Review: Hanhart 417 ES 39mm
Recently—or what seems like recently since the world won’t stop spinning at a hundred miles an hour—we featured a watch from Hanhart, the 417 ES. We said it had heritage. We said it had style. We said it was the watch Steve McQueen actually wore, and all those things were true. We also said it could be a bit smaller, which, at 42mm, it could be. And now it is.
Never mind what I say, science has told us that watches should be 39mm. Now, since this isn’t Wikipedia, I don’t have to cite my sources, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. The proof I’ll give you is the Tudor Black Bay 58, a 39mm watch that’s owned by your favourite watch YouTuber. I can say that because literally everyone making videos about watches on YouTube either has one or is about to buy one.
Maybe you like 42mm watches, or even 36mm watches, and sure, that’s fine. You’re the exception that proves the rule. Everyone else here, whether they know it or not, prefers 39. It’s a fact as solid as the rock that binds this Earth together, as clear as spring water from the Himalayan mountains, as tangible as that hair stuck on the back of your tongue. At least, it is to 99% of the human population. To the brands that make the watches, however, it’s the biggest mystery since the case of the missing sock. I still think the washing machine ate it.
Before we determine whether or not the 39mm version of the 417 ES is better—it is—I want to ponder for a moment, as it has become my trademark to do, on something tenuously related. Answer me this: if 39mm is the sweet spot, why do so many manufacturers insist on completely ignoring it? Do they also insist that the sky is red and that bricks float? The answer to both of those things is: sometimes, rarely.
Maybe because—sometimes, often—the movement is too wide or too thick to make it work. I don’t know why the movement is sometimes too wide or too thick; Jaeger-LeCoultre were making movements you could lose up a nostril a hundred years ago. And it was only a decade back we were all complaining movements were too small for the watches. Now they’re too big. It’s the horological equivalent of the trying to pass the person coming the other way dance.
Perhaps it’s what I like to call the absentee requester effect. That’s when a bunch of people fervently say they want something, right up to the point that thing actually exists—and then they all disappear. In an offshoot of quantum physics that would have Schrodinger rushing to the pet shop—which may or may not be closed, he won’t know until he gets there—it is said that the requester and the fulfilled request cannot physically exist at the same moment. Like that time everyone said they wanted a lightweight, low powered, two-seater sports car, and so Toyota obliged—and nobody bought one.
Whatever the reason, it means that 39mm watches are fewer and further between than they should be. Some classic 39mm watches, like the non-Jumbo Royal Oak, actually disappeared, swapped for oversized replacements. A bit like Craig Ferguson. The best we can hope for are 40mm watches, rounded up to the nearest ten, like the Rolex Submariner—which is now 41mm.
I’ve got as much chance of understanding why planes fly and young people like TikTok as I have the decision brands keep making to not embrace the perfect 39mm case size. So, I’m going to take this Hanhart 417 ES 1954 as a rare, non-Tudor opportunity to demonstrate why they wholeheartedly should.
If this is your first introduction to Hanhart and the 417 ES series, let me give you the lowdown. Germany had started a global ruck for a second time, and the rest of the world had to step in and tell them to cool it for a bit and take a time-out. They were given ten years on the naughty step; no tanks, no ships and definitely no planes.
In 1956, penance served, Germany reconstituted its air force with some shiny new planes with the promise it would only use them for good this time. Pinky swear. The pilots also got some shiny new pilots’ watches too courtesy of German—once Swiss—watchmaker Hanhart. The 1954 417 ES was packed to the gills with tech: they were luminous, anti-magnetic, shockproof and featuring a turning bezel and chronograph. It was not only useful but ruggedly beautiful too—and you don’t have to take my word for that either, because it was also Steve McQueen’s favourite watch. I don’t mean he was paid to wear it in a film; he himself paid to wear it in the opposite of a film: real life.
You don’t have to be a theoretical physicist to understand why. It’s not corrupted by intent to sell it in jewellers’ windows. It’s not devoid of character, either. It has the charm of an old but sturdy bench vice, built with work in mind by someone who cared about what they were doing. It’s just a bench vice, but by golly is it not going to be the best damn bench vice you ever saw.
Despite its smaller size, the 417 ES 1954 not only gets a more attractive case size, it also doubles down on the shock resistance and anti-magnetism of its slightly older 42mm cousin. That watch was indeed both of those things, but not exceptionally so. In fact, Hanhart chose not to broadcast its anti-magnetic abilities on the dial as it had done on the original at all, despite the modern spec actually being an improvement.
This time, however, the 417 ES 1954 actually gets a soft iron dial and adapted steel case to boost the anti-magnetism by a factor greater than three. The shock protection—which has remained present on all generations of this watch’s dial—is also much improved, with an inner case gasket system that allows the movement more play than normal to protect it in the event of a knock.
Both these two additions would ordinarily beef up the case thicker than the posterior padding of a Kardashian, yet the 417 ES 1954 retains the 42mm version’s 13.3mm depth. That’s 11.55mm not including the domed sapphire. This is achieved by ditching the Sellita calibre SW 510’s automatic winding rotor to make it an SW 510 M. Both watches benefit from this tactile interaction that force owners to top up its power by hand.
But all that could be for naught if the modern 1954 version’s 39mm case added nothing to the watch by taking something away. It’s no surprise that this is a textbook case of less is more. The smaller size just suits the watch better. The proportions, not just in the case but the dial as well, just feel right. And, yet again, you don’t have to take my word for it. That 20th century version that Steve McQueen loved so much? Yeah, that was 39mm as well.
The Hanhart 417 ES 1954 is available, oddly, for more than its bigger brother, priced at £1,650 versus £1,550. What do you think of it? Is the case size reduction to 39mm a sure-fire win? Or does bigger equal better? Why do you think the industry actively ignores this dimension?