Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Alpina Pilot Automatic Startimer 44 mm Reference AL-525B4S6 Limited Edition of 8888 pieces (#2000) – Sold at a price point that belies its provenance, A Review (plus Video)

The pilot watch is a theme that I have been quietly drawn to. This time, I’ve decided to look at the Alpina Startimer series as good candidate for my collection. I did find one I like and it’s the basic three hand plus date model. The Startimer Reference AL-525B4S6 was the choice I made with a limited production run of just 8,888 examples. The particular unit I got was numbered 2,000.

I think my taste has changed. Usually I get excited with dive watches. However, as the years rolled by, I am attracted to simpler and more formal styles of watches. A pilot watch is one of the new found interests to me. I find it more flexible when it comes to usage especially within a formal event.

Alpina Watches was established 1883, making them one of the oldest brands currently in production. Founded by Gottlieb Hauser, Alpina made watches in both Switzerland and Glashütte. In 1938, Alpina introduced durable sport watches with the “Alpina 4” concept, a set of standards that includes anti-shock, waterproof, anti-magnetic and a stainless steel case. In 2002, Alpina was bought by the founders of Frederique Constant. They have several themed ranges, but the most numerous is their line of pilot watches.

The watch that I chose, the Startimer Reference AL-525B4S6 is a 44 mm wide stainless steel cased watch. The lug-to-lug length is 53 mm. The height is 13.5 mm while the lug width is 22 mm. The dial as well as the movement is protected by a slightly domed scratch-resistant sapphire crystal front glass and a flat sapphire crystal display case-back. The casing has been water rated to 10 ATM or 100 meters.

Compared to the original pilot watches of World War 2, this particular example by Alpina is considered small. However, it is still a large watch nonetheless and not many can carry it on their wrist especially if the requirement is also to make it work as a formal watch.

To ensure wearing comfort, the design incorporates contouring lugs. This has the effect of ‘hugging’ the wrist hence reducing the possibility of lug overhand especially to wearers with smaller wrists. The bezel, which has a step design to it, merges seamlessly into the domed sapphire; very classy indeed.

This watch’s most visible cue is the large screw-down crown located at the 3 o’clock position. Measuring 7.5 mm wide and 5 mm tall, the diamond shaped crown has deep grooves for grip. The flat top has a polished Alpina triangle logo etched on it. The style and size of the crown is typical of pilot watches and I am pleased that Alpina took some effort to re-create this particular important aspect of the pilot watch DNA. The size makes it easier to manipulate the crown to readjust the time and date without the need to take the watch of the wrist. My only gripe is the difficulty in catching the screw threads when screwing down the crown. It takes a couple of tries before it catches. I suspect the screw twist is high on the Alpina which require a more precise alignment to connect. My advice is to be gentle when screwing down to minimise the possibility of striping the screw thread.

The back of the watch is a screw-down display case-back. Around the display window are two bands with information about the watch. The inner band is a dull etched area where the brand name, the water resistant level, the reference number and the material from the crystal is etched in relief. The other layer has serial number of the watch as well as the type of production run used (limited edition) etched.

Overall, the brushed surface as well as polishing exudes quality.

The dial is black matt. It adds depth and texture when paired with the minute and hour markers as well as the Arabic numerals. Although the markers and numbers are printed on the dial, the Superluminova luminous paint is only given to the 3, 6 9 and 12 o'clock markers.

On the dial itself, the only texts are the brand, the city of “GENEVE”, the type of movement and the words “SWISS MADE”. All of which are painted in white. Just the right of the 3 o’clock hour marker is a small date aperture. The date is also in white over a black background.

Alpina went with elegant leaf hands for the hour and minute; with Superluminova filling. The seconds hand is a thin white bar with a red Alpina triangle counterweight. Since this is the only color on the watch apart from black or white, it gives an interesting visual cue to the dial.

The illumination on the watch could have been better. As it stands, the hour markers have the least amount of Superluminova paint. From the photo below, you can see how inconsistent the radiance from the luminous paint due to different thickness of the paint.

All these elements make the Startimer Pilot’s dial very legible and uncluttered.

Source photo:

The engine powering the watch has been designated as Caliber AL-525. This is decorated Swiss Sellita SW200 automatic movement with 26 jewels and operating at 28,800 BPH or 4 Hertz. It has a barrel spring capable of 38 hours of power reserve. It has a date complication as well as manual winding and stop-second mechanism when adjusting time. The rotor has been painted dark grey with the PVD technique with the brand and city etched and painted in white.

The Alpina Startimer AL-525B4S6 is paired with a tapering 22 mm wide black leather strap. This leather strap is double layered and reduces in width to 18 mm at the one-sided deployant clasp. The alignment of the strap is also unique to most other watches with similar configuration in that it is designed to secure the strap inward rather than outward. This design philosophy is similar to that of Seiko where it is deemed pleasing to observers to see a continuous strap instead of the strap end.

The strap itself is made out of high quality leather with off white stitching at the borders.

A lot has been said about the Startimer Pilot being homage to the IWC. Is this a really bad thing? I don’t think so. In fact, I am rather pleased that Alpina recognize a good design and tried to improve on it further. In this regard, Alpina has done an excellent job as it was able to improve on one factor that is dear to many – pricing. For the same level of quality and finishing, Alpina is able to offer a wristwatch that is way cheaper than IWC. For example an entry level Mark XVIII has an MSRP of USD3,950, for a modified ETA movement compared to the Startimer AL-525B4S6 with an MSRP1,150, for a modified Sellita movement. This is value for money in my humble opinion.

Some would argue that this is beneath Alpina considering their capabilities. However, I beg to differ. In fact this is the strategy that Seiko uses. It has watches that cover all aspects – in terms of technology, quality and pricing. Alpina has in-house movements and yet it still uses third party movement to provide value that is wanted by the market. Instead of alienating a good proportion of the buying market, Alpina has included them by offering options. Instead of ‘cheapening’ the brand, such a strategy increases the franchise value going forward. Lest we forget, the key ingredient that makes a brand valuable is the legions of fans. If this base grows, the brand is assured of a bright future.

The Wearing Experience

I am used to wearing large watches so the 44 mm wide Startimer is not too out of character for me. The downward sloping lugs does help to make the wearing experience more comfortable as it hugs the wrist much better compared to straight lugs. Nevertheless, those that don’t often wear large watches should try it out for size first before committing.

The strap is the key component that makes or breaks the wearing experience. Alpina decided on a double layered leather strap. Although the leather is soft, the layering created a level of rigidity that, in my humble opinion, is not needed. If given a choice, a nylon strap, a cloth strap or even a carbon fibre strap would be a better substitute for the double layered leather strap. The leather strap creates bulkiness around the wrist that would be fine if the watch was a thick and heavy dive watch. However, for a (relatively) light pilot watch, the strap thickness is unwarranted.

The focus should be on the watch. The simplicity of the dial makes it feel sophisticated and with purpose. The use of a separate date aperture instead of replacing one of the markers for it maintains the symmetry of the dial (in my view, the IWC Mark XVIII dial symmetry is skewed due to the replacement of the 3 o’clock marker with the date aperture).

This watch has the Gump to be universal in usage – able to wear in the office or formal events as well as rough it out in the outdoors. Below is a video of the watch on my wrist.

Nevertheless, I do have a couple of comments that I hope Alpina could take note of. The first is the lack of the pass-through lug holes. This watch is ripe for those that love to mix-and-match their straps. Not having pass-through lug holes makes it harder to disengage the spring-bars. If one is not careful, putting a scratch on the polished surface is a certainty. The second is adding a choice of a nylon strap. I bet this would be one of the more sought after option for this watch if given a choice. The third is thickening the size of the seconds hand. Despite the high frequency of the movement, the seconds hand vibrates (especially at the end) as the distance between the axis and the end is too much for such a thin rod. It does not have the stiffness required to move smoothly. A thicker rod could do the trick much better. The fourth is the weak illumination on the dial. Alpina should make the painting consistent and cover all markers and Arabic numerals. The fifth and final comment is the screw thread for the crown. A lesser tolerance or reducing the screw twist would make for a better screw-down experience.

Overall, I am pleased with the total package. A Swiss made pilot watch with the expected quality and finishing. Wears well and is very versatile. To top it all, sold at a price point that belies its provenance.

The Purchasing Experience

I got the watch from my favorite store AWG in Kuala Lumpur. The MSRP price was RM4,900 but I wa able to get it for just RM3,400. With the purchase I got a free gift of an Alpina branded leather strap with a normal signed buckle. I was made to understand from my AD that this has an MSRP that is CHF130 or approximately RM573 (as at December 6, 2016).

Photo Gallery

Alpina Pilot Startimer
Alpina Pilot StartimerAlpina Pilot StartimerAlpina Pilot Startimer

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