownership of a basic "tubed" quartz model with a smattering of tubes.
I have owned several different brands that have a "tubed" watch, several Lumionox's, a Smith and Wesson an Uzi, the Invicta, a Marathon Military issue, and an ADI. Most were quartz, tool or military styled watches. I was disappointed with the brightness on the S&W and the UZI, I have read that they use scavenged vials.
Until last fall all "tubed" watches sold in the US, had to be less than 26 millicures of radioactivity. This is the T25 that is often seen printed at the bottom of the watch dial using GLTS for lume. Last fall, Ball was allowed to go to 100 Millicures, a first in the US. I am unsure how they did it, but the NRC licensed them. This refers to each individual vial. The more Millicures the brighter they shine. The way that they are attached also affects the light transmission, if they have a reflective base layer (under the dial) or if they are flat mounted or secured in a deep slot). Now that I have shared some background, it will help you appreciate what Ball has accomplished in this watch.
While a true tool watch by all conventional styling, but they do not stop at just design, but continue with function and execution. The Hydrocarbon line fulfils the extreme toughness to survive whatever man or the elements lob at it. Lubricating oils that do the job in freezing conditions, to the tough sapphire crystal, undercoated with anti-reflective coating, a welcome addition on any flat crystal.
The bracelet is comfortable. Very well made, screwed links. I will say that the massive fold over bracelet, have to be the toughest and thickest I have ever seen. It is well designed and well engineered bracelet, the solid diver extension, a true rarity, but imparts a sense of security if one dives with the watch. The two part two metal band part Ti and part 316 Stainless Steel. They are brought together with tight tolerance screws. This is a happy medium. It brings the watch to about 200 grams total weight.
The bracelet attaches to the case lug with 2 pairs of screws on each side. The lugs have the deepest inclined curve, I have found on any watch. This allows a superb fit and hug on the wrist. The average 7750 watch is 15+ mm. The HydroCarbon's 18.4 mm of watch is a tribute to excellent engineering by Ball Watches. The design and fit, maintain a normal appearance on the wrist. Well at least on my 7" wrist.
The 120 click unidirectional bezel is precise and dead on in alignment; it wraps the flat 6mm sapphire in an additional layer of protection. It has a single tritium vial at zero marker, the remaining markers are a recessed super-luminova. Ball uses the Super-luminova on minute indices up to the 20 minute mark and for the Arabic numerals at the standard 15 minutes increments. The bezel is retained by four screws.
Functional, I love complications, yet I still desire everyday functionality, I.e. day-date display and a 60 minute unidirectional bezel is a must for me, while I am a certified advanced open water diver, it has been quite sometime since my last dive. Desk diving is a much bigger part of my life, when someone tells you to call them back in 20, or for timing the parking meter, etc, the bezel is very useful. Day and Date, I use for reference when signing documents, etc. These complications are more than just decorative to me, they find use in everyday life.
Where the HydroCarbon deviates from tool watch is in the elegant and clean dial, The HydroCarbon has crisp text and signing, even the seconds are sub-divided, they are dividive by fine hash marks -- four sub-second units, crisp edges on the text and indices, all this lends to a complex but clean dial. It makes precise timekeeping a pleasant task. Many chronograph dials are hard to read or all together too busy, this not the case with the HydroCarbon Chronograph.
The other reason for a clean dial, the hydrocarbon has incredibly precise and tight clearances - i.e the Vials on the dial are like lock and key, a true precision fit. A lot of the "tubed" watches the vials tend to have spacious gaps around the vials. I doubt that you could get a human hair between the dial and vial.
Many watches have a crystal exhibition back to show off a decorated movement, this is my preferred case back. Yet because of the Anti-magnetic field properties of this watch, a metal plate covers the case back, this lends to the magnetic field resistance. It could have been easy to drop the "ball", and just go with a simple undecorated case back. Yet, in fine detail, is depth relief of a submarine with raised text. It is highly detailed, much as one would see on a fine art piece or coin. This is on par with the detail one see in the Perlage , or Ctes de Genve" the Geneva striping on watch movements. While it is not as ornate or visually diverse as one finds on a movement; it is still appealing to the eyes. Many manufactures for the sake of cost saving use stamped steel for the signing or even an engraved logo in the clasp plate. Ball again uses Relief for signing the thick clasp.
I have owned the watch for one week now. Honestly this is the most that I have spent on a watch without "fondling" it first, or being able to check it out before committing to ownership. The MSRP on this watch is $2,499. With another expected price increase after Basel ( per my conversation with the Ball rep.)
The fit and finish is on par with Chronoswiss, IWC, RGW, Corums, Grahams, Tutima's, Panerai's, Breitling's, Omega's.
I think that Ball is the perhaps the best kept secret in the watch industry. If you compare what you get dollar for dollar in a similar Swiss made watch.
I am pleased that while it is not COSC certified, it does keep COSC time, on wrist or off. ( I wonder if the Ti, helps keep the temperature from huge changes)
It blew me a way, My first night of wear (I sleep with a watch on), It was chilly night in Portland, we had frost on the grass the following morning. I slept in a long sleeve t-shirt that night, when I awoke, I checked my new watch, I was shocked, It was transmitting light through the cloth of my t-shirt. I was curious, I found that it even illuminated through a thin woven blanket. I have tried to capture this with a bed sheet. (See Photo)
In relative darkness it looks like the vials float, in 3-d space, they are on seven different elevations within the watch; I think that it is what gives it this visual effect. (This is also a hard effect to capture on Camera - the human eye is amazing lens.) See Photo.
Before I pulled the trigger, I called Ball Customer Service in Florida; I spoke with a very knowledgeable person immediately. There are no close Ball AD's near me. So I planned on waiting until I was in Atlanta the following week to hold one. After talking with Ball CS, I went forward with the purchase, I have been aware of the Watch dealer Preppyboy for 2 plus years, I e-mailed him after exchanging e-mails, I went ahead an ordered. He is located in Manila, I sent him Money on Friday, and Monday morning at 9:30 AM I was signing for my FedEx package my " Thriller from Manila".
Over the past year, I have owned nine automatic chronographs, all valjoux 775X variants 7750, 7751, 7753, but I didn't have one watch that had it all. Everything that I wanted on a watch, this comes the closet to One Watch Nirvana for me ( O.W.N.) while I do wish that the Ball Engineer HydroCarbon Chronograph was offered with a 2nd Independent time zone. (I can still dream about my O.W.N. fantasy) Yet, I do know that in a pinch I can use the 12-hour chronograph in a pinch to track a 2nd Time zone it isn't as straight forward or simple though. This is a definite "keeper" for me and will get regular use in my rotation; at the very least, it will be my new night watch, but I know that it will get a lot more wrist time during the daylight hours as well. To sum it up I know that the engineer referred to in the moniker is that of a " Train Engineer", But I think that it could just as easily apply to the Design, layout, and thoughtful layout of this watch line.
* The photos and text of this article are copyright protected by the author - no part can be reproduced without permission.