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Review: Atowak Cobra

One of my favourite watch brands in the world is Urwerk, and I’d love to own a UR-202. It’s got a rotating satellite complication that, in 2011, blew everyone away. Problem is, that’s a $250,000 watch. This one, from China, costs less than a single percent of that. Let’s take a look.

The Build Quality

Before I show you what this watch can do, I want to talk about the primary reason you’d think about not getting one: it’s from China. China is considered the home of the cheapest, nastiest, fakiest watches, but as we’re starting to discover, those abilities have been improving over time.

We know China is an industry powerhouse, with many high-tech companies shipping production to its shores, so there’s no reason to think the same couldn’t be true of watchmaking, too. The question is often raised: if the Chinese watch companies put as much effort into their own watches as they did making fakes, what could they actually achieve?

We’ve seen a GPHG award-winning watch from Chinese brand CIGA Design recently, and it seems the changing tide is showing no signs of letting up, because now we’ve also got a watch that can do the same as a $250,000 Swiss watch from a decade ago for less than 1% of the price.

Not only has the complexity of these watches improved from gluing functionless hands onto badly formed dials to replicating massively intricate, high-concept movements, but so too has the quality increased with it. The Atowak Cobra, as it’s been called, has a multi-faceted steel case with mirror finished surfaces that are ripple free. There’s carbon fibre inlays and three sapphire crystals to view the internals, one at the back and two at the front.

The hands, if you can call them that, are made from a mix of aluminium and carbon fibre to keep them lightweight, not sapping the surprisingly well-finished Miyota calibre of more than its 38-hour power reserve. The numbers and markers are all finished in luminous paint for a pleasing low-light look. Even the strap has a particular quick release system that’s built like the hinges of a bunker door—and allow you to turn the Cobra into a desk ornament, which I almost prefer.

The Functionality

So, what is it exactly that the $250,000 UR-202 could do that this has now matched? It’s a setup made famous by Urwerk, so wherever we’re at now, you still have to give credit where credit’s due for the idea. It’s an idea that’s long since been evolved by Urwerk into all sorts of wild and wonderful creations—but that doesn’t make what the UR-202 can do any less desirable.

There’s a satellite system here, with three blocks covered in numbers. Through the bottom of the bigger window, a minute track can be seen, reading from right to left. That’s the same direction as the UR-202, which I suppose is reminiscent of the traditional clockwise direction, however I would have liked to see it read left to right since it reads more like a horizontal scale. I imagine reversing the direction of the movement would’ve been too inefficient in terms of space and cost.

As an hour goes by, the three satellites move forward one third, the pointer on the one closest to the minute track reading the minutes specifically. Above the pointer, the block reads the hour. It’s a startlingly simple way to read the time quickly and is a testament to the original thinking of the Urwerk team way back when.

Where the watch really gets clever is when you realise that three blocks aren’t enough to cover twelve hours. Simple maths tells us we need four times as many blocks. Instead of more blocks, each block utilises more sides—four per block, to be precise—giving us twelve sides in total. Each side has a number printed on it such that when the active block reaches the end of the hour, the one it passes the baton to takes over.

This requires the blocks to rotate between appearances, which can be viewed through the smaller window up top. It’s been choreographed to happen right in the middle of that window, leaving the working parts of the watch free to impress without confusing the actual reading of the time. The fact that this is a module built onto a normal movement really only makes the whole thing seem more impressive.

The Value

Like the Urwerk, the Cobra is no slim-fit dress watch, and probably sits even higher on the wrist than the UR-202 did, however since it’s a watch that’s been built to command attention, it doesn’t feel like a deal-breaker. Add the inadvertent desk toy mode when you take the straps off and it actually makes even more sense, the cold, smooth metal heavy and satisfying to hold.

It seems almost impossible to believe that just a decade before, holding a watch like this would’ve warranted a $250,000 spend, and it’s a testament to improvements in machining technology and the efforts of the Chinese watchmakers to stand out that we don’t have to spend that.

The Atowak Cobra retails for $1,999, which isn’t the cheapest price for a Chinese-made watch at all, but to be honest, given the quality of the workmanship, the reliability of the Miyota movement and the intricacy of the complication, is kind of shocking.

There’s an almost industrial transparency to it that casts a different light on what we’re used to, and for us, the buying public, that can only be a good thing. Don’t expect it to drive down the RRPs of new Urkwerks—those guys are essentially prototyping all the new ideas which is very expensive—but do let it make you stop and think about what’s possible with a smaller amount of money.

It’s a bit like DVD players: when they first came out, they were hideously expensive because they were new, and no one knew how to make them cheaply. That’s Urwerk. A decade later, however, and a good quality DVD player could be had for a fraction of the price thanks to efficiencies in parts production and volume. That’s Atowak. It’s an ongoing cycle that moves us all forwards without leaving anyone behind. We may have to wait a decade longer, but then we only have to pay a single percent.

Would you get an Atowak Cobra? What do you think of the direction Chinese watchmaking is going in?