Hands-On Review – The Hemel Airfoil Chronograph

The Skinny

42mm
SeaGull ST1901 Mechanical Hand-Wound Column Wheel Chronograph
100m Water Resistance
$499 US

Sincerity & Truth In Watch Marketing

For $499 US, Hemel is offering their new Air Foil chronograph that houses the well regarded Seagull ST1901 mechanical column wheel chronograph movement from China. Like all of Hemel’s watches, the Airfoil foregoes superfluous – and often dubious – claims to being “Swiss Made,” or “Assembled in America,” or whatever Euro-centric claim so many smaller watch brands feel they can get away with. Hemels’ marketing materials and watch dials are refreshingly bereft of these shaky claims of single-origin manufacturing, which I’ve dubbed “Vintage Nationalism.”

Instead of forcing some Vintage Nationalism into the brand, with Hemel we just get the facts, and the facts spell out a far more accurate – and, frankly, inspiring – picture of today’s globalized, interlocking, collaborative, international industries. As such, the Airfoil is a American-designed 21st Century interpretation of a 1970s British pilot’s chronograph, built around a Chinese movement that’s based on the Swiss Venus Cal 175 from the 1940s which China imported until the 1960s when SeaGull licensed and started making the same exact movement in Chinese plants, where it is still made today. That isn’t snappy Euro-centric marketing, but it’s the truth. I’ll go a step further and suggest that Vintage Nationalism and single-origin myths about watchmaking rely on (and perhaps bolster) a backward-looking xenophobia. Quietly and slowly, brands like Hemel are showing us the world as it really is: diverse, complex, and vastly interconnected.

The Design of The Hemel Airfoil

1970s British Military chronographs provide the template for the Airfoil. At 42mm across, you’d think these watches would feel huge, but the stout lugs and impressive 13.4mm thick case make the Airfoil feel distinctly like a 40mm watch on my wrist. Marvin Menke, who founded Hemel after a career as a freelance branding and graphic designer in New York City, is an exceptional designer. The more I learn about design, the more understand that it boils down to proportions, materials, and colors. Marvin seems to have mastered all three. The airfoil may be his best work yet in this regard, as the watch feels inevitable, given, and “just right.”

Rather than boring you with verbiage on the dial details, please enjoy the following photographs at your leisure and study them for yourself. They’re worth 1000 words each. 

The Functions of The Hemel Airfoil

A 12-hour bezel on a two-register chronograph is heaven-sent because it gives you a way to measure elapsed hours (set it to the hour hand when starting your chronograph), and it can also be used to track a second time zone. I own a different Hemel with this configuration, and it’s very useful.

The crown here does not screw down, and there’s no date, so setting the time is a simple affair. That’s helpful because this is a manually wound movement, and you can expect to be setting the time now and again, as one does with any manually-wound watch.

Two-register chronographs like this one are more legible than those without, simply due to the lack of a third sundial for tallying the hours. Again, hour-measuring is accomplished by the 12-hour rotating bi-directional bezel, should you choose to set it. The feel of the chronograph pushers is quite nice, and has that definitive click that column-wheel chronograph mechanisms are famous for. But it’s not quite like clicking an ultra-high end column-wheel chronograph, of course, with the main difference being that the pushers have a few millimeters of play before they actuate – so a little less “crisp” as we watch nerds like to say.

To understand more fully the accomplishment of this SeaGull movement, a little history may help. Apparently China was importing Venus 175s, which are famous chronograph movements from Switzerland, and in the 1960s the Chinese company SeaGull began build identical movements under licenses in their Chinese plants. That this workhorse movement is still made by SeaGull in China today is rather fascinating in its own right, because nothing like an affordable column-wheel chronograph survived for very long in Switzerland. Today ETA and Sellita run that show, but neither makes a replica of a vintage movement or has an older movement design still in production like SeaGull does with the ST19. Effectively, then, the ST19 is a Swiss legacy machine whose production was sustained in China. For vintage-oriented brands like Hemel, SeaGull’s ST19 movements become a multi-national match made in heaven.

The Vibe of The Hemel Airfoil

First and foremost, I’m convinced that of all the inexpensive movements available today, this SeaGull ST19 is the most compelling to look at through a case back window, and thus perhaps the best movement to offer newcomers to mechanical watches (provided there’s a clear caseback, which there often is). The reason is that the layout affords views of the chrono levers and the vertical column wheel mechanism. It’s just hard enough to understand what’s going to to keep you looking as you play with the movement, and that’s often enough to strike up wonder, which, in turn, often leads to watch addiction. As such, this movement gets my vote as Best Watch To Lure Newbies Into The Hobby!

The other reason I’d elect this watch as an entry point for newbies is that it is incredibly handsome and well thought out.  Again, Hemel is wise to take on watches – or types of watches – that don’t require either (a) sacrificing important details or (b) poorly executing important details. Military watches are good this way, because they tended to have fully printed dials, rather than applied markers or stacked dial plates and so on that could make this watch impossible to get right at this price point. As I used to say when working with musicians: if you really want to impress someone, play the simplest song you know and play it beautifully, because in the end we are there for the quality of execution above all else. Same for watches, IMO.

And the vibe is casual, earthy, adventurous. Levis, RayBan aviators and a black tee-shirt topped off with the Airfoil would send a strong message about your sophisticated sense of casual masculinity. Jammed under the knit cuff of a bomber jacket, the Airfoil would be right at home. Summer preppy, maybe not. Golf, no. Hiking, yes. Strawberries and cream, no. Corn on the cob, hell yes. You get the point.

Lastly, you’re not going to find many straps this nice at this price point. It’s padded to a thickness that flatters the watch case, and has a finish ready to patina beautifully over time into a deeper, richer light brown.

A Note About Hemel’s Marvin Menke

I don’t know Marvin all that well, but we’ve found so many common interests through social media that we ended up on the phone together a few months ago. In that conversation I learned about Marvin’s journey from studying design at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) when New York city was still Fuckin’ New York City, to his career doing freelance brand development, to his starting Hemel watches. I learned that he loves The Smiths, that he’s delighted to be making a living (if not a fortune) with Hemel, and that he and I share most of our art and music heroes. Can you tell we are the same age?  

Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that more than a few smaller independent brands were created by people with a lot of product development and branding experience seeking a late-to-mid career pivot. Marvin is no exception. What I’ve also come to understand is that these more generally experienced people bring an acumen to both design and branding that feels “mature” or “fully formed.” Lastly, these folks seem to have already made the decision to stick to their own vision and to avoid following trends; that’s how these brands stay unique. In the case of Hemel, I find a number of unique qualities that add up to a catalog with a strong aesthetic, a great value proposition, and designs that – partly, though not entirely, because they’re based on classic military watches – seem eternally relevant.