Owner Review – Squale 50 Atmos ‘Originale Opaco’

Have you ever seen a watch online, a watch that you knew nothing about and immediately decided you must have it? This is the story of just such a watch.

The Skinny

  • Squale 50 Atmos Originale Opaco
  • 41mm
  • ETA 2824-2
  • Around $1500 as of Oct 2020

The story begins on a rainy Saturday morning as I scrolled my Instagram feed. As usual, the algorithm was serving up my usual mix of classic vintage Seiko plus modern watches from brands and individuals I like to follow. As I swiped up and up, a watch came into view that I had never seen before. I stopped scrolling and stared. 

What was this thing?

Some History

I knew the brand of course, by name mostly but also a little, by history. Squale watches were Swiss and had been started after world war II by Charles von Büren in Neuchâtel. Like many brands that faltered during the quartz crisis, Squale had since been revived to trade anew on glories past. The company was now run by an Italian family that was close to the Von Bürens and had been the official Italian importer in the past.

Squale were heavily involved in the Swiss dive watch industry in the 1970s; producing waterproof cases for the likes of Blancpain, Heure, Doxa and Sinn. At that time, the company also had military contracts making complete watches for the Italian airforce and the Italian navy. The shark logo appeared on numerous manufacturer’s dive watch dials at the 6 o’clock position indicating that the case was made by Squale. The larger brands forewent the Squale logo on the dial but nevertheless turned to the Von Bürens for their cases.

The Name

‘Squale’ is a French word for shark, hence the logotype, and being French, the pronunciation when the von Bürens owned the company would have been ‘skwarl’. The purchase and subsequent relaunch of Squale by the Maggi family has given rise to an alternate Italianate pronunciation ‘skwarl-ay’ which is now used by the present management. I’ll let the reader decide which accent they prefer as they read on.

The Backstory

What immediately drew me to this watch was the minimalistic design and how it lent the watch a modern abstractionalism. The case was simple and functional with no extraneous decoration. The dive bezel was ‘sterile’ with no markers other than a single triangular marker. We are used to minimalistic dress watch designs these days, where elements such as the case, hands and markers are reduced to a functional minimum devoid of decoration. 

1970s Minimalism – Dietrich Lubs and Dieter Rams’ Original Braun Watch. Image credit: amazon.com

This is an aesthetic style popularized nowadays by fashion watches from Daniel Wellington, Skagen and MVNT but the mid-market also has its minimalist proponents such as Nomos and Junghans. Here was a dive watch that demonstrated some of the same aesthetic choices and it blew me away. Remove the markers from a dress watch and it remains a dress watch. Remove the makers from the bezel of a dive watch and it causes an existential contradiction that I find fascinating.

The Instagram post mentioned that the watch was made to honor another earlier Squale-cased watch from Blancpain. I immediately searched for the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 3H Bund honoree. I was amazed to find it looked almost the same as the Squale. Here was the same minimalistic look but now from 1975. My mind was blown. Again.

The lack of markers on the dial was specified by the West German Bundeswehr Kampfschwimmer division that commissioned the watch. Since those divers stayed underwater for hours rather than minutes using rebreathers, the usual minute markers of a regular bezel were deemed superfluous.

Original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms ‘3H Bund’. Image credit: longitudi.fi

The case of the Blancpain is almost identical to the Squale. It was taller back in the day, and polished rather than matte. The diameter is the same at 41mm, as are the shape of the lugs and the knurling on sides of the bezel. The dial and hands are similar but it was clear that the Squale was conceived as a modern re-interpretation of the original design rather than a facsimilie homage. 

The modern re-interpretation of the original design

The hands are similar because Blancpain used the same hands for the 3H that Squale used on their own dive watches. Incidentally, Doxa also used hands (and cases for some models) from Von Büren at that time. The main differences with the dial are the copious use of orange for the lume on the new watch (which we will come to later) and the expected Squale lettering rather than Blancpain’s. The modern Squale is rated to 500 meters whereas the original Blancpain was just 200 meters. The screw-down crown at 4 o’clock, recessed to negate the need for crown guards is identical on both models.

1 of 99

The Instagram post also mentioned that the watch from a limited edition of 99 so my next stop on the research journey was to try and verify that fact using Squale’s website. If the watch was from such a limited edition surely it would be mentioned on their website? 99 is really not many. The latest Seiko Streetfighter watches are from a limited edition of 9999 and the Oris Carysfort Reef Limited Edition we recently gave away in a competition here on Beyond The Dial, was one of 2000 pieces. So 99 is a really limited, limited edition.

I could find no information on the Squale website which I found a little odd. Other watches using the same 500m case and movement were there, nowadays known as the 1521 and using an ETA 2824-2 movement. A Google search also yielded nothing. No press release. No review. Nothing but links to a couple of watches that were currently for sale. Well at least THAT was something that might be useful later on. I could not help noticing that they were priced significantly more than the MSRP for the regular Squale 1521 watch upon which the ‘Originale’ was based. 

A regular Squale 1512. Image credit: squale.ch

For several hours I could not find the source for the release of the watch, nor even, when it was produced. I was starting to think that this was not a limited edition at all. I started to suspect it was some sort of mod, and come to think if it, it did sort of have that modded vibe about it…

After an hour or so of additional searching I finally uncovered the complete story. The watch was produced in 2015 by Squale for Gnomon Watches, a boutique retailer of multiple Swiss brands based in Singapore. So this was a retailer limited edition, not unlike the recent Oris Diver 65 limited edition produced for for Topper Jewelers. That was good enough for me!

Gnomon Watches, Singapore. Image credit: nestia.com

Purchase

Some would say I am cheap but I would deny that of course. I am careful. I hate depreciation so when I buy something, anything, I like to buy it at a price where I can expect it to stay at the same value or even go up in value rather than down. So even with modern watches, I prefer to buy pre-owned and let someone else take the depreciation hit before me. Here was a watch that was twice the ‘real’ retail and 50% over the MSRP of the watch it was based on. I was totally out of my comfort zone. So I slept on it.

On the Sunday morning, I took another look at the Instagram photo. Yes, I had to have it. I had money set aside to buy a dive watch. In a bout of reckless and uncharacteristic downsizing, I had sold all my modern dive watches and had yet to purchase a replacement. The plan had been to put aside around $1200 from these sales and purchase a Seiko SPB143 when they hit the market. I adore the look of the original Seiko 62MAS and with the SLA19 re-issue now north of $5000 on the used market, and way out of contention, the SPB143 seemed just the ticket. 

Allen acquired his SPD143 and loved it. So much so, that he immediately put all his other Seikos up for sale, the SPD143 rendering them superfluous. Pedro also bought one and fell in love immediately. For some reason I hestitated. Perhaps it was because everyone suddenly seemed to be buying the same watch. Following the herd has never been my style and I often deliberately head in the other direction when I see it approaching. I tried Allen’s on and it was an excellent watch. The quality is definitely there and it really does evoke the feeling of a modern 62MAS. But it is not a 62MAS, and neither is it an SLA19 and for some reason I simply did not fall for it as my esteemed colleagues had. I suddenly felt happy having not ordered one. It was simply not the right watch for me. 

So it was a fairly easy decision on Sundy morning to send an offer over to one of the sellers I had found earlier via Google. It was a little more cash than the Seiko SPD143 and a lot more than a regular Squale 1521. Yes, I was paying through the nose a little but this was 1 of 99 worldwide and that is ridiculously rare. If that number is real, how often will these come up for sale? I even entertained the sort of insane logic that seems common to watch collectors by thinking I might even be increasing the value of my investment later by paying an inflated price now. What delusional thinking!

Initial Impressions

The initial impressions were of a substantial, well-built dive watch. The condition was almost perfect but with 5 years use there were a couple of tiny marks, one on the left lower lug and one on the bezel. The sand blasted case was otherwise a uniform grey all over with only the caseback being polished. There were reports online that bezel was ‘large’ and required ‘getting used to’. Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience: the watch is relatively compact at 41mm and while the bezel does overhand the case to aid turning, it does not seem oversized to me. I suspect that it is the featureless, sterile bezel that seems larger and more dominant than expected. 

The Case

The bezel has a 60-position click which is a deviation from the Blancpain original’s clickless bezel. The click action is substantial with no rotational play. There is a little vertical motion of around 0.5 mm but I think that is acceptable at the Squale’s price point. With no minute markers, short timings are easiest made by rotating the single marker to the future point in time and using the watch as a count down timer. Perfect for me, as all I ever use a dive bezel for these days is to time the 20-minute bake of my family’s daily bread each morning.

The bezel insert is a uniform matte (hence ‘opaco’) black bakelite with a single lumed triangle applied. The matte black is a perfect accompaniment to the matte steel finish. With the watch in hand, I think it is this combination of matte black bakelite and sandblasted steel that gives the ‘Originale’ its totally modern look. The original watch had a polished case so the Squale’s matte case is the biggest difference between the two. I think it was a great decision on Gnomon/Squale’s part to differentiate the watches like this. A polished case would have given the Squale more of an homage feel but the blasted case derives a different, though related, modern watch from it. The only change I would probably make to the case would be to drill the lugs, as on the original.

The Dial

The dial is pretty much current Squale, but that is because current Squale is very much like old Squale. The logo is unchanged from that of the 60s and the usual 6 o’clock shark is painted red as a hat-tip to the red 3H lettering used on the the original 3H Bund. Two choices have been made to distance the look of the modern dial from that of the Blancpain. First, the markers on this Squale are uniform rectangles, including the one at 12 o’clock. This is distinctly different from the 1521’s normal 12 o’clock triangle marker which is almost identical to that of the original Fifty Fathoms and so this deviation is clearly intentional. The second difference is the handset, which again could have been made identical to the Blancpain but in reality are of slightly different shapes. The Squale’s lume is a consistent tangerine orange. 

The Movement

Inside the Originale Opaco lies the familiar ETA 2824-2. This movement is a true workhorse of the industry and powers models from Tudor, Hamilton, Certina, Sinn, Stowa and numerous small volume manufacturers. The 28,800 VPH movement has 25 jewels and a 40 hour power reserve. ‘Workhorse’ is a term that is definitely overused in the watch industry but here it is definitely justified.

ETA makes the 2824-2 available to watch manufacturers in four grades: standard, elaboré, top and chronometer. Based on the appearance of the movement inside the Originale, this example has the standard grade since none of the bridges are decorated. This also means the the movement is suposedly adjusted to +/- 7 seconds per day and my timegrapher confirms this, giving betweem +5 and +7 in each of the three positions. Perfectly acceptable for the price range of this watch.

The Strap

The watch came with what looked like a black sailcloth band with a signed Squale clasp. Closer inspection revealed that it is actually rubber but with a sailcloth texture and stitching. The band feels absolutely indestructable which also makes it pretty uncompromising. It looks great on the watch and suits the utilitarian look but within a few hours it becomes uncomfortable as it is just too rigid. The Squale website sells a number of replacements including NATOs, rubber straps, leather bands and even some mesh bracelets. I however, picked a 20mm vintage brown leather band that I had lying around and not only did it look perfect, it was infinitely more comfortable. 

Conclusion

I love this watch – it is as simple as that. In reality it looks as unique and modern as it did in that Instagram post. I don’t own anything that looks like this. In fact, I don’t think anyone makes a watch that looks like this… perhaps only VDB in Erfurt, Germany and they too are made in very small numbers.

As a watch, it is well-built with a simple construction and an understated appearance which is somewhat untypical for the brand which is known more for its highly polished dive watches. The 1521 case size of 41mm is perfect for my wrist as my natural range seems to be around 37-42 mm. I would certainly recommend any regular Squale 1521 as a solid sub-$1000 Swiss dive watch. The choice of an ETA 2824-2 at this price point is completely expected and understandable. Christopher Ward dive watches, which are sold at a similar price point and have much the same build quality, make a similarly wise choice and use the Sellita SW-200 2824-clone.

As a tribute to Fifty Fathoms Bund 3H, the Squale does not tread the normal homage path of an aesthetic clone with a different logo. The ‘Originale’ has enough differences that it is its own thing as well as being a modern interpretation of the original design. If, five years ago I had been speccing this watch, I think I would have stayed closer to the original. The sand-blasted case rather than the high polish of the fifty fathoms is a great contemporary choice and I applaud Squale for that. However, I think the choice of orange for the lume is a step too far. I would have prefered white lume like the original. 

Worse than the orange lume however, is the ‘aged’ yellow lume triangle of the bezel. The colour does not match the markers but is close enough to make one wonder if they were supposed to match. I am not a fan of fauxtina and the bezel pip looks exactly like fauxtina. The difference is not really visible in photographs and so came as a shock when I unpacked the watch. This is really the only aspect of the watch I do not love but I can live with it, the rest of the appearance is that good.

The 99-watch limited production is not really a factor in my enjoyment of the watch but it does make the elevated purchase price a little easier to swallow. I don’t think there are many people that have paid so much for a Squale 1521 but for me it was worth it. I hope the limited nature means my example will continue to appreciate but the price was also at a level that if the value doesn’t appreciate, it is not going to break the bank either.

Sometimes a watch entrances you enough that the only response is to reach for your wallet: quickly and decisively.