The NTH Tropics were inspired by the compressor-case diving watches which proliferated from the late ’50’s to mid ’70’s – marvels of engineering which established an iconic design language. Fortunately for us, the Tropics are made by Chris ‘Doc’ Vail, a man who isn’t afraid to push a good design to the limits, and push his manufacturing partners to deliver.
First, some history is required. A compressor case, or even a super compressor case, is defined by one thing, really; It has a caseback that is held under tension that can move, depending on the forces acting on it. In this way, it doesn’t need a helium escape valve for saturation diving. The reason the Helium Escape Valve exists is because Helium is a small molecule, and difficult to keep out of watches. When you’d saturation dive, the Helium would get into the watch, and as you resurfaced, the pressures inside the watch would be greater than those outside, and it would blow the crystal clean off. The caseback on the compressor watches allowed Helium to escape through the caseback, where a screwed-on caseback with a tightly compressed rubber seal would not. The Super-Compressors use a screw-on case back, excepting the Enicar models which use a bayonet mount caseback. The Compressor and Compressor 2 casebacks used a bayonet mount caseback.
The other notable thing about compressor-cased watches is that they tended to have two crowns, with one turning an internal rotating bezel. When the forces increase as the diver heads deeper, the pressure holds the case back on more tightly. This means that the gaskets weren’t always completely compressed, and that water resistance increased as you moved deeper. It’s kind of a neat trick; you don’t have to worry about sealing the case back with a super-tight wrench, and the gasket might not wear out as fast because it isn’t under compression all the time. The bulk of these watches were rated to 600 feet depth, or about 200 meters give or take. These were made from the 1950s until the 1970s, when that was a common water resistance for most dive watches.
The Super Compressor watches tended to have hatch marks on the crowns and the use of a diver’s helmet logo stamped on the case back. They tended to be made in 36mm and 41mm sizes, with all of the cases made by ESPA, the company that patented the use of the spring to seal the back. ESPA would then sell case sets to other watch brands to package their dial, hands, movement, etc. into them. At that point in history, no-one cared about everything being done in house, unlike watch fans today. Remember, on Rolex watches back then, the cases and movements were made in house, but the bracelets were made by Gay Frères, dials by Beyeler, Singer, Stern, or Lemerich, and so on. On the original Super Compressors, the crowns were at 11 minutes and 19 minutes.
Which brings us to Chris “Doc” Vail, and the Tropics series from his Janis Trading Co. The Tropics are a new series of watches with internal dive bezels and two crowns. These are modern watches, equipped with modern Swiss STP movements, that borrow the best of features from the Super Compressors. (Our prototype shown here is on loan from Doc and equipped with a 9015 Miyota. Pushing to deliver a Swiss movement in a watch originally conceived to house the Miyota is a not-inconsiderable technical challenge of lining up stem height, dial height, and case back height to clear the rotor. Well done to Doc for shipping Swiss, and overcoming these challenges.) The STP1-11 is an ETA 2824-2 design, that STP (owned by Fossil) created back on November 1, 2012. It’s a 4Hz movement with 44 hours power reserve, and even the base model comes with perlage, standard.
First of all, it’s not a genuine Super Compressor, because it’s a screw on back without a spring against the sealing gasket. That’s ok – it pays homage to the Super Compressors without being one. To be completely accurate, there were dual crown watches that weren’t Super Compressors, because Super Compressor really refers to the sealing of the case with a spring in the screw-down caseback, but many people call the dual crown arrangement the Compressor or Super Compressor, accurate or not.
When you buy a NTH Tropic from Janis Trading Co., you’re getting a well-executed watch at a budget price. In the case of the Tropics series, you get a dual crown watch with crowns at 10 and 20. The 20 crown sets the time and is signed NTH. The 10 crown is hash marked like the Super Compressors of old. The caseback has the diver helmet stamped into it, like the compressors of old. It also is marked NTH, 316L Steel, Automatic, Sapphire. That’s the basics, but I’d like to talk about the details. The case starts out with a round shape, no crown guards. It’s sides are brushed vertically. The bezel is a short one, non-rotating, and it adds maybe 1/5 of the total height. It’s polished all over, in contrast to the sides of the case. The nearly flat sapphire crystal stands proud of it by precisely 1.00mm. The lugs are nearly straight, but their outer edge has a sharp bevel which is polished, again in contrast to the rest of the surfaces.
The Azores dial is gorgeous. It recalls the best of Bulova, Titan, Lusina and Eterna KonTiki models, with similar triangle markers at the cardinal 12-3-6-9 directions on the face. The other hour markers are smaller triangles with minute markers in between them. The rotating internal bezel is the highest surface, with the face below it. the minute and hour track of the face is smooth, matté finished. The interior of it is a rough textured finish like the surface vintage watches get after years of exposure to moisture–a fine pebbled patina. Not unlike the contrast between polished and brushed finishes on the outside of the case, the dial is nice to look at as the different surfaces catch the eye. The hands are the real prize here: Where other watch makers would have shipped flat hands, Doc’s hands are three dimensional, peaked along their length in the middle, for both hour and minute hands. When the light catches them, it warms my heart – they’re a sign of quality decision-making and manufacturing that makes the watch feel worth everything Doc asks for it. The hands used here are the Broad Arrow type that I commonly associate with Omega, but they don’t feel out of place here. They were used on the Lusina Super Compressor, and they fit here perfectly. Azores has a date window the 22 minute position.
The bracelet is a solid end link work with 5 across beads of rice, almost like a Jubilee bracelet, but slightly more comfortable. The original bracelet on the IWC Aquatimer looks very similar, but used hollow end links. NTH’s updated version look better, and fit the lugs better, although on these preproduction units, there was a bit of gap between the endlink and lugs that allowed light to shine through when held up to the light. The clasp is similar to that used by Hager on the Aquamariner, or Borealis on the Sea Hawk. Instead of a fold-over flip lock, you have a folding clasp that both locks with two release buttons, and also has micro-adjustments controlled by release buttons. The beauty of this is that you can size the bracelet for a tight fit and then use the clasp to adjust when your wrist swells. If that’s not enough, there are also three micro-adjustment holes in the clasp. It’s a good solution that I find very handy. Doc tells me that he’s working on having the links that come out of the clasp made a little larger to transition from the edges of the clasp neatly into the edges of the bracelet, something that isn’t implemented yet into this prototype. Honestly, I’m not convinced it’s necessary, but Doc knows best. Also worth knowing is that the clasp has formerly only been available in 20mm widths. Doc is getting it downsized to 18mm so that the bracelet can taper, leading to even greater comfort. The bracelet in beads of rice form, and the rubber strap both pay homage to ones used on IWC Super Compressor watches. Since I’ve named IWC a few times, let’s talk about Antilles.
The other NTH Tropics model is the Antilles. Antilles uses the same case, but changes things up by putting 12 hours on the internal rotating bezel, and instead of numerals for markers, uses batons similar to the IWC. In fact, I feel like the whole series is an answer to the question, “What if you took the IWC Super Compressor and updated it for today?” and the answer was Antilles. Azores is the Bulova dial with better hour markers, living in the IWC case.
I love the Antilles. I was initially attracted to the Azores and wore it more during the review period, but if I were purchasing today, I’d be torn. The Azores Broad Arrow hands are perfectly executed, with subtle dimension to them that catches my eye. I never really have a practical use for the diving bezel, so as nice as the internal bezel is, it’s not useful to me, other than contributing to the overall look. The Antilles, on the other hand, is a very useful watch. Because the internal bezel is a 12 hour, I set it to other time zones I commonly work with, and can see at a glance whether or not it’s a reasonable idea to phone, and how to effectively plan my day. At WWR, we talk a lot about how watches are unnecessary, and how we want people to love them more, and yes, you could consult a phone or a computer to keep track of this sort of thing – but having it on the wrist without having to open an application, unlock a device, or swipe at anything is helpful. Having the information you need without delay makes a difference.
Where did the IWC come from? The first IWC Aquatimer wasn’t an IWC innovation – it was a response to a trend already in motion. In 1967, IWC noticed the growing popularity of amateur scuba diving and released their first divers’ watch. The first Aquatimer (Ref. 812AD) was water-resistant to 200 meters.
Antilles reeks of class just like it’s IWC progenitor, the original IWC Aquatimer. Back then, because it was a dress diver, compared to the more sport-oriented looks of Submariners. Back then, the internal bezel was marked for proper diving. Today, we’re more accustomed to desk divers, and the 12 hour bezel makes more sense. The original also came on a strap with a sort of parquet pattern to it, called the IWC Tropic band rubber strap. NTH provided similarly patterned silicone rubber straps that mimics the original perfectly. I can’t overstate it: The rubber strap is a nearly dead-on replica of the TROPIC. The IWC strap uses the parquet pattern on a single large keeper. Doc’s uses two plain-surfaced keepers.
It’s a reflection on how carefully Doc makes his design and inspiration choices that he can use the same case and come up with one watch that’s a homage to an era based out of a couple of different watches from different manufacturers, and make another that’s nearly faithful and looks completely different. Azores and Antilles share the same housing and Swiss STP automatic movement, but that’s it – Azores is pure minty green vintage cool, and the Antilles would fit perfectly on the wrist of Jon Hamm, wearing a tailored gray suit and thin tie. Who doesn’t aspire to be as cool as that?
- Brand & Model: NTH Azores and Antilles
- Price: Earlybird pricing starts at $525 (regular pricing, $700)
- Who we think it might be for: You’re a refined gentleman with a sense of vintage class. A dress diver that hearkens back to 1967 is just what your rugged good looks need.
- Would I buy one for myself based on what I’ve seen?: I initially wanted an Azores for those hands, those hands! Now I’m all about Antilles and its IWC-homage excellence.
- If I could make one design suggestion, it would be: I’m looking forward to the narrower buckle.
- What spoke to me the most about this watch: handsome good looks, paired with the comfortable beads of rice bracelet and the adjustable clasp. This is another success for Doc, making a classic watch at a price that’s not out of bounds for owning one well-made watch.
Tech Specs from NTH
- Case size: 40mm without crowns, 48.5mm lug to lug
- Height: 12.2mm
- Case material: steel (brushed, with polished bezel)
- Crystal: flat, sapphire
- Strap: steel beads of rice, silicone rubber tropic
- Movement: Swiss-made STP1-11