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When it comes to being a vital thread in the American historical tapestry, few watch companies can compare with Hamilton. Founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1892, during an era in which the United States was a world leader in timepiece production, the Hamilton Watch Company has played a role in building and growing the young nation since its earliest days. And though the company has for several decades been making its watches in Switzerland rather than the United States, its American heritage, and its particular association with the American military, is evident in several of its modern-day collections, perhaps most plainly in the Hamilton Khaki Field collection, which channels the martial aesthetics of the 1940s in a stye that few other modern timepiece families can match.
In 1912, as railroads began spanning and connecting the sprawling reaches of the country, it was Hamilton that produced the uncommonly sturdy and precise pocket watches that railroad conductors used to keep the trains on time and on schedule; in those days before an established international system of time zones, a poorly running watch could initiate a disaster on the rails. Just two years later, as the United States entered the First World War that was besieging Europe, Hamilton shifted its focus from being the acknowledged “Railroad Timekeeper of America” to building compact timekeepers that American G.I.s could wear and depend upon in the trenches and battlefields overseas. Pocket watches, while still in vogue for society gentlemen in the early 20th century, were impractical for a soldier on the move, who tended to prefer the ease of strapping a timekeeper to his wrist: for example, an infantryman needed the use of both hands to load his weapon at the same time he was checking his watch to determine the distance of artillery fire. Hamilton needed to adapt its products accordingly for military use.
Some of the first “trench watches” produced for U.S. forces were actually re-engineered pocket watches in which the “lugs” were soldered strips of wire that connected the case to a strap of leather or canvas for wearing on the wrist. Eventually Hamilton and its competitors began installing pocket watch movements into smaller cases, sized for wrist wear, to accommodate the needs of soldiers. Hamilton supplied such re-engineered pocket watches to the forces commanded by the legendary general “Black Jack” Pershing, among other units. When the troops came home after the War ended, they brought their wristwatches with them and the style caught on in the country’s popular imagination. Rugged military utility was in and impractical gentility was out as the wristwatch began its ascent over the pocket watch as the dominant type of personal timekeeper, for men as well as women. Hamilton, meanwhile, had established the ties with the U.S. Armed Forces that would lead to the creation of one of its most iconic and enduring product lines, several years hence.
Birth of the Field Watch
In 1942, with World War II underway and the United States fully engaged in the global conflict, Hamilton made the bold move of ceasing all of its civilian production in order to mass produce watches and other precision timekeepers for the war effort, including marine chronometers for the U.S. Navy. Within the next three war-torn years, Hamilton delivered more than a million watches to the military, receiving five Army-Navy “E” Awards for their consistent quality. The watches that we now recognize as the forerunners of the Hamilton Khaki were made of chrome-plated base metals, measured around 34 mm in diameter, used luminous radium paint on their dials for nighttime legibility, and housed Hamilton’s manually wound, 17-jewel Caliber 987 movements, which would be refined and improved over subsequent years and deliver a level of quality that would inspire other Allied nations such as Canada and Russia to also equip their forces with Hamilton watches.
Hamilton continued as a supplier of watches to U.S. military units throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, all built to strict specifications. For the field watches issued to soldiers during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded contracts to any watchmaker that could produce general-purpose watches that met its criteria under MIL-W-3818B, including an accuracy between +/- 30 seconds per day, a hacking seconds function, a case that was sufficiently resistant to water and magnetism, and a hand-wound mechanical movement with no less than 17 jewels. The MIL-W-3818B spec, set in 1962, was superseded by specification MIL-W-43674 in 1964, which allowed for case materials other than steel and non-hacking movements in order to produce more disposable, lower-cost watches — presumably as the war expanded and more watches were needed for more servicemen. Hamilton was among the few companies to manufacture military watches under these criteria, along with Benrus, Timex, Westclox, and a handful of others. As this specification was revised throughout the decade and into the next, manufacturers like Marathon and Stocker & Yale joined as military providers. The watches of this era established what we today regard as the quintessential field watch look: black dials with 12 white Arabic hour numerals, an inner ring of smaller numerals marking 24-hour time (i.e., military time), and a minute track with triangular markers at each hour. (This dial layout actually debuted during the Korean War years on the Type A-17 watches released by Hamilton, Waltham, Bulova, and others under the MIL-W-6433 specs set in the 1950s.)
Fast-forward to today’s Hamilton Watch Company — acquired by Switzerland’s Swatch Group in 1974, its manufacturing having already relocated to Switzerland in 1969 — and the brand’s revival of its historically significant military timekeeper as not just one model but an entire collection under the “Khaki” umbrella. Hamilton was still making watches for military units in the 1980s and ‘90s but in the post-Vietnam era the company had begun marketing its military icon to an eager audience of civilians. Some of the earliest “modern” Hamilton Khaki watches were co-branded with the outdoorsy retailers who sold them, household names like Brookstone, Orvis, and L.L. Bean (above). This was also the period in which the “Khaki” logo began appearing on the dials, establishing the collection that was to follow.
Hamilton now produces an entire range of Khaki watches, including the Navy Scuba, a sporty divers’ watch that takes cues from the rugged timepieces Hamilton produced for military divers in the 1950s, and the Khaki Navy Aviation, a similarly engineered model for pilots. It is the original “Field” version of the Khaki, however, that sits at the core of the collection, available in various case materials and bracelet and strap iterations and with a range of movements from quartz to manual winding mechanical to self-winding mechanical. Below, we’ll explore the various versions.
The Khaki Field Mechanical, with its modest 38-mm case (not quite as minuscule as its 1940s predecessor) and manually wound Caliber H-50, represents both the best value proposition as well as the most period-appropriate execution for lovers of vintage military watches. Most directly descended from the 1960s model worn by marines in Vietnam, the case of the Khaki Field Mechanical — which Hamilton offers not only in standard stainless steel but also in black PVD-coated steel, a camo-tone “Earth” PVD-coated steel, and, at a slightly higher premium, in bronze (below) — slips under a sleeve easily at just 9.5 mm thick.
The cases have a matte finish to eliminate glare, which would have been a definite boon for an infantryman trying to stay out of sight of jungle snipers. Its drilled lugs connect the watch to a sturdy nylon NATO-style strap with coordinating leather hardware that enhances both its look and its robustness. The dial’s hands and markers are coated with an “Old Radium”-colored Super-LumiNova, referred to widely by enthusiasts as “faux lume,” which evokes the look of faded luminous paint from the original watch’s era. Behind the solid steel caseback is a movement that manages to be both old-school and thoroughly modern at the same time. Caliber H50 is based on the manually wound ETA 2801-2 movement (for those unaware, ETA shares the same parent company as Hamilton), whose balance frequency of 28,800 vph has been slowed down to 21,600 vph in order to extend the movement’s power reserve from a somewhat pedestrian 42 hours to an impressive 80 hours — long enough for a weekend’s leave after a rough tour of duty in either the field or the office.
The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical 38mm comes in just under $500 ($495) in its stainless steel iteration on a nylon NATO strap, with either a classic black dial or a white dial. On a leather strap, the price creeps up just above the $500 mark, to $575. Adding a bracelet to the steel case (as above) brings the price of admission to $575. Both the black PVD-coated 38mm watch on a black NATO and the Earth-tone PVD model (below) are priced at $545. The Khaki Field Mechanical 42mm model offers a more contemporary size option with the same H50 movement, in a sandblasted steel case on either a steel bracelet or nylon NATO strap, priced from $625 - $695.
Some watch wearers, of course, are not as enamored with the ritual of regularly winding their watch as others, and might also find a date indication to be helpful in today’s overscheduled world. For those people, Hamilton makes the Automatic versions of the Khaki Field, which are offered in 38mm, 40mm, or 42mm case sizes and comprises an array of dial colorways. The 38mm model is just slightly thicker than its manual-winding sibling, at 10mm thick. The self-winding movement that animates the Khaki Field Automatic models is the H-30, which is the Hamilton-modified iteration of the ETA C07.621 “Powermatic” caliber (below), itself a modification of the venerable and dependable base Caliber ETA 2836-2. Some version of the “Powermatic” can be found throughout the collections of the other Swatch Group brands in Hamilton’s price range, such as Mido and Certina; the C07.621 is distinguished most starkly from the base 2836-2 movement by its 80-hour power reserve. Hamilton’s Caliber H-30 adds a brand-personalized, partially openworked rotor and an improved escapement regulator.
In the 38mm models, as well as the 40mm and several of the 42mm pieces, only the date (rather than both day and date) is visible in the 3 o’clock window. The Day-Date versions of the Khaki Field Automatic are all outfitted with a 42mm case (steel or PVD-coated steel) and powered by the H-30 caliber. In addition to the array of colorways and strap or bracelet options, including a very militarily inspired camo-pattern textile strap, the Day Date Auto series contains two subtle but distinctive dial options to display the namesake small complication: some models arrange the day and date in a linear fashion in dual windows at 3 o’clock (thus eliminating the “15” numeral from the inner 24-hour scale), while others have the day in a 12 o’clock aperture (displacing the 23, 24, and 13 on the aforementioned scale) and the date in a separate window at 6 o’clock (sandwiched between the 6 on the main 12-hour scale and the 18 on the inner one, as seen on the steel/black PVD model below). Prices for the Day-Date models range from $895 to $995.
A handful of Khaki Field Automatics are designed to display only the time on three hands, rather than with an accompanying day and/or date. Most are the recently unveiled Khaki Field Titanium Auto models, whose tough-but-lightweight titanium cases, at 42mm, would have come in handy for the weighted-down WWII troops who wore Hamilton’s earliest military watches. These Automatics — five at 42mm, soon to be joined by three others at 38mm — are available with a variety of attractive dial colors, from dark blue to gray to military green to traditional black, and range in price from $895 (at 38mm) to $945 (42mm) to $995 (two models with black PVD-coated cases).
The other no-date Automatic is the Khaki Field Murph Automatic (also $995, below), which takes its nickname from the character played by Jessica Chastain in the 2014 movie Interstellar and its design from the Hamilton watch that the actress wore in the film (Hamilton, for those who aren’t in the know, is one of the most prolific suppliers of watches to Hollywood movies among watch companies today). The watch is, for all intents and purposes, an exact replica of the watch featured in the movie, with a 42mm steel case, a black dial with nickel-coated cathedral hands and applied Arabic numerals and a black leather strap with a pin buckle. The notable but subtle difference is the seconds hand, upon which the Morse code for the word “Eureka” is subtly printed in lacquer, a reference to Interstellar’s climatic scene in which Chastain’s Murph character uses the Hamilton watch to, essentially, save world by using it to send coded signals. Inside the Murph as well as the Titanium Auto models is another variant of the C07.621 Powermatic movement, the sans-date Hamilton Caliber H10.
Occupying the 40mm case-size segment between the retro-style 38mm and contemporary 42mm is the Khaki Field King, which offers a slightly different take on the day-date display of the other Automatics, with the day appearing in an arc-shaped aperture at 12 o’clock (in a manner similar to the Rolex Day-Date) and the date numeral directly below it. Yet another version of Hamilton’s proprietary “Powermatic” caliber, the H40, powers the watch, which is available in steel, titanium, and black PVD-coated titanium on metal bracelets or leather straps. The Khaki Field King watches range from $575 to $695, along with one King Quartz option priced at $425.
Hamilton began introducing chronograph versions of the Khaki Field Automatic in recent years, following up other chronograph models from other branches of the extended Khaki product family, such as the Khaki Aviation, Khaki Pilot Pioneer, and Khaki Navy. The automatic Caliber H-21 inside the watch uses a tried-and-true integrated chronograph caliber as its base, the ETA 7750, and extends the base caliber’s 42-hour power reserve to 60 hours with its modified, optimized mainspring. Once again speaking to Hamilton’s presence in TV and movies, the most well-known version of the Khaki Field Auto Chrono is the “all-black” version (above) worn by actor John Krasinski in his titular role of Jack Ryan in the first two seasons of the Amazon Prime series. That watch’s 42mm steel case sports a black PVD coating and a black dial with blackened hands and numerals. A more traditional, military mission-practical version debuted this year, in a hefty 44mm sandblasted steel case and mounted on a rugged bund-style strap made of khaki-colored nubuck leather. The dial layout is also suitably mid-century military, with large, white Arabic numerals on a matte black background; wide, syringe hands; and vintage-look subdials at 12, 6, and 9 o’clock, the last for tracking the running seconds. Rarely has the design DNA of a classical field watch been blended so deftly with that of a very contemporary and eminently legible chronograph. At $1,745 for the new steel version and $1,795 for the black PVD-coated “stealth” model, the Khaki Field Auto Chrono also offers significant value.
The vast majority of Hamilton’s Khaki Field watches — 71 of them in the current collection, all Swiss made, including 40 Automatics and 18 Mechanicals — are priced under $1,000, with only the Auto Chrono and Skeleton versions priced higher, and all under $2,000. The entry-level 38mm Mechanical can still be had for just under $500, and if Quartz is more in your wheelhouse, all but a handful of those models come in under $400. The Hamilton Khaki Field collection offers a style, size and colorway for just about anyone looking to carry the spirit of America’s military history on his or her wrist, even if the toughest opponents you’ll be battling are deadlines and sales projections.
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