Not every watch I review justifies a full summary of the brand’s heritage. The U-Boat U-42 not only demands that I offer discourse about U-Boat’s illuminating past but it is, in actuality, U-Boat’s history.
Ilvo Fontana was a designer and creator of high precision engineering instruments. In 1942 he was selected by the Italian Navy to propose a design for a new wrist worn watch for its Navy Pilots.
The main constituents for the design brief were maximum reliability and readability in any light and weather conditions. This is what he came up with.
Ilvo Fontana’s drawings for U-42 found by Italo Fontana. (courtesy of U-Boat Watches)
As a former Engineer I take great delight in poring over the original 1942 blueprints for the U-42 concept. I’m not at all embarrassed to confess that I have the above image on my wall. Ilvo followed the Italian Navy’s criteria for a sub aqua, highly legible, robust timepiece to the letter. I love to imagine him at his workbench piecing his wonderful ideas together into the final concept that was the U-42. It could be argued that it doesn’t take too much imagination or design skills to create an oversize legible wrist watch. However, Ilvo came up with two radical (even today) brainwaves. The bezel lock mechanism and ingenious crown system. More on both of these useful apparatus below.
Due to circumstances long lost in history the project sadly never came to fruition.
Jump forward to the turn of the Millennium when Ilvo Fontana’s grandson, Italo, happened upon his grandfather’s original technical drawings and specifications for this extraordinary Diver’s watch.
These 58 year old schematics were to become the inspiration for Italo to create wrist watches in the same highly reliable and legible mould as his grandfather’s original.
This was the advent of U-Boat watches. A hugely successful brand that is now globally recognised as creating oversized luxury timepieces.
The review below will be based on my own beloved 47mm U-42 Limited Edition.
Design and Features:
Although I worked in a design department whilst I was an engineer I have no sartorial training and, therefore, no notion as to why the individual components of the U-42 make up the perfect whole.
The only place to start in introducing the U-42 is with the unique crown system and the rotating bezel locking mechanism.
The crown design must be the easiest to use whilst wearing thick gloves, a la professional diver. The brass knurled edged lever end is simply pressed in to release the extended crown from the case. In the primary position the mechanical movement can be wound. Pull the crown out one position to “hack” the seconds hand and set the time.
The bi-directional bezel, rare in diver’s watches, is released by pulling out the lever highlighted in the above image. Coupled with the coin edge design, this results in the easiest to use, and accurately set, bezel I have ever experienced. I also love the ceramic sphere used to locate the 12 O’clock position (or zero point for divers).
The case is produced using grade 5 titanium. It has a wonderfully sculptured appearance as a result of the soft round edges of the case and bezel amalgamated with the clinical edges of the lugs. The sapphire glass has anti-reflective coating on both sides.
The U-42 range all come as Limited Editions. My own 47mm example is part of a 999 run. This is exquisitely highlighted in a plaque screwed to the left side of the case. It is the little details such as this that elevate the U-42 above most other luxury dive watches on the market.
There is also a raised section on the dial, pertinent to the original design, depicting the same information.
The titanium caseback is LASER engraved with all the relevant details.
The faux patina beige Superluminova charges quickly when exposed to any kind of light and gives of a strong and long lasting illumination. The hue chosen for the lume may seem like a bit of a cheat to try and create the appearance of natural aging but I forgive this because it ties in perfectly with the industrial facade of the titanium case.
U-Boat exert a lot of effort into offering the perfect straps with each of their watches. There are so many wonderfully conceived options that there is an entire catalogue available just for straps. Swapping straps is clearly encouraged because there is a special tool included in the packaging to allow easy removal of the lug to lug bars holding the strap in place. Despite the thickness of the leather strap the U-42 is very comfortable to wear and never becomes fatiguing.
The U-42 gets me pumped up
The U-42 comes in the best watch box I’ve ever seen. This solid steel 4kg behemoth is opened in exactly the same method as the watch’s crown system, which I think is truly inspirational design. I own a multitude of luxury watches, all of which have been presented in very nice boxes, and yet this is the only one I have on show. I liken it to a piece of art work which reminds me of the stunning U-42 I own.
The original U-42 was never designed to be an everyday wrist watch. Hence the outrageous 65mm diameter, which offered maximum legibility. However, the U-42 transposes perfectly to smaller (47mm and 53mm) commercial examples. Carefully thought out Chronograph and GMT examples are also available. But be quick. These are all Limited Editions of relatively small numbers.
The 53mm version in a spot-the-difference competition with my 47mm example.
U-42 47mm Unicum Chronograph with subtle solid gold accents
Limited Edition U-42 GMT with subtle GMT hand and reworked bezel.
Above images courtesy of uboatwatch.com
I like my watches to look purposeful and I cannot think of a watch that has had more design constraints over functionality than the U-42. This sounds like I’m winding up for a criticism but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I love the look of the U-42 family. It can never be considered a classical beauty. However, I wasn’t designed to be beautiful so I don’t see why my watches should be. Aesthetics are subjective. Just ask my wife, who has impeccable taste by the way.
I also like a watch design to be unique, hopefully as a result of exclusive complications or proprietary temporal displays or functionality. The U-42 achieves all of this.
The U-42 is an above average size watch for a reason. However, careful thought has been given to wearability. Despite this seemingly excess of girth and height the U-42 never becomes fatiguing on the wrist. Ergonomics are at a premium resulting in a comfortable oversize wrist watch.
I’m a big fan of the Steampunk art form. This may have a significant bearing on my, almost, lust for the U-42 and its brethren. In my mind Steampunk is the juxtaposition of technology and design and the epitome of function driving form. Which a diver’s tool watch should always strive to achieve. Steampunk is derived from 19th century industrial design when man was starting to create more and more machinery. It was a period where we could start to dream. The U-42 captures this perfectly in my opinion.
I’ve thought long and hard about, and taken great pleasure in studying long and hard, the aesthetics of the U-42 and why they are so appealing. I recently read a study on perceived beauty for the human face. Along with large eyes, which is a reflection of youth and cuteness in an innocent child, the study also remarked on the symmetry of a face. I can only hypothesise that this is why this tool watch is so attractive. Normally, a watch case has a crown on either side that breaks up the symmetry. Likewise, with the dial and the usual date window. By utilising Ilvo Fontana’s original crown design and legible dial design we are presented with an appearance of rare equilibrium.
The ceramic ball at 12 O’clock offers a touch of well-deserved luxury for an expensive watch and proffers the perfect amalgamation between indulgence and utilitarianism.
I have been known to frequent the odd Watch Forum on the interweb. It would be rude of me not to given my Watch Nerd status. One such Forum recently conducted a survey of how many watches members had actually owned. I was a little shocked to work out that I had actually bought, then kept, sold or traded, over 60 high end watches in my 20 years of collecting! The U-42 is most definitely in my favourite top three. Within the last 15 years the U-42 holds the record for the longest period of time spent on my wrist. Four weeks doesn’t sound a lot but I’ve only owned it four weeks and I have been known to wear 4 or 5 different watches on any given Sunday.
As you may have realised, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to be impartial during this review because I adore this watch so much. However, even I must admit it is not perfect. It could be argued, as I have not had chance to test this theory, that the lever mechanism to release the crown could be difficult to operate with diver’s gloves. Furthermore, the brass top lever can, in rare circumstances, catch on clothing, etc, that can result in the crown coming away from the case. Would it be facetious of me to simply recommend wearing the U-42 without sleeves?
Rules and regulations on the design of professional diver’s watches have mutated considerably since 1942 so the U-Boat U-42 could not be designed today whilst considering professional divers. This adds further desirability through exclusivity for me.
Few watches have been designed at the request of a professional end user. Many watches have since gone on to be chosen and used by professionals and whilst they are designed with that sole purpose in mind I still consider a specification entreated to a trusted individual to have more veracity.
Italo has respected his Grandfather, Ilvo’s, original design ethos for the U-42 throughout the complete range of U-Boat watches. It would be easy to simply view U-Boat watches as jumping on the oversized watch bandwagon. However, U-Boat watches were brought to the public’s attention long before big became the byword for desirable in the watch industry. This fad for the oversized has, supposedly, fallen out of favour now and yet U-Boat continue to be successful in this sector of the market. The reason for this is integrity. The large diameter pieces have a reason for being so. The entire heritage of the brand is based on the Italian Navy’s request for an oversize and, therefore, legible, timepiece. And, of most importance, each and every watch is meticulously nurtured from conceptual prototype to final product by Italo Fontana himself.
I know Ilvo would be proud of his Grandson.
All words and images by Richard Atkins, unless otherwise stated. This article may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the author’s permission.