“You don’t buy a watch to keep time” says a somewhat famous Nordic watch collector. Being a fairly ascetic person, at least in some regards, I struggle justifying myself owning more than a few watches. Some justifications make (somewhat) sense when I explain them to other people. One good reason is that when having various types of watches, the choice of watch can be made for the situation at hand. For example, you may wear a diver as a daily beater and have a nice dress watch for formal attire. But what about pilot watches?
Yeah, what about pilot watches?
Pilot watches have a longer heritage than classical divers. The perhaps first true pilot watch were the German navigation watches, typically labelled as observations watches (Beobachtingsuhr / B-Uhr). This traditional design gave birth to some design elements that are seen in many modern pilot watches. This includes the triangle 12 o’clock marker, often accompanied by two dots; the propeller/sword-like hands and dial design and a large crown made for use with thick gloves. Precise navigation required readability, which in turn was one of the main features. And often a monstrous size (the original B-Uhrs were fitted outside thick, padded leather jackets). One cannot claim that it’s difficult to ascertain exact timing with the classical B-Uhr. There are many pilot watches with origins from the B-Uhr. Some developments are even a bit funny, at least if you’re interested in history. For example, the IWC Pilot Spitfire.
For me, Breitling used to be the make associated with aviation among watches. After getting my eyes opened for the classic (and modern) B-Uhrs that I realized that there’s a plethora of pilot watches following very distinct design paths.
There are other pilot watches that have developed their heritage based on own merits. Most notably the Hamilton Khaki and Glycine Airman, but also the lesser known Rolex Airking or Bell & Ross since mid-90’s.
Then there is the Sinn 104 (and 103 Chronographs). Helmut Sinn, a former WWII pilot, started up his brand by producing pilot watches. The founder was not quite pleased with the contemporary watches for that application and this resulted in what is now very distinguished designs. I’m leaving out the chronographs (103) for this review and focus on the 104 watch and what makes it so special. The watch at hand is my very own Sinn 104 St Sa A B E Limited Edition. Most of this review will be specific for this version, but many of the points are applicable for the 103/104 models also.
A cross-over between vintage, heritage, class and style
The pilot watch is the lost sibling compared to the modern and classic divers and dress watches. Let’s face it: most people have a very limited, if any, relationship to watches. In times where a smart watch outsells the entire swiss watch industry, one might for sure wonder if a new version of the quartz crisis is looming. Let’s also face that, in most circumstances, few people will actually notice what watch you are wearing, let alone the details that make it special to you. That’s why submariners and speedmasters are so popular: they are safe bets and known by many.
Pilot watches are the opposite, as clearly reflected in secondhand prices. Pilot watches are difficult to make sense of, and for good reason. My first experience with owning a pilot watch was an homage B-Uhr. It ended up not only fitting my wrist poorly, but I couldn’t quite match it with my clothing style. Another downside with pilot watches is that they generally are delicate and don’t come with much depth rating. I’ll maybe make a long post on the topic of pilot watches some time, so let me fast forward a bit to the general idea of the pilot watch.
In a watch world totally dominated by divers, preferably in steel, there is a good point in finding something totally different that resonates with preferences. In that regard. pilot watches are quite intriguing, since they can combine style and class with utility. At the same time, many designs and makes have a long history in or associated with aviation. This history can also be used to express a certain vintage and/or heritage. In the case of the Sinn 104, all boxes check.
A quick glance on the 104 gives you the impression of a delicate and perfectly balanced piece of art. The case and dial are perfectly symmetric, with the former being circular in shape. The St Sa A B E comes with two different canvas straps that add to a vintage look that a perfectly applied layer of fauxtina lume on the dial, arms and bezel marker is meant to give. Perhaps the most notable feature is the dial with its indigo/dark blue sunburst that one can’t miss. A delicate day and date give a perfect balance to a watch made for a purpose. Let’s dig into the details.
Luckily, the 104 doesn’t come in a big, shiny wooden box. Instead, it’s a nicely designed and produced leather padded solid box with the watch beautifully placed together with the separate strap, a spring bar tool and documentation.
The Sinn 104 comes with the well-known Selitta SW220-1 automatic movement. 26 jewels, 28 800 vibrations per hour (4 Hz), 38 hours power reserve, antimagnetic per DIN 8309. Functions: hours, minutes, seconds (hacking), day and date.
The SW220-1 is the main competitor to ETA 2824-2, being of very similar design and a competitive alternative for brands outside of the Swatch group. The antimagnetic properties are a perk, suitable given the aviation application of the watch.
Case, Crown & Glass
The 104 is a cylindrical, tight piece that comes in a very handy size: 41/11.5mm, lug width of 20mm and a very comfortable lug-to-lug of 47mm. The case is polished, which adds to a general classy look. Polished cases are perhaps not ideal for piloting, since it reflects the sun. This also applies for a sunburst dial. I presume very few will use this watch for that purpose anyway. It’s a beautiful, shiny piece in the size range that works well for most of us.
The 41mm case wears much larger than one might think. The other, classical Sinn pilot watch next to the 103/104 is the 356. This measures only 38mm, which may be tiny for some. A few decades ago, the standard size of a gentleman’s watch was in the 34-38mm range. My preferences are between 40-43 mm, although some 44 mm watches (the Sinn U1) feel good. The 104 is therefore spot on in terms of size and is probably placed size-wise very well. Compared to the 103, which sports three subdials, the 104 comes across as balanced and less busy in this size.
The crown has the S of the Sinn logo protruding (not engraved!) which along with a discreet crown guard makes the case and symmetry look sharp. I must admit, these are the small, subtle details that really make a huge difference.
The case back is see-through and the beautiful Selitta SW200-1 movement is clearly visible. The rotor displays the Sinn logo and, in the case of the St Sa A B E which is a limited edition, “EINE von 1000” (One of 1000). The caseback also has the reference number engraved, along with the Sinn logo and the words “Edelstahl”, “Wasserdicht”, “20 bar” and “Antimagnetisch”. These are German for stainless steel, watertight and antimagnetic. The latter refers not to an inner iron case that protects the movement (unfortunately), but to that the watch itself has no magnetic properties that can interfere with aviation instruments.
The glass is a flat sapphire crystal with no extending edge, meaning the risk for accidentally creating a nick is reduced. I like the fact that it’s not domed; it makes the watch sleek.
An important feature of the case is the water resistance. 20 bar, or 200m equivalent, is normally attributed to divers and very little else. One of my major concerns with pilot- and dress watches in general is how delicate they are in terms of water resistance. By all means. In theory you could go for a swim with a 3 ATM watch. But would you really? The counter argument is that you wouldn’t wear any of these at the beach. Fair enough, I bring very resistant sports- or quartz watches when I go for a swim. But that’s beside the point. What I appreciate with high depth ratings is that I won’t think twice if I end up in an unexpected rain shower in circumstances where I wear a nice watch. This has happened before and will happen again. This is what 3 ATM watches and above are built to withstand, but I know that I wouldn’t feel all comfortable anyhow. For me, just the feeling of being well on the safe side makes the watch appeal to my idea of an active lifestyle where you’re prepared for anything – with style.
The dial has the same clear, dark cobalt blue color as the Sinn 103 Sa B E. The sunburst is very delicate and gives a very lively play of color. Depending on the lighting, it shifts from dark blue to navy. It never gets clear azure or ultramarine. It seems to have very little or no red, what remains is just a very distinct blue impression. As for the polished case, a sunburst dial is not quite practical for aviation use as it may reflect the sun and other strong lights.
The classic Sinn logo is displayed between the center and the 12 o’clock marker. It bears the classic font and is written with a matte ivory white color giving a nice contrast to the dial. The same white is used for the word “Automatik”, Made in Germany, day and date text and frame.
The hour markers are square with fauxtina lume and have Arabic numbers just like the Sinn 104 St Sa A. The minute markers are thin lines, matching the fauxtina in color. The word “Automatik” is placed exactly opposite the Sinn logo, between the center and 6 o’clock. On both sides of the 6-marker the words Made in Germany are written in very small font. Day and date windows are placed between the center and 3 o’clock.
I can’t really make up my mind when it comes to the combination of the dial and the fauxtina / off-white markers. They blend in well, as they also fit with the general classic style of this watch. Remember, the design of the 103/104 has been around for some time. The Sinn 104 St Sa A is more plain, has the same classical look but doesn’t come across as “vintage looking” the same way the St Sa A B E does.
The 104 St Sa A B E sports ivory white hands with off-white luminova, matching the colour of the numericals and markers on the dial. This is also the meaning of the “E” in the designation, Elfenbein in German.
I am very picky when it comes to hands. Many watch brands are associated with a specific type of hands. So is Sinn. I’m not sure what the proper designation is here, but I’ve heard the terms “baton hands” and “syringe hands” for Sinn’s straight hands with a thin pointer on the tip. It requires, I believe, an acquired taste and perhaps a special interest to find the appeal in these hands. On the functionality side, one might argue that thanks to the thin pointer, it’s easier to tell the time. I think that might have been the case if the watch was larger, because from distance it’s not that easy to see when a quick glance. Remember, the original B-Uhrs where huge, 55mm! If you look closely, sure, then you get a very good reading with the baton/syringe hands.
Then again, you don’t wear a watch to know the time. Being biased, I obviously find the Sinn 103/104 hands smug. They are not the regular bread and butter that you see everywhere, such as for example Mercedes hands. One thing is sure: the baton/syringe hands of Sinn give a unique and delicate expression. Maybe you are like me and prefer something else.
The bezel is perhaps one of the more special features of the watch. The top marker is luminated, and the bezel has a blue insert matching the dials. The bi-directional bezel has 60 clicks, numbered 5-minute markers (5 to 55) and striped minute markers in between.
A quick glance reveals nothing special and I must admit that I didn’t reflect over until having had the watch for quite some time. As found in other pilot watches with rotating bezels, the numbers on the 5-minute markers are inverted. This serves the purpose of using the bezel for countdown in contrast to the classic elapsed time measurement used for diving applications. For example, if you know that you need to keep a steady bearing for 35 minutes, you just rotate the bezel so that 35 is in line with the minute hand. Once the minute hand reaches the top marker of the bezel, time is up. Or out.
This is more convenient than using a diver bezel and remember how much time was supposed to elapse. From a functionality perspective, this has very little practical implication as the work around to use a standard diver bezel for countdown is quite simple. From a watch design perspective, it’s brilliant and adds a lot to the uniqueness of this watch.
Strap (straps in this case)
The watch comes with two canvas straps; one sand/khaki and one light blue. Both are leather padded on the inside and have a worn look. This adds to the vintage impression that the design of this watch is aiming at. The straps are fitted with regular spring bars.
The straps seem to be of very high quality, as expected from a maker like Sinn. They need some wrist time to loosen up but feel comfortable enough from the get-go. Both straps complement the design of the watch brilliantly. The khaki strap gives the blue dial and bezel emphasis, whereas the grey / blue strap makes them blend in a bit more.
Sinn also has very nice bracelets for the 103/104, which are great options. I’d be a bit cautious here as bracelet and blue sometimes can be a tricky mix. I’ve seen pictures of the A B E with the Sinn bracelet and it looks crisp, so this should be a safe move either way.
Since the case is polished, the watch also goes extremely well with Natos with polished details. The water resistance of the watch makes it a safe companion if you are doing water sports of normal kinds, so consider the Nato strap option if you’re going sea side.
I briefly mentioned the day and date windows in the dial section above. Here’s one of the pears of this watch. Let’s start with the date. The font is classic Sinn, very clean and neat. White on blue background matching the dial and other details. The numbers’ font seems to be the same – or at least matching the font of the numericals on the dial and the bezel.
The day function is more intriguing. A 41mm diameter is more than enough to fit both day and date without crowding the dial. The 104 has a short form for days in English and German. Since I’ve lived in Germany and speak fluent German, I love this perk. German is the main official language in Switzerland also, but it’s rare to see any text in other than English. This small detail makes the Sinn 104 quite a bit special for all days except Monday (Montag). The watch has fast date change and as mentioned before, rotating countdown bezel.
The watch is simple enough, compared to the chronograph version 103. The additional day function is perfect, while still coming across as austere enough. In many regards, the 104 is a great candidate for a daily beater that also works well with the suit on.
Price, buying and options
The regular 104 is around 1200-1400 EUR, which places it comfortably in the mid-range. I haven’t seen many Sinn watches on sale, except when a local AD decides to do so. The secondhand market for Sinn is also perhaps a bit limited as the brand and watches aren’t quite mainstream. In other words, be prepared to get your 104 from your local AD, directly from Sinn’s website or from their own shops in Frankfurt. If you’re not in a hurry, you’ll might well find a nice piece on the secondhand market if you give it some time. The pricing is quite interesting since one may wonder how the same watch and similar brand would sell if it was Swiss instead?
Let’s talk a bit about the pricing and the options. Some may say that Sinn is vastly underpriced thanks to the great quality, design, look and feel, and integrity of the brand. I’m inclined to agree. However, there are still plenty of options in the mid-range that are strong contenders. I’ve selected three in approximately the same price range:
Glycine Airman: utility
Archimede B-Uhr: classic vintage
Hamilton Khaki Pilot: style
The Glycine Airman is available in 42mm but also 44 and 46 for those with larger wrists. As for Sinn, Glycine has a very strong connection and heritage within aviation. The Airman’s design stems from utility and the slightly more expensive version comes with a GMT hand. Some like it, some don’t. If I’d get an Airman, it’d be with the GMT hand, since that is part of the original look and feel. The Airman comes in various combinations, with black and white dials. There’s also a complete black version that some people find cool. The Airman is also easier to find on the secondhand market, but is not as stylish as the 103/104.
If you want to stay with a German brand, Archimede is perhaps a good option for those that prefer the classic, B-Uhr type design of pilot watches. There may be many objections to me raising this as an option: the design can’t compare, the price level is different, etc. Well, I guess that could also be an attribute to the uniqueness of Sinn?
If you don’t find the 104 classy enough, a good option is the Hamilton Khaki Pilot. Again, another watch with a strong military connection and heritage, but with design elements normally seen in higher-end watches. It also sports a full day window, which some prefer. With a suit, I’d probably rather wear the Khaki Pilot than the 104.
There are, of course, many other notable pilot watch alternatives if you look above the mid-range. This also includes other, lesser known brands.
Sinn is far from mainstream. This is obvious. I also don’t think it will ever be. In the watch community, I don’t get the feeling that many one-watch guys (or gals) choose Sinn, nor is Sinn the main or primary watch for many. Also, it’s rarely the first watch anyone gets. Being well-placed in the mid-range pricewise, it’s also not a watch that appeal to the masses by competing on price. This, I think, is crucial for maintaining the position that Sinn has built up over the years.
I connect Sinn with three things: the classic 103/104 pilot watches and U-series, the extremely high quality and desire to develop technology. Those with affections for Sinn probably have similar thoughts and find appeal in the uniqueness of Sinn and their watches. Many people, I included, thrive off the beaten path.
There are so many things that I love about this watch, but the negatives need to be mentioned. The most obvious is the sparse time reserve of 38 hours. Regarding looks, I struggle with having shiny dials in watches that have a specific application (piloting airplanes in this case) requiring the opposite. This also goes for the case, which for pilot watches rather should be brushed. Sinn is in good company with having a shiny design. That makes the watch much more classy and stylish, enabling it to be used in more occasions. I also find the dial diameter, bezel diameter and lug- and case size giving a very cylindrical impression that sometimes bugger me a bit.
The positives outweigh the negatives by far, and I’m a sucker for blue sunburst dials. I love the 103/104 design in general and the St Sa A B E makes it appear more. There are so many unique design elements that in combination creates a classic pearl of a watch. Just look at how the downward pointing lugs emphasize the case.
The 104 is a very versatile watch, which looks great and wears well for most thanks to its convenient size. It’s classy enough to work in most occasions, but also sporty and utilitarian to be anything from a daily beater to a casual watch. The 104 is, however, so much more. It’s a shiny jewel; unique, beautiful and intriguing. A wrist check gives away an impression of class, style and acquired taste. Who doesn’t like that?
My score: 7.1 / 10 (keeper)