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Review: H. Moser & Cie. Pioneer Centre Seconds

It’s not often you stumble across something truly special when it comes to watchmaking, and by that, I mean discover a great watch no one else really seems to be talking about. Usually, if it’s anything worth mentioning, everything’s already been said—take the Code 11.59 from Audemars Piguet or the Odysseus from A. Lange & Söhne, for example. But in the case of the H . Moser & Cie. Pioneer Centre Seconds, however, here’s a luxury stainless steel sports watch that seems to have slipped under the radar—that just might be one of the very best.

Stainless steel sports watch, brackets luxury. That’s the recipe for success these days, or at least a concoction for controversy. By taking a simple watch, over-styling it, adding several zeroes to the price tag, it seems a watch manufacturer can create a license to print money. If only it were that simple, because the affinity for the stainless-steel sports watch goes a little bit deeper than that.

A watch has long been the litmus test for the fashion of the period, right the way back to pocket watches. In fact, did you know that there was a style of watch before the pocket watch? That’s right—in the 16th century, people wore small clocks pinned to their clothing or hung around their necks. Mainly because said clocks were pretty big and heavy, too big to fit in a pocket. Didn’t stop the trends developing, however, with clocks appearing in the shape of animals, fruit, flowers and even skulls.

As the technology improved, the watches shrank—but the transition to the pocket was caused by what had just become in vogue rather than any kind of practicality. Charles II, yes, the King of England, announced on October the 7th, 1666, that he was introducing a new kind of menswear. A response to the dominance of French fashion, he donned a sleeveless jacket bestowed with pockets that would become the home of the pocket watch for centuries to come: the waistcoat.

These first pocket watches, like the waistcoats they found a home in, were extravagantly decorated, a bombastic sign of style and taste that was to be keenly noticed at social gatherings. This was a time of extreme wealth for the few, and extreme poverty for everyone else, and as the centuries grew old and tired, so too did the hordes of people suffering for the benefit of their Lords and Ladies. Revolution was in the air.

H. Moser & Cie. was originally founded in 1828, Saint Petersburg, Russia

H. Moser & Cie. was originally founded in 1828, Saint Petersburg, Russia

The French revolution of the 18th century gave the aristocrats pause for thought—many, permanently—and with this new desire to shroud one’s wealth with secrecy, came a revised sense of dress. Things got a bit calmer, a bit less ornate, pocket watches included—in fact, the revolution kind of killed off pocket watch manufacture in France altogether. Can you guess where all the famous pocket watch makers of the time fled to? Yep—Geneva.

The pocket watch had another half-century of grace before post-war depression eradicated opulence altogether. Now a man was to be seen dressed smartly but simply, and wearing a small, almost invisible wristwatch. But this was not to last, the boom of the 50s, the evolution of communication and travel turning leisure into a pastime. Now people had moments to themselves to enjoy freely, and fashions started to evolve with it, taking on more laid-back interpretations of the workwear that had dominated their lives in the decades before.

Denim, button-down shirts, slacks—these were the uniforms of the previous generation, now worn with casual disdain through the 60s, taking ownership back. The wristwatch was no different. Professional, practical, no-nonsense timepieces found favour with trendsetters like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, completing the work-casual look. I’m talking stainless steel sports watches like the Rolex Submariner, which wasn’t considered a luxury at the time, more a quality tool for the job.

As wealth grew into the 70s, the watch industry, rather than boom, died, as a new technology, quartz, took over—and that’s when Audemars Piguet had an idea. Scrap centuries of making watches that are elegant and functional, and make one that is purely for show. The resulting Royal Oak was the first watch to be publicised so ostentatiously as to be little more than an advertisement of wealth, made in steel with a simple display, yet costing more than its complicated gold brethren. But it worked, and not only did it work—and transformed the industry into what we know today.

The Royal Oak really was a tipping point in the evolution of the wristwatch from a time-telling device into a status symbol, the complete antithesis of the no-nonsense looks of the likes of Steve McQueen, harking back to the ornate pendant and pocket watches pre-revolution. But hey, it seems to have stuck, and now, like back in the 70s when the Royal Oak was first released, everyone wants in on that action.

H. Moser & Cie. movements are made completely in-house

H. Moser & Cie. movements are made completely in-house

We’ve seen the Royal Oak, we’ve seen the Nautilus, and now there’s the Code 11.59 and the Odysseus as well—but there’s also this, the H. Moser & Cie. Pioneer Centre Seconds. I mean, given that a luxury stainless steel sports watch is all about brand cachet, and given that most people won’t have heard of H. Moser & Cie., doesn’t combining the two kind of defeat the point a little? That entirely depends on what sort of person you are.

When DVD players first came out, they cost thousands. They were effectively showroom-ready prototypes, the first to be mass-tested on a significant group of consumers. Those early adopters paid the price and took a hit, effectively acting as a testbed for the manufacturers to see what worked and what didn’t so the technology could be refined and reproduced at more consumer-friendly prices. This is how new tech works, and some people like to be in on the early game.

Some people prefer to wait, let other people shell out the big bucks. They buy in to technology once all the kinks have been ironed out and the price has dropped. Those people are sensible, but there’s no cachet in sensibility. You can’t feel good about having what everyone else has.

With watches, the roles are reversed. An early adopter gets in at the ground floor when prices are cheap and nobody notices. They buy watches that don’t clamour for attention for the name on the dial, but for the hope in the story behind them. The flipside of this scenario are those who buy a watch after it’s become popular, once the prices have rocketed and everyone’s got one.

If you’re like the latter, you most likely will buy into a solid, stable purchase—it’ll cost you, mind—and the chances of losing your money are low. Maybe. If you’re the former, you’ll be buying into a hope and a promise—and fingers crossed it won’t bite you in the butt.

For H. Moser & Cie., the Geneva Seal isn’t enough; it has its own seal of excellence

For H. Moser & Cie., the Geneva Seal isn’t enough; it has its own seal of excellence

You need to be diligent; you need your wits about you—you can’t simply follow the herd and write big cheques. This is the arena of the watch enthusiast, the people who wore vintage Rolexes when nobody cared, the people who stuck by the Royal Oak when everyone thought it was kitsch, the people who’d hear about two award-winning industry big dogs, Dr. Jürgan R. Lange and Andreas Strehler, coming together to revive a Russian watchmaker and think, “Hello!”

That trail leads us to this: the H. Moser & Cie. Pioneer Centre Seconds. It’s a 42mm watch with 120 metres of water resistance that straddles the divide between classic and contemporary that is so hard to balance. In once glance it looks very traditional, sleek, swooping hands gracefully navigating the dial at an old-fashioned 21,600bph, and in another it looks cutting edge, blue fumé dial contrasting crisp indices and a case shrink-wrapped over its insides.

And the insides are where the watch really shines, because the calibre HMC 200 is built entirely—not partly, not mostly, entirely—in-house, designed, developed, manufactured and assembled by H. Moser & Cie. It has an automatic, bi-directional rotor, three days of power reserve and looks every part like a contender for the luxury sports watch category. Float your boat? That depends what boat you’re in.

Fashion is a strange old thing. One day, your Royal Oaks and Nautilus’—Nautilii?—are the scourge of the community, and the next people are paying house money for them. There’s a certain satisfaction to choosing something that goes against the grain, that delivers on its merit and not its familiarity, and that reward is doubled when the trend machine follows on soon after. The H. Moser & Cie. Pioneer Centre Seconds won’t be commanding any hefty waiting lists any time soon, but if you’re looking for that luxury stainless steel sports watch that’ll not leave you feeling like one of the crowd, this could well be it.

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