Hands-On Yema Kavinsky… C’est Très Choutte

The Skinny

  • Dimensions: 35.5 x 42 x 10mm
  • Material: 316L Stainless Steel (Black PVD an option)
  • Water Resistance: 5 ATM / 50 m
  • Strap: 316L Stainless Steel Bracelet
  • Price: €195

The Magic of Glowing Red Digits

I don’t wear digital watches. I don’t even own a digital watch. I think I did have a silver Casio once in childhood, but it was so long ago that I really can’t be sure. This lack of basic recollection means that watch did not leave an impression on me. In fact, I would even doubt the existence of said watch, was it not for the vague memory of a very annoying hourly chime. At the other end of my recollection spectrum however, is the first time I saw a Hewlett Packard HP-35 calculator in 1976. My father was working in London for IBM and we were visiting the house of a colleague who had one of these electronic marvels.

A scan of an period ad for the HP-35 LED scientific calculator

The fact that this machine could add, subtract, multiply and calculate all sorts of scientific results did not fascinate me. But those glowing red LED numbers certainly did. They appeared magical and ethereal to my 5-year old eyes. Appearing, changing and then disappearing as the internal electronics made their calculations. 

In England we did not really see the LED watch boom that happened in the US in the mid-70s. We seemed to go straight from three hands to monochromatic LCDs, so my only recollection of a warm red LED glow is from those early calculators.

Nonetheless, those glowing red digits have held a nostalgic fascination for me since, and from Yema’s latest release, I’m not the only one. Their latest collaboration is with 46-year old French DJ Kavinsky. Now, I’ll forgive you if you have not heard of Kavinsky before. French House music is a relatively narrow genre of which Daft Punk were perhaps the only practitioners to find global stardom.

Yema History

Yema, on the other hand should be more familiar to watch enthusiasts. Formed in 1948 in Besançon near the French-Swiss border, Yema grew quickly to be France’s leading watch manufacturer, producing over half a million watches a year by the late 1960s. By the 1980s, output had grown to more than 2 million watches a year and the company passed through the industrial hands of Thomson-Matra before Seiko acquired it in 1988. By 2004, Yema was back in French ownership through a management buyout and in 2009 it was finally acquired by Morteau-based watchmaker group Montres Ambres in 2009.

Yema Superman Re-issue. Image: yema.com

Output since Montres Ambres acquisition has focussed on re-issuing Yema’s greatest hits from its extensive back-catalog. They are not unique in this approach of course with many other relaunched brands from Nivada Grenchen to Bulova taking the same route. Recent reissues have included their famous ’Superman’ dive watch, the ‘Speedgraf’ chronograph, and, pertinent to this review, their 1975 LED watch.

Yema LED Reissue
Yema LED Re-issue. Image: yema.com

Reissued and Updated

Red LED reissues have been a recent trend. Bulova brought back the Computron and Hamilton brought back the 1972 Pulsar Time Computer, seemingly driven by a collective recollection of the 1970s digital watch zeitgeist. Those re-issues were exact copies of the vintage version, while this Kavinsky collaboration updates the traditional Yema LED case to something a little more contemporary. The LED display module is reduced in size to provide a bezel-like border and more balanced proportions. The lugs are wider on the new model, giving a more modern, integrated look… if you can ever call this retro futuristic styling modern. The octagonal shape of the original is still visible in the brushed and textured horizontal stripes, but polished corner facets have now been added. The overall execution is pleasing to the eye and combines old and new design cues effectively.

The Kavinsky gains a more muscular case and a smaller display than the vintage LED

First impressions are good. Yema sent both the silver and the black watch for me to review and randomly, I opened the silver one first. It’s difficult not to smile when one sees this watch for the first time. In world where modern styles are often conservative and a different dial color claims to be innovation, the Kavinsky is something unexpected and wonderfully kitsch. Within seconds this watch had transported me to another world… a world were I was wearing a silver lamé bomber jacket listening to ‘Around the World’ from Daft Punk’s debut album. A world where I was deeply cooler than I am in reality.

Pushing the small silver button on the side of the watch displays the time in true vintage LED fashion and the display does not disappoint. There are those glowing red numbers of my youth! They appear a little brighter now, no doubt being realized using higher efficiency components than back in those early days of semiconductors. 

This Watch is no Shrinking Violet

“Hey Mr Robot!” said my wife as I walked into the kitchen with the silver Yema strapped to my wrist. From nowhere one of my sons started body popping when he saw it. “Oh that’s cool” said his more conservative older sibling a moment later. I ask you… when was the last time anyone started dancing spontaneously just because of a watch? Ok… maybe when you finally got the call from the AD that your steel Submariner had arrived…. But other than that… when? This watch brings joy.

A versatile size

The stainless steel case is 10 mm high, 35 mm across and 42 mm lug to lug. Being a squarish watch, the dimensions are less meaningful compared with those of regular round watches. The salient point here is that the watch fits my 7.25 inch (18.5 cm) wrist perfectly. The visual impact of the design makes up for any lack of surface area. This is not a large watch however, so those who prefer watches above 42 mm will probably feel the Kavinsky is a little small. The end links are female so the effective lug to lug is greater than the measured 42mm. The polished sides are perfectly vertical but at only 10 mm high, don’t impose too much. In fact, I find the planar sides gives the case a pleasant ‘folded’ feel to the case, as though it were formed from polished steel origami. 

The Kavinsky is a good fit for my average wrist

The watch comes in either stainless steel or black PVD. The black version, while identical in all but color, is the much more discrete choice. Consider it the charcoal Armani suit to the steel’s silver lamé. The black model could easily fly under the horological radar, until you press the button of course. At that point all bets are off and attention will be definitely grabbed. 

Black or silver, discrete or loud – it is your choice

Could this be my Horological Xanax?

The whole ‘push a button to view the time’ aspect was alien to me. All my watches have at least three hands and constantly display the time in at least one timezone as a miniumum. Wearing a watch that did not left me with an existential quandary in my mind. Would time and it’s passing become less important to me while wearing this watch? Would it’s reluctance to divulge the passage of my own lifetime mean I would be more relaxed… Could this watch even turn me into a laid-back individual? My wife certainly hoped so.

In the end, the watch caused no character-changing epiphany. I did look at my watch less often which is probably a good thing and I did enjoy pushing the button to reveal the time. Sometimes the revelation actually came as a surprise, meaning I had lost track of time. For this non-Apple-Watch-owning enthusiast, pushing the button did not wear out its welcome during the week I had the watch. Overall, I decided I liked the ‘keep me in the dark until I push for time’ feature.

It’s Quartz and it’s Digital

That is as much as I can tell you about the ‘movement’. Functionally, it is quite basic. Pressing the central button once will display the time for three seconds. Pressing it a second time will display the day and month and pressing it a third time displays the running seconds. The lower button, colored red on this Kavinsky release, is used to make adjustments cycling through the time hours, time minutes, month, day, year (which is oddly not actually displayed) and the 12/24 hr display format. That is your lot. I would have liked to be able to track a second time zone on the watch but alas, that complication is not available.

There is 5 ATM/50m of water resistance which effectively makes it safe to wash dishes and wear in the shower. I’m not sure I’d want to fully immerse the watch for swimming however, but in theory, it should be OK.

A Good Bracelet, but not Great

I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again – one cannot expect the bracelet on a sub $500 watch to be very good. Good bracelets cost enough to manufacture to be uneconomic at this price point. This is a sad fact since the bracelet is such an important factor in one’s enjoyment of a watch – even more so with an integrated design such as the Kavinsky. To all intents and purposes, the bracelet cannot be changed without ruining the look of the watch, so a watch like this lives or dies by its bracelet.

The Kavinsky lives… just.

Frankly, when I unboxed the watch I expected the bracelet to be lightweight and awful. I mentally prepared myself for the torture of plucked arm hairs that accompanies such bracelets. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think it pulled a hair the whole week. The links are solid but still feel a little lightweight. The fit is OK and the brushing is nicely done. It is – by far – not the worst stainless steel bracelet I have experienced on a sub-$500 watch.

Despite documentation to the contrary, I could not find any micro adjustment on the bracelet. Adjustment is by removing links secured with split pins and so some compromise in fit might be required. I managed to find a snug fit just by removing links so I was happy with that.

The bracelet tapes down from 24 mm at the lugs to 18 mm at the clasp which was comfortable for me. The clasp itself is a side-button release variant and I had no issues with it loosening on test. I do wonder about the longevity of these spring-loaded clasps however. My experience is that eventually they all get too loose to reliably secure the watch. The outside of the clasp is signed with an etched K and the clasp is made from pressed steel rather than being milled.

So overall, the bracelet turned out to be OK… which is a pretty good result for this price range. I could name a few microbrands above this price point that could aspire to such modest quality. A weight on the wrist of 130 grams makes it heavy enough to fee substantial but definitely not heavy enough to pretend to be a luxury heavyweight. Overall, I think most people will be impressed by the quality of this watch given its the price of €195.

That €195 price is for early backers on Kickstarter for the limited edition watches. Apparently the price of the regular production models will be a little more than this. For the money, one gets the watch, a canvas outer pouch, a PU inner pouch and a two year warranty. It all seems like good value to me and overall I think the watch is pretty cool. For those new to Kickstarter, one pledges support at a certain price point and then if enough people pledge, the watch gets made and then once made, your credit card is charged and the watch is shipped. Typically, the whole process from pledge to delivery can take several months.

How the Kickstarter fulfillment cycle works. Image: yema.com

“It Eez What It Eez”

Here we have a watch with quite a narrow target audience. It’s an audience that will be naturally drawn to the retro futurism of the Kavinsky’s styling and the red LED display. This watch provides that aesthetic and not much else. There are no complications and it is not at all a serious watch. The quartz module is so insignificant to the proposition that it is not mentioned by the manufacturer at all. How long will the battery last? I don’t know. What size of battery does it take? I have no idea. If any of this sounds negative, it is not. As the meme-kids say… “It eez what it eez”… and what it is, is pretty cool.

The Yema Kavinsky goes on sale via Kickstarter on March 18th.