The Alpha Paul Newman may be one of the most popular homages around. It certainly seems to be one of the most tolerated homages by the more elite watchophiles, as the original Rolex Daytona Paul Newman hasn’t been made in decades and the rarity of the watch means few people can afford one. It’s difficult to accuse the Alpha of stealing revenue from Rolex under these circumstances. And while almost everyone must merely dream of owning a real Rolex Paul Newman, for a fraction of the price you can at least get part of the feeling with Alpha’s homage.
So let’s take a short history tour of the Rolex Daytona Paul Newman model. For a limited time Rolex offered a special dial on their Daytona chronograph, the so-called exotic dial, which had square markers in the subdials, a red outer track around the dial and a 15/30/45/60 layout for the minute totalizer (as opposed to 20/30/60). It was not a popular option back in those days and relatively few of them were ordered. But after they stopped making the exotic dial the popularity of this model rose spectacularly, especially in Italy. It’s unclear how exactly the Paul Newman name was connected to this dial – Newman himself wore a regular Daytona given to him by his wife – but it is now irreversibly attached to this watch model. Due to this popularity and the few Daytona’s made with an exotic dial, the Paul Newman has become a sort of holy grail for many collectors of watches in general.
Alpha, a Hong Kong based firm that also sells original designs but is mainly successful due to their variety of homages, has been selling an homage to the Paul Newman for many years now. It currently retails for $132 from their website, which includes shipping and handling to any destination in the world. The watch is not sterile but marked Alpha on both dial and crown. I bought mine in December of 2007 for $115 – the first watch I bought as a proper mechanical watch enthusiast – and have worn it in regular rotation ever since. It can sometimes be won for sub-$100 bids in auctions on sites like eBay. Alpha offers three exotic dial variations: a white dial with black subdials (as pictured in this review, usually referred to as the panda dial), a black dial with white subdials and a new (as of july 2009) red dial with white subdials. They also have a non-exotic panda dial and sell several combinations of this and the exotic dials with cases that have a steel or black bezel at the same price. Alpha also sells some quartz chrono’s that look similar – look carefully!
The Alpha runs on a handwound non-hacking Sea-Gull ST19 column wheel chronograph movement, specifically the ST1903 variant. The ST19 is also known as the Venus 175 movement; the Swiss sold their machines and tooling to the Chinese for their air-force chronographs in the ’60s. Some small improvements such as a higher beat rate (21600bph) and Incabloc shock protection were added by Sea-Gull, though many parts are still said to be interchangeable between the designs. The ST1903 differs from the regular bicompax ST1901 by adding a 24h subdial at the 6 ‘o clock position. The subdial at 9 ‘o clock is for running seconds, the subdial at 3 ‘o clock is a 30 minute totalizer (for comparison the original Rolex design had the 60 minute totalizer at 9 ‘o clock, the hour totalizer at 3 ‘o clock and the running seconds at 6 ‘o clock) and the center sweep seconds runs the chronograph. Alpha says the ST1903 has about 42 hours of power reserve, I have not timed the reserve on my piece. Optically the ST19 is an intriguing design with many visible gears made even more beguiling with some simple but nice pearlage, Geneva striping and (chemically) blued screws.
The ST1903 movement
The ST19 has in general proven to be a reliable and accurate movement, while also being one of the cheapest mechanical chrono movements on the market. Its popularity in homages in the cheaper mechanical watch segment is not surprising. There has been some debate as to how many jewels are in the ST19 movement, some brands advertise it as a 17 (Alpha), 19 or 21 jewel movement. Lysanderxiii was however surprised to find a total of 23 (!!!) jewels inside the ST19 during a teardown of the movement.
The case is a solid piece of stainless steel, relatively small in this day and age at 39mm (without crown). It has a pleasing mirror polish on most of the case except for a brushed finish between the lugs, on the back of the main case and on the middle of the caseback. There are no sharp edges on the case itself. Though not particularly heavy (128g), the watch does not feel cheap compared to some replica’s and other homages I’ve handled. The bezel is black with the tachymeter scale printed in silver on it. For the 3 ATM of water resistance stated by Alpha both the crown (which has the Alpha logo embossed on the side) and the pushers are screw-down. Though correct when compared to later Rolex models, this is actually a bit of a nuisance. The ST19 movement is handwound and the crown needs to be screwed out and in on a regular basis to keep the watch functional – with the added risk of cross-threading the crown. Destroy the thread and you’ll have an exposed crown and no water resistance for the rest of the watch’s (short) life. Much to everyone’s surprise the watch also has a solid caseback, which means you can’t actually see that beautiful ST19 movement. D’oh.
The panda dial is a pleasant cream white with black subdials and an outer red-on-black track. The Alpha logo is applied in a raised silver letter with 1993 MECHANICAL CHRONOMETER in nice crisp lettering underneath. This implies that the watch has passed COSC testing, which it obviously has not as testing the movement would cost more than the entire watch. It’s a common occurence on cheap homages, so we’ll let this one slide. Just above the 6 ‘o clock subdial it says CHRONOGRAPH in red text, where the Rolex would have had said DAYTONA. The subdials have a very appealing raised concentric circle design that give them a nice depth when they catch the light just right. Next to each applied silver 5 minute marker is a small lume dot that sadly doesn’t appear to do anything related to visibility in the dark. The outer red-on-black track is difficult to see in normal light unless viewed up close and in most situations will just look entirely black.
Early runs of this watch used a different dial (and a different variant of the movement) that has a 12h subdial at 6 ‘o clock that just copied the hour hand the entire day. This subdial is entirely useless and was only added to copy the Rolex design more faithfully. The 24h subdial that is now featured on the watch is not that much more useful, but can at least be used to tell day and night apart for those who are daylight-impaired or regularly have hangovers that necessitate such guidance. Also, some watches have been reported to have a black printed Alpha logo as opposed to this silver one.
The thin steel hands are elegant and have a classic, almost vintage feel to them. The chronograph’s sweep center seconds is nicely shaped with an arrow head and a vane. Only the hour and minute hand are lumed and even this is more a symbolic gesture than a functional one. The thin strip of lume, combined with the appalling quality of the lume used, means the hands remain basically invisible in the dark.
I couldn’t confirm this anywhere but I think the Paul Newman has a slightly domed, raised acrylic crystal. The crystal has picked up some miniscule scratches over time that I have only confirmed with a macro lens on my dSLR – they’re invisible to the naked eye. As usual I would have preferred sapphire, but at this price point you just can’t complain.
Though some disagree I personally found the bracelet on this watch simply too horrible to wear. It is stiff and sharp on the edges (though a proper cleaning and light sanding would make it more comfortable) and has hollow endlinks and a tinny stamped friction clasp – though it does have the possibility for fine adjustment. Considering the quality of the bracelets on the Alpha Planet Ocean and especially Seamaster homages it is surprising that their Oyster bracelet is this bad. Suffice to say, I hated the bracelet enough that I almost immediately removed it and over time put it on a variety of leather and NATO straps (the watch takes 20mm straps). The black and white main colours of the watch are easily matched to a variety of strap colours, while the red track and lettering makes for a interesting secondary colour to reflect in the stitching, for example.
When the crown is unscrewed the watch can be wound. It is not protected against overwinding but when the spring is fully wound it is almost impossible to accidentally push the crown any further, the resistance is so high. Pull it out and the time can be set. When the pushers are unscrewed the top pusher starts and stops the chronograph, while the bottom pusher resets it to zero. It’s not healthy for a mechanical chronograph to reset while it is still running so try not to do that. The feel of the pushers is nice, light and crisp – an advantage of the column wheel movement. For every lap of the chronograph’s center seconds hand the subdial at 3 ‘o clock increases by 1, up to a total of 30 minutes. As the subdial at 6 ‘o clock is not a totalizer 30 minutes is the maximum time this chronograph can measure.
Sadly, my model was not without faults. When I received the watch I was new to the world of watches and did not understand how tachymeter scales worked, nor did I really care. But when I looked them up on Wikipedia I was disappointed to learn that my bezel was not mounted straight! Instead of having the number 60 at the 12h mark, my bezel was rotated 2 ticks to the right. I had owned the watch for more than 6 months by then and it could not be replaced under warranty. Though removing and gluing the bezel back on straight would probably be a minor operation, I’m not comfortable with DIYing my watches after some… unfortunate… prior experiments. The screw down crown and pushers turned out to be largely for show – after about 18 months I was caught in a heavy downpour. When I returned home I found that the crystal had fogged up, though everything was screwed down and the caseback had never been opened before. I now actually check the sky for clouds when wearing the watch, just in case. The crown has also become rather delicate, needing a bit of attention so as not to cross the threads while screwing it in – this appears to be a common problem.
So by now you may be thinking: crap bracelet, wrong caseback, lack of lume, near useless 24h dial and the other defects in my particular watch… Why buy this?
Well, even with those things going against it I still think this is one of the most beautiful homages available at this time. It may even have the best price/performance ratio around. The colours of the dial and bezel, matched with the polished case, go well with any outfit on any strap. The chronograph is functional and so much fun to play around with – you’ll be starting, stopping and resetting the watch for hours on end. It’s cheap, it’s cheerful, it tries so hard to be like the classic Rolex Paul Newman… At this price point I can accept the negatives and just concentrate on all that positive.
In fact, I like it so much I’m planning on replacing my old model with a new, more QC’d one from the new US distributors of Alpha. They’ve not only announced plans to visually inspect their watches prior to sending them out but have also presented modified Alpha Paul Newman watches with display casebacks! Finally, the beautiful ST19 movement will be properly revealed. If you already own a regular Alpha Paul Newman they will also sell you just the display caseback. It is still unclear what the final sales price of this modified Paul Newman or the caseback will be though.
In the end I did buy another Newman from Alpha USA (which has since stopped operating), but this one had a so-so movement with the chrono often refusing to start or stop. I got rid of it but kept the see-through caseback for use on my original Alpha HK Newman. A while later the acrylic glass came off entirely. It’s now sitting in my watchbox collecting dust. Considering the rise in cost to get one of these from Alpha HK ($172 at time of writing) I’m on the fence whether or not this is still a watch to recommend to people. I really like it, but the bang-for-buck ratio just isn’t that good anymore.