Marathon Watches: A Complete Guide to the Military-Watch Specialist

Marathon Watches: A Complete Guide to the Military-Watch Specialist

Many watch companies have a history of supplying timepieces for military units around the world, from Blancpain and Tudor’s dive watches for the French Navy to Hamilton’s field watches for World War II troops to IWC’s pilot watches for German and later British air forces. However, only one watch company has been an official supplier to the U.S. armed forces throughout nearly its entire existence, and it’s a company that many watch enthusiasts might be hearing about for the very first time: Marathon Watch Company. Read on for more background and a comprehensive rundown of the brand's collection.

The Marathon Watch Company, one of the very few family-owned watch brands in existence and one of the even fewer based in Canada, traces its lineage all the way back to 1904. Its predecessor, the Weinstrum Watch Company, was founded by the Wein family, Russian immigrants who originally settled in New York City. (Another branch of the family changed their last name to “Wenger” and founded another Canadian watch business under that name, though it’s not to be confused with the better known Wenger company in Switzerland, today part of Victorinox.) In 1939, family scion Morris Wein carried on the family trade with the founding of Marathon, basing it not in New York but in Montreal, Canada, where the family had moved during the 1920s — not exactly a hotbed of watchmaking even at the time, but an ideal home base for the mission that the company began in 1941: supplying dependable, functional wristwatches and other timing instruments for Allied troops (which included U.S. and Canadian armed forces)  in World War II.

The first order for Marathon watches came in 1941 from the Royal Canadian Air Force, and many other military units throughout the world have since followed suit, including nearly every branch of the United States armed forces, from Army to Navy to Marine Corps, starting in the 1970s. The list of military units that Marathon has supplied over its more than 80 years in business is lengthy, and the company remains the sole official supplier of watches to the United States Armed Forces. All the watches produced under the Marathon brand today conform to the official U.S. Military Standard MIL-PRF-46374, first established in 1964 as America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was ramping up. The standard replaced the previous MIL-W-3818B specification, from which it inherited its distinctive, ultra-legible dial numeral fonts. Watches from other military suppliers like Timex, Benrus and Hamilton adhered to these specs as well, but Marathon is the only watch manufacturer that builds its watches to the more up-to-date 46374G “Performance” standard, adopted in 1999, and in fact the only one that uses these specs throughout its line today.

Marathon initially assembled all of its watches at its headquarters in Montreal, Canada, from parts supplied by Switzerland. In the early 1990s, production moved to the company’s dedicated facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds, one of the historical hubs of Swiss watchmaking, where all Marathon watches are still made today. Only the design process still takes place in Canada. Because so much of Marathon’s production run is slated for military usage — there are no brick-and-mortar retailers that carry Marathon watches, though the company does sell online, including at TeddyBaldassarre.com — nearly all of the watches share certain utilitarian-focused elements and details that make them distinctive. One is the use of tritium on its dials for nighttime illumination, often a vital need for soldiers in the field or divers underwater. Tritium, a mildly radioactive substance, is rare on watch dials today, largely supplanted by non-radioactive Super-LumiNova, but the former’s longer-lasting glow (and the fact that it can now be safely inserted into micro-gas tubes rather than painted directly on the dial) makes it popular on rugged, mission-oriented watches. (You can read more about the history and technology behind tritium in this article.) Only Marathon combines those tritium tubes with its own proprietary photoluminescent substance called MaraGlo, which can glow for up to eight hours after an initial charge of light. 

Other Marathon hallmarks include the so-called Parkerized finishes on its 316L stainless steel cases: Parkerizing is a process that imparts a smooth surface to ferrous materials like cast iron and steel alloys while simultaneously making them substantially more corrosion-resistant. In addition to this surgical-grade steel, Marathon also uses a durable material it calls “high-impact composite fibreshell” for the cases of its less expensive models, and on some models offers tough NATO-style straps made of either Ballistic Nylon or another Nylon weave called DEFSTAN (for “Defence Standard”). Today, Marathon watches are all slotted into three major collections, each devoted to one specific military discipline dealing with the sea, air, and land; within these collections can be found a number of special editions, developed with partners like Jeep or in cooperation with specific military clients including U.S. and Canadian armed forces branches and Israel’s IDF.  Here is a rundown of the modern Marathon Watch portfolio.

Diver’s

46mm SAR - Jumbo Diver’s Quartz (JSAR), Jumbo Day-Date Automatic (JDD), Jumbo Diver’s/Pilot’s Automatic Chronograph (CSAR)

Price: $1,200 - $4,720, Case Size: 46mm, Thickness: 17.5mm/18mm/17.5mm, Lug to Lug: 55mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F07/Automatic Sellita SW220/Automatic ETA Valjoux 7750

Marathon’s current range of dive watches debuted in the 1990s, made to specifications set by the Canadian government for watches worn by its military Search-and-Rescue divers (hence the SAR in all the model names; it’s one of many initialed names you’ll get used to as we run down the collection). The largest of these purpose-built military dive watches is the 46mm SAR series, which are identified by details like the unidirectional 60-minute rotating bezel, the thick, cylindrical, tipped hour and minute hands, and big, legible Arabic hour numerals. The stainless steel cases have a brushed finish, a screw-down crown to secure a 300-meter water resistance, and a scratch-proof sapphire crystal. Movements range from a “high-torque” quartz movement from ETA in the JSAR (the J is for “Jumbo”) models, to a self-winding Sellita in the day-date-equipped JDDs (for Jumbo Day-Date), to the ubiquitous and time-tested ETA Valjoux 7750 in the chronograph model at the top of the price pyramid, the CSAR (“C” for Chronograph). The automatic day-dates and quartz three-hand watches both feature a military-inspired second ring of hour numerals (13 to 24 in addition to the main 1-12 scale); on the latter, this ring is on the flange; on the former, it is inside the 12-hour ring on the dial.

41mm SAR - TSAR (Quartz), GSAR (Automatic)

Price: $1,200 - $2,500, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 14mm, Lug to Lug: 48mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F06/Automatic Sellita SW200-1

Sized at a more versatile 41mm, the quartz-powered TSAR (Tritium Search and Rescue) and automatic GSAR (Government Search and Rescue) series includes many popular models, including one with official U.S. Marine Corps branding, a Jeep Rubicon edition made in partnership with the automobile manufacturer and longtime military contractor, and the increasingly popular white-dialed Arctic editions. The 300-meter water-resistant steel cases, sapphire crystals and ratcheting dive-scale bezels remain the same as on the 46mm models. Both the quartz and automatic divers at this size have a 4:30 date window.

36mm MSAR (Medium Search & Rescue, Automatic or Quartz)

Price: $800 - $1,350, Case Size: 36mm, Thickness: 12.5mm, Lug to Lug: 43.5mm, Lug Width: 18mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F06/Automatic Sellita SW200-1

The “M” in the MSAR series is for “medium,” though the 36mm models are the smallest options in Marathon’s dive watch portfolio. The watches share the same aesthetic and same impressive water resistance as the 46mm and 41mm models and offer a range of either basic black or white “Arctic” dials with tritium to illuminate the syringe-shaped hands and baton hour markers (which appear alongside the Arabic numerals) in the dark. 

Pilot’s

Navigator Series (NAV)

Price: $400 - $480, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11.5mm, Lug to Lug: 48mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F06

Marathon refers to its pilot’s watches as “Navigators,” and sizes them all at the wrist-friendly dimensions of 41mm. All the models in this collection trace their design back to the Steel Navigator watch that Marathon developed in collaboration with Texas’s Kelly Air Force Base in 1986. They are notable for their barrel-shaped cases, military-style 12/24-hour dials, and a bidirectional 12-hour bezel (contrasting with the 60-minute, unidirectional bezel on the diving models) that can be used to track a second time zone. At the entry level of of the pilot options are the NAV and NAV-D (with 4:30 date), whose movements are ETA quartz and whose cases are made from Marathon’s high-impact fiber composite material, which enables several army-evocative colorways like Desert Tan and Sage Green as well as matte black.

Steel Navigator Series (SSNAV, SSNAV-D)

Price: $770 - $950, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11mm, Lug to Lug: 48mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F06.412

Starting under $800 are the Stainless Steel Navigators with ETA quartz calibers, but not just your standard ones: the so-called “HeavyDrive-PreciDrive” movements boast an accuracy to +/- 10 seconds per year. The brushed steel cases are water-resistant to 100 meters — not the 300 meters of the SAR watches but fine for a pilot making a water landing or ejecting from the cockpit into the sea — and fitted with a highly durable, thick sapphire crystal. The latter element is a specification for the original Navigator’s intended users, military pilots flying at altitudes over 35,000 feet, as it allows the watch to withstand extreme changes in air pressure. Steel Navigator models come with date (SSNAV-D) or without (SSNAV) and are available on a variety of tough NATO-style straps including Ballistic Nylon and Nylon DEFSTAN.

Steel Navigator Series Automatic w/ Date (SSNAV-D AUTO)

Price: $1,000 - $1,200, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11.5mm, Lug to Lug: 48mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Sellita SW200-1

At the upper echelon of Marathon’s Navigator series are a trio of models in steel cases outfitted with Swiss-made Sellita self-winding calibers. The 41mm Parkerized steel cases on these three-hand-date models are available on straps made of rubber, Ballistic Nylon, or Nylon DEFSTAN.

General Purpose 

34mm Field Quartz & Mechanical (GPQ/GPM)

Price: $240 - $600, Case Size: 34mm, Thickness: 11.5mm, Lug to Lug: 41mm, Lug Width: 16mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 30 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F06/Automatic Seiko NH35A

The prosaically named General Purpose models are Marathon's most basic and attainable, descended directly from the field watches it started making in the 1940s. The smallest of these watches (one quartz-powered, one mechanical), housed within 34mm stainless steel cases, are not undersized because they’re designed to be modest or feminine. They’re what we’d call “tactically'' small, intended to be a lightweight companion to the large loads of military gear utilized by its wearers in combat operations; accordingly, these watches’ cases are constructed from high-impact composite fibreshell. The dial has indexes and hands with tritium micro-gas tubes, which offer brighter and longer-lasting luminescence than most other field-watch dials. Completing the utilitarian package is a reliable third-party caliber from ETA (quartz) or Seiko (self-winding mechanical). Starting around $250, the GPQ and GPM represent impressive value and real military credibility despite the rather pedestrian 30-meter water resistance.

36mm Officer’s Quartz & Mechanical (SSGPQ/SSGPM)

Price: $420 - $600, Case Size: 36mm, Thickness: 11mm, Lug to Lug: 44mm, Lug Width: 16mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 50 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F06/Mechanical Manual-Wind ETA 2801

Perhaps the most versatile and “everyday” options in Marathon’s field-watch-inspired family are the “Officer” models in 36mm steel cases, which are water-resistant to 50 meters and feature the same black dials with syringe hands, tritium and MaraGlo luminescent details, and 12-hour and 24-hour rings as their 34mm siblings. The quartz watches (SSGPQ) can be subtly differentiated at a glance from the manually winding mechanical ones (SSGPM) by the presence of a date window at 4:30.

41mm Jeep Willys Officer’s Mechanical & Quartz (SSGPM/SSGPQ)

Price: $500 - $1,200, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11mm, Lug to Lug: 48mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 50 meters, Movement: Quartz ETA F06.402/Mechanical Manual-Wind Sellita SW 210-1

Marathon teamed up with Jeep, the automaker perhaps best known for its iconic military vehicles, on a series of watches in its General Purpose collection sized for contemporary boldness at 41mm. The watch is closest in design to the original, WWII-issued Marathon field watches made in 1941 and also features design inspirations from the army-used Jeep Wrangler released that same year, the Willys MB. The fonts on the dial are derived from the Jeep and its modern descendant, the Wrangler Rubicon. The hands are sharp triangles instead of the syringe shapes on other models, and the Jeep logo replaces the Marathon logo on the dial below 12 o’clock. The MaraGlo lume on the hands and numerals is in an antique-looking “Old Radium” color. The movement in the SSGPM is a somewhat period-appropriate manual-wound mechanical from Sellita, while the SSGPQ contains a quartz caliber from ETA. The Jeep editions are mounted on sturdy straps made from “Crazy Horse” leather, so named because of its common usage in equestrian saddles.

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